Mirror mirror on the wall
Aislin McGuckin has flown under the radar but she's quietly become one of our brightest acting stars.
There's a sense that I've been slowly inching my way toward Aislin McGuckin, one person in her life at a time. Over the last few months I've interviewed her Outlander co-stars Laura Donnelly and Caitriona Balfe and her co-star in A Month In the Country, Clare Monnelly. And, of course, there was her husband, the charmingly self-deprecating Aidan McArdle, who recently starred in a version of The Field at The Gaiety. By rights, after all that research, we should have quite the dossier on Aislin. And yet, even after meeting the woman at the heart of all these connections there's a sense that she is somewhat unknowable; friendly to a fault yet guardedly inscrutable. She manages to say a lot without giving much away, and seems to embody Hitchcock's notion of the actor as "a blank canvas" onto which we project our innermost desires.
Certainly, she gives no evidence of having much in common with the character I find her preparing for: Natalya in Brian Friel's version of Ivan Turgenev's A Month In The Country. The wealthy Russian noblewoman seems to lurch between fits of envy and swoons of ecstasy - "great highs and lows", as McGuckin puts it - a far cry from the actress's own palpably even keel.
And yet there was one element of the character she is playing that the Fermanagh-born thespian found herself relating to. The story of the play deals with the noblewoman's affair with a young tutor and the rivalry that develops between her and her daughter for the man's affections. And it was the cold, envious eye that the older woman casts over the younger that resonated with Aislin and made her think back to her own daughters. "I jokingly say to them, 'you really are too attractive.' We'll have to bring in some red apples for you to bite into. It's a joke in our house, but yes, I can very much relate to that idea of the queen in Snow White."
I quite like the idea of McGuckin as the evil Queen - she has the perfectly grand diction for one - but in fact in person she is too stunning to get into a meaningful tussle with any mirror; expressive blue eyes in an oval face framed by waves of soft curls. And she lacks the necessary hauteur to be a queen, appearing charmingly self-conscious at times. It was ever thus, she tells me.
"I was very self-conscious, even as a small child. I did Irish dancing but I didn't like any of that extra curricular frippery of hair and make-up. I wanted it to be about feet, and as a child I remember thinking that. I think in acting you have the same thing. The way you look can be an awful embarrassment, I find it's best just to try to forget about it."
She grew up in a Catholic family in Troubles-era Fermanagh where her father was a builder. After the family settled in Lurgan, she and her brother went to school in nearby Newry. She says that although she was aware of the stultifying atmosphere in the province, the violence didn't directly affect her.
"I often feel really guilty when I say it didn't impinge on my life", she begins. "I had to go home straight after school anyway, because we lived an hour and a half away and there was no sense of just being able to hang out. My parents were also quite strict about knowing where we were. They didn't have to tell us to be careful though, because if you were born in the 1970s in the North, you just knew, you saw the news, you felt it everywhere you went. People had strong beliefs either side." She says that the ongoing violence in the province also created a "heightened atmosphere" in those years. "There was a sick sense of humour, you'd joke about the most horrifically inappropriate things." Like what? She peers nervously at the voice recorder. "Oh, I couldn't possibly say."
After school, she escaped to London "just so I could breathe. I think that was more to do with being in a small town than it did with the Troubles. I just wanted to get away from that small town life and lose myself a little in a big city." She attended The National Theatre, and while there scored a notable coup, winning the role of Dolly in the maiden production of Sebastian Barry's The Steward Of Christendom, which set her on her way. "I think it was almost too easy at the start", she recalls. "That all lulled me into what was maybe a false sense of security. I had a really exciting run for the first five or six years. It was an incredible time." Professionally perhaps, personally not so much, or maybe she's just not telling: "There were no wild years, I was always a good girl. Saintly in fact", she adds winkingly. "Can you see my dusty halo? No, no, how shall I put this: I had the experiences I wanted to have."
Over the years she has mixed stage work with television roles, most notably in The Creatives, Holby City and, of course, latterly in the smash hit series Outlander, which she says "had a life all its own right from the start. There was such a pressure to deliver what the fans wanted. Even before it was made there was very much a sense of them being there as a presence."
She met McArdle while he was performing in the title role in the RSC's Richard III opposite her Lady Anne. "It was certainly a very arresting performance", she says, smilingly opaque as to whether she might mean the role or the romance. "I just heard this big booming voice coming from behind a curtain and I guess there is such a thing as love at first sight, or at least what feels like that. Sometimes you have great strokes of luck in life and he is certainly one of mine."
The couple recently moved back to Dublin with their three children after a couple of decades in London. "We wanted to bring the children up here but we keep a flat there, so we haven't closed the door on it", she explains. And they have immersed themselves in life here - they were both signatories to a recent letter to The Irish Times from a group of actors and other arts figures in support of a yes vote in the gay marriage referendum. She tells me that "it's an exciting time to be back, it feels like there is optimism in the air" she says. "When I was young I wanted to see the world and I did but there's no place in the world with quite the warmth and friendliness of Ireland."
Aislin McGuckin will star in 'A Month In The Country' at The Gate Theatre, previews from July 2, opening July 7, running until August 22. Tickets from €25, available from www.gatetheatre.ie or (01) 874 4045.
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