Sunday 25 August 2019

You find your fellow freaks in LA - Twin Peaks' Irish star Amy Shiels

Twin Peaks' Irish star Amy Shiels tells our reporter how acting gave her refuge from schoolyard bullies…

Ethereal colouring: Amy Sheils. Photo: Yvonne Tnt
Ethereal colouring: Amy Sheils. Photo: Yvonne Tnt

Stephen Milton

It's an age-old practice in the showbiz game designed to heighten curiosity. Actors of any ilk seem to take glee in describing the plot of their latest movie/TV series/one-man play/dog and pony show as strictly 'top secret', to eye-rolling effect. Amy Shiels is no different. The fair-skinned Malahide actress has earned a breakthrough role in David Lynch's Twin Peaks revival but the details of how, which and where regarding her character and the overall scenario remain overwhelmingly under wraps.

One doubts if Shiels could divulge any revealing spoilers if she wanted to, in between giggled apologies of "I can't tell, I can't say".

But what would happen if she did? Is there a punishable practice for loose lips sinking ships? "Well, there's a substantial financial…" she stumbles, "what will I call it?"

Penalty, I suggest. "Correct!"

Twin Peaks was a cultural rogue wave. Debuting in 1990, the gothic soap opera/murder mystery delivered a subversive surrealist alternative to an audience hooked on the more sobering, flashy tastes of Dallas and Dynasty.

Everyone wanted to know: who killed Laura Palmer? An astounding 30million in the States tuned in to find out. Problem was, the series consistently failed to answer and, by the second season, fans fled in their multitudes. And when the culprit was finally unveiled before the show was axed, no one really cared anymore.

And now, 26 years later, it finally returns for a third and final season which, creators Lynch and Mark Frost say, will offer long-overdue closure. Many of the original players are back: Kyle MacLachlan, Mädchen Amick, Sheryl Lee, with fresh additions.

So where does Shiels fit into the puzzle? Rumours suggest a central role. Ethereal colouring and dangerous pale eyes certainly fit the Lynch aesthetic. She pauses and ponders. "Yeah, that's interesting."

A movie newcomer - who honed her craft on The Clinic, GAA drama On Home Ground and BBC's Holby City - she's relishing the approaching air date. A culmination of two years of secrets.

"I'd tell my family, 'I'm working, I swear, but I can't say anything,' and they have this sympathetic response of, 'Sure you are. You have a job, good for you.' And especially for the first year, not being able to tell my mum, who I tell everything, made it appear very dodgy."

Having landed in LA for another booked series which floundered before it started, a string of chance encounters led to a meeting with Lynch. "I'd screen-tested for Randall Wallace [Oscar-nominated scriptwriter for Braveheart] for a film which went away. He referred me to Johanna Ray, who casts for Werner Herzog and Tarantino. And for David. And when I got to LA, we met for tea. She told me David would like to meet with me."

Amy got the job. She began shooting at an undisclosed location for an undetermined duration. The experience with Lynch was overwhelmingly positive.

"He's unexpectedly normal," she says in a romantic, warm tone from her Hollywood apartment. "With his work, you assume that he's crazy and dark, and maybe he is behind closed doors, but in my experience, he's such a lovely man. He makes you feel safe. You feel like you can go in and express his art because he's created something magical."

Growing up the youngest of seven in Malahide, a quiet, sensitive young Amy cared for neglected horses before her creativity made her a target. "I was insular and socially awkward. I was bullied a lot so I spent time by myself, creating stories. I hated school - I hated it. It was such a horrible period. It was prison."

She found solace in acting and her debut at 14, in period comedy The Abduction Club, fed into a small supporting role opposite Cate Blanchett in Veronica Guerin.

Shiels had found her path but her parents, Cora and Charlie, weren't pleased. "My dad didn't want me to be an actor. It was tough love. He just wanted me to have an easier life."

Sadly, her father passed away six years ago from lung disease. "I don't mind talking about it," she tells me. "I vehemently despise the tobacco industry - they killed him. I feel like every TV show has people smoking, encouraging people. It's sneaky advertising. I don't think it's [the smokers'] fault."

Graduating after three years at the Gaiety School of Acting, she moved to London, earning work on Casualty and the James Nesbitt series The Secret. According to the CV I've been given, there was a lengthy stint on Love/Hate. Amy confirms it was anything but. "I did one episode. I auditioned for one of the lead roles, which I didn't get. But they called my agents and said, 'Can Amy come in? We've written a great part for her and it will lead to really great things.' I ended up in a five-minute scene in Dundrum shopping centre, filing the nails of the actress who got the part I went for."

Coffee, pie and murder - the ultimate Twin Peaks guide for beginners 

Now living in the Westwood 'burb of LA, the yoga-centric, matcha tea-infusion lifestyle suits the 29-year-old. "You find your fellow freaks in LA."

She lives with The Walking Dead star Lauren Cohan and counts hip-hop and fashion impresario Russell Simmons amongst her inner circle. From home, Amy Huberman is a close friend. "We met doing On Home Ground and we're so close. We're definitely each other's cheerleaders."

Much was made of Huberman's failure to crack the US market four years ago after being dropped from an NBC pilot, which ultimately flopped. Shiels immediately defends, knowing all too well the realities of Hollywood.

"It's happened to me so many times. The only reason it got traction is because she's so famous at home. Networks in the States, they don't see that as a failure. It's like, 'A network wanted to book you for a series? We trust you now too.' They take every booking as potential success."

Amy is now riding her own crested wave. Alongside Outlander's Caitriona Balfe and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga, her Twin Peaks casting has seen her frequently cited within a group of lauded local actresses hitting the big time. For Shiels, the tag is simply a novelty.

"That's how it looks back home but, over here, it doesn't matter. There are thousands of actors booking shows. It has nothing to do with your nationality.

"I go into my meetings with an American accent. You want them to say, 'Wow, I thought you were American.' And then they look at your résumé and seem so impressed that you worked in Ireland."

Was that David Lynch's impression? She laughs coolly and slowly and takes an inhalation of breath. "I think you know by now that I really, absolutely couldn't possibly say. All will be revealed very soon."

Twin Peaks begins on Sky Atlantic on Monday, May 22

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