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‘It’s easy to get mugged by your brain’ - Smother actress Justine Mitchell on learning to trust her heart

She cut her teeth in comedy, but actor Justine Mitchell’s natural wit won’t be seen too much in her upcoming roles, which include the second season of Smother and 2022’s most hotly anticipated TV series based on Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends

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Justine Mitchell photographed by Eoin Greally

Justine Mitchell photographed by Eoin Greally

“Shocking, horrific and boring. I give this pandemic no stars." Photo: Eoin Greally. Dress, Zara

“Shocking, horrific and boring. I give this pandemic no stars." Photo: Eoin Greally. Dress, Zara

"It’s just coming of age, isn’t it? I just got to come of age in Hong Kong, which was so absurd." Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Zara; Camisole, Mango; Trousers, H&M

"It’s just coming of age, isn’t it? I just got to come of age in Hong Kong, which was so absurd." Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Zara; Camisole, Mango; Trousers, H&M

James O' Donoghue as Calum and Justine Mitchell as Elaine in seaon two of Smother. Photo: Martin Maguire for RTÉ/ BBC Studios/ Treasure 2021

James O' Donoghue as Calum and Justine Mitchell as Elaine in seaon two of Smother. Photo: Martin Maguire for RTÉ/ BBC Studios/ Treasure 2021

"I thought that was normal to have someone living rent-free inside their head, going, You’re not that great" Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Mango; Slip dress, H&M

"I thought that was normal to have someone living rent-free inside their head, going, You’re not that great" Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Mango; Slip dress, H&M

Justine Mitchell photographed by Eoin Greally. Blazer, Mango; Slip dress, H&M

Justine Mitchell photographed by Eoin Greally. Blazer, Mango; Slip dress, H&M

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Justine Mitchell photographed by Eoin Greally

It was quite the surprise when her character Elaine Lynch on RTÉ drama Smother turned out to be — spoiler alert — the killer in series one. Then again, if anyone could throw us off the scent of her involvement in Denis Ahern’s death off that Co Clare cliff, it was Dubliner Justine Mitchell, described as “the consummate actor’s actor” by London’s Evening Standard.

Yes, I think quite a few people felt that it was good,” the 48-year-old says of Elaine’s unexpected revelation that she had an affair with dastardly Denis and had bashed his head during a row over access to her sons. “It was sewn into the script with invisible stitches. The writers breadcrumbed it. If you reverse engineer it, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, that does make sense’.”

As Smother returns to our screens for a second series, custody-seeking, recovering alcoholic Elaine seems an altogether more sinister presence. The same cannot be said for the affable actress herself, though a Zoom call with Justine does take some unexpected twists and turns — into grief, psychotherapy and the compensation for not having children.

If that sounds like heavy fare, she also is as funny as you would expect a writer of noughties’ RTÉ sketch show Your Bad Self to be.

We discuss, too, her upcoming role in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which Mitchell filmed alongside Smother, commuting between the respective sets in Belfast and Lahinch last spring.

“I caught the tailwind of some kind of mercurial luck because I hadn’t done a huge amount of telly. I’m a big theatre girl,” she says, of double-jobbing during the pandemic. “If I hadn’t had that luck I wouldn’t have worked because the theatres were closed.”

Her review of the past two years is: “Shocking, horrific and boring. I give this pandemic no stars. It’s not just the dreadfulness, it’s the banality of it and how we have normalised it. I said ‘latty flow’ the other day,” she adds, about a lateral flow antigen test for Covid-19. “‘I have to go and do a latty flow’, as if it was a coffee order. I was, like, ‘Don’t cutesify this f**king thing, Justine’.”

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“Shocking, horrific and boring. I give this pandemic no stars." Photo: Eoin Greally. Dress, Zara

“Shocking, horrific and boring. I give this pandemic no stars." Photo: Eoin Greally. Dress, Zara

“Shocking, horrific and boring. I give this pandemic no stars." Photo: Eoin Greally. Dress, Zara

She is not known for cutesifying things. In 2015 Mitchell won the UK Theatre Award for Best Supporting Performance for her role in Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered. She describes her character as sad and the play as “Chekhovian in its excavation of loss” before concluding with the giggling understatement, “It wasn’t a comedy”.

