What did I need to play Terry Keane? Shoulder pads and strength, says Lucy Cohu
As RTÉ dramatises one of Ireland's most turbulent political periods - and most noteable love stories - in Charlie, Gillian Fitzpatrick meets Lucy Cohu who plays the indomitable Terry Keane. Photography Patrick Bolger.
Before it was announced that a big-budget drama detailing the Charles Haughey years was being developed by RTÉ, Lucy Cohu was not an actress that many could have imagined playing Terry Keane - a woman who still invokes a mixed response some six years after her death.
Yet Lucy - strikingly pretty and exuding in real-life a genteel, softly-spoken lilt that is absorbing to her audiences - has now head on grappled with the late social columnist's complex character, the results of which will be seen on screen when part one of the three-part Charlie airs on January 4.
It is not the first time that the English actress has filmed on these shores. Indeed, Lucy has spent a considerable amount of time here, beginning in 2006 with the feature-length Becoming Jane.
"I have adored memories of sitting in these gorgeous petticoats looking out at sunny green fields filled with sheep. It was bliss!" she now says of the film, which went on to amass €30m at cinemas internationally, and which also starred Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy and Maggie Smith. "It also allowed me to spend several weeks in Ireland. We were put up in the Four Seasons hotel in Dublin, which in itself was an incredible experience, and I felt afterwards that this was a country was always going to feel like a second home."
Since then Lucy has had roles in BBC's Ripper Street, which was filmed entirely in Dublin, as well as the horror film The Awakening, and the €50m-grossing The Inbetweeners 2 movie, which arrived in cinemas in August.
And by her own admission, none of it would have been likely without the help of one controversial British royal. "The Queen's Sister was the first job that really put me above the radar," the 46-year-old mother-of-one recalls now, citing the 2005 TV film that saw her take on the role of Princess Margaret. "There was a huge amount of publicity - and a huge amount of interest from the outset."
And besides the critical acclaim, today what Lucy really relishes about The Queen's Sister is time. "It was a five-week shoot and I reckon I was in just about every scene bar two," she says. "That is intense, sure, but you can really get to grips with the role at hand. It really does become your world. You can immerse yourself in the character and I just found it an absolute joy for that reason."
Sadly that freedom was not a luxury available during the filming of Charlie. Indeed, the actress reflects, the turnaround on set of the show - which sees Love/Hate star Aidan Gillen play the former taoiseach - was lightning-quick.
"The schedule was quite brutal. Just about everything had to be condensed and most of it was shot within a week," she explains. "We were also trying to work with three scripts from the three different eras for each of the three parts that will be aired. And being honest, I found that all quite terrifying." Understandably, Lucy is quietly concerned she won't do the robust Ms Keane justice. "I didn't necessarily feel like I found the real Terry Keane. Usually you can ease gently into a film or TV project - obviously that's preferable. But then, the reality of modern-day filming is that schedules are tighter and tighter and there is less and less time to do the same amount of footage. Productions are getting faster and faster."
But Lucy also acknowledges the other issues at play: "The filming felt fast because it's a very complex relationship between Haughey and Keane - very multi-layered. But there's no denying that it would have been great to have a bit more time, and everyone felt the same way. And it would have been nice to have more space to explore things better.
"I remember Kenny Glenaan, one of the directors, telling me during one scene that I was being too heavy-handed with my character. So we retook the scene; I did my piece before the camera fell to Aidan. Then at that moment, I just had this epiphany, and I thought: 'Oh wait, I get it now.' But of course by then it was too late. I'd missed my chance. It's really frustrating."
Still, while the project, which was filmed well over a year ago in Dublin, may have operated under significant time-pressure, Lucy is glowing when it comes to describing the enthusiasm of those involved.
"Everyone who was working on Charlie was so passionate about it - the story and that time in Irish politics is so absorbing. It was great to hear people's take on it. Aidan was so immersed in the character of Charles Haughey that when I first walked on set I didn't really have to do very much because he was so in the zone. He was just Charlie."
Lucy also says that coming to the project as an outsider - and she admits that she had no prior knowledge of Charlie and Terry's 27-year love affair - meant she was able to fully embrace her character as created by writer, Colin Teevan.
"I didn't know anything about Terry before I was sent the script. But then I read it and it seemed like such a fantastic project; I knew I wanted to do it straight away.
"Working with Aidan Gillen as well was hugely appealing because I'd been a massive fan of Aidan's but I'd never had the chance to work with him before," she says, before adding with a smile: "That and I actually had a massive crush on him when he was in Queer As Folk."
It is rumoured that Charlie is costing RTÉ somewhere in the region of €4m to make - a figure which was at least helped by €1m in BAI funding. Spanning the Haughey years of 1979 to 1992, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor - fresh from his role as Nidge in Love/Hate - plays press secretary PJ Mara, while Peter O'Meara, David Herlihy and Laurence Kinlan tackle the parts of Brian Lenihan, Ray Burke, and Tony Gregory respectively.
Meanwhile Lucy - herself divorced and currently guiding a studious teenage son through his exams at school in England - says she remains painfully aware of the real people and their families that stand behind these well-known names.
"I felt very aware that Terry has a family out there. Terry has children and grandchildren today and on some level I very much cared about that," she states. "But I hope I played her as a strong woman who was obviously in a very intense relationship with an extremely powerful man.
"Terry was highly intellectual and they were each other's match. It was an incredibly exciting relationship. And I certainly got a taste of what it must have been like for the two of them at the time. In their own little world - and a mad, crazy world at that.
"I hope that I've made in some way Terry a human being. We all mess up; we all make mistakes. The mistakes made by Charlie and Terry happened to be extremely public. I mean I've certainly behaved very badly - but thankfully no one has ever noticed!"
And Lucy adds that despite Haughey's power and importance, his lover had plenty of her own muscle - not least in her newspaper column The Keane Edge, in which she often referenced her "sweetie".
"I felt like I was playing his wife, not his mistress. I felt like I was playing his equal; his partner in crime. And from what I understand now, I think that's how they pretty much carried on. Charlie was married to Maureen, but he very much had this dual existence that was very much known about publicly."
Of course, many more recent memories of Terry Keane were instilled after she appeared in front of Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show in 1999 to discuss for the first time the details of her affair. Shortly afterwards, a piece written by Terry on the same subject matter appeared in the Sunday Times.
Lucy, who watched as much historical footage as possible while researching her role, found the public's perception of the social diarist at times startling. "When you watch back The Late Late interview now, you can literally hear people hiss in the audience - which is quite extraordinary."
As for her next project, Lucy remains coy about what might be lined up: "There are great uncertainties with this industry," she says, honestly. "It's part and parcel. There has only been one period in my life where I knew what I was doing for the next 12 months and I actually found that rather boring. There is an element of the adrenaline that keeps you going."
However, she adds that as a woman aged 40-plus, she feels the roles are there for her. "I do think that television is changing. You have these wonderful actresses like Sarah Lancashire who did a series called Happy Valley and she is phenomenally breathtaking in it. There are - finally - far more dramas being written with strong women in their 30s, 40s and 50s as central characters."
Over the Christmas period she's hoping to take her dogs for long walks, while finally getting around to watching Love/Hate is also on her extended to-do list.
Lucy will be in the UK when Charlie hits Irish screens for its three-part run. She understands - as do all the cast - that the response is likely to be mixed. However, Lucy's career is marked by fearless choices, much like Terry herself.
'Charlie' begins on RTÉ One on Sunday January 4 at 9.30pm.