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Monday 16 September 2019

‘I didn’t have my character name until my costume fitting’ - Irish actress Olwen Fouéré on secrecy surrounding Fantastic Beasts script

Olwen Fouere
Olwen Fouere
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Olwen Fouéré has revealed the lengths to which the producers of Harry Potter spin-off movie Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald went in order to protect the movie’s plot and JK Rowling's script during filming.

The Irish actor, director and creative artist plays the role of Melusine in the second Fantastic Beasts film, which opened in cinemas this weekend, although she admits she did not even know her character’s name until her costume fitting, due to the secrecy surrounding the project.

“You get a code and go in and find the script,” she says of reading her part.  “Your agent doesn’t even get to read the script.  And you read your pages, only the pages that refer to you, and even in that coded script you don’t even have your actual character name. 

“I didn’t know until the costume fitting all the associations of the name.  If I had known a bit earlier it would have been nice because she has huge folkloric significance in France.  They’re going mad on IMDB about me playing Melusine!”

Olwen Fouéré rehearsing a reading from WB Yeats The Tower in the National Library
Olwen Fouéré rehearsing a reading from WB Yeats The Tower in the National Library

Olwen’s parents Yann Fouéré and Marie-Magdeleine Mauger hailed from Brittany in France but moved to the remote west coast of Ireland where Olwen was born and reared. She has worked on Irish and international theatre, film, visual arts, music, dance theatre and literature projects over four decades, but nothing on the scale of Fantastic Beasts.

“It’s absolutely massive,” she says.  “The interesting thing was it was really, really nice to do, because David Yates, the director, is a lovely man, very personable, very easygoing and respectful so you don’t feel like you’re on a big blockbuster set.  Quite a few of the crew were French, from a little town in Brittany I know very well so I was flitting between English and French on set.  It was quite intimate, just like working on a normal film.”

She laughs, “My appearance in it is so brief – it’s a tiny, tiny role, but of course your street cred with all your friends’ children rises immeasurably!”

Despite her striking looks, she feels she will not be “instantly recognisable to people walking down the street” but that could well change if her character features in the rumoured five more instalments in the Beasts series.  Olwen’s appearance in this film, in fact, was extended by director David Yates, which bodes well for a return.

“I’m in literally just one tiny scene which they then extended because David said, and this is what gives me hope, he said, ‘She’s such a great character – we have to have her back’ and he added a bit extra to it.  The actual scene is tiny and is with Eddie Redmayne and Catherine Waterstone.  I spent the day with them. And then when we did the extended bit with me coming on with all these amazing creatures, very briefly, that was with Zoe Kravitz.” 

She also recently wrapped filming Sea Fever, Neasa Hardiman’s debut feature, in Wicklow, which also stars Connie Nielsen, Hermione Corfield and Dougray Scott, a film she says she was “desperate to do and delighted to do”.  And she plays a role in Panos Cosmatos’ horror Mandy, “an extraordinary film, really completely unique” which stars Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough as well as Linus Roache and familiar Irish face Ned Dennehy.

However, theatre, it seems, has traditionally been her natural habitat.  Outside of film she has three theatre projects in development in Australia.  She also has three more Irish-based projects in development and says she will “always make work here”.

She’s enthused about Irish theatre right now, not least the recent changes at The Gate under the direction of Selina Cartmell, with whom she has worked many times, and who took up the role of Director following Michael Colgan’s departure in 2016 amid allegations of harassment.

“She’s doing a fantastic job.  I’m so thrilled,” she says.  “It was a really difficult start when that job came up and when I heard it was open for applications I sent Selina a text saying, ‘Selina, please apply for this’ because she has a really strong connection with The Gate itself as a space, with its history.  She’s the right person.  I felt so glad, the difficult first few months, she managed to get through all that, and I think she’s doing an incredible job.”

Read more: How Gate's director Selina Cartmell set the stage for a theatre sea-change

The Gate’s recent production of Hamlet, with Ruth Negga in the title role, was, she says, “extraordinary”.  Olwen played the role of Hamlet herself in a production at the Project Arts Theatre in 1993, delivering “To Be Or Not To Be on a tightrope”, as you do.

“I thought Hamlet in the Gate was absolutely wonderful and that Ruth was extraordinary.  I don’t think I’ll ever see a Hamlet as wonderful as her,” she says of the Oscar nominated actress.

“Also, the director [Yaël Farber] is a very close friend of mine.  We’ve worked together lots of times.  The combination of Yaël and Ruth gave a very, very special production.”

Initially, however, she admits she was a little cynical; “I’m a bit fed up with Shakespeare.  You start to think of cultural colonisation after a while and when Yaël was going to be doing it I thought ‘oh why does it have to be Hamlet?’.  But it was very important to her that Ruth played that role and it was just stunning. It totally unlocked it for me.”

Of the rise of the #MeToo movement across the arts and beyond, she says it’s important “those things get addressed” but warns that they come in waves and it’s important to remain “vigilant”.

“I can think of many of my contemporaries and when we were in our twenties there were big waves of activism at that point, relating to the political situation as well as to the interpersonal, but it kind of died down,” she recalls.  “I just feel the last 20 years have been incredibly conservative in Ireland, not just Ireland but around the world, and that includes gender politics.”

She praises Lian Bell, Campaign Director for #WakingTheFeminists, a response to the Abbey Theatre’s male-dominated 2016 programme.  On the back of it, many Irish theatre companies have now signed up a new policy to ensure gender parity and dignity at work.  “I really hope it continues,” says Olwen of the sea change, “And it has been incredibly effective as well which is great.”

Olwen’s path to acting was almost accidental.  She found herself, at the age of 22, having already worked professionally for two years, despite having had no formal training, questioning where she was headed.  

“I remember taking time out and just going, yeah, well I’ve stayed two years and it’s all happening and I’m working with great people and I’ll stay with it for as long as it has meaning, whatever that means,” she says.  “I’m always threatening to disappear into the desert, you know, but then I get tempted. Everything tempts me!”

For those hoping to carve a career path similar to hers in the arts, she advises, “it’s really important that you follow your artistic path.  That’s the important thing.  When I talk to students they often say ‘what about making money and surviving?’ .  But that can’t be the thing on your mind when you want to be an artist.  Work, quality of work, is what it is that keeps you there, making you want to do it.”

She enjoys the nomadic life and travelling, and her family home near Cleggan in Galway is “probably the only place I’d really call home”.

She adds, “There’s something really fundamental in human nature that is nomadic and we deny that so often. Everything is about settling and owning something and having a piece of land and territory.  Nomadic life is far more suited to our psyche, I think.”

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is in cinemas now.

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