She also won an Irish Times Best Supporting Actor Award in 2002 for two shows at the Gate — Bash by Neil LaBute and Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. “My dad came with me to that,” she smiles, of the awards ceremony. “I remember thanking him and my mum. Someone had said to me, ‘Don’t bother thanking your parents in your speech’. What?”

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This memory is all the more precious now. “I lost my dad a year-and-a-half ago during the pandemic,” she says, of Denis Mitchell, an RTÉ journalist turned barrister. “I think it’s something you’re always dreading — the death of your parents. The great thing about life is you get to the point where the most dreadful thing happens, and right up until the moment that it happened, I thought, ‘I won’t be able to do this’. And then you can. You’re shocked and off-course and unmoored. But I found that the normal kind of niggles and caveats that we had in our relationship distilled down into pure love and pure gratitude for someone that loves me, because that’s all that matters. If you have been beloved on this earth, like Raymond Carver says [in his poem Late Fragment], then I can withstand his absence.”

She quotes the “beautiful thing” Smother producer Rebecca O’Flanagan told her: “That you become friends with the pain that you feel — you begin to honour and even welcome it — because it is testament to how much they mattered.”

Her father helped little Mitchell to write her very first sketch, in which she was Margaret Thatcher, mispronouncing Charles Haughey’s surname as ‘hockey’. “I did it at this kind of Christmas show. And I remember going, ‘Oh, they’re laughing’. It’s like what I imagine being on meth is like. It’s a drug.”

Acting was “for a long, long time about getting attention”, though she was generally never starved of attention. “I’ve had lots of therapy but I haven’t quite therapised that.”

Sometimes, perhaps, there was too much attention. The family moved from Sandymount to Hong Kong when “D4 girl” Mitchell was 12, and she was bullied in school for her Irish accent. Though she appreciates the cultural experience more now, these formative years were a challenge.

“I was hormonal and starting to become a teenager and you’re sweaty and you’re greasy and it’s really hot. And you’re getting your period and there are things called typhoons and there’s Cantonese and it was just madness. I just wanted to fit in and that’s where the acting really helped. You kind of start performing yourself.”

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"It’s just coming of age, isn’t it? I just got to come of age in Hong Kong, which was so absurd." Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Zara; Camisole, Mango; Trousers, H&M

"It’s just coming of age, isn’t it? I just got to come of age in Hong Kong, which was so absurd." Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Zara; Camisole, Mango; Trousers, H&M

"It’s just coming of age, isn’t it? I just got to come of age in Hong Kong, which was so absurd." Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Zara; Camisole, Mango; Trousers, H&M

Mitchell reinvented herself, overnight, with a posh English accent. “It’s just coming of age, isn’t it? I just got to come of age in Hong Kong, which was so absurd.”

She still feels fond of the place, worrying now about “the stealthy move on the part of the mainland Chinese government to denude that beautiful island [and] the New Territories of its democratic principles. Hong Kong Chinese people are tough but I don’t know if they can withstand the might of this force that’s coming at them”.

When the family returned to Ireland, Mitchell studied drama at Trinity College Dublin before moving to London in 1995, working in casual jobs in between acting roles. It was while temping at Brentford Football Club — “so random” — that the young Mitchell realised she needed to reach out to someone for help.

As with every anecdote she tells, she acts this story out for me, accents included. “I got up one morning and I couldn’t stop crying and I called them, and this guy didn’t know me at all. I was like, ‘I can’t come into work and I don’t know why. I don’t know what’s wrong.’ And he went: ‘You know what? You just take your time. And if you don’t need to come in today, don’t come in today. You just come in whenever you’re ready.’ He was just some dude running the office at Brentford. Just gorgeous.”

It was a turning point for Mitchell, who retains an affection for “the Bees”. She started seeing a counsellor shortly afterwards. “I was with her for six years or more. I could still call her now if I ever want to and she’s amazing.”

