Wednesday 17 July 2019

'Striking Out' star Fiona O'Shaughnessy on her relationship with David McSavage: 'He let me love him a little bit anyway'

With her new TV drama about to air, Fiona O'Shaughnessy discusses drug experiences and life in London

Fiona O'Shaughnessy in central London. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas
Fiona O'Shaughnessy in central London. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas
Fiona O'Shaughnessy and comedan Dave McSavage together in 2012
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

'If you feel sad in London, you feel really sad," Fiona O'Shaughnessy tells me, her eyes ablaze with dramatic emphasis, "but if you feel happy, you feel really happy". Blessedly, today seems like a happy day. This relatively new emigrant to London is in a good mood. A joke is never far from her bee-stung lips. She vamps joyously for the photographer, who struggles against the last of the light as a Sherlock Holmes-style fog swathes Marylebone.

Later, folded like a yogi into an oversized armchair, Fiona's liquid eyes widen expressively and her distinctively husky voice sometimes dramatically veers into plumminess (she was born to act, you can't help thinking). She moved here to London to be closer to the majority of her work - although we're here to talk about her incredible performance in the new RTE series Striking Out, a legal-themed relationship drama in which she co-stars alongside Amy Huberman and Men Behaving Badly alumnus Neil Morrissey.

The big selling point for her with the role, she says, was that she was told she'd be allowed to ride a motorcycle, which sadly turned out not to be true, but nonetheless she lights up every scene she's in. It's the latest small-screen triumph for an actress who was once better known for her stage work - everything from Salome to The Shaughraun. And she tells me the move to London has been "great for me, for my life, for my sense of myself".

Not that she takes any of this for granted. In fact, just this morning she was pondering the prospect of getting therapy. "I was practising what I'd say. I'll spend a lot of time and probably a lot of money saying I don't know what it is exactly but I know something's up. I tend to get more anxious - I get high, like a dragonfly, and go in six different directions." She has tried therapy and has had mixed experiences, enough to know what she wants.

Fiona O'Shaughnessy and comedan Dave McSavage together in 2012
Fiona O'Shaughnessy and comedan Dave McSavage together in 2012

"I want, first of all, to talk to someone who's a lot smarter than I am. I want to feel like they have some wisdom to impart, more than you would get from, say, a friend. I have tried it before and I've had good and bad experiences."

Does she get irritated when they look at their watch? "Not really because I have this sort of internal sense of how much time has elapsed. I got good at around 50 minutes at saying let's wrap this up. If I'm going to break down crying it's around the 30-minute mark. I don't like the ones who haven't lived and made a few mistakes. You kind of want to feel they went to psychological Vietnam and lived to tell the tale themselves."

It was a psychiatrist friend of her ex, the comedian David McSavage, who informally diagnosed her with dyspraxia - a disorder affecting motor skills - but she suspects it might have come simply because they felt: "I was too full of myself and needed undermining a little."

She says she is still unsure if it's a real thing or they were winding her up. "I don't fully believe the diagnosis. Every now and then I do feel overwhelmed, and all of the information comes at once and it's too much. I would have thought it's more like something like OCD. He told me that I've learned, through being an actress, how to cover it up. It basically means I get a little overwhelmed by everything and my coordination goes a little and I crash my bike sometimes (she does bring an item which she mysteriously dubs a 'bike nappy' but it seems to involve protection from the rain rather than any more, er, human soiling).

She mentions McSavage several times through the conversation and you do get the feeling he might have been the one who got away.

"I do miss him", she tells me. "We are still friends. We just ran our course, really. He always says that he wasn't ready to be loved. I don't know if that's true. He let me love him a little bit anyway."

Did he love her back? "I think he loved me back, yeah. We shared something deep and we had great conversations and had a creative connection. I wish I'd figured this out a long time ago, but I know I don't subscribe to ideas of what's cool and attractive. David was really instrumental in me not giving a f**k. Just being around him for that couple of years. He made me understand that I didn't need to be afraid of being valuable to (TV mandarins and producers). That's dehumanising. You can be as dark as you want to be with David, we could riff conversationally for hours. Sense of humour is everything. But it ran its course."

She's been single since they broke up a couple of years ago. She sounds ambivalent about meeting someone new and doesn't trust the new-fangled methods of finding love.

"I'm not on Tinder or any of the apps. To be honest, it's hard enough being an actor and being rejected so frequently. You're told you're not good enough or not beautiful enough. Who else goes through that as part of their work? Not many people. For me to swipe in that way wouldn't work. I leave it all up to old-fashioned chance. I say to David you were my last bash at a conventional relationship. And he'll say 'wow'. I also realised though, that I do love my freedom. I have my own place now. I can spend a lot of time alone, huge amounts of time. I may talk to the therapist about that when I meet her - it's going to be a woman this time. I want to learn to mix with others."

Since we're talking of therapy and love, it seems time to begin the obligatory interview rummage into childhood. Hers was happy, she tells me. She was born in 1973 in Galway. Her mother was a seamstress and her father worked with computers. She had one younger brother whom she dolled up in make-up and dresses ("Does that count as bullying?"). When she was nine the family decamped to Reading in England where she got teased for her accent. She coped by making friends with a boy named Adam and "living in my own little dream world".

As a teenager she joined a couple of local semi-professional amateur companies and did dance and jazz, "even though I was a skinny white child from Ireland". Acting, she says, felt like "filling the void by creating an intimacy that isn't really there at all. It felt like it saved me from going too introverted".

