Entertainment Television

Thursday 18 October 2018

‘I was in a hotel room situation that could have got out of hand but I said, ‘Sorry dude, are you mad?’’ – Norma Sheahan

Irish actress talks working with Sharon Horgan and Amy Huberman, playing the mammy of women her own age, and #MeToo

SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Actress Norma Sheahan attends the US-Ireland Aliiance's Oscar Wilde Awards event at J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot on February 19, 2015 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for US-IRELAND ALLIANCE)
SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Actress Norma Sheahan attends the US-Ireland Aliiance's Oscar Wilde Awards event at J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot on February 19, 2015 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for US-IRELAND ALLIANCE)
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

She’s RADA trained and counts may ‘serious’ performances under her belt, but recent roles have seen Norma Sheahan flexing her funnybone in some of Ireland’s top comedies.

The 41-year Cork actress will be familiar to most from Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy and RTE’s Bridget & Eamon and Can’t Cope Won’t Cope, in which she plays an Irish mammy.

More recently she wrapped filming for Amy Huberman’s new series Finding Joy and at the time of our chat she has just learned that she has bagged the role of another mammy - in Sharon Horgan’s new show Women on the Verge.

The gig comes several months after she filmed a pilot with Horgan for Channel 4.  Written by two of the Gleeson brothers (Domhnall and Brian), it was produced by Horgan, and filmed in Dublin.  Norma played a mammy (Brian’s) in that one too.

Norma Sheahan in Moone Boy
Norma Sheahan in Moone Boy

"I’m young and I’m fit but I look a bit older so I can pull off being the mammy of someone around the same age as me," she says.

"In Bridget and Eamon last year Lochlann O'Mearáin [44] played my husband.  In Can’t Cope Won’t Cope he plays my daughter’s love interest.  In Finding Joy he’s Amy’s ex-boyfriend.  I’m like, ‘Grand, okay, he was my husband last summer and now he’s my daughter’s ride!’."

Several of these recent roles have come via the work of female writers - Stefanie Preissner, Amy Huberman, and Sharon Horgan.  She marvels at their work ethic, particularly Huberman and Horgan, who are juggling motherhood with writing, producing, and acting.

"It’s virtually impossible what she’s doing," she says of Horgan.  "[On the Channel 4 pilot] she was on set, really hands on, and just for a ten minute job.  I have to say the hat goes off to her.  I have a big talent crush on her.

Seána Kerslake and Norma Sheahan in Can't Cope Won't Cope, RTE
Seána Kerslake and Norma Sheahan in Can't Cope Won't Cope, RTE

"Even Amy Huberman, there isn’t enough hours in the day for that girl.  She’s writing, producing, mammying – the whole shebang."

Norma has three daughters and has written a film about the experiences of working mothers titled 'Doing Two Jobs Badly' which is currently with the Irish Film Board.  She says she finally understands how difficult it is to push a project as a working mother.

"What happens, what certainly happened with me, is as a woman, if you do decide to have kids, your brain becomes divided and you find it much harder to focus," she says.

"I just feel that women’s brains can be divided and multi-task more whereas men are better at focusing on one thing and excelling at one thing, even in a conversation, in a project day to day."

Norma Sheahan and Amy Huberman walk the red carpet at the Gala Irish premiere of The Handsome Devil as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival at the Savoy Cinema. Picture: Fergal Phillips
Norma Sheahan and Amy Huberman walk the red carpet at the Gala Irish premiere of The Handsome Devil as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival at the Savoy Cinema. Picture: Fergal Phillips

She explains, "I remember my husband said to me once, ‘It’s mad – I walk out of here in the morning and I go to work and the kids don’t cross my mind until I’m back with them but it sounds like you’re planning play dates and shopping and other things yet you’re doing a day’s work too’ and it’s stuff we need to be doing. 

"Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong.  It’s not a cop out.  I think it’s part of our genetic make-up. I think women are our own worst enemy when it comes to multitasking.  I suffer from it, absolutely."

The process of writing and producing has also given her an increased appreciation of the roles she is offered by other writers.  She previously worked with Huberman and Treasure Entertainment on the feature film Handsome Devil and they then approached her for Finding Joy.

