'Tarantino was mad as a rat and Travolta is gorgeous' - Bronagh Gallagher on movies, the matriarchy and her perfect match
Bronagh Gallagher has come a long way from Commitments' backing vocalist. She tells Maggie Armstrong about taking the lead in A Bump Along the Way, meeting Quentin Tarantino, and looking for her perfect match
Bronagh Gallagher had just done a terrible audition in the Gate Theatre. It was Shakespeare, and she had no theatrical training. She had been rejected by "four or five" drama schools in England (she lists them) and gone home to Derry "heartbroken". But before you begin to relate, Gallagher was only 17 and still in school.
She rang her agent to tell him the audition had not gone well, and he said, she recalls, "I'm glad you rang me, because you have to go and meet Alan Parker tomorrow". There was a casting in Clondalkin, west Dublin, for The Commitments.
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It might be a little old hat to talk about how the sweet-voiced actor first sprang to attention - today a different, mature Gallagher is promoting A Bump Along the Way, the new "wee film" set in Derry, and she has other pearls to impart on topics from Brexit (what else?) to periods to the letter Seamus Heaney wrote to her - but the story of her precocious launch is too good.
On the street, her agent told her "Northside accent, Bronagh", but she only had a night to get ready. She went into a shop on Henry Street and asked which bus to get to Clondalkin, where the film was famously shot, and listened very carefully. "Fleet Stree", she was told, and she remembers repeating the words over and over until she could say them. "It took me a while to get the Rs. I got help from all the northside lads in the film. That was a concern for Parker, because my accent was so strong."
And so this Derry girl talked her way into the small, iconic role of backing-vocalist Bernie. She had done a TV drama and a Michael Winterbottom film, but The Commitments would take her, via nearly two years straight learning her craft on the Abbey Stage, to LA and Quentin Tarantino, including an intense final audition with Harvey Weinstein at the far side of a table.
Fact fans: Casting Pulp Fiction, Tarantino adjusted the character of Trudi after he met Gallagher. "My original auditions were for the part Rosanna Arquette played. Then they just embellished that junkie character and gave me lines. He said, 'we want you in the film no matter what'." That opened doors to Star Wars: Episode 1 and beyond.
What's Tarantino like? "Ach, he's lovely. Mad as a rat. He's a genius." Harvey Weinstein? "I never had any dealings with the man." She adds, with a sigh, "I just think it's very sad for all the women that suffered at the hands of him. It's very, very sad, because they made great films." And John Travolta? "Gorgeous."
Quickly you get on board with what Tarantino and everybody saw in her. Talent to the side, Gallagher's warmth is vast and genuine, her Derry accent so strong it's like she's putting it on. She orders "the biggest flat white you can make" and drinks that and then another with our kale-rich breakfast at Groundstate Café in Dublin city. "Thank you, sweetheart", to the waiter. She is perfectly overdressed in a feathery cocktail dress (because she's a "Zara freak"). Next to her is a suitcase, the handle tied, by this seasoned traveller, with a pink ribbon.
Gallagher lives between her north Dublin house, her friends in London, and her parents' in Derry. "See that suitcase, that's my house." She's been on the film festival circuit and promotional tour of A Bump Along the Way, and just finished filming Belgravia (the new Julian Fellowes drama). In a few days, she'll start filming series 2 of Brassic for Sky. She quite recently came off a year-long run of Conor McPherson's Bob Dylan musical, The Girl from the North Country, on the West End, for which she got to beat drums and use her strong pipes.
She would like to spend some time in a sanatorium, "one of those nice Swiss places in the mountains". These are, she says with a lowered gaze, "quality problems".
Now at 47, having been performing for 30 years, she is playing the lead, not the backing vocalist, bit part or ensemble player. Bronagh's sister, Louise, had given her the script of A Bump Along the Way to see what she thought, and she read it on a plane to JFK airport. "I didn't really see me playing it. Aye. Then the director said 'why isn't your sister playing it?'."
The gritty comedy was made in 17 days on a tiny budget by an all-female creative team, with three industry firsts (writer Tess McGowan, director Shelly Love and producer Louise Gallagher). At its heart is a mother-daughter relationship between 44-year-old Pam and her sniping teenage daughter Allegra (Lola Petticrew). We meet Pam on a one-night stand with a man half her age. Gallagher plays the disappointments of this loveable, prosecco-slugging woman with profound truth, and mischief. She performs a journey from weekday hangover to heavy pregnancy, frightened ex-partner to angry mum-to-be, with great authority. The film won Best Irish Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh.
"I was kind of terrified about doing it. I'm quite a shy person overall," Gallagher claims, though there is no evidence today that she is shy no matter how you look at it. Perhaps she qualifies the claim when she states that performing is "terrifying. You can be extremely shy and vulnerable." Before a gig in Whelan's she would be "sleepless for a week, throwing up before going on stage".
She definitely belts out her own accent, but how much of herself did she find in Pam? Gallagher thinks and says that going out with friends is something she loves more than anything. Then she mentions a significant contrast.
"I wouldn't relate to taking sh*t from men. I wouldn't take any old crap. I never did. I've always been a tough girl. I'd be very able to hold my own. People say you have to take the rough with the smooth - well I just can't. You need to be treated with full respect at all times."
This is a Derry thing, she believes, recalling the influence of her granny and her mother, a hairdresser who ran a "wee salon" in the kitchen and even trained Gallagher.
