Saturday 25 May 2019

'My heart was broken' - Eileen Walsh on not being cast in film version of Disco Pigs in which she had starred on stage

Renowned actress Eileen Walsh is not known for her funny bones - but that's all about to change

Eileen Walsh, Kerry Condon and Nina Sosanya in 'Women on the Verge'
Eileen Walsh, Kerry Condon and Nina Sosanya in 'Women on the Verge'
Eileen Walsh and Cillan Murphy in Disco Pigs

Anne Marie Scanlon

Eileen Walsh is best known for her hard-hitting roles in film and television including, most recently, the mother of a dying child in The Children Act, and Eden for which she won the Tribeca Film Festival Best Actress Award in 2008, The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and, of course, the play that launched her career aged just 17, in 1996, Disco Pigs.

Walsh is really pretty in person and I tell her she looks like Sofie Grabol, the actor who played Sarah Lund in The Killing, she laughs and says "Oh my God, I'd love that!"

Walsh's name isn't the first that springs to mind when discussing comedy - but that's about to change with the new TV show Women on the Verge, co-created by Sharon Horgan.

Two things have led to this new lighter Walsh. "I feel more empowered now. I say no to auditions," she tells me. "I don't (necessarily) want to see another show about a kid being raped and murdered. When you have kids you don't want to put more of that out in the world."

The second thing that changed was meeting Sharon Horgan who gave her a part in her highly successful show Catastrophe.

"I love her. I LOVE her," Walsh says laughing. When I remark that without Horgan there would be few decent roles for women on TV, Walsh responds that it's not just actors who benefit from Horgan, her partner Clelia Mountford and their company Mermen.

"They're also bringing people forward to write and in every area. Meanwhile, when Sharon is not producing she's acting and she has two girls," she remarks.

Walsh herself has two girls (Tippy, 12, and Ethel, 9) with husband Stuart who she met when Disco Pigs was on an international two-year tour.

"We met at the Edinburgh Festival. My hair was incredibly short and needed a cut and Stuart was the barber. We all met our partners on that show - Enda [who wrote Disco Pigs] met Jo [Ellison, Financial Times fashion editor] who was working in the box office. Pat [Kiernan, the director] met his missus and Cillian Murphy [her co-star] met his wife."

Women on the Verge is a show about three single 30-something women whose lives are spinning beyond their control. Walsh plays Alison - the 'baby hungry' one.

The other two leads are Nina Sosanya (Marcella, W1A) who plays Katie and Kerry Condon (Three Billboards, Better Call Saul) whose character Laura is busy ruining her career in journalism by sleeping with her boss.

Alison, Walsh explains "is 38, her body clock is going and she thinks she needs to have a baby. She's going to settle. She gets back with her ex and says 'Let's have a baby.' He's barely taken his coat off," she says, her Cork accent becoming stronger.

"He's delighted because he's mad about her. But he's had a colourful time while they were broken up and that emerges during the series."

Speaking of break-ups, Walsh tells me her departure from Disco Pigs, the groundbreaking play that catapulted Walsh, co-star Cillian Murphy and writer Enda Walsh to stardom two decades ago, was a "bad break-up".

"The film (2001) was cast before I even knew it. I bumped into somebody on the street who said they'd just auditioned and I didn't even know they were casting. My heart was broken."

It's obvious that after almost 20 years this still hurts.

"It is what it is," Walsh says pragmatically, "it's a heartbreak to take something that felt like my baby and not bring it to fruition."

She goes on to say that it was "a hard lesson very early on that you have no power as an actor," and adds that she got "a lovely agent" soon after who reminded her that "it's the long game, let it go".

Despite the heartbreak, Walsh remains friends with Enda Walsh, Murphy and Kiernan, "even through that horrible moment, when it all broke up… we belong together… I still see Cillian loads and Enda. I've gone back and worked with Pat - we have a shorthand that can't be taken away."

Besides, the actor says that "People still come up to me and talk to me about the play. Still! And you can't buy that."

Walsh also admits that two decades ago she did sometimes "get a bit envious of other people's careers," but qualifies, "that's not healthy." The idea of envying other people and their lives ties in neatly with one of the main themes of Women on the Verge - comparing your life with someone else's and coming up short.

"We often look at other people and think they're more sorted than us," Walsh laughs.

I wonder where Walsh the actor and Alison the character connect. "She's funny and engaging and warm. She has a good heart, she means well, but she's just desperate. And I think," Walsh bursts out laughing, "I can be all those things."

Walsh's accent becomes more pronounced when talking about her family. The actor is the youngest of five. Her parents had no connection with acting or the theatre yet her eldest sister Catherine is also a successful actor.

Walsh tells me that her late father, a labourer, "who earned his money the hard way" thought acting was "the greatest of craic, he'd always ask 'what are you earning? Jays, that's money for old rope!'"

Walsh's father died unexpectedly three years ago. "He was as strong as a horse," she says explaining the shock and recalls she was rehearsing a play in Newcastle when she got what she calls "the best preparatory message" from her sister Mary. Walsh recollects putting down her grocery shopping and calling her sister back.

"She just said, 'He's gone smallie, he's gone'." The actor's ability to convey simple honest pain is such that I choke up. Still, for over an hour, Walsh made me cry laughing so I'll be keeping the tissues handy for Women on the Verge.

Women on the Verge starts on RTE 2, Thursday, October 11, at 10.30pm

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