Thursday 19 April 2018

Carrie on acting: Carrie Crowley's acting journey

Carrie Crowley went from small town primary school teacher to touring the country as a singer before cutting her teeth in local radio and becoming RTE's golden girl in the Nineties, but acting has been her lifelong love. She tells Katy Harrington why being called a TV presenter still drives her nuts ...

Carrie Crowley
Carrie Crowley
Carrie Crowley and Ronan Keating presenting the Eurovision
Carrie Crowley and husband Ross Kelly

Katy Harrington

Carrie Crowley is in London for a month rehearsing a new play by Irish writer Richard Molloy. Called The Separation, the play is set in Dublin in 1995, just before the divorce referendum was passed and focuses on the life of Stephen Hanrahan (played by Corkman David Murray) with Crowley as his estranged wife Marian. Marian, she says, is "feisty, sore in a lot of ways ... and she has integrity".

Feisty with integrity (and perhaps a little sore on one topic) might be a fitting description for Crowley too. She has just turned 50, but looks at least 10 years younger. With her olive skin, pale piercing green eyes and trademark corkscrew curls, somehow Crowley manages to look both exotic and typically Irish at the same time.

She's passionate about the new play, but then theatre has always been a huge part of her life. As children growing up in Waterford, she and her sister were taken to everything from Ibsen and the opera to pantomimes. Despite being exposed to theatre early, acting, she says "wouldn't have dawned on me as a career". Instead, she opted for a safer bet – primary school teaching, as her mum had done before her. Her first job as a múinteoir bunscoile was covering maternity leave in a little school in Dunmore East. Had the position been full time, it's possible she might still be there.

While teaching, Crowley spent every spare minute grafting as an unpaid actor. She describes getting home from school in the afternoon, power napping, then racing to the theatre to go on stage or rehearse. Eventually, something had to give. "It was like there were two parts of my life and I thought I can't do both".

She took the leap and found work with the Red Kettle Theatre Company in Waterford. It was the first step on a path to a professional acting career, but Crowley got waylaid by another of her talents – singing. What started as three friends singing harmonies together "took off" and their band, Miss Brown to You, was born. Together they went on the road gigging in Dingle one night, Letterkenny the next and singing on TV and radio, before Crowley was offered a solo presenting job on her local station WLR.

It's the story of her life, she says. "I've always ended up double-jobbing and trying to lose one along the way." In 1996, she moved to Dublin to work on the kids show The Morbegs (for those who are too old or young to remember it, think Teletubbies meets Harry Potter) and before long Crowley was presenting prime time shows on RTE.

Early in our conversation, I mention that her face is still well known from television, but she is quick to correct. "I'm not from television, I'm an actor." Clearly she is fed up with being 'RTE's Carrie Crowley', but many Irish people still know her from her time as a presenter.

"I have a big head of frizzy hair, so people kind of go 'I know her from somewhere' but it's from so long ago." Being labelled a TV presenter drives her nuts, she says in frustration.

"I worked in television in RTE for three years out of 50. Do the maths."

There were huge moments in her TV career though, such as hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. "That was nothing," she says about presenting the biggest music TV show in the world, live, with 300 million people watching. "I don't tend to get nervous and I didn't," she explains. "You rehearse it so many times, what can go wrong? No one is going to die."

Watching the opening of the 1997 Eurovision back on YouTube, I tend to believe Crowley. She comes across as assured and relaxed, towering above her co-presenter, a diminutive Ronan Keating who looks a little like a boy in his communion suit next to a statuesque, sexy and confident Crowley.

The only time she has ever been struck with nerves was when she made her own short film, Waterways, which she wrote, produced and directed. "I literally fell apart with stress." Together with colleague Catherine Keating, they set up Yellow Village Pictures and generated over €10,000 of funding online.

Crowley has also acted in several films, including the Irish comedy sci-fi Earthbound starring Rafe Spall. She's had parts in TV's The Clinic and School Run, while on stage she's done everything from small independent plays to Shakespeare. She gets regular work as a voiceover artist in both Irish and English (she recently voiced a documentary on mental illness as gaeilge) and is unashamedly geeky about her love of the Irish language.

She loves her work, but admits she is more cautious about what she takes on these days. There was a time when she "probably said yes to too many things". One of those things was presenting Limelight, a "nice" chat show. "I realised I was in the wrong place doing the wrong job," she says, "I thought if I have to say 'hello and welcome' one more time ... "

When the news came that the show wasn't coming back for a second year, instead of feeling upset, she was elated. "I was trying to figure out how do I tell them I have no interest in doing this anymore, so it kind of worked for everybody."

Although she admits she doesn't watch much TV these days, she still has admiration for Gay Byrne and his interview technique.

"I have a lot of time for Gay," she explains, "he listens." I wonder if she thinks it's a shame that there are no female TV presenters of Gay Byrne's age still working on Irish television. "We are talking about TV a lot," she says, adopting a more serious school teacher voice. The voice "never leaves you", she jokes.

Unwilling to be dragged into a debate about women in TV, Crowley will say that things are changing and the likes of Claire Byrne, Miriam O'Callaghan, and her friend Tara Flynn, who she met on The Morbegs, are leading the way.

As for female actors, is there pressure to get the frozen faces, puffed cheeks and trout pouts that prevail in Hollywood?

"I don't think it's a problem in Ireland," she says. "You can see the appeal, but your face tells so much about your life." She laughs about the Crowley family's crow's feet. Her dad had them, her sister has them and she has them she says, scrunching her face proudly to demonstrate.

In 2001, Crowley's father, who came to every one of her shows (sometimes every night and he sat in on some rehearsals too), who sang with her in the car and while they were drying the dishes, passed away.

Her mum, "a warrior" without a nervous bone in her body, died a year later. It took a tremendous toll on her and her sister.

"I felt like I had been steamrolled. I just wanted to stay in bed. It's like every gasp of breath has been pushed out of your body," she says. Brid, her sister, lives in Newcastle and works as a doctor. She also inherited her dad's passion for theatre and always travels home to see her sister on stage.

Today, Crowley describes her home life by the sea in Monkstown as calm and comfortable. "I was always chasing the frenzy or the craic and now I love silence, I love nature. If I'm outside, I'm happy. I was always a fierce hippy."

She lives with her husband Ross, who she met 18 years ago in Dublin. "We are both total scruff buckets but I love that about him," she says.

"Everyone's sock finds a shoe and I found my shoe." He is also hugely supportive of her career and can even quote from some of the plays she's done.

"He gets it ... good bad or indifferent, he comes to everything."

Looking back at 50, is there anything she would change?

"It's very easy to say I shouldn't have done such and such, but I like my life. I like where I am. Everything adds to the pack. Would I change anything? Probably not."

The Separation - Project Arts Centre, June 2 -June 14, 2014, 8.15pm. Preview June 2 & 3 / Matinee June 14, 2.30pm. Tickets €15/12 (June 3 - all tickets €10) http://projectartscentre.ie/ event/separation/

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