"I come from such a matriarchal city. Very, very strong women. Derry women held it together when there was no work for the men, pre-Troubles, all going to England to work, major unemployment." (Her father is an engineer. "He bought his own house in Derry at 23 which was kind of unheard of.")
But Gallagher played the character with the stories of many women she has known over the years in mind.
"I've known so many women in those situations. Stuck for somewhere to live, without their own income, dependent on somebody, living with a bully, an addict of some sort. People that are trapped, the partner might be depressed, you might be depressed.
"Physically men are stronger than women, and they're scary, if they're bigger than you." She pauses. "A lot of men feel very emasculated. That's their problem, not my problem. We're strong, Derry girls are strong."
She feels there are many facets to women's lives that are "endured quietly". "Fertility issues. Problems with children, the loneliness of being on your own with a child, the loneliness of not being able to have a child and really wanting one, the heartbreak of that. Menstrual, menopausal issues. The hormones, the emotional rollercoasters. I think if men went through periods every month and menopause, we'd know a lot more about it."
She has channelled such heartbreak into her song-writing too, and her mighty soul voice. She explains her devotion to writing and singing as a very physical thing she has always had, and doesn't necessarily love about herself. "It's running through you so you can't stop it. You can't stop it, you'll implode. If you have to write you have to write. My passion is music. If you've got an ear for music and want to sing or act, it's like a pulse constantly, or a bee in your bonnet."
Gallagher is her own boss and producer of her label (her brother Paul Gallagher does the graphic design). Her last album, Gather Your Greatness, part came from "a collection of experiences I've had, a lot of my friends' experiences. There seems to be a consistent heartbreak and let down. And that disappointment, the loneliness, the waiting for the one.
"A lot of people found it very healing and cathartic and sort of embalming so I was like, well, job done then."
It is more permissible to talk to a singer about their romantic biographies than it is to an actor. Taking a punt, I ask her about her life. "I've just walked away from something that wasn't right, so I'm totally fine. I'm looking around going, when the right dude comes along... They're like diamonds in a haystack. I'm very busy, and very happy pottering around. There's no point in settling for somebody just to have somebody there. I can't do that. You either meet your match or you don't. I'm not into companionship, you want the real deal."
She's a very proud aunt. Would she like to have her own children? "I would, aye, I think. But look, if it's meant to be. I've never met the right person to have a child with. But that's a blessing. Quality problem! I'm doing what I love and if it happens it happens." She laughs wickedly, saying, "You need a strong man that can handle a Derry woman."
Speaking of strong Derry characters, Gallagher is a fan of the hit Channel 4 show Derry Girls for all kinds of reasons. She even had her own Derry Girls gang, right in the Creggan where Derry Girls is set.
"I was part of a gang called the Beastie Girls. Bad asses that didn't take no sh*t. More of a vigilante gang. Some of them, the first of a generation to get into universities. If you knew someone was getting bullied, you'd be in there like a shot. We loved music, we loved Whitney Houston, we rolled in a pack."
In July 2018, the University of Ulster awarded her an honorary doctorate for her contribution to the arts. Now if Boris Johnson's big plan goes ahead, on October 31 her hometown will be taken out of Europe with the six counties and the rest of Britain. Gallagher hates Brexit, it really exercises her.
"It's the most regressive thing that's happened in the last 80 f***in' years. The European Union is probably the best thing that came out of the Second World War. There's going to be major civil unrest in the streets of England. I just want to say to them how's that working out for yous? Good idea lads, rebuilding the empire.
"You know it's such an entitled people. The upper middle class British. They will never have to really suffer for what's now been created. Their taxes will all be sorted, they'll have private healthcare, their wee stately homes, their swanky places there. But it's the working class people, it's the elderly people, the people with disabilities, people that need medical attention, people trying to keep their head above the water that will really suffer. We're all waiting to see what happens aren't we?
"It's an immigrant world. We're all immigrants moving around the world. Unless you're committed to peace, to economies thriving, using all the natural resources a country has, looking after people, that may be a utopic vision that I have, but the world's sick of war. This stunningly exquisite creation none of us understand. And look at the horror human beings have consistently created. Game's up isn't it? America, Jesus Christ!"
Conflict in the world upsets her particularly as a woman from the north - Gallagher grew up in the middle of a war, born in 1972 in the Bogside of Derry. "I know so many families that have lost members. Innocent siblings. Fathers, sons murdered. In the Catholic community, in the Protestant community. And all for what? People just want to live in peace and bring their children up in a safe environment."
And this is how she found a "hero" in one poet from her home town. One night, about 12 years ago during a long, dragging run of War Horse in the National Theatre, she got a tap on her dressing room to say that Seamus Heaney was in the theatre and he would love to meet her. "I had a Slayer t-shirt on and a pair of tracksuit bottoms with bleach on them, 'cos I dyed them in the house. We spent an hour or two in the National bar. Him and Marie his gorgeous wife, and Michael Morpurgo." She asked him about lines from his poetry, and his Greek play The Cure at Troy.
"He wrote me a letter after. He said it was a pleasure and an honour to meet you. 'Your presence and your performance indomitable as only a Derrywoman can be'. That might have meant the most to me out of anything. Look where I ended up, sitting with me hero."
Two coffees into the morning, I remind her about the film critic who recently tweeted something about Gallagher being a national treasure. "That was hysterical!" she laughs. "My sister howled. I got a doctorate from UL last year. So I'm Doctor Treasure."
She considers, and decides against Doctor Treasure. "No. More of a pirate."
'A Bump Along the Way' is in cinemas in Ireland now