From playing a vulnerable northside hairdresser in new film Deadly Cuts to portraying a CAB officer in an upcoming RTÉ drama, Angeline Ball is returning to our screens with a bang this autumn. Here, she talks about growing up in Cabra, struggling with fame, and her plans to write a Beckettian one-woman show
Angeline Ball is stuck in traffic. Even on Sundays, it seems, things tend to get pretty clogged up in central London, and she has pulled over in order to talk to me on Zoom: her son Max sits quietly in the passenger seat, watching his iPad and no doubt surreptitiously listening in. Ball has lived in the English capital for several decades, and she has two children with her French partner, Patrice Gueroult. Of late, though, her thoughts have increasingly turned to home.
“I’ve been here for 22 years,” she tells me, “and like most Irish people who are abroad, I’m gradually meandering my way back. I’d really like to move home to Dublin: I think the world’s opened up so much more that you can be based anywhere and still work, and the kids are of an age now where it won’t be long before we can come back.” When I tell her she hasn’t lost her accent at all, she laughs.
“Oh my God, no. Our kids say that I put on an Irish accent when I’m on the phone to my sister, and I don’t — I think it just gets a little bit thicker.” That accent, of course, was most memorably put to use in Alan Parker’s The Commitments, a seismic event in terms of Dublin culture that was, in part, responsible for Ball’s emigration. More on that in a moment, but meanwhile, she has a new film on the way.
In Deadly Cuts, the debut feature from writer/director Rachel Carey, Ball plays Michelle, the owner of a hair salon in the fictional working class north Dublin enclave of Piglinstown. The salon has become a focal point, talking shop and informal therapy centre for the area’s women, but is now threatened with closure, and under siege by a local gang led by the unhinged Deano (played by Ian Lloyd-Anderson, who has come to specialise in wingnuts). So Michelle and her girls must find a way to survive, perhaps by winning a prestigious hairdressing contest.
“I think, when I read the character, it was one of those ones where I said to myself, I can’t not play it, because straight away I just really, really loved her. She’s got a vulnerability about her, but I liked the fact that she just keeps everything together; it’s a bit like the swan gliding along but paddling madly under the water. You know, I did a whole back story with Rachel for Michelle, just so I’d really have a handle on who she was and where she was in her life. I think she’s been disappointed in love, and she has no kids, so all her energies are directed into the salon. And though the customers use it a little bit like therapy sessions, Michelle needs all that as much as the people coming in.”
Things turn increasingly dark for Michelle and co in a film that shifts mood refreshingly at times, but Deadly Cuts is not afraid to lean on Dublin’s oldest grudge match — the northside-southside rivalry.
“It’s been there for hundreds of years, hasn’t it. One of my favourite lines in the film is when we turn up at the hair competition and the guy at the door is like, ‘don’t shoot’. So they’ve already decided that we’re bad and are going to cause trouble. It’s this preconception people have; maybe not so much now because the areas are becoming a bit more mixed, but I think before, certainly. I mean, I come from Cabra west, and the west was always worse than the Cabra part; they called it the wild west. And when I think back to then, it would have been like, ‘oh, will I put my real address on this job application or not’. That was what it was like.”
Born in 1969, and the youngest of three sisters, Ball was drawn to the stage at an early age, and while over the years the term Billie Barry has become synonymous with precocious kids doing cartwheels on the Late Late Show, she has nothing but praise for the Dublin stage school, which was a hugely important aspect of her childhood.
“You know, and talking about Cabra west, first of all, it was an escapism, and this really great resource that she set up for kids, whether you wanted to continue in it later on or not — it just so happened that I did.
“But it wasn’t like I set out when I was eight to be an actress or anything. It was kids from all over Dublin, but mainly the northside, coming together on a Saturday or a Tuesday or a Thursday, and it was like a big summer camp, and it was a great way of kids having friends outside of your own area, and outside of school. It also taught you independence, and also not to be too disappointed if you didn’t get something, and you had to be kind of responsible for yourself as well. So there were lots of good early life lessons there, and I never put it down because I think it was a great thing. It’s a great thing, especially if kids are from, like, impoverished areas; it’s a wonderful escapism for them, you know.”
Before The Commitments came along, Ball was already making her way as an actor. “Yes, I was, and I was a dancer, and so I was doing panto, and gigs with Brendan Grace, and Dickie Rock, and Twink, and the Braemor Rooms, the Clontarf Castle at the time, the Olympia, the Gaiety; yeah, all of those places, so I kind of learnt the craft that way. So yeah, I was doing all that and I’d met the Hubbards (the influential casting agents) a few times before The Commitments.”
