RTE actress Elaine Cassidy reveals why she's such a 's**t friend'
Wicklow actress Elaine Cassidy plays a big-shot lawyer in RTÉ's new drama Acceptable Risk. Here, she tells Joanne Hayden how her real-life career in acting has been one of calculated risks that take account of her strong family ties
Since her early 20s, Cassidy has been working consistently and making a living from acting, but for a long time she used to say she was 'trying' to be an actress. Even now, when people ask her what she does, it's the last thing she says.
Unlike most people about to be interviewed, Elaine Cassidy gives me a hug. I'm surprised, and not just because she's gone beyond the standard slightly wary handshake. I suppose I'm expecting someone else, one of her characters perhaps - a sign that she's good at her job. Since her breakthrough role as a vulnerable, preyed-upon young girl in Felicia's Journey in 1999, she has had a steady acting career and if anything distinguishes her choice of parts, it's their variety.
We meet two days before the first episode of Acceptable Risk, RTÉ's new six-part thriller, is to air. Cassidy's character, Sarah, is a successful lawyer whose world changes when her husband of 18 months - a man she realises she barely knew - is shot dead. Up until the murder, Sarah has accepted the murkiness of the world of Big Pharma in which she is embroiled. She's competitive, morally ambiguous; she probably wouldn't give a stranger a hug.
"I function on a different level to Sarah," says Cassidy, when we're settled at a window table in the conservatory of a South Dublin hotel. "That's why it's fun getting to play different characters. She's got a great house. She's got a great car. She gets her nails done, which I did for the shoot. Gel nails. That was the first time I'd got them done, wrecked my nails for three months."
Again I'm surprised - maybe I've imagined acting for the screen involves fancy manicures along with make-up and hair - but Cassidy is extremely down to earth. Wearing a check shirt and with her hair in a ponytail, she has a winning naturalness; when her coffee comes with two biscuits, she offers me one. "Are you sure?" she says. "They're lovely. I had one yesterday."
Passionate about her job, she throws herself into each of her characters, though when the role of Sarah first came up, she disregarded it straight away. It meant spending three months in Dublin and initially that seemed like too long.
She grew up in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, and now lives in London with her husband of 10 years, the actor Stephen Lord, and their two children, Kila (eight) and Lynott (four). Her work often necessitates travel. Since 2015, she's been playing Dinah, a headstrong Mancunian/Polish policewoman in the Channel 4 drama No Offence. About to go into its third season, the series is shot on location in Manchester, which means that for five months at a time, she's away during the week.
"It's a mental shoot," she says of No Offence. "Any midterm breaks, any long weekends, the kids would come up to me because I didn't have any days off. If I finished a little bit early on a Friday, I was straight on that train and it's only two hours on the train. It was tough because I love my family. This is how I earn my living. This is what I love doing."
The fatigue that comes with such a long shoot makes her assess things a little bit differently: "Is this worth the price that it costs me to be away?"
She knew Sarah in Acceptable Risk was a strong role but it was Lord - who played Jase Dyer in EastEnders between 2007 and 2008 - who encouraged her to take it. To prepare, she read Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre.
"Brilliant book," she says. "I don't know how helpful it was for Sarah. I don't know how much she thinks about that side of it because even though she's working for a pharmaceutical company, she's a lawyer, so it's the buzz of winning - finding that loophole. It's like a game of chess."
She went straight from working on No Offence to working on Acceptable Risk without a day off in between. When she got to Dublin, she "slogged".
"Being away from my family, it was living, breathing, sleeping this job and then learning the lines... TV's so quick. I guess it's never budgeted to have a rehearsal period, especially on a clever piece like this. You draw from that."
Acceptable Risk was block-shot, which means that rather than shooting one or two episodes at a time - the norm in TV - on a given day, the actors could be shooting scenes from any of the six episodes.
It's a challenging way to work, she says, especially because her character is on so many different journeys: the journey with her children, with her sister, with her dead husband, with Gumbiner-Fischer, the pharmaceutical company at the centre of the plot. But she did her prep and she trusted the director, Kenny Glenaan, with whom she had worked on BBC costume drama The Paradise in 2012 and 2013.
