A star is born: Named one of Bafta's rising stars for 2020, Niamh Algar is ready to take on Hollywood
Niamh Algar's star has been rapidly rising since she moved to London just four years ago. The actor tells Shilpa Ganatra about working with Ridley Scott on his new sci-fi drama, why female directors are the unicorns of the industry and how it feels to join Mullingar's growing list of global exports
The harder you work, the luckier you get: an old adage that describes the start of Niamh Algar's trajectory neatly. I've been trying to arrange a chat with her for months, during which time she's been catapulted from promising star to barely off our screens, at a pace that's like observing any other glittering career in fast forward. It's only now she has time, in a sliver of a three-day window between lengthy film projects, which is otherwise taken up by awards ceremonies, promo and appearances instead. Usually, the intensity of shoots mean actors take a week or two to exhale, but there's no rest for the wicked - or wickedly talented, it seems.
"You have to work hard, especially in this industry where there's a huge amount of talented people around," she says. "I've been working non-stop these last four years, and filming involves 10 to 13-hour days, depending on the job. I've got to a point where I see it as normal to get picked up at half-five in the morning, and put into hair and make-up. It's taught me the importance of looking after yourself both physically and mentally, and putting your energy where it matters."
As it is, she's in fantastic form, full of the energy that comes with frequent gym sessions - a passion of hers - and a gratitude that matches her fire for the job. It helps that this short spell is the first chance she's had to observe the momentum around her, with most of her projects these past few years airing in 2019: we've seen Channel 4 dramas The Bisexual, The Virtues and Pure, while the BBC's MotherFatherSon, starring Richard Gere and Helen McCrory, proved her talent transferred to a mainstream, big-budget drama ("working with Richard was unreal," she says. "He's lovely, he made the effort to watch our scenes and was really generous with his time.").
The buzz around this work led to countless brace-yourselves-she's-coming accolades in different guises, like the Dublin Film Festival Discovery Award back in 2017, Screen Daily's Stars of Tomorrow in 2018, and one of Elle's 50 Game Changers of Now earlier this year. The most recent is her Bafta Breakthrough Award, given to rising stars in all disciplines who work in the British audio-visual industry. Previous winners include Chernobyl's Jessie Buckley and Chris Walley of The Young Offenders.
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"I'm proud, really proud, especially to be the only Irish person amongst this year's winners," Niamh says. "Bafta champion you for the year, and they put the feelers out so you can sit down for a cup of coffee with anyone in the industry you want to learn from, like Chris Walley's mentor was Cillian Murphy last year. To have that opportunity is really exciting. I've a list of people I'd like to talk to, and over the next couple of weeks I'll meet with Bafta and go over it."
She won't give away who's on her list for now, and it's fitting for a boxing enthusiast that her guard remains ever so slightly up throughout our interview; she also declines to talk about her relationship status, and, later, about equal pay in the movie and TV industry. When I ask about how she spends her time outside of work and exercise, she replies that she goes to the cinema. For the moment, her focus is solely on acting, and, well, it's paying off.
Niamh is a gift to casting directors. Her cropped hair and angular jaw mean she's a natural for playing strong characters, but her snow-blue eyes and soft expressions add vulnerability. It's arguably made her a good fit for nuanced characters. For example, Pure begins with Algar as the confident lesbian love interest of the OCD-afflicted main character, but when Niamh's character meets a woman she really likes, she pivots into a insecure mess ("It's like when they change Bonds, I don't like it," an on-screen friend says about her transformation). Niamh also plays a multi-faceted character in The Last Right, her forthcoming film set in Ireland. The dark comedy follows on-screen brothers Michael Huisman and Samuel Bottomley and Niamh as their family friend, as they drive the coffin of an acquaintance with no family from West Cork to Rathlin Island to be buried next to his brother. Tracking them on this unconventional road trip are officers Colm Meaney and Eleanor O'Brien in a remarkable film debut, with Succession's Brian Cox as the priest waiting in Rathlin. Throughout, Algar shines as Mary, whose inner strength and comedic flaws are dialled up or down as needed.
"Mary is a really light and happy character. And I was just really excited to play someone who wasn't going through a major crisis," she laughs, referring to the troubled characters she's played of late. "It's a light film, but there's a heart throughout the whole thing, you're rooting for all the characters, even Colm Meany's character who's trying to stop the coffin getting to Rathlin Island.
"Filming was so much fun, especially when we were on the island. All the crew and cast were on it, and Brian Cox flew in directly from LA because he was just finishing off Succession. We'd all convene in the only pub on the island at the end of the day's shoot trying to warm up, because we were shooting around November so it was Baltic."
The movie is the first for director and writer Aoife Crehan, who Niamh says "smashed it". For an industry with few female directors - we're talking around eight per cent - they've certainly found their way to Niamh: she also spent this year filming the lead role in Censor, a forthcoming Film4 psychological thriller, with Prano Bailey-Bond at the helm, and has just finished Ruth Greenberg's Run.
