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Insider: 'Do you know you are giving a reception for murderers?'







'There was a terrible bias against Irish actors in Hollywood. We seemed much more foreign... British actors don't have a hard time'

Fionnula Flanagan is not the person you were expecting. Famous for playing mothers and matriarchs, in the flesh there is little of the cooing Irish mammy about her.

The country's most-respected living actress is friendly but with a hint of steel. Five minutes in her company are all that's required for you to understand how she has prospered in the shark-infested snake pit that is Hollywood.

Fionnula, who next week receives a lifetime achievement award from the Irish Film and Television Academy, certainly relishes a good fight.

One of her proudest moments was starring alongside Helen Mirren in the 1996 IRA hunger-strike drama 'Some Mother's Son'.

Regarded (incorrectly) as terrorist propaganda, the movie didn't go down well in certain circles in Ireland and was perceived in Britain as tantamount to a mortar attack on Buckingham Palace ('Empire' magazine accused the film of "demonising the Brits" and "painting a very one-sided picture").

Far from shrinking in the face of the media barrage, Fionnula recalls rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck in.

"They were waiting for me with knives," she says. "We made it during the first IRA ceasefire. By the time it was released, they had blown up Canary Wharf.

"The press was vicious. In the UK, they didn't touch Helen because she was their darling. They behaved towards me as if I was an IRA bomber. It was appalling," she adds.

There were further running battles with journalists when she began consorting with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, going so far as to invite the Sinn Fein godfathers to a party at her Hollywood home.

The house was besieged and Fionnula branded a friend of cold-blooded killers and supporter of atrocities. She wasn't sympathetic to their cause or their methods, she says. "I got involved because of the peace process. That is why I did it. I wouldn't have become involved otherwise.

"The London 'Sunday Times' parked at the top of my driveway and tried to interrogate me. They phoned me up a few hours before the party and said, 'Do you know you are giving a reception for murderers?' Being facetious, I said, 'I hope so -- I wouldn't go to this much trouble for anyone else'."

Fionnula fully lives up to her reputation as the grande dame of Irish acting, the flinty veteran who has lit up such features as 'The Guard', 'Transamerica', 'The Others', 'Yes Men' and 'The Invention of Lying' (to say nothing of her TV roles in 'Star Trek' and 'Lost').

She is imperious without appearing aloof, direct while never tipping into rude. Conversing with Hollywood royalty can be the journalistic equivalent of water boarding -- a torturous, futile attempt to extract memorable quotes from a subject determined to be as pleasantly bland as possible.

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Fionnula is nothing like this. Shockingly, she resembles a fully rounded human being.

Resident in Los Angeles since the late 1960s, she has led a charmed acting life. Her screen partners have included Nicole Kidman, Jim Carey and Ricky Gervais. Her cult fanbase encompasses both devotees of serious drama and science fiction nerds.

As an Irishwoman in Hollywood, she is proof that it is possible to face down timeworn stereotypes and prosper in one of the world's most cut-throat businesses.

"There was a terrible bias against Irish actors in Hollywood," Fionnula says, remembering her early days in Tinseltown.

"We seemed much more foreign. What you have to remember is that Hollywood is a terribly anglophile place. They adore the Brits. British actors don't have a hard time with casting.

"I've said it time and time again -- until we build a legitimate Irish film industry, we will find it difficult to crack it over there," she says.

If it's a precipitous slope for the Irish in Hollywood now, when she was a young woman the situation was almost impossible. The studios may as well have dangled 'no Irish need apply' signs out front.

"To be cast as a young leading woman -- it was never going to happen," she says.

"Women's roles weren't particularly complex and weren't being handed out to non-American actresses."

Fionnula was born in Dublin in 1941. Her parents were Irish language enthusiasts, raising her to be a fluent speaker. She studied at the Abbey in Dublin.

Her first significant role was in the RTE Irish play 'An Triail', a controversial 1965 production about a young woman who falls pregnant in the west of Ireland.

Her performance created a sensation, winning her a best actress prize at the Jacob's Awards.

From there, she graduated to cinema. In 1967, she starred as Gerty McDowell in the movie version of 'Ulysses'. Twelve months later, she was on Broadway, in Brian Friel's 'Lovers'.

It was in America she met Garrett O' Connor, an Irish doctor working at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Wedding bells beckoned, but Fionnula faced a dilemma: how could she further her career in a cultural backwater such a Baltimore?

"I knew I couldn't live there," she says. "I had to live in a place where I could be visible as an actress. I could live in New York or London, or conceivably Dublin. Not Baltimore. Then he was offered a job in Los Angeles. So we moved there."