"He's got great taste, and it was a collaboration, and if he'd asked me, 'Elaine will you come through that door, do a cartwheel across the room?' You'd be like, 'Okay.' And if it was crap, he'd never use it."
The day before we meet, her mother watched a preview of the first episode and loved it. "She's very honest. Sometimes she'd be like, 'Why did you do that?'"
Her mother has had two decades to assess her daughter's choice of roles. As soon as Cassidy understood what the word 'act' meant, she knew what she wanted to do.
"I didn't say it to many people because I was mortified. I never thought it would happen - especially, I guess, in the time I grew up.
"It's a different time now, isn't it? And there are more opportunities and there's more awareness."
She went to drama classes all the way through secondary school. When she was just 18, she was cast opposite Bob Hoskins in Felicia's Journey, directed by Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan, and based on the William Trevor novel.
In the film, Hoskins plays Hilditch, an almost likeable serial killer obsessed with his dead mother. Cassidy is Felicia, the naïve and pregnant protagonist who leaves Ireland and goes to Birmingham to search for the boyfriend she believes is over there working in a lawnmower factory.
Cassidy was widely praised for her expressive portrayal of Felicia and the film launched her career. When she found out she was going to Cannes to promote it, though, she was totally unprepared.
"I didn't even know what Cannes was," she says. "My friends did, because they lived in Bray and they had MTV. I lived in Kilcoole and I didn't have MTV. I remember when they said, 'You'll go on the red carpet,' I said, 'What's the red carpet?' I didn't know what that meant. Everybody knows what a red carpet means nowadays."
When she got to the red carpet, she was taken aback by all the stopping and starting for the cameras, and by the Champagne on offer at 11 o'clock in the morning. But she wasn't seduced by the glamour of the celebrity world.
"Of course it's had an effect on me because it's happened and it's been an experience, and life is about experiences and that's what shapes you," Cassidy says. "But I think I handled it really well, actually. Because I just automatically did this thing of 'When you're in Cannes... that's make believe, that's fantasy,' and then I go back to real life.
"So it was like, 'Isn't this great? I get to have a little dabble in fantasy and I wear a fancy frock and the next day I'll be in a Primark dress for £10,' when I was in a Chanel for £10,000 the night before. And I kind of got a buzz out of the extremes.
"On that junket [Cannes] people would always say, 'How did they find you?' And I used to go, 'I wasn't lost, I was always here: they didn't have to find me.'"
Her next big role after Felicia was as Runt in Disco Pigs, directed by Kirsten Sheridan and adapted by Enda Walsh from his 1996 play. Like the play, the film tracks the fracturing of the bond between teenagers Pig and Runt, born within moments of each other and given to terrorising the inhabitants of their native "Pork City". Pig and Runt speak their own language - a hybrid of Cork slang and baby talk. Cassidy worked in a bistro in Cork for two months to perfect the accent.
"There are some characters ... they never fully leave you," Cassidy says. "I learn from them. I like to think I've gained something from them because I've opened up a part of me that I'd never even thought to think about through exploring them."
The character of Runt lingered past the shoot of Disco Pigs. In 2003, she was at the IFTA (Irish Film and Television Awards) ceremony in Belfast with her mother. It was before the awards were televised and she'd been nominated for Best Actress for Runt.
"They called my name," she says. "I won. I got up. All of a sudden, breathing was something that wasn't second nature to me. It was a tiny auditorium. I had to speak. And then I just started breathing and I allowed Runt to speak, allowed her energy to calm me down - because she was the calm between the two in the film version. It's the only time I've ever done it, but I drew from her to calm me. Sounds a bit mad but she really helped me in the moment."
As well as The Paradise, Cassidy has starred in the BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith and, in 2009, in the CBS horror mystery Harper's Island. Her talent is evident, yet she's not exactly a household name. Arguably she's been a bit unlucky: Harper's Island - which could have been her big break in the US - only ran for one season, but she's sanguine about her career. She focuses on picking the right roles and working as hard as she can.
