Tuesday 25 June 2019

'I was half-naked and then Meryl Streep barged in...'

Actress Clare Dunne tells our reporter about meeting Meryl backstage in New York, learning sign language for her latest role and a film she's written that Sharon Horgan is producing

A dab hand: Dunne says she half-signs, half-speaks when going to the pub with her deaf co-star. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
A dab hand: Dunne says she half-signs, half-speaks when going to the pub with her deaf co-star. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Meadhbh McGrath

What actor doesn't dream of earning backstage plaudits from Meryl Streep? And yet, most of them would probably rather not be caught by the Oscar-winning legend in their underwear. For Dublin actress Clare Dunne, this was precisely the situation she found herself in while starring in an all-female version of Shakespeare's Henry IV in New York, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who worked with Streep on Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady.

"We were in the dressing rooms off stage, and I was basically half-naked trying to get dressed real quick, and of course that's when Meryl comes into us, straight after the show," she cringes. "That's happened twice by the way, I've met Meryl Streep while baby-wiping under my arms with a sports bra and knickers on going, 'oh s***, she's here!'

"She comes up and talks to every single one of you, and she says something really specific to you, and it's really kind. She was saying to me 'I really liked the characterisation...', but I can't remember actually because I was just going 'oh my God, it's Meryl Streep'. I gave her a hug and we all jumped in a photo with her, and then she was gone."

Since graduating from drama school in 2009, Clare's work has taken her all over the UK, America and Australia, but she is, for the time being, settled in Kilmainham, Co Dublin.

"This year I decided to take the plunge and rent somewhere properly. I've been a bit of a nomad," she says.

The 29-year-old is originally from Ballinteer, where she grew up with five sisters. She crackles with energy, whether she's whispering a dry quip into the tape recorder or springing out of her seat when discussing her latest role in Tribes at the Gate Theatre, for which she has won rhapsodic praise.

"When I was younger, my favourite thing was telling stories and making my friends laugh. My mam made me go to a speech-and-drama class, and that was kind of the beginning of it," she recalls.

At first, she considered stage management or direction, but by the time she was 16, Clare had got a role in the school play and the director - who had a lot of experience in the theatre industry - convinced her to pursue acting.

"She told me, 'I would never sit down and tell a young person to be an actor, but I'm telling you to be an actor'. I was like, really?" she laughs.

Clare ended up at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, which counts Anthony Hopkins, Rob Brydon and Dougray Scott among its alumni. In her first year, she was tasked with creating her own piece of theatre for the end-of-year assessment, and says it instilled a fierce independence and self-sufficiency that continues to fuel her today.

Indeed, before she had even graduated, she had already been picked up by Kate Winslet's agent and landed her first professional role, playing Pegeen Mike in the Druid Theatre production of Playboy of the Western World.

That part came about thanks to her own initiative: in her final year, she reached out to the renowned casting director Maureen Hughes, who is credited with discovering Cillian Murphy, by sending her an invitation to the college production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Within minutes of meeting Clare ­- and before she had even seen the play - Hughes rang up Druid director Garry Hynes to tell her she had found a great Pegeen Mike.

"All I ever wanted when I started thinking of being an actor was to work with Garry Hynes and Druid, and all of a sudden it was arriving at my feet," Clare recalls. After a whirlwind trip back to Dublin to audition, she got the part.

"I did the show, went back to school, finished out the year, and then had seven months of unemployment," she says flatly. "That's when my training came in, because I was sitting there thinking, 'oh my God, I can't do this forever'."

While her résumé is filled with intriguing roles - including a Shakespearean monarch with a broad Dublin accent, a US drone pilot and the title role in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara - she stresses that bouts of unemployment have been a regular feature during her eight years in the industry. When she hasn't had acting work to keep her busy, she has focused her efforts on writing, something she was doing in 2015 when she got a call from the theatre director Selina Cartmell. The pair ended up working together on the one-woman show Grounded at the Dublin Fringe Festival. "It was really intense, but it was amazing. She's very, very thorough," says Clare.

Newly installed as artistic director of the Gate, Cartmell selected Nina Raine's Tribes for her second production, after this summer's hugely successful Great Gatsby. Directed by Oonagh Murphy, it tells the story of Billy (Alex Nowak), a young deaf man raised in a hearing family who largely ignore the fact of his deafness. Clare plays his new girlfriend Sylvia, a woman raised in a deaf family who is gradually losing her hearing, and who causes conflict in the family when she begins to teach Billy sign language. The role required her to learn sign language, which she started doing in June.

Rather than taking up an online course, Clare turned to YouTube tutorials. "I learned the alphabet, which is the main thing you have to start with, and then it kind of didn't matter that much. Alex is fluent in British Sign Language (BSL) but every country has their own one, so we were both learning Irish Sign Language (ISL) and having these sessions together, which felt a bit easier," she says, noting that the two differ dramatically: in BSL, you use both hands to sign, whereas ISL involves just one.

"I was really nervous," she says. "It's a whole other language, and you don't realise the muscles in your hand. In rehearsals, I sometimes felt like I was pulling something, because you're not used to being so specific with your fingers and being so fast."

While she says she's "not confident at all" in sign language, she describes half-signing and half-speaking when she goes to the pub with her co-star Alex.

To prepare for the role, Clare visited Dublin's deaf village, and attended a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) event with Caroline O'Leary, the sign-language interpreter for the play. She also tried to gain a better understanding of Sylvia's experience by blocking out her own hearing.

"I would go around with earplugs in, really watching people and realising how much they can end up giving away in their body language and their faces. You pick up people's mood very quick," she explains.

One of the central themes in Tribes is how sign language compares to spoken English. Billy's academic father is bullishly provocative, dismissing sign language as a "black and white", "coarse" form of communication that lacks nuance. Even Sylvia laments the loss of irony as she loses her hearing.

"I think sign language isn't black and white. The argument of the play, and what Sylvia is frustrated about, is truly listening, truly talking and truly empathising and having compassion for each other," Clare argues.

"I've always been quite good at picking up stuff because that's my job as an observer of human nature. But I have noticed when I come off from playing Sylvia, I listen in a different way.

"It's like using a different bit of your brain, it's like a different way of seeing the world. I can't bullshit Alex at all, he's too perceptive of everything. You're perceiving people's body language on a much deeper, much truer level, I feel."

While the majority of Clare's work has been on stage, her focus for 2018 is on the big screen. Earlier this year, she received funding from the Irish Film Board to develop her feature film debut, provisionally titled Owned. She doesn't want to give much away about the film, but has assembled a veritable dream team for a first feature.

"It's in development with Element Pictures and with Sharon Horgan, and Phyllida Lloyd is directing," she says lightly. "I'm writing another draft and we're hoping to shoot in May/June. I'm going to be in it as well. Phyllida wouldn't take no for an answer!

"I'm really excited about it, because I'm surrounded by very, very good people that are pushing me to become the storyteller that I know I can be. It's challenging, but they totally believe in me and they're so supportive."

She's also working on a project with Dublin theatre maker Philly McMahon, has co-written a script with her friend Stephen Shields and is planning to further develop Sure Look It F*** It, a piece she wrote for Electric Picnic. "It's a deadly time to be working in Dublin right now, there are so many exciting artists here at the moment," she effuses.

"It's a really interesting time to tell new stories and tell new truths. Now I want to make my film, that's the main thing, and just keep going and paying the rent being a storyteller. I've been sort of hiding away a bit, I haven't done that much in-your-face performing this year, but being in Tribes has really reminded me I am a performer, and I am a person that likes to connect with other people." Tribes runs at Dublin's Gate Theatre until November 11

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