"I would have taken that for granted when I was younger, but now when someone rings up and offers me a part I know that they have literally sweat blood to get that that point where they can offer me a part," she says.

"All I do is turn up and do the best I can.  Now I’m trying to write and produce and I fully grasp what a miracle it is to get across the line."

Of those roles, many are comedic. She quips, "I guess for me people just presume I'm going to say something stupid.  But I started out in serious drama.  I went to RADA and did some serious plays, I did some serious roles, but it’s just kind of gone down the mad route. 

"But you see I just love working so I’m not saying [she puts on her best RP], ‘Oh no, I’m not going to do comedy.  I’m waiting for a dramatic role’.  My dream is tragicomedy.  I just love it. 

Norma Sheahan in Lost & Found, releasing July 13
Norma Sheahan in Lost & Found, releasing July 13
Norma Sheahan in Lost & Found, releasing July 13

"My first role was on The Clinic as Fiona the receptionist.  That was basically tragicomedy and I loved that.  She was funny because she was a disaster.  I try to bring that into every role.  I think that’s life – you laugh and cry on a daily basis. 

"I find even if I hear something tragic, I don’t know, I kind of uncomfortably laugh at things.  But I absolutely love drama as well."

Last year, however, she returned to her dramatic roots to play Fianna Fáil's Mary Hanafin in TV3's two hour drama The Bailout, which is slated to air in the autumn.

"With Mary Hanafin it was more about looking the part really and studying the gestures and the voice.  Luckily once they gave me the wig I looked very much like her," she says.

Although the two women have never formally met, Norma reveals she "lives up the road" from her and has seen her at the local school although she says Mary Hanafin does not know who she is.

Norma admits she may have picked up some of her gestures from watching from afar, although most of her research was done by checking out videos of that tumultuous period in Irish politics online.

Christmas Perfection shoot. L-R: Gary Hetzler, Norma Sheahan and and Caitlin Thompson
Christmas Perfection shoot. L-R: Gary Hetzler, Norma Sheahan and and Caitlin Thompson

The programme was filmed in Studio One at RTE, but it was filmed like a play with no set aside from the occasional widow or door.

"I’ve seen it and I couldn’t believe it worked," says Norma.  "You buy into the concept in the first couple of minutes and then absolutely forget about it.  It’s so weird.  I think it will definitely be talked about.  But of course some people will go, ‘Ah for f*** sake, why did they cut budgets?’"

As well as filming the fourth series of Bridget & Eamon this summer, Norma will also appear in Lost & Found, a film shot over the course of five years, which weaves together seven interconnected stories set in and around the lost and found office of an Irish train station.  It releases on July 13.

Also this year she will appear in a short film (formerly titled Tidbits) with John Connors for Deadpan Pictures and a family film, Christmas Perfection, which was shot in Dublin last year.

While there is clearly no shortage of offers, Norma keeps things ticking over with voiceover work, which she says she adores.

"There is the fear of yes you are on the shit heap after each job - if you’re not proactive then you’re waiting on the phone to ring too much and that would be a downfall," she says.

"I think I’m blessed really doing a lot of voicovers.  I haven’t had that stink of desperation off me for many years.  I adore voiceover.  I go into studio with a script and it’s easy.  But people say if it was that easy everyone and their mother would be doing it."

She continues, "It certainly was helpful when I was pregnant and leaking and going through all of that crappy phase!"

Asked about the #MeToo and Time's Up movements in the Irish context, Norma pauses for thought.  She says that both men and women can encounter harassment and bullying in the workplace and it is not limited to the entertainment industry.

"I think anywhere you are in life whether you’re working in an office, working in a hospital, in a school, or the entertainment industry, these people are everywhere whether they’re men or women bullying you, dragging you down, making your life hell, abusing your mentally, abusing you physically," she says.

"I just am so lucky that I think I got my dad’s bullshit radar and I always just had that inbuilt thing since I was a kid.  I was in a hotel room situation once that could have got out of hand and I just went, ‘Sorry dude, are you mad?’."

While she has escaped harassment herself, Norma welcomes the fact that stories emerging from the entertainment industry are shining a light on the issue and that this might help people in other walks of life too, because "it happens every workplace and walk of life by men to women and women to men."

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