She moved back to Galway, where she began her first professional forays into the business. "Galway was called the graveyard of ambition but it wasn't the case for me. It's a cheap city to live in; perfect for artists. The mid-1990s were amazing. The smells of that time were cannabis, cigarette smoke and salty air. It was the best time of my life. I did lunchtime performances wearing a fat suit made of a duvet. That character was the best fun I've ever had."

She moved to Dublin when she was 24, sharing a bedroom with the actress Sarah O'Toole, and was a near instant success story in the theatre, immediately snagging a starring role in Salome - "even though agents were still like 'who the f**k are you?" Former Gate artistic director Michael Colgan and his wife Susan Fitzgerald took O'Shaughnessy under their wing.

She became one of the best known faces on the Irish stage, yet consciously spurned TV opportunities. "It was a self-confidence thing I suppose. I just felt it would be detrimental to my development." Her performances always seemed to be a beguiling mix of fragility and feistiness and, despite her professed insecurity, her talent was unmistakable. She was Elvira in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit , Nancy in Oliver Twist and Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Her filmography credits include the Goldfish Memory, The Halo Effect, and Alexander. It was with Utopia, the hit Channel 4 conspiracy thriller, that she really made her name in the UK however. It was written by Denis Kelly, who had also adapted the West End musical version of Roald Dahl's Matilda and also starred Stephen Rea.

The series earned the opprobrium of The Mail on Sunday and other conservative commentators for imagining that Margaret Thatcher's friend, Airey Neave, was killed by the fictional Network organisation of the series, rather than the all-to-real IRA. As the action heroine star - Jessica Hyde - O'Shaughnessy lit up the screen.

During the mainly stage acting part of her career, she says that the wayward years ran seamlessly alongside the "seemingly normal" years. How wayward were they exactly?

"I enjoyed getting out of my mind. I can't tell you on what. But let's just say I enjoyed going places, both literally and in my mind. The stable door was always ajar. I was always restless. But then you do that to such a great degree that becomes boring itself. [British philosopher and writer] Alan Watts used to say: 'When you get the message, hang up the receiver.' And he was talking about psychedelic drugs."

She says that she used to equate the experience of taking drugs with the idea of fields, to which she'd run. "The field is a metaphor for the outer layers of my consciousness - they'll keep on multiplying the further into it all you go. But then the risk is that you may end up becoming a statistic. You realise your heart might stop."

She doesn't do drugs these days, she adds, reasoning that very sober people may be a little square, "but they also have things like a mortgage" and drinking is not her bag at all.

"I'm not a drinker. I haven't had alcohol in six-and-a-half years. I made a decision to do things differently. I didn't like the smell of booze. I don't really enjoy the behaviour when you're drinking. When you step out and observe yourself being a complete fake, who's seemingly very in touch with their feelings, but in fact totally numb."

She is undeniably a little hippy. There is talk of ashrams in India, backpacking in Thailand and yoga retreats in Austria. Despite her creeping sensibility, and her expensive London apartment ("a financial kick in the ass"), she never felt lured by the comforts of suburbia.

"I can feel myself being suffocated by the idea right now. The rug is around my neck. I look at other people and they seem so happy and there have been times, like a couple of years ago, when I was like 'I don't really know what is love anyway' and I went through the lonely phase. I think you have to go through that. I had to stick it out."

How bad did it get?

"There was a point where the loneliness felt so dense that I used to say I could frame this and hang it on the wall. I could have put a lead on it and taken it for a walk. I wondered why could I not want this thing that seemed to make everyone else so happy and yet I felt so lonely. What's wrong with me? But I don't know how, where or when that feeling fell off me at some point."

And two screaming kids, could she handle that?

"Well not if they were screaming. Perhaps if they sat very still and had very interesting conversations with me. There was a phase of everyone talking to me about having kids. It's still going on, to be honest."

Does that irritate her?

"I don't feel alone in it. So many of my friends are in that position where they would like children but they haven't met the right person. I'm quite at peace with the whole thing."

It's mostly other people's expectations that she has to deal with. "People look at me thorough spiteful eyes and there is maybe some kind of assumption that I don't have a heart because I don't want children. I do love kids, I love parents, I'll hold your baby all day while you go to the pub, I love the smell of them, but I just don't want to make one, birth one and raise one - is that cool with everyone? I'm OK with not experiencing the magic of childbirth in this life."

This time last year she was on a "freakishly warm" mountainside in Austria doing her teacher training certificate in yoga. "I used to hate people who did yoga", she adds. "I used see them walking past with their mats and think that they looked like miserable little rectangles. But now I love it. It makes you really flexible. And yeah, it is good for your head too."

Her routine used to be to "have a cigarette and a chicken leg and then go to work" but now she's gone veggie. Her mother lives in Essex and she spends the holidays down there with them, "pissing everyone off because I don't drink and I don't eat meat. I'm like 'nothing with a face' and they're like 'will you not have a little bit of gravy?' My last meat meal was lamb and that was the second series of Utopia, four years ago."

Once she started meditation her body also began rejecting the hand-rolled cigarettes she smoked. "My body just began shaking, it was like it couldn't take them any more. It's good though, I'm healthier now."

The light is long gone outside and the 'bike nappy' is being brandished in preparation for take off.

"Well that was an interesting conversation", she purrs as I pack up my laptop. "I almost feel like all of my issues are sorted now. Maybe I don't need the therapist after all." She smiles that beautiful half-mocking, half-sincere smile.

"What do I owe you?"

'Striking Out' begins on RTE1 at 9.30pm tonight and runs at the same time every week for four weeks.

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