Sunday 24 March 2019

Our actresses in the spotlight in 2017

After years of success for actors from these shores, Irish women are finally gaining the same sort of recognition in Hollywood, writes Regina Lavelle

Class act: Ruth Negga
Class act: Ruth Negga
Saoirse Ronan
Caitriona Balfe
Charlie Murphy
Sarah Greene
Seana Kerslake

Successful Irish actors? One may ask Google and one may find that of 20 actors listed, just two are women. Those actors are Maureen O'Hara, who died in 2015, and Saoirse Ronan.

It's not just Google.

Every publication from InStyle magazine ('The Luck of the Irish: The Luckiest Irishmen in Hollywood') to the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed ('The Official Ranking of the 26 Hottest Irish Men in Hollywood') takes the same view: Ireland has great actors, but those actors are men.

It is a crude indicator of how the world sees the gender balance of Irish acting, but it is an assessment that, in recent years, we have all come to accept.

Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan

And for years we could all rattle them off - in the same manner as one might the disciples: Gabriel, Liam, Brendan, Daniel, Pierce, Colin, Cillian, Aidan, Michael.

So enshrined is this acting aristocracy that it has its own dynasty (the Gleesons), its own prince (Fassbender) and its own mythology in Colin Farrell's Noughties' Hollywood bacchanalia (complete with Britney Spears and a Playboy model-starring sex tape).

And so it has been the case that the epithet 'Irish actress' owed more to the granny rule than it did to geography - such as when we claimed Angelica Huston, who spent extended periods of her youth in Galway, as our own - but actresses who define themselves as Irish instead of being unofficially naturalised? Precious few.

Now, not only are there Golden Globe nominations for Limerick native Ruth Negga (for her performance in the 1950s-set interracial romance drama Loving) and Monaghan woman Caitriona Balfe (who stars in the time-travelling fantasy TV series Outlander), but there's a raft of other actresses gaining the sort of visibility and recognition which has thus far been the bailiwick of their male compatriots.

Only this month, the actress Seana Kerslake, who starred in this year's hit film A Date For Mad Mary and in the RTE2 comedy Can't Cope, Won't Cope, signed to the Paradigm Talent Agency (which also boasts Domhnall Gleeson amongst its roster of talent) and Untitled Entertainment in LA.

In 2017, Dublin actress Amy Shiels joins the cast of the Twin Peaks reboot, while Dominique McElligott, who had a short but memorable role in 2011's The Guard, stars in The Last Tycoon, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, which will air on Amazon Prime.

Caitriona Balfe
Caitriona Balfe

What has brought about this resurgence of Irish women in Hollywood? Is it a simple case of coincidental timing or what could be termed 'the Saoirse effect'?

"The Saoirse effect? Sounds like a meteorological phenomenon," laughs Trina Vargo, the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance, an organisation for promoting Ireland in the States. Her organisation also founded and hosts the Oscar Wilde Awards, which honours the Irish in film.

"Joking aside, it is interesting. Women are doing so well. Last year we honoured Sarah Greene of Penny Dreadful," she says, referring to the Tony and Laurence Olivier-nominated actress who was honoured alongside Snow Patrol at last year's event, held at JJ Abrams' Bad Robot studio in Santa Monica.

"Then there's Saoirse, and even Caitriona and Ruth. And, yes, they are all women. But Caitriona and Ruth are not overnight successes, they've been both around quite a long time. They're in their 30s and they've been working all this time. It's good to see them get their due."

But for all Saoirse's proven bank-ability after her starring turn in 2015 hit Brooklyn, this isn't a simple case of casting directors crying: "Get me an Irish actress!"

"My sense is that you're either a good actor or you're not. The nationality is irrelevant," adds Vargo.

Journalist Stephen Milton has interviewed Saoirse, Ruth, Caitriona and Dominique at various stages of their careers and agrees that their nationality has never been their 'calling card'. There was one shared characteristic he did note, however.

"They all exhibited old-fashioned perseverance, a humble eagerness to start again from the bottom rung and, more importantly, a blatant apathy for fame. Others before them have all thrown in the towel after three weeks in LA. This group has been happy to take on minor roles in obscure projects to build on experience and reputation," he says.

And while determination and tenacity are certainly prerequisites, Vargo believes there are industry-wide upgrades which have helped widen the pool of talent.

"I think it's true in general that Hollywood is looking for a wider variety of actors - you don't need to have that California blonde look anymore. There is more of a sense of diversity," she explains.

"Secondly, there are more avenues. It used to be in the US there were three main channels and if you didn't get on those channels, then you didn't get seen. But now we have Netflix, we have Amazon Prime. You have a lot more production going on, so you need more content. And because there's more content, there's more talent."

The numbers suggest a spike in those granted extraordinary talent visas (type O, informally known as the 'visa for artists') in the US since the early Noughties. Figures published by the US Customs and Immigration Service show a pronounced spike over the past five years - from 199 in 2010 to 329 in 2015.

Type O visas are awarded to a 'foreign national with extraordinary ability in sciences, arts, education, business or athletics' but they are most commonly termed 'aliens of extraordinary ability'. The proportion of these visas awarded (as against total Irish visas awarded) now accounts for over twice what it did in 2000.

The Gaiety School of Acting has trained several up-and-coming Irish actresses: in addition to Sarah Greene and Amy Shiels, there is Charlie Murphy, who starred in last night's BBC One drama To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters.

The school's marketing manager Lauren O'Toole says students are demonstrably inspired by such success - it's why the school frames pictures of notable past pupils in their halls.

''The likes of Saoirse have opened the doors. And it does lead people into the industry because they feel attaining that level of achievement is possible," she says.

"In the past few years, there has been more and better work available in Ireland, so when people go abroad, they have more experience."

Last year, Sarah Greene said of her fellow actresses: "There's a lot of amazing Irish women working, but for some reason, people just don't hear about it."

This year, that changes.

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top