Exclusive Victoria Smurfit interview: 'It's me, three kids, two dogs and a cup of tea now'
In her only interview on the subject, the Irish actress talks to Patricia Danaher about dumping her emotions into her work and her hopes for a silver lining
Victoria Smurfit is immensely relieved.
After nearly five months of working five and six days a week on the set of her new television show, Once Upon a Time, she's glad to be back home with her three children and the family's two dogs.
Last week, the actress announced she's divorcing from her husband of 15 years, Doug Baxter.
Although they are remaining on good terms, in the inevitable pain and turmoil that precedes any divorce, 40-year-old Victoria was also tremendously relieved that she was playing a character as dark and twisted as Cruella de Vil in the fairytale series.
"It's been a crazy time," she tells me, plonking two mugs of Barry's tea on the kitchen counter. "It's been a godsend to have this job at this tough personal time and to play a character who lives behind such an enormous mask.
"I hadn't auditioned for this part, although I did once audition for a Disney movie on Cruella de Vil, which I didn't get. I was very kindly offered a part on Once Upon a Time and I nearly lost my head when they said it was for the part of Cruella. There's obviously just something about me and skinning puppies! Cruella is dark, but she's funny and she has this drive of 'I will never be ordinary'. When you watch the cartoon version of her, with all the diamonds and fur, it's really over the top, but you have to try and make her human."
We've met for lunch at Victoria's home in Santa Monica. It's an uncharacteristically blustery and cold day, and she's just back from walking the family pointer and the pug. She's wearing a pair of white jeans and a blue T-shirt and her hair is loose and tousled from the wind.
Five days ago, in a statement issued to the Irish Independent, Victoria confirmed: "Doug Baxter and I have filed for divorce in California. For 15 years we have been the best of friends and we continue to be, not only for ourselves but for our family. We have always been a tight-knit family unit and we are both committed to maintaining that going forward."
The statement ended with an appeal for privacy. "Our children are our highest priority, so to protect them, we will not be discussing it further. Change is difficult enough."
True to her word, this is the one and only time that Victoria intends to publicly address the situation.
"I'm a big believer in always trying to find a silver lining. It doesn't matter what. In the case of this part, to go dark and evil, particularly at this difficult time in my life, was like going down the rabbit hole. It was really nice to disappear into the funny, to find the funny out of the black. To be able to go to that dark, angry, twisty, yet comic place was just heaven. It was really nice to plumb those depths and at times to go maniacal. I really went maniacal and you don't get to do that every day - you don't get to be that in real life or on that many shows. I got to be ugly.
"Cruella can be glamorous with all her jewellery, but she's also twisted and ugly and all that ugliness comes out on her face. For the first time, I got to play all those messed up, maniacal emotions that we humans all deny ourselves and I got to dump them all on screen.
"There are scenes where I ain't looking pretty - I look like someone who is at the edge of the edge of humanity. This part was a godsend because of it being such a tricky part of my life, when you're processing so much on a daily basis, on a minute-by-minute basis, and it was great to have somewhere to put that. When you're running a household, you can't put stuff like this into your daily life. Like I said, I'm a big believer in there always being a silver lining, even if you have to dig for it."
Having first met at an awards ceremony, Victoria and Waterford media entrepreneur Doug were married in July 2000 in Surrey. They have three children, Evie Dorothy (10), Ridley Belle (7), and six-year-old Flynn Alexander.
Her divorce terms preclude Victoria from going into detail about why the marriage ended, so today she talks instead about her future plans. Happy to be back home after filming Once Upon a Time in Vancouver, Victoria plans to do lots of cooking for the family and to reconnect with her friends over long, raucous dinners.
"I'm back on Mummy duty and my plans are to do a ridiculous amount of cooking. I've been given out to by my 10-year-old, Evie, that if she's presented with another chicken nugget, she's going to lose her mind!
"It's lovely to be home and to catch up with friends and to do things that don't involve your alarm going off at 3.30am. As an actor, of course, at the end of every job you're back at square one. I'm back down at the bottom of the snake looking for the next ladder."
