'I'd like to be remembered for a nicer song than Soap Your Arse!' - Rosaleen Linehan reflects on career highlights
Star of stage and screen, Rosaleen Linehan has done it all. Now aged 81, the comic actor is still working - and still full of her trademark irreverence. Here, she looks back at her career highlights, and tells Jillian Bolger about her admiration for other actors of her generation, as well as her bucket list ambition to write a song to remember
Rosaleen Linehan is the kind of woman you want to find yourself next to at a dinner party. Or on a train. Or seated beside on a long haul flight. You know the kind: a stranger whose energy, rich tales and laughter leave you brimming with vitality as you part company, secretly wishing she were your nextdoor neighbour or your aunt or your best friend's mother.
Of course, Rosaleen is too well known in Ireland to be a stranger to many. Her handprints are immortalised in bronze outside the Gaiety Theatre and her impressive career spans over 50 years of stage and screen, from Dublin to Broadway, the West End to Hollywood. If her bright eyes, fresh complexion and blunt-edged bob belie her 81 years, her high energy certainly does. Giddy as a teen and easily as mischievous, it's her sharp wit and wisdom that reveal a life well lived.
"One of my directors, who was a real guru of mine in my late 20s, once said this extraordinary thing: 'Rosaleen, you're very lucky you're not beautiful because you won't lose it!' It was very double-edged; it wasn't even a compliment. The beauty starts to go, and then, if you can afford it, you start getting bits of the face done…"
Self-deprecating and candid, Rosaleen's expressive face is reassuringly original. Unlike Hollywood's obsession with youth, we discuss how theatre is kinder to mature actors, offering far more opportunities. "It's great. If you can stagger at all," she chuckles, stopping to order a hot whiskey. "A single please."
We're in The Davenport hotel to discuss her role in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple Of Inishmaan, which opens this weekend. "I was approached about this a long time ago and took a long time to say yes." Her last two roles were Mags in The Red Shoes at The Gate and the Hurdy-Gurdy Man in Woyzeck In Winter. "Woyzeck was big and strange and rather wonderful." There were movie shorts in between, "two little student films" and holiday time. "Red Shoes was terribly hard but this is terribly easy. And I played it before, in Los Angeles 20 years ago."
Drawn to theatre as a youngster, she recalls sitting on her mother's knee at the pantomime feeling that she could do what she was watching. "We did no drama at school - none whatsoever - but then I got into UCD, joined the Dramsoc and I'd go to plays and think, 'I think I could do that.'"
Rosaleen joined UCD to study economics and politics, subjects chosen by her father, a long-standing Fine Gael TD for Donegal, but drama soon became her primary focus. It was here, at Dramsoc, she met her beloved husband, Fergus Linehan, who died in November 2016. Working together, he wrote satirical revues for Rosaleen and Des Keogh, catapulting the pair into the national annals of comedy greats. "Des and myself went from '75 to '85. There was only five revues, strangely enough. It took two years to write each one. They were it," she smiles wistfully, "with my gorgeous Pat Crowley dresses."
Fergus and Rosaleen worked on the revues together at home. "Trying out the material in the pub was an absolute highlight," she laughs. "Sometimes, on a Friday and Saturday, it just was pure magic. You'd be reading the stuff at a microphone because you wouldn't have learned it yet and Peter O'Brien was at the piano and, of course, they were all scuttered. We'd give the items three nights and if they didn't work three nights in a row they were ditched."
While Rosaleen is loved by a generation for sketches such as 'I wish I was a Protestant' and songs like Soap Your Arse and Slide Backwards Up A Rainbow, she admits that she only became "slightly famous" by leaving comedy and going "straight".
A working mum, life was tricky in the 1970s and '80s when her four children were small. "Routine was very important. If you were up getting them to school in the morning you'd have to have a rest in the afternoon. The revues were very physical and you'd have to do a big warm-up." Playing 90-year-old Mammy in The Cripple Of Inishmaan is a lot easier, she chuckles. "Mammy is in bed for the play, is 90 and alcoholic. So I don't have to do much research!"
Rehearsals are something her views have changed on as she's grown older. "I'm going to sound like an ancient old woman but I think, sometimes, that rehearsals are too long. Sometimes I feel they're a little bit too lethargic, but not always, especially if the play is difficult, obviously. Moscow Arts do a year's rehearsals. They came to The Abbey around 1986 with a play that I had been in around 1981, The Seagull by Chekov. Their production was completely stunning. After watching it I remember saying to my director, "We didn't do The Seagull… we did The Magpie!"