She started off with bit parts. A classic Irish beauty, with long auburn hair and mirror-pool eyes, she didn't fit the archetype of the willowy hay-seed, the look then in demand among casting agents.

So Fionnula was confined to made-for- television movies such as 'The Legend of Lizzie Borden' and the 'Star Wars' spin-off 'Ewok Adventure'.

She'd been in America nearly a decade by the time she secured her first major role, in 'Rich Man Poor Man', for which she won an Emmy. There was a second Emmy for her portrayal of Molly Culhane in 'How The West as Won'.

Through the 1980s, Fionnula became a regular on a top-rating dramas, including 'Murder She Wrote', 'Dr Quinn Medicine Woman' and 'Star Trek: Next Generation'.

She has seen almost everything in her 40 years in the business. She was on the set of 'The Others' as Nicole Kidman was going through her very public break-up from Tom Cruise. The atmosphere was tense, but people rallied around the Australian actress.

"Nicole was very professional," she says. "Always prepared, always on time, didn't keep anyone waiting. She was going through her own difficulties with her marriage at the time. She had a good sense of humour. We got through it. She is extremely driven."

Then there were her encounters with Jim Carey and Ricky Gervais -- larger than life figures whom she found to be surprisingly down to earth.

"Jim Carey, with whom I have made two movies, was very quiet," says Fionnula. "He expends so much on screen and is in every frame -- it must be exhausting for him. He'll talk to you if you talk to him, but he doesn't launch into conversation.

"I was in 'The Invention of Lying' with Ricky [Gervais]," she continues. "He had written it. He was co-directing and starring. The man hardly had time to breathe. He was preoccupied all the time with the various roles. But he is a wonderfully clever man."

Fionnula has crossed paths with a few unpleasant stars too, she says. Several are still famous and successful. Most, though, end up on the scrapheap after 15 seconds of over-exposure.

"It gets known that somebody wastes time. And time is money, time is daylight -- all those things you cannot get back. I have worked with individuals who have behaved very, very badly ... people who were a pain in the ass, to be honest. There are a few I would never work with again."

Unless you count her turn in the super-twee 'Waking Ned', Fionnula has avoided playing up to Hollywood's Irish stereotypes.

And the days when she was the only Irish person power brunching at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard are happily at an end.

Over the past 15 years, the Irish have arrived in Hollywood in numbers: Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Gabriel Byrne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Michael Fassbender...

Surveying the list of red-hot Irish talent, though, it's notable how few women there are. Aside from Saoirse Ronan, it is difficult to think of another young actress who has created a lasting impression. There's a very good reason for this, explains Fionnula.

"Saoirse has a career and will have a career -- she is very good. On the other hand, you have to remember when Hollywood is searching for a leading man, they are looking for a leading man to play opposite a specific woman.

"The leading lady has usually already been cast. And she is almost always American."

An American resident since the 1960s, Fionnula returns home five or six times a year and stays abreast of social and political happenings.

She was astonished, then aghast, at the gluttony of the Celtic Tiger decade and saw where it was leading before those at home had woken up to the looming disaster.

"The prosperity was wonderful for many. In rural areas, living standards improved enormously. The tragedy was that it brought out everybody's greed. You don't have to be banker or in real estate to know that the bubble would burst eventually."

A person who doesn't flinch from controversy, she had to call on all her reserves of pluck when she backed Martin McGuinness for President last year. Surely she understands why some would be outraged by such an endorsement?

"I think he's a very good man. He's a bright man. He's got smarts, he has balls. I didn't truly think he would get it. The one power the Presidency has is that he can dissolve the government.

"I never, for a second, believed anybody in this country was ever going to give that power to Martin McGuinness. He's a terrific politician and, in a way, made it possible for Michael D to win.

"I remember during the peace process. whenever I would come home people would say, 'Oh don't talk to me about the North'. We are so sick of it. They wanted the north of Ireland to fall away into the sea," she says.

"That's a very short-sighted view. When the peace process starting having its big push, I thought it was worth supporting."

There's a final question we can't leave without posing.

Fionnula starred in several seasons of 'Lost'. Can she honestly say she had any idea what was going on?

She throws her head back and laughs.

"No -- nobody knew what was happening. I asked the director who had hired me if he could send me some DVDs. I had never seen the show. At that point, it was into its fourth season. I wanted to familiarise myself with the story. He said, 'Oh don't bother -- if you haven't seen it from the beginning you won't understand anything'.

"It was fun to do all the same."

The 9th Annual Irish Film & Television Awards take place at the Convention Centre in Dublin on Saturday, February 11, broadcasting on RTE One at 9.30pm

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