Monday 11 November 2019

Interview: How Alison Deegan, writer of A Little Chaos, shaped a creative life

Alison Deegan was a successful actress until motherhood came along. She tells how she then wrote a screenplay while breastfeeding. 17 years later, her film A Little Chaos is in our cinemas.

Determied: Actress Alison Deegan
Determied: Actress Alison Deegan

Ciara Dwyer

'I've always had to imagine the best parts of me, and imagine what I can do with them. That's how I've got to where I am," says Alison Deegan. "If you just don't lose your nerve and try to stick to your path, and invest in whatever it is, sooner or later, you will get to where you want to be."

As she utters these words, there is a look of determination in her blue eyes. The Dublin-born actress, wife of writer Sebastian Barry and mother to their three children is a force of nature. She is lively and laughs a lot but through it all, she has a steely determination. All through her years, the 57-year-old has worked to create the life she wanted. She has never been afraid of changing direction in her life and in her career and above all, taking risks. At times, this meant putting her acting work on hold so that she could raise her young children while her husband concentrated on his writing - this was a deal upon which they both agreed - but all the while, she kept an eye on her future. She always had a plan. She is a firm believer in thinking about what you and your life will be like in the years ahead, and then working your way to get there.

Her opening line to me about holding your nerve are not idle words. She knows of what she speaks, for she has come a long way.

The Dublin-born actress is now a screenwriter. This week, her film A Little Chaos has opened in the cinema. It's a big budget affair, which stars Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts - that interesting Belgian actor who can currently be seen in Suite Francaise - and Alan Rickman, who also directed it. (Rickman will be in Dublin on Saturday for a special screening of the film as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.) It's an intriguing film about a woman called Sabine De Barra, a strong-willed landscape gardener who challenges sexual and class barriers when she is chosen to build one of the main gardens in Versailles beside the French monarch's palace during the reign of King Louis XIV. Winslet plays the gardener and Rickman is the French royal. It is based on an original screenplay which Alison wrote 17 years ago, when her third child, Toby, was only weeks old. At the time, she already had twins - Coral and Merlin. They were five and had just started school.

I look at her in amazement. How could she possibly have written a screenplay with so many youngsters in the house? I think of the sleep deprivation all parents experience in the first few months of their baby's life and how breastfeeding, while great for the baby, can drain the mother. Plenty of women would have pleaded tiredness but not Alison. She is made of different mettle.

This is a woman who knew that she had to get back to working in the world, to satisfy herself as much as anything else. When the twins were 18 months old, she put them in a creche so she could act in Sebastian's play The Only True History of Lizzie Finn. He had written a part especially for her. But after their first day there, she picked them up at teatime and they fell asleep the minute they were home. This was not how they would have behaved if they had been with her or Sebastian all day. (They both shared the parenting duties equally.) She felt that they seemed stressed by the creche experience and when the play was over, she knew that she had to make a big decision. She decided that she was going to make things good for the children. So, while Sebastian would work hard on his writing, which already had taken off with the success of his play The Steward of Christendom, she would mind the children.

But just when the twins had started school and she was beginning to enjoy some freedom, she became pregnant again. This time she knew that she wanted to stretch her intellect and dip her toe into the outside working world again. She did not want motherhood to consume her to the extent that her own personality would become subsumed. Being a practical soul, she made up her mind that she would have to do some work at home, something which would fit in with the kids and make her happy too.

"I thought that you could start to blame people and punish people for the sacrifices that you made," she says. "You could get bitter and righteous and say, I've done such a lot. You have to understand yourself and you have to be brave and clever about it. The only person who is going to save you from that kind of level of dissatisfaction with your own life is yourself. So, you have to build yourself and keep whatever you have yourself, and make that work for you.

"You have to preserve yourself. It's not a selfish thing, but a clever thing. I think that if you sink yourself entirely into your children and make them your project, which they may not want, then years later, when they are gone, you are left looking at your husband thinking, you ruined my life."

Alison needed to express herself and so, she pushed herself to work. I still think that it must have been very hard but she claims that it was easy; such was her strength of will to do it.

"It's the easiest thing in the world to do after you've had a baby" she says. "Having a baby is the hardest thing you're ever going to be asked to do. This is another type of birth. It's not as visceral and not as demanding on you. It's more to do with the intellect.

"So, I fed Toby on one side, on one boob until it became really heavy - I wrote it out in longhand - and then I hauled him over to the other one, and I tried to do another bit.

"I also had this wonderful girl called Sarah who would take Toby for a couple of hours. She'd take him around in the pram and bring him to her home, so that I could concentrate. Sebastian was upstairs working away in the other room and the kids were in school and then everything stopped when they came home, which was about 1.30pm. That still happens today. The children need to be collected and they are collected. They come home and have food. So, that's how it happened and that's how I did it. I planned it, I did it and I finished it. It took three months, maybe less."

When Alison wrote the screenplay, it was a total leap of faith. Nobody asked her to do it. Up until then, she had been acting but she realised that with young children, she needed to do something where she worked at home. Having acted all her life, she says that she knew about plays and dialogue. But mainly, she settled on writing a screenplay, as opposed to a play or a novel, as Sebastian didn't do screenplays. That way she wouldn't be encroaching on his territory. It was as simple and random as that.

Gardening is one of her passions, so that went into the screenplay. But also, a conversation with a good friend of hers lingered. Her friend's seven-year-old daughter had been knocked down by a drunken driver and afterwards, the child was in hospital on a life-support machine. Eventually, the mother switched off the machine and after that horrific moment, she could only remember her daughter dead. All the memories of her alive had been blotted out.