Once cast she has no interest in seeing how others may have played her character. "When I was young and feisty, Shirley MacLaine, who is about the same age as me, maybe a year or two older, appeared in a film. It wasn't even a singy and dancey film; it was a Hitchcock called The Trouble With Harry and I went along to it. I looked so like her at that stage that I never went to see her again for years, in case I'd do copies."
Even in the early days, Rosaleen never had to audition. Dublin was small and everybody knew her. "I was slightly peculiar, in that Fergus was writing for me always, so I could just waltz in, then have a baby, then return. Radio was wonderful because when you're pregnant you'd just have a microphone and no eyes on you." She recalls actress friends becoming pregnant and asking her, almost with tears in their eyes, how she managed to keep her career going with four children. "Because the theatre doesn't pay well. Well, the revues, of course, did. We wrote those and that was the best part of life - all those years of writing musicals. It was really wonderful, fabulous and then they'd go out and you'd own them."
On stage she's performed everyone from Shakespeare to Beckett and Friel, with Dancing at Lughnasa, Happy Days, Mother Of All The Behans and the revues her career highlights. Cripple Of Inishmaan is her fourth Martin McDonagh production. "I've done him twice in Los Angeles and twice in London in Beauty Queen Of Leenane. Beauty Queen is amazing. I mean, it takes lumps out of you. But this one is gorgeous. I've seen various productions of it and also been in one. It's amazingly comic and tragic. He hits both with a bang."
Has she ever watched any of McDonagh's movies? "No! In Bruges? I should have seen that and it's on Netflix." I tell her that I have just watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and loved it. "And It's Frances McDormand, isn't it? She's fabulous, divine!" she declares. "She'd be in my top three, I think."
Meryl Streep makes the cut too. "I was in the Arts Council for a while and the word 'over-arching' was used all the time," she says with a mischievous grin. "Meryl is over-arching. What the feck does that mean? But she can do anything, anything and she remains so sanguine throughout. She never seems to be neurotic or difficult."
She adores Judi Dench and Jodie Foster too. "Of the comediennes, there's Jo Brand and I love [Druid Theatre Company co-founder] Marie Mullen. She always make me cross because she's doing things I can't do. She is so truthful in her acting. She's fantastic."
One of her great heroes is Elaine May, an American actor who moved into directing and screenwriting. "Not many people know her today because she hasn't done any acting for years. She is the equivalent to me, only a big New York success. She had a huge career with Mike Nichols and they were a comedy twosome like Des and I. She's just come out in New York in a Kenneth Lonergan play and she is just amazing.
"Glenda Jackson is out with our Aisling too. Did you know that?" she asks excitedly, referencing the British double-Oscar winner and sometime politician, and the acclaimed Kerry actor known for her stage role and TV work such as The Clinic, respectively. "Aisling O'Sullivan is with Glenda Jackson on Broadway, in King Lear. She'll be faaabulous, I'd say!"
Her pride is real and palpable, like she's talking about one of her own children. I'm struck by how generous she is in her praise of others, especially her peers. Elaine May is 86, Glenda Jackson 82. "The two that are back out on Broadway now were never lookers either," she grins.
Loving the diversity of all the roles she's played over the years, Rosaleen has no hesitation in declaring Kathleen Behan - the Republican firebrand and mother of playwright Brendan, whom she played in Mother Of All The Behans - to be her favourite character. "I loved every inch of her: the spirit of her, the badness of her, the fight for her children. She sang all the time, such a lot of songs that she had in her head at 95."
Songs and music are the beginning and end of everything, Rosaleen muses. "If I had one ambition, it would be to write a little simple song before I died, just a song that everybody knew. I mean a lot of people know Soap Your Arse but that's not the way I would like to be remembered!" she howls. "It's the way I am remembered though. When I go around the country it's the only thing they know about me! I would like something more Fine Gael, if you know what I mean…"
She speaks fondly of favourite costumes too, yet admits to hating them until she gets them right. "Sometimes when I talk to graduate students, I tell them acting is a rough road - which it is, very rough - and I always say, 'Watch the costume department!' because they can wreck you. If something (you're wearing) doesn't feel right you have to stand your ground."
Having performed the work of so many Irish playwrights, how does she feel about the future of Irish theatre? "We need to replace some giants quickly: Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, John B Keane and, not to the side completely, Hugh Leonard. These would be giants and that's what we've been relying on. They have to be replaced and they will be replaced."
She mentions Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom are in London. "There's a wider band of critics over there and possibly they seem to have a happier home to open their plays there. But they are there, of course, not here. Sometimes I think that finance gets in the way a little bit. For a start, you can't really afford big casts any more. But the greats will always come. People are always scribbling in Ireland, in the back of buses, everywhere."
'The Cripple of Inishmaan' is at the Gaiety Theatre until March 9. To book see gaietytheatre.ie