Tuesday 28 January 2020

Out of Africa... Actor Pandora McCormick

Actor Pandora McCormick moved home to Ireland from Kenya when she was 12, in a year of many upheavals, only to find it wasn’t home any more, and neither, really, was anywhere else. And so she became a ‘chameleon’; something that has clearly been useful for her career, but perhaps harder for life

Dress: Pandora's own. Photo: Kip Carroll
Dress: Pandora's own. Photo: Kip Carroll

Emily Hourican

'The day I left drama school," Pandora McCormick says, "my tutor called me over, and I thought, 'Here we go! He's going to say it!' And he looked at me and he said, 'You'll get work'. I was devastated! I was thinking, 'Excuse me, I'm going to be a star, baby!'" She laughs, adding, "Little did I realise, that was actually one of the greatest compliments you could get; literally the nicest thing anyone could say to an actor."

The road to that pragmatic realisation has, I suspect, been paved the hard way for Pandora, who knew she wanted to act from the time she was a child, but took an indirect route "because I was kind of scared".

She moved to Kenya from Dublin with her mother when she was four, then came back when she was nearly 13, in what was clearly a kind of perfect storm of 'firsts'. She hit puberty, having been "a late bloomer", started boarding school, and met her father, Constantine Phipps, fifth Marquess of Normanby, along with her stepmother and three younger siblings. For years, she kept that relationship out of the spotlight as far as possible, and even now she is clearly uncomfortable being asked about it, for what seem to be the right reasons - independence of mind and professional pride.

The first time I met Pandora was about a year ago, when she was just about to get married, to boyfriend Killian Burke, also an actor, and she was busy filming the second series of Red Rock for TV3, in which she played solicitor Claire Hennessy.

At the time, Pandora told me that she had been on the point of giving up acting when the call for Red Rock came, because she hadn't really been getting work. Instead, she had been biding her time, and making her rent through the peripheral activities that live tangentially, almost parasitically, to the proper world of acting: corporate exercises, medical role-play, hostessing. "I hated that. These companies want girls in short dresses, and the customers treat you that way. You're not there for a huge amount of pay, you've been in heels for 10 or 12 hours, and someone starts talking to you a certain way…".

At the time, she said rather wistfully, "Acting is not like another job where, if you put the work in, you will progress, and you can plan your life. As an actor, it's frustrating, because no matter how hard you work, no matter how talented you are, sometimes it just doesn't happen."

Since then, things have happened for Pandora. Does it all feel a bit different now, I ask? "Things have changed," she agrees. "I think at the time I was having a little bit of a kind of crisis," she laughs. "It might sound ridiculous to say I was about to hit 30, but I was like… every time you hit a big birthday, you kind of re-evaluate yourself - 'Am I on track?' When you're 24, you think when you're 30, you'll be married and you'll have a family, and you'll have a wonderful career, and everything will be sorted out, because 30 is so old, when it's really not. So I was thinking, 'Is this really working, what I'm doing?'"

What a difference a year makes. She is also now a wife, rather than a bride-to-be. How is married life? "It's great." Not that being married to an actor is easy, especially when there are two of you in it. "We have to just, at the moment, play life by ear. When I finished Red Rock, we moved back to our flat in London and we were there for five days, and he got Anna Karenina in the Abbey, and had to move back. And we hate being apart because we're ridiculously close, but you just have to deal with it. We've said, until we want to start a family, we're going to go where the work is, fly wherever we have to fly, do as much as we can, and explore and work and have adventures, and if that means being apart, we'll do it."

Does the being apart mean there is pressure on the time when they are together? "No," she smiles, undoubtedly thinking, 'we're not that dumb'.

The two met in London, five or so years ago, in a move that brought Pandora both a best friend and a boyfriend. "I was doing Much Ado About Nothing, and I met this girl called Umba, and we just hit it off. We fell in love, me and Umba; we became best friends and moved in together. She kept saying to me, 'You've got to meet my friend Killian, he's Irish,' and I was like, 'For God's sake, just because he's Irish doesn't mean I'm going to find him attractive, or even like him'. Then she showed him a picture of me and said, 'We're having a party, you should come'. He met me, and he asked me out."

At the time, Pandora had sworn off dating. "I'd had some really bad dates, and I was like, 'That's it, I'm not dating any more'." What kind of bad dates? "Men just trying to get you drunk and sleep with you, basically, and then there was this really sweet Irish guy, who couldn't stay very long because he had work the next day, and was at the door saying, 'Uh, can I maybe, like, take you out for dinner sometime?' I just instinctively said yes, immediately, and then I was like, 'Wait, didn't I say I wasn't going to do this?'" She smiles happily. "The rest is history."

The couple married last year, at Pandora's father's estate, Mulgrave Castle, in Yorkshire, a 16,000-acre estate where supermodel Elle Macpherson lived for a time in 2003.

Pandora's father - his mother was Grania Guinness, whose brother, Bryan, married Diana Mitford - is an author, poet, businessman and philanthropist who has supported both Trinity College and Oxford, among other projects. He is married to Nicola Shulman, also an author, and sister of former British Vogue editor Alexandra. They have three children. Pandora is his eldest child (and his only child with Sophie McCormick), and furiously resists talking about him.

Thorny business

Rather, she is very happy to talk about him as a writer. She tells me enthusiastically, "He's a very good writer. His most recent book, What You Want, is about the meaning of life using the allegory of a theme park. Each chapter is a different ride - love, sex, money, power - kind of like a Dante-esque Inferno, led by a guide. And, stick with me here, it's all in verse! It's really entertaining and very funny."