"It must have been some sort of coping mechanism," says Alison. "It made me think, what if that part of my life was cleaved off? How would I cope and how would I survive?"

Also, since a young age, she had read books on Versailles and King Louis XIV, so she knew all about this world. But once the screenplay was finished, there was no one waiting on it. She had long been an admirer of Alan Rickman. She had seen him on stage in Dangerous Liaisons and had admired the intelligence of his performance. Her gut feeling was to send the script to him, to give him first choice of it, and to see if he was willing to do it. She obtained his address and sent the script, with a short note, and waited for a response. One day, while she was out with the children, Sebastian took a call. Alan had phoned saying that he had loved the script and he wanted to make the film.

But that was 17 years ago. What was the delay? There was the usual story, which often accompanies the making of film, of producers lining up eagerly and then pulling out. And then there was the not insignificant matter of the Harry Potter films. Alan told Alison that he had got a part but he didn't think that it would take long. She knew all about the Harry Potter books, especially because of her children. She was well aware that this could go on and on. She tells me that Alan doesn't have children, so he thought it'd all be over swiftly and they could get back to their project. The Potter films kept on getting made, his role as baddie Professor Severus Snape was recurring and with that, their film was pushed back again and again.

But all through the eight Harry Potter films, Alison held her nerve and decided that she would wait for him to be finished, however long that it would take. Alan was her first choice and she thought, her best option, so why would she move on? Rickman had initially planned to play the romantic lead in A Little Chaos but 17 years later, he was too old and was more suitable for Louis XIV.

Kate Winslet's name was mentioned as Sabine when they first spoke of casting and while Alison admired her work, she thought that she was too young for the role. But as time has marched on, and the star became closer to 40, she was precisely the age she wanted for her character and so, perfect casting. Alison describes Winslet as "an intellectual anaconda" because when they met, the actress would ask about her character and as she listened to the reasoning, she would swallow the answers and sit in silence, digesting them and then deciding how she would let them colour her performance.

The film is now out there for all to see. It is a testament to Alison's patience and talent. And that young baby who was latched to her breast is now finishing school and will begin college next year.

Some people could bemoan the length of time that it took to get the film out there but this is not Alison's style. Instead, she enjoyed the time down through the years of to-ing and fro-ing to Rickman's London home where they would work on the screenplay together. Also, during the time she carried on writing.

She has just finished a novel about an SS guard. Having grown up in Terenure, close to the Synagogue, she had many Jewish friends and of course, she learnt about the Holocaust through them. One neighbour had his prisoner number from a concentration camp tattooed on his arm.

It was all very real to her. But equally, her father, who worked for a German chemical company, often brought home German colleagues. They were interesting, intelligent men who showed Alison great kindness as a little girl, chatting to her and trying to teach her to read German even though she was dyslexic. Up until then, she had simply associated the Germans with the Holocaust, so this opened her eyes and taught her that the world was a bigger, and much more complex place than she had imagined.

While Alison has been with Sebastian Barry for 30 years, she could never be described as the quiet, supportive spouse in the background. She is far too strong for that role. Sebastian has always credited meeting Alison with quelling his anxiety and for introducing him to her Protestant world, which would become a major theme in his writing and lead him to huge success.

But when they first met, she was the famous one and he was the emerging talent. She laughs when she thinks of their first meeting. She was with her friend, the musician Roger Doyle, when Sebastian phoned him and asked him if he had any money. Roger told him that he hadn't and explained that he had company. Then Sebastian asked him to ask Alison if she had any money.

"I was flabbergasted," she says. "I thought, what a neck. It was bizarre. I had five pounds in my purse. I decided to give him the money and leave."

Then Roger announced that they were going into Bewleys to meet Sebastian and hand over her fiver.

"I sat down in Bewleys and thought, this is getting weirder and weirder. I left the money with Roger and left. I went out the door and went bang, straight into him and that was that. He was looking down at me and I was looking up at him and I said to myself, I see where this is going. We were together from that moment. And thirty years and three children later, we're still together."

What was it about him? And why has their relationship stood the test of time?

"It was the chemical attraction and then, really, everybody has to be willing to work hard at it. He was very bohemian and he had no real feelings that having children would be a good idea, but I was 33 and time was rolling on, and I thought, you've got to make a decision. I thought, why would I not do it? I thought the only reason not to do it is to devote yourself to yourself and I thought, that's OK, but really that's a bit of a skinny shoe. I thought, why don't you think of not dealing yourself out of that hand and do it. I said to Bas, I think we should do it and he said, 'well, I'm no good at that, and I'd be crap at it.' But we did it.

"In the beginning, we didn't have a lot of money. We had enough to pay for nappies and rent and a little after that. I had to cook everything from scratch and make everything stretch. A friend showed me how to make drop scones, which were nutritious, so the kids had them a lot."

These days, they live in an old rectory in Wicklow and they are both enjoying their creative lives and the life they have created together. The twins are finished college and Toby hopes to begin university life next year.

They followed their dreams but they never caved in, even when times were tough. I ask Alison how she had the courage to keep going.

"You have to keep going. But we weren't on the dole. That was the big thing. In a way, that was the huge triumph for both of us. Within a relationship, you have to support each other and each other's work. It was a matter of planning and attitude, and shaping our lives."

While A Little Chaos is currently in cinemas, the film adaptation of Sebastian's novel The Secret Scripture is being filmed. Their creative plan worked. Alison is a contented soul for remaining true to herself, and her talents.

As part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, there will be a special screening of A Little Chaos at Cineworld on Saturday March 28 at 6.15pm with special guest Alan Rickman.

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