At the moment, TV is her "bread and butter". And while the actress has also worked in theatre - her London stage credits include Brian Friel's Fathers and Sons in the Donmar and Les Liaisons Dangereuses in the National Theatre - her favourite medium is film.
"I love that wider frame," Cassidy says. "I love that way of telling a story. I love hard work - it's not laziness - but less of the onus in film falls on the actor to tell the story. You are just playing a character, because it's told visually. And you've got an hour-and-a-half to tell a story. With TV, you've got to tell it with words. There's no reason they couldn't do it in a similar way to film but it's not the trend at the moment. So I think you've got to be a better actor to do TV, in a way. You're at the mercy of the cut."
For a number of years, up until her daughter was three, she and Lord lived in LA for six-month periods at a time. "Rejection's better in the sun," she laughs. "Serotonin, vitamin D. I think that's why I love LA. And I guess there is that excitement of 'anything could happen'."
While she still travels for the right work, relocating now would be a bigger decision, but she's glad motherhood hasn't dampened her passion for acting.
"Of course you change, but you just take on another title," Cassidy says. "You have to wear another hat. I love challenges, and having children is the ultimate challenge and I take that responsibility seriously. I have run with it.
"I chose to bring them into the world and I have to do right by them and society - contributing good people. So I'm conscious of that. And I enjoy that. It's not like I ever needed a reason to be fussy with work, because I always have been, but with children you really just go, 'Do I want to be away from my kids?'"
From a young age, her children have understood what both of their parents do; they see them learning lines. When Kila was two, she watched her mother kiss a man who wasn't her father on screen in The Paradise.
"She just looked at me and went, 'They're gonna get married,'" Cassidy says.
When she's not working or spending time with her children, she knits - not in a relaxing way, more of a "start, middle and end" way.
She likes the process of maths: when she cooks and bakes, she follows recipes. "Every now and then, I'll freestyle."
She's always been environmentally conscious and in London walks from A to B as much as she can. "As a kid, if there was half a copybook left, I would always take out the pages and re-use them ... We're in a disposable time - and it's a fast time - and with the world we're living in now, with all these attacks, we need to pull together."
Cassidy was on the Tube -though not near Parsons Green - when the explosion happened in September. Her sister phoned to check she was safe while she was still on the train. She got off and took a taxi to where she was going instead.
In the aftermath of terror attacks, Londoners are often urged to go about their business as normal, but she's honest about the reality of living with fear.
"My head goes to my children. It's not about me. I won't know when I'm dead. They'd be left."
While recognising that she still has to make a living and take pleasure in daily life, she does go about things slightly differently because of the recently elevated terrorism threat.
She and Lord went to a Sigur Rós gig recently and Cassidy found herself weighing up the safety of the event in advance. During the summer, she avoided bringing the children into Central London.
But with this, as with most aspects of her life, she seems to maintain a healthy sense of perspective. She's nothing if not rounded.
"We're all made up of a million-and-one things," she says. "Acting is a huge, prominent part of me but being a mother is as well, and a wife and a daughter and a sister and a friend. I'm a shit friend." She laughs. "Because I just don't have time, with kids.
"And I'm Irish. I'm all these things. I just love exchanging with people on a human level. 'Do we get on?' 'Do we have a connection?' 'Do we like the same things?' 'Are you a nice person?' That's basically for me the bottom line. Are you a decent person? Whether we get on or not, then I can respect you being you."
Acceptable Risk is on RTÉ One on Sunday at 9.30pm
Photographer: Kip Carroll
Stylist: Nikki Cummins Black
Assisted by: Emily Callan
Hair: Albert Halpin at Callan
and Co; callanandco.ie
Make-up: Donna Morris
Conlan at Make Up For Ever,
Clarendon Street, Dublin 2;
Photographed at Radisson
Blu St Helen's Hotel,
Stillorgan Road, Booterstown,
Dublin, (01) 218 6000;