But when it comes to the thorny business of talking about his role in her life, that's different.

Pandora, who was raised by her mother, portrait painter Sophie McCormick, met her father when she was 13 and had moved back from Kenya, where she had been living, with her mother, from the age of four. "He's my dad and I'm lucky to have him," she says cautiously. "With meeting him came, not only a wonderful relationship, but also the blessing of an incredible new family with mountains of love and support."

It is this, clearly, that means so much to her - a father, a stepmother, three siblings - and not the rest: the money, titles or connections.

"I don't want to be defined by either of my parents. It frustrates me when people assume I've got where I have due to my dad. Not only is it untrue, but it's also sexist! Acting is not an easy path, and I work extremely hard."

As for the money side of things, when I am crass enough to suggest that she maybe didn't have to work so hard at the secondary acting jobs, the corporate and medical role-plays, she says, with dignity, "I didn't grow up with money, and I don't take it for granted. It's always been important to me that I'm taken on my own merit. As an actor, you don't want to be put in a box - you want to be able to play all the roles and to be seen as somebody who can have many faces."

The fact that she means this, with all her heart, is very obvious.

Pandora has a strong sense of what's right, and a correspondingly strong sense of what's wrong. Part of this must be innate, part of it due perhaps to her mother's influence, but part of it seems also to have come via the difficult transition from Kenya to Ireland when she was a young teenager.

"We came back when I was about 12-and-a-half, just on the cusp of puberty. I was a late bloomer, going from Africa to Ireland in winter and turning 13 and going to boarding school in St Columba's… I was a mess. Before term started, I would have nightmares for a week about the bed. It was really important what bed you got, because that was the bed you had for the year, and if you didn't get the good bed, you were stuck with it." So what was a 'good' bed? "The one by the heater, because I was permanently cold!"

Although she was ultimately happy at boarding school, it was a rough transition. "It seemed dark and cold and grim. I think for the first year-and-a-half or two years, I literally read every book in the library, in the bed, by the heater. I would go out to classes, and the dining room, and that was it. I don't think anyone saw me for the first year."

In Kenya, Pandora had been home-schooled by her mother until she was six, then went to school in Nairobi, where there was more freedom. On her return to Ireland, she didn't just struggle with the Irish climate, she seems to have had to adjust to rules, too. "I felt very like, 'Oh come on, why can't you walk on the grass? Why can't you climb the trees?' When I was in school, you weren't allowed to wear a jacket in the younger years, only when you were in Sixth Form. I used to ask, 'But why are small people not cold? Why do you allow warmth privilege when you get to 18 and you're more robust? Surely this is opposite?'"

She's laughing, but there is an unmistakable core of indignation there, and I hear it again when we find ourselves discussing politics, and, in particular, the Eighth Amendment. "I was thinking about women's bodies in the acting industry, where the pressure to size down is constant, especially in America, and, to an extent, in London. And I was thinking actually, that in Ireland, generally, there is a much healthier attitude towards a woman's healthy body, and yet at the same time she can't have autonomy over her own body. It's such a weird contradiction. It drives me absolutely crazy."

Pandora can see the many great things about her upbringing - the excitement, the opportunity to see different cultures, the wonder that was Kenya - but she is aware of the downside, too. "It has other consequences," she says. "I now get itchy feet, and my husband is like, 'How many holidays do you need?' You never quite feel like you belong. You end up kind of wishing you were that kid who knew everyone on their street, and that you had the security of always being in the same house. I used to really envy people who had that. I didn't belong in Ireland because of Kenya, and then I got used to it a bit, and then I moved to England, and thought 'God, the humour here is so different'. You do feel a little bit lost. So you learn to assimilate, like a chameleon, and I think actors do that anyway."

Better actor

Not belonging bothered her in her 20s - "the 'who am I and what am I about?' which you have anyway at that age, but I had more of it" - but she has learned to see the strengths of it. "I'm not sure if my upbringing has made me a better actor, but you never know," she says.

She has also, I suspect, learned to belong where it matters - to herself, and to the people who love her, irrespective of country or culture.

Pandora has also been chosen as style ambassador for the Longines Irish Champions Weekend, because, as the organisers put it: "She exudes style and sophistication. In addition, she personifies the prestige, excitement and elegance of Irish Champions Weekend, both on and off the racecourse." So did she go racing much as a child? "My mum took me and a friend to Leopardstown when I was about 15 as a big treat. The atmosphere was amazing, and I was very excited because I won €20, which I immediately frittered away on lip glosses in Boots!"

There have recently been 'meetings' in New York, which have gone well, but it is too soon, in the wildly precarious world of acting, for her to say anything more than "I would love to work there. The meetings went really well, so I'm hoping…"

Right now, Pandora is writing short-film scripts, and would love to do production, too. Does she talk to her dad about writing? "I do talk to him about it. Writing is great, but really hard. You write with your heart first, and then you have to go back and write with your head"

Heart, head, Pandora has plenty of both.

The Longines Irish Champions Weekend returns to Leopardstown and the Curragh on Saturday 9 and Sunday, September 10.The weekend champions the best in style with the Longines Prize for Elegance, and €25,000 in luxury prizes on offer across both days. See irishchampionsweekend.ie

Photography by Kip Carroll

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