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My Irish dad would pretend to be a gay hairdresser!


In the roll-call of Irish-American screen-stars, Robin Tunney always seems to get overlooked. Which is strange, because the Chicago native has spent the past two decades making major movies, earning critical plaudits and starring in some of the biggest TV shows.

You mightn't recognise the name immediately but almost certainly know the actress: she's played opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ben Affleck, appeared in a bunch of cult 1990s films and spent two seasons trying to bust the boys from jail in Prison Break. And for the last three-and-a-half years Ms Tunney has played Agent Teresa Lisbon in the smash-hit drama The Mentalist, currently airing on RTÉ1.

The woman is a star -- and one of our own. She's also smart, thoughtful and drolly funny in conversation. On the phone from LA, Tunney explains her connection to Ireland: "I had quite an 'Irish' upbringing -- a lot of my parents' identity is wrapped up in it. My father was born in Straide, Co Mayo. My mother is first generation -- both her parents were from Clare Island. My other grandmother lived in Galway until she died, about 12 years ago.

"When I was a kid we'd go over quite a bit to visit relatives, although it was expensive, so not every summer. I found Ireland incredibly beautiful, with a really interesting culture. And the people were so generous.

"We had these relatives who weren't at all rich, but they'd be arguing over who you'd be staying with, who'd pay for the food -- they all wanted to take care of you."

Her Irishness had a "strong effect" on Tunney's personal and professional life. Coming from a culture of storytelling, she says, informed her eventual blossoming as an actor.

"I grew up in a Chicago family who were telling stories all the time. You know, every rule had a story behind it that was a complete lie. The grumpy old woman in the neighbourhood who didn't want you on her lawn, my mom would be like, 'She collects small children in her basement and there's ghosts and bones down there.' Everything was a story.

"By their nature I think the Irish are theatrical people. My father's a real performer -- he was always pretending to be different characters, doing accents, all that. My mother bar-tended, and my dad would take her place and pretend to be a gay hairdresser named Laddy!

"My parents were and weren't supportive of me becoming an actor. They didn't grow up with a lot of money or the opportunity to go to college. I was academically inclined -- so choosing to act instead of going to school, it was scary for them.

"They've never been unsupportive but I think, at the time, they'd have preferred if I'd done pre-med. They're happy now, though."

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Having attended Catholic school and studied drama from a young age, Tunney moved to LA aged 18 to become a full-time actress. She quickly landed bit-parts in TV and bigger roles soon followed.

Her turn as kooky, shaven-headed Deb in Empire Records made her a cult figure; The Craft made her a star. She appeared in Schwarzenegger's turn-of-the-millennium End of Days and played solicitor Veronica Donovan in Prison Break.

Her current role is possibly her finest work. Tough-minded, clever and generous, Lisbon is the guts and heart of this detective show, complementing the smarts of Patrick Jane (played by Simon Baker). And she's not dissimilar to the woman she plays.

"After so many years, the separation between yourself and your character becomes thin, and I am like Teresa in ways," Tunney says. "You'd never see me with a gun, but in the sense of caretaking and thinking about other people -- I definitely have that.

"The chemistry between Teresa and Patrick has become stronger over the years. When we started I'd only met Simon a few times, and you're in this forced environment to get to know each other. But now he's like a brother to me -- he and his wife have become really close friends."

Why is The Mentalist so popular? Describing its success as "like lightning in a bottle", Tunney adds, "Simon's obviously a star. People like to watch him. When he smiles, they smile, too. The old-fashioned nature of the show helps. Patrick has a very Sherlock Holmes-esque way of solving crime -- it's not DNA or über-violence. He uses wit, not science."

It's been a long and interesting journey for Robin Tunney, since those childhood Chicago dreams of acting success.

"The movie business has changed a lot," she says. "They don't make as many and there aren't a lot of great roles, especially for women. I'm 39 -- I'm not going to be in a superhero movie, and those are what they're making now.

"On The Mentalist I play a more interesting character than I'd ever get in a movie nowadays, and I'm lucky to have it."

The Mentalist is on RTÉ1 at 10.15pm on Thursday.

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