Thirty years ago this month, Parker’s adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown novel was released here and in the UK (bizarrely, it had been unleashed first on a somewhat bemused US public). Ball was just 21 when she landed the role of Imelda Quirke, an outspoken backing singer in the doomed but magnificent Dublin soul band that implodes on the brink of major commercial success.
She was cast alongside other then-unknown performers like Bronagh Gallagher, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Glen Hansard, Robert Arkins and Andrew Strong. While filming the movie, none of them realised that their lives were about to fundamentally change. Understandably perhaps, it’s not a subject Angeline is keen to constantly revisit. “I don’t really want to talk about The Commitments too much,” she tells me politely, “because I feel as if I talk about it all the time.” But she is flabbergasted that the film is now 30 years old. “It’s incredible, and it’s incredible that it’s still standing. You know, as a film, again we didn’t know that it was going to be so big, and it managed to smash all those expectations.”
I remember seeing it in a London cinema, and hearing a group of amiably rowdy expat Dubliners cheering loudly throughout: their city’s wit and salty argot was being celebrated for the first time on the largest stage. For Ball though, the impact of the film’s success was a double-edged sword.
“These days, with things like X Factor, and all these overnight success shows, they have PRs, PAs, managers, everybody standing by to guide them. We didn’t have anything — I mean literally nothing, you know — so we were kind of thrown back into Dublin straight afterwards, and it was very hard to try and gauge how to deal with that. When you lose your anonymity, you might still want to be the same person, but you’re not really the same person, and everybody in the pub or in Marks & Spencer knows who you are, but you don’t know who they are. That can be very disconcerting. You can become quite introverted, and I did. If I’m honest with you, it was one of the reasons I moved to London, to be anonymous again.”
The Commitments’ very uniqueness, meanwhile, would make it a singularly inefficient springboard for most of its young stars. And while Ball was subsequently cast in several high-profile Irish movies, like Trojan Eddie and The General, by the end of the 1990s, she’d made her move to London, where work was immediately more plentiful.
“I definitely did pick up more TV work and interesting stuff through being in London, but sometimes you had to fight that little bit more being Irish. Like with Shameless, for instance, I really did want to be Mancunian in it, you know.” Ball appeared in 20 episodes of the hit show, playing the agent of chaos, Gloria Meak. She also had recurring roles in EastEnders and Mr Selfridge, but family commitments sometimes got in the way of work. “I mean, I wanted to be a stay-at-home mum; that was very important to me. I wanted to be there for my children, so work has been sometimes sporadic; sometimes there have been big gaps, but that was my choice. Now, though, I’m ready to do more.”
Ball is starring in a major new TV crime drama called Hidden Assets, and she also has plans to write. “I’ve been working for a while on writing a one-woman show,” she tells me. “When I did The Playboy of the Western World in the Abbey a decade or so back, I had this idea for this one-woman show. It’s quite Beckettian, I suppose, and I want to go back to that this winter. And then I’ve got another few ideas for theatre in Dublin. The actors that I did Deadly Cuts with, they’re wonderful. Some of them did their training in the Gaiety, some in Trinity, and they all have this ethos of writing their own material, not waiting on someone to give them a job, which is very inspiring.”
Hidden Assets, a six-part Irish/Belgian co-production, stars Ball as a Criminal Assets Bureau officer who discovers a connection between a stash of diamonds, a wealthy Irish family, and a series of deadly bombings in Belgium. Written by Peter McKenna and Morna Regan, and directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, it will be shown on RTÉ from next month.
“It’s very different from anything I’ve done before,” she says, “and it’s a change of pace from Deadly Cuts. I’m hiding from the law in that, and I am the law in this. It’s fast-paced, kind of like a Scandi noir; it’s a bit like The Bridge. I work for CAB, and I’ve got a Belgian co-cop in it, and I end up in Antwerp. So that was really interesting, and it was lovely to do, and then we came back to Ennis, on the west coast, to film all of the Irish stuff. It was tough but I’m really proud of it, and I loved playing Emer, this tough cop. We’ll be seeing it in November, and people will be sick of me then and saying, ‘not her again’.”
All being well, Ball plans to return to live in Ireland in “a couple of years”. “In the meantime, what I’m hoping to do is come back and do more theatre. I miss Dublin, and when I’m working with an Irish crew, they’re like, ‘oh you know this guy and you know that guy’, and I’m like, ‘no, I don’t know anybody’. So you feel like you’ve got this whole new group of people you might be able to work with.”
Deadly Cuts was released in cinemas nationwide yesterday