Sunday 16 December 2018

'He is such a wonderful person and is incredible with me and Lila' - Camille O'Sullivan on boyfriend Aidan Gillen

As Camille O'Sullivan prepares to return to the Gate, she tells Sarah Caden about stage fright and showmanship, and how she found love with Aidan Gillen

Camille O'Sullivan. Photo: David Conaghy
Camille O'Sullivan. Photo: David Conaghy
Mike Scott and Camille O'Sullivan
Camille O'Sullivan in the original production of The Rape of Lucrece
Camille with Aidan Gillen

Inside the front door of Camille O'Sullivan's house, there are two pairs of boots neatly lined up at the wall. One adult-sized, one to fit a little girl; both sequinned and sparkly.

Later, as we talk, Camille mentions that her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter is displaying a taste for sparkly shoes. "Where did she get that?" Camille jokes, proud to have passed on something of her love of things that twinkle to little Lila-Elodie.

But we're not talking about sparkly boots or sartorial sense when Camille mentions this common ground, we're talking about being a reluctant performer. She says that when her daughter participated in a preschool play recently, she, in fact, did not participate at all. She stood silent and still throughout, but later performed the whole thing for her family. Oh, how Camille recognised a chip off the old block.

If you have seen Camille O'Sullivan on stage, you can testify to what she calls her "vulnerable but slightly bonkers" presence. She can be a kittenish seductress or a whirling dervish, switching back and forth and through everything in between in minutes. And yet, she would never stand up and sing at a party. This is the woman whose parents thought she was too sensitive to be a performer. This is the woman whose older sister remembers how she would squeeze her eyes closed as a little girl in order to be invisible.

"I've worked with lots of performers and it's 50/50," says Camille. "They're either, 'I'm amazing, look at me', or else, 'Oh my God, why did I ever choose this as a profession?' Those people, just before they go on stage, are the ones thinking, 'I would like an airplane to crash into this building right now'.

"When you say that to people who don't perform," Camille adds, "They say, 'Well then why do you do it?' And I say, 'I really don't know'. It's this weird magnetic thing, where you feel so energised while you do it but the before and the after are horrific."

Camille with Aidan Gillen
Camille with Aidan Gillen

Camille squirms in her chair even mentioning how she berates herself after a particularly abandoned show. Her partner, actor Aidan Gillen, hates when she really throws herself into a Tom Waits song, she says, but he gets the dichotomy. He gets the opposing yet complementary desire to hide while also being seen. "He's also shy, and very private," Camille says, "So he gets it."

We sit in the front room of the Dublin house Camille shares with Gillen and Lila, her daughter with former Waterboy, Mike Scott. She rehearses in this room, with her long-time collaborator Feargal Murray, as they prepare to reprise their adaptation of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, this time at the Gate.

The room is a classic, high-ceilinged Georgian front room, with key original features and then features that are Camille O'Sullivan originals.

A huge sequinned crescent moon hangs on the wall. There's a Christmas tree in the corner, still partly decorated. In another corner is a huge balsa-wood dolls' house in progress. Camille bought it online and is building it for Lila - "or maybe for myself".

It's chilly and the heating is temperamental, but Camille has warmed up this room with a heater for my benefit. "I grew up in cold houses," she laughs. "Hot water bottles and cats, that's how we kept warm."

Camille tells me that there are three white Christmas trees upstairs. She explains that she wants to create Narnia in one of the bedrooms, and she originally wanted to buy 20 of the white trees. Gillen talked her down, she laughs.

Where did she even come across them, I ask, were they on sale?

"Of course they were!" Camille laughs. "I'm from Cork."

The Cork girl from Passage West, daughter of Denis, a racing driver, and Marie-Rose, an artist from Bordeaux, started her adult life as an architect. It may be that part of her that feels conflicted by the fact that her home has only two finished rooms, no sofa ("but Maria Doyle-Kennedy gave us a giant beanbag to sit on") and a Narnia under development in one of the rooms.

Camille clearly likes it this way, but now, in her mid-40s and a mother, there's the little nagging voice that suggests she should be "sorted". The bohemian side of her says to hell with that, though. The conflicts within Camille O'Sullivan are her very charm, of course.

Camille O'Sullivan in the original production of The Rape of Lucrece
Camille O'Sullivan in the original production of The Rape of Lucrece

Camille is made aware of how life shifts and alters by revisiting The Rape of Lucrece, stirring as it does how she toured the world with it while carrying Lila inside her. She and Feargal had developed the show between them for the Royal Shakespeare Company, distilling a three-and-half-hour poem into 75 minutes. Camille plays all the parts, singing each character's words and speaking as the narrator.