Dating is one of the last things on her mind. "You're not going to find me down on the Santa Monica boardwalk in a pair of hot pants and rollerblades, looking for a 70-year-old with a bad cough! That, I can tell you for sure, I will not be doing. I can't.
"Now, it's me, the three kids, two dogs, a cup of tea, a bottle of wine, girlfriends… I'm really looking forward to filling my dinner table with people and laughing a lot. I just want lots of laughter and fun and food."
It's been four years since Victoria and her family moved to LA and it feels very much like home to her.
"Los Angeles is my home. I'm always going to be Irish and Ireland will always be in my blood, but for now, this suits me very nicely. The four years have passed like a blip. The kids love it here. When we were in Ireland over Christmas, my youngest, Flynn, came to me and said: 'Mom, this is the third day it's been raining, is there a problem?'"
Victoria's own parents, Dermot and Caroline Smurfit, divorced when she was still at school. A close family, all the Smurfits - best known in Ireland through grandfather Michael's company Jefferson Smurfit, now the global packaging giant Smurfit Kappa Group - are regular visitors to Victoria's home. Caroline is coming to stay next month.
"I always have family in and out of the house in Santa Monica. I'm a badly run B&B. I always tell my friend: 'The rates are good, but the room service is appalling.' I love it that my house is a place where people feel welcome and comfortable."
Victoria is particularly close to her brother, Dermot Jnr, a lawyer and entrepreneur. "He's a super man and I'm super proud of him," she says. "He lives at 40,000 feet. His company is doing extremely well and I'm super proud of him. He's a magnate in training - super smart and super kind."
Of course, Victoria's own career has been equally successful. From an early role in Ballykissangel, she landed small parts in movies such as The Beach and About a Boy, before returning to the small screen for Trial & Retribution and The Clinic. After her move to LA, Victoria was cast alongside Sean Bean and Ashley Judd in Missing, and went on to play Lady Jayne Wetherby alongside Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in big-budget series Dracula.
Once Upon a Time airs on ABC in the US from tomorrow night (it will be shown on RTÉ in March) and already Victoria's been getting some positive feedback on her portrayal of Cruella. During the Oscars on Sunday night, two big promos for the series were aired and Victoria's excitement about it's launch is palpable. "I've been to the Golden Globes twice, but I haven't been to the Oscars yet, so being featured in two ads in the middle of that show was pretty thrilling."
However, Victoria is aware that Hollywood is brutally ageist to actresses and so she is keen to begin producing and writing more. She has been the executive producer on a short movie, and is developing a number of other projects. She is currently rewriting an original TV series idea, set in a women's boxing gym.
"Coming to LA to work in the film business is not moving to Candy Mountain. It's to work your hardest, experience the worst rejection and have your ego and sense of self utterly decimated," she says.
"When you arrive here, everything you've done before counts for nothing, which is hard to stomach, but you have to just disassemble and reassemble and you have to do this all the time.
"I've just done this great, high-profile job and now I'm down at the bottom of the snake. You have all your tricks in the bag, but you can't get complacent. You have to keep hustling.
"LA is where everybody in the world comes to do it, so you're in a massive pod. Sometimes you're going to meet the producer, sometimes you're going to meet the casting assistant's dog walker and that keeps a balance.
"There's an equaliser here. You can meet people in corridors who've been on shows for 10 years, and they're sitting on the floor too. I don't know when you get your torch to say, 'you're OK now', but I'm always grateful for what I've got and where I am. There's always someone with a bigger boat. There's always someone who's faster, smarter, prettier.
"In Ireland you're always reminded of what you have and to be grateful for it. Here it's like the gold rush and there's always big opportunities.
"It's important to stop every now and again and put manners on yourself and say: 'That was good.' I'm really trying to keep all fires burning. I would love to produce and to write more."
It's after lunch and time to go and pick up the kids from school. Victoria is tired, but again, I feel this strong sense of relief from her.
"I probably won't ever talk about this (the divorce) ever again," she says. "Unless you're my friend and you've got a bottle of Chablis, I'm not going to talk about this again! It's very important for me and the kids that this doesn't turn into a soap opera. Life will continue to run as a family. Doug and I are great pals and thank God for that."