'Theatre's like a bad boyfriend: it treats me like shit and I keep coming back'
In her dressing room, actor Rebecca O'Mara thinks hard. "I would describe it as a habit," she says. "It's like a bad boyfriend: it treats me like shit and I keep coming back for more".
Amazingly, she isn't referring to her next role, that of Amanda in the Gate Theatre's revival of Private Lives by Noël Coward, or that character's destructive cycle of falling in and out of love with her ex-husband. O'Mara may be opening herself more to screen work (she now plays a forensic specialist in TV3's crime drama Red Rock) but the stage is her bad habit. "There's nothing better than that connection with the audience," she says. "It's a bit like surfing."
For O'Mara, who is contagiously enthusiastic, the road to acting started in 1986, when she saw Rosaleen Linehan play Gypsy Rose Lee at the Gaiety Theatre.
"In school we had to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grow up," she recalls. "In the 1980s we didn't have the same obsession with celebrity; people actually wanted to be train drivers and nurses and doctors. I drew my picture and my teacher asked, 'what do you want to be, Rebecca?' I had drawn a showgirl. I was six".
But O'Mara, not unlike the jazz-age socialites of Coward's drama, has learnt how spectacularly evasive people can be at facing their lives. With a sudden flash of sadness, she reveals that she gave up acting at 21.
"I exited the stage kind of dramatically and nobody noticed or cared. I was just very unconfident," she says. "I decided I wanted to be a film director so that I could have control. I thought if I were an actress, I was giving myself up to be objectified. I'd have no control over my image."
That explains the precision and command that nowadays mark her performances. O'Mara's acting style might be too embellished to be described as naturalistic, but it still exerts a logic that is mysteriously believable.
At 26, she was working in London as a runner for a production company. "I had an epiphany on the Tube," she says. "I was doing this Pizza Hut commercial. I couldn't believe I had ended up here. A voice in my head said, go to LAMDA."
It could be unwise to graduate from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art at the age of 30, thought O'Mara, but she believes it was necessary for her path to swerve and realign.
"I really struggled for a long time. Being an actor was something I was nearly ashamed of wanting to be, but it all had to happen for me so I can value what I do."
So far, her CV boasts several roles in period plays, set in Friel's Russia, Shakespeare's Venice and Brontë's England. Is it difficult to immerse into one habitat and resurface before entering another? "I do a lot of preparation before rehearsals, doing research and reading," she says. "I love thinking about things like how the character would wash their hair without running water, how they smoke or write a letter by candlelight. It's kind of weird."
Characters with a dark energy, she says, are more difficult to house. In Meadhbh McHugh's play Helen and I, O'Mara played a woman suffering from anxiety, whose job was beautifying corpses for funeral, and she wore heavy make-up herself. It provided a mask that O'Mara was able to literally take off at the end of the night. She still needed acupuncture afterwards.
"Alice, the role I played in Brian Friel's Aristocrats, had a lot of demons. I'd be drinking tea onstage pretending it was whiskey and simulating getting drunk. But the next morning I felt hungover," she tell me, astonished. "I'm not method or anything."
O'Mara's body of work isn't exclusively made up of conventionally dramatic roles. In 2013, she saw Lippy by Dead Centre, one of Ireland's leading contemporary theatre companies. "I'd run away with them tomorrow," she says. "After seeing Lippy, I contacted the director, Bush Moukarzel, and told him I'd be in your next show for the price of a sandwich."
In Dead Centre's next work, Chekhov's First Play, O'Mara played the protagonist's wife in a playful production that thrillingly blew apart the genre of costume drama that we're so used to seeing her in.
Noël Coward's Private Lives, first staged in 1930, follows a divorced couple who are reunited in Paris while honeymooning with their new spouses. "Their relationship is quite dark. It's co-addicted and destructive, fuelled by fear and self-destruction," says O'Mara. "They're both terrified of being abandoned, yet they keep abandoning each other."
Many others have played up the delusions in Coward's drama, insisting that it is a satire of ignorant flâneurs during wartime. But the Gate's production, directed by Patrick Mason, seems to be more aware to the play's invisible network of social constraints, and sympathetic to the characters' inability to articulate their circumstances.
"Coward has a reputation for being superficial but there's a dark heart to it," says O'Mara.
"There's so much subtext so what they're saying is superfluous to what they actually mean. His language is convoluted but he's annoyingly economical at the same time. You'll think 'I got this; just keep putting words in'. Then you realise it's actually very clear. It sort of pings."
Private Lives runs at Dublin's Gate Theatre until June 24