Camille is Tarquin, the rapist; Lucrece, his victim, and also Lucrece's father, so, as she says, she takes all angles on the devastation wreaked by an act of violence. "It's quite a mountain to climb," Camille says, adding that someone in the RSC described her as "vulnerable, but also quite mad".

"It's a joyful thing to come back to it, after all this time," Camille says of the show. "Feargal and I are excited by it because we created it and there's a lot of personal connection. But I also did it [on its original run] while I was pregnant and that was the best experience. But very few people knew I was pregnant.

"I didn't want to talk about my pregnancy and I didn't want it to take from the show. I felt it informed the show, though. I always feel fired up when I perform, but being pregnant, I felt I had this extra dimension. The performances while I was pregnant were the best I've done, because you're sort of more present, more planted. I was at my best, I thought, and I wondered if I could recreate that. But of course you can't because it's gone.

"And then after she was born we did it and my memory was shot and I couldn't remember words and no one had warned me about that [after you have a baby]. And that was the last time I did it, in the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2013."

The resurrection of The Rape of Lucrece understandably gives Camille pause for thought about how her life has changed since becoming a mother. She was "around 40" when she had Lila and was scared that even the desire to work would be sapped by motherhood.

"And that did happen and change," Camille says, "but I was so happy that it changed. There is a moment in life when you hand things over and switch focus. It's not all about you any more. I felt released. I could say no to things for the first time in my life.

"I was never organised, but I always got things done," Camille says. "But once I had a child, I realised I had to get organised, to a certain extent. But Mike and I have found a way to work it out between us and keep it organised. She gets up and goes to preschool most days. If I'm on tour, she comes with me. If I'm working 'til 6, then she's with her dad until then. Then, when I'm doing a show, it switches and I'm with her all day and then hitting the show. It works."

Camille and Mike Scott are not together and he is now married with one small child. In terms of Lila, though, they are very united.

Mike Scott and Camille O'Sullivan
Mike Scott and Camille O'Sullivan

"There is an absolute shock to the system when you have a break-up with a child involved," says Camille. "There is fear, there is terror, but there is an absolute core switch in your head when there's a baby involved. When you go through bad break-ups when you don't have a child, it's all nightly meetings with your girlfriends and 'he said this' and 'they said this', but when a little one is involved that gets cut out pretty quickly.

"You don't have time to wallow," Camille continues. "You have a moment of absolute desperation and fear and scaredness, but you know that the bigger picture is that this child needs to be loved and protected and must never feel what you're feeling. So you very quickly mend yourself."

It takes two to make that happen, though, Camille adds, giving Scott credit for his part in it all. She says that they now often all have dinner together, go to each other's houses, spend time together, and that includes Scott's new wife and Aidan Gillen.

After having a baby and separating from Scott, Camille O'Sullivan was adamant that she wasn't interested in falling in love again. As far as she was concerned, it was Camille and Lila, a twosome, forever, and that was that. She was quite ferocious about it, Camille recalls with a laugh.

"But it was funny," she says. "Right after Lila was born, I did this Yoko Ono thing [Double Fantasy Live in London] and I was all over the place. I was in a state and my body felt like a state. This was three weeks after she was born and I had to wear the strongest underwear to keep me all in.

"After that show," Camille exclaims. "I had four emails from other performers - women and men - asking me out. I was like, 'I have been sending the wrong signal out for years!' Clearly there was some hormonal thing, but I also had this attitude of, 'You can all f*** off! Don't anyone even think about coming near me! So I'm having a kind of a meltdown and don't want anyone near me and suddenly I was having these approaches. I was fascinated by it."

Some time later, more than three years ago, Camille began her relationship with Gillen. It was a long courtship, she says, because of her daughter, and different to any other relationship she had ever begun. It took time before he could be part of her life fully and know her child, but Camille laughs when I ask if Gillen had to work hard to get into her affections.

"I wouldn't say that," she says. "Listen, I don't think that man would have to work hard to win anyone over. We clicked, but there was a gentlemanly patience. He is, in my eyes, such a wonderful person but he was an absolute gent and incredible with me and with Lila. When you're a mum, everything gets cut through with how are they with your child."

Gillen is away filming in Canada a lot these days, and Camille visits him but also enjoys time alone in Dublin. "I am a dedicated partner," she says, "but I like my own space, too."

And she needs time to get the house in order, she says as I leave, though whether she means her home or the dolls' house, it's not clear. The tussle between getting sorted and being seduced by sparkle continues in Camille, but how beautifully the tussle is performed.

The Rape of Lucrece, The Gate Theatre, Dublin, March 27-April 7 (

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