"I've just been lucky enough that I've worked with three female directors in the last year. They're all fantastic, and unique in their own right," Algar says. "My experience of it wouldn't be the same as a long-term actor's, but in the last two years, I've begun to see a difference in the way that female directors are supported. When we shot Raised By Wolves [the forthcoming TV series from Alien director Ridley Scott] we were trying to get more women directors on board, but we couldn't make it work because they're special, they're like unicorns: everyone wants them on their productions. There's a higher demand for female-led perspectives now."
Niamh grew up in the outskirts of Mullingar, with her father, a mechanical engineer, and her mother, a nurse and an artist, and four older siblings.
Her first taste of acting came through her area's lack of internet, which made the family rely on their imaginations instead. "My dad, with his job, used to have cameras in the house so we recorded short films - I must have been around 10 or 11. Even then, I really enjoyed acting. It could have been youngest-child syndrome, where you're after the attention!"
The Westmeath town isn't only known for producing this Bafta Breakthrough; it's also produced Joe Dolan, Niall Horan and Bressie, who was a friend of her sisters.
"There's a pub in Mullingar and everyone goes there on Christmas Eve, so you do see Niall and Bressie and everyone there. For such a small little town, we've had great exports," she says proudly.
While her siblings moved on from their homemade productions, Niamh's passion continued to the point where she decided to take it further, describing it as a "switch that turned on and I couldn't turn it back off".
Thus followed training at the Factory in Dublin and production jobs at RTÉ, which served her well when she eventually moved in front of the cameras. "Because I was in TV production, I understand the technical side to acting, and know the level of work behind the scenes," she says. "So now I'm well aware everyone has a hand in it, it's not just the actor."
Almost soon as she began her career proper - with parts in The Drummer and The Keeper and Without Name - the UK came a-calling. Flying over to London in 2015 to sign up with an agent, they asked her to extend her stay to audition for what eventually became The Virtues. She nailed it and made London her home, temping in an office at the start to make ends meet.
Remembering these early days, she notes it came full circle when she met Olivier Award-winning Ennis actor Denise Gough at the Bafta event a few days before we speak. It was Gough's encouragement, through the medium of the Honest Actors podcast in which actors discuss the realities of the industry, that helped her decide to pursue her career in London. "At that time I was terrified because I barely knew anyone, all I had was the clothes in my suitcase and the cash that I was making through temping," says Niamh.
"In the podcast, she spoke really honestly about her experience of moving to London, and it was almost like I was talking to my big sister who helped me make sense of it all. So to meet her at that event was emotional. She was saying she was a big fan of my work, and I was just shocked she'd seen anything."
It's hard to miss Niamh these days, especially with The Virtues becoming a critically acclaimed series. The four-parter, which follows the lead of Joseph (Stephen Graham) as he returns to Ireland to reunite with his sister (Helen Behan) and confront the demons of his childhood, was heralded as Meadows' best work yet. Niamh played the rebel sister-in-law, whose opening gambit was thumping her boyfriend as they argued.
"I got goose bumps reading the script, and I knew from the first week of the workshops that it was something special," she says.
"Shane Meadows is every actor's dream director. He gives you freedom and you can feel the trust. It was an intense, powerful story, and emotions ran high. But once he called 'cut', we immediately started laughing and joking and talking about where we were going to go for dinner later."
Her run of dream directors continues with Ridley Scott, the "father of sci-fi" as she calls him, who recruited Niamh for his much-anticipated HBO series Raised by Wolves. The shoot required eight months in Cape Town, which was an important experience for her.
"He's got incredible knowledge of the industry, so I just wanted to soak up as much as I could on set. He works with the same production team and designers he's had since Gladiator, and I think that's telling of him as a person. He's very approachable and open to the ideas you might have for it. He's also like an artist; he paints how he imagines something. The man is genius."
Did he have any words of wisdom for her?
"He said he was intrigued that I went against what was on the page. I've always believed to go with your gut because it knows what your head hasn't figured out yet. It's when you start overthinking it that it loses its magic."
We'll doubtlessly see more of this in months and years to come. After The Last Right, Calm With Horses, Film4's gangland drama, is due for release next year. The day after we speak, she's starting work on a film she can't discuss yet, only saying that it's with "one of the directors I've admired growing up". There's hope of the right project in Hollywood, though she's aware that the trade-off for this success is time away from her family.
"I've missed out on weddings and birthdays when you're far away from home. I've got two nephews and a niece that I FaceTime and Skype, but I miss them so much when I'm away, especially when they're going through these massive milestones like learning to walk and talk. That's been the hardest thing about these last few years."
But acting beckons. When it comes to how her career might develop, for Niamh, it's all about the variety of characters.
"I've had amazing opportunities to play complex characters across TV and film and no two have been the same, and I would like that to continue," she says. "It's fun to play against type, explore different looks, and change expectation of how a character should look. Like, it would be fun to play a princess - one with an edgy undercut!"
'The Last Right' opens in cinemas nationwide from December 6