Mitchell takes an eight-second pause to consider how best to explain what was going on in her life at the time. “I realised in my 20s that I didn’t like myself very much. I was very hard on myself and thought that was normal. I did some wonderful work on that and that’s simply not true any more: I like myself and I’m proud of myself and I don’t need the approbation or the affirmation as much.” Now instead of acting to get attention, Mitchell does it, she says, to be a part of stories. She “couldn’t recommend therapy more”, especially for people who are struggling. “It gives you the tools and it took me ages to learn the tools, even though it’s really basic: how do you listen to yourself?

“I couldn’t separate myself from the anxiety and the voices saying, ‘You’re no good’. I thought that was normal to have someone living rent-free inside their head, going, ‘Oh, you think you’re great, do you? You’re not that great’. I thought everyone had that. It got to the point where, physically, I got hives, I got night sweats.”

Mitchell was amazed to learn that she could confront the voice inside her head. “If you can learn to listen to yourself a bit more you realise that the brain is just bigging up its part, and you’re bigger than that — you’re your heart and you’re your soul too.” She gives the example of her brain telling her, mid-performance on stage, ‘Hmm, you seem nervous. We should go!’

“Before, I’d go, ‘Oh, f**k, I’m not gonna get my next line.’ But what the brain is trying to do is get you off the stage because it thinks you’re nervous. The brain is just trying to protect you. And if you can, as a whole, say, ‘You know what? Thank you, brain. You get in the backseat. I’m driving.’ Then the heart and the soul take over and you realise that, actually, you’ve got this.”

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"I thought that was normal to have someone living rent-free inside their head, going, You’re not that great" Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Mango; Slip dress, H&M

"I thought that was normal to have someone living rent-free inside their head, going, You’re not that great" Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Mango; Slip dress, H&M

"I thought that was normal to have someone living rent-free inside their head, going, You’re not that great" Photo: Eoin Greally. Blazer, Mango; Slip dress, H&M

Mitchell seems a very thoughtful, analytical person — but she reckons we all let our grey matter take too much control of our lives at times. “It’s easy to get mugged by your brain because it goes, ‘I’m here!’ and it wears sequins and it’s f***ing gorgeous and very seductive. And the soul is a bit more of an old hippie, it doesn’t have as good lighting,” she laughs. “And so, you’ve got to innocently favour your soul and your heart over your brain. The brain will always be fine.”

She also found it helpful to learn that we can choose how, or even whether, to react to things. “You can feel anything you want but you don’t have to act upon it. We all have the right to our feelings but our feelings don’t give us rights.”

Along with waving hi and goodbye to self-sabotaging thoughts, Mitchell recommends surrounding yourself with friends — “people that you feel you can be yourself with.”

For her, that includes her husband of 13 years, Ben Kelly, with whom she lives in Kensal Green, north-west London. Formerly a commissioning editor at ITV, handling shows like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and The X Factor, Kelly moved to Netflix two years ago. “He works for the non-fiction department. So I need to be very clear: he can’t get me a job,” she quips.

Not that she needs his help, having been cast in 2022’s most hotly anticipated TV series. Conversations With Friends is an Element Pictures production for BBC Three and Hulu, in association with RTÉ. The 12-part drama, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is adapted from the debut novel by Sally Rooney, who is an executive producer. It tells the story of two Dublin college students, Frances and Bobbi, and the strange and unexpected connection they forge with married couple Melissa and Nick. Its predecessor Normal People was BBC’s most-streamed series of 2020 with 62.7 million views.

 “I can’t say a lot but I can say that I am Paula, Frances’s mum. All of my stuff was with Alison Oliver, who was playing Frances and she is extraordinary. She’s going to be incredible in this, she’s just an amazing person and it’s her first job. She has this preternatural talent. I’m excited just for people to discover her,” she gushes of the Lir Academy graduate from Cork.

Mitchell is a big Rooney fan too and says she was blown away by the book. “The intimacy, the sex in it. It’s the only sex I’ve ever read going, ‘That’s what it’s like. That’s it’. I cried,” she admits. “There was a New Yorker article called ‘Sally Rooney gets in your head’. I found that she did that for me. I think she does that no matter what age you are.”

She was equally taken with Rooney’s The Dublin Review essay, Even if I Beat You, about her experience as a champion debater. “It’s about being in thrall to rhetoric and argument for argument’s sake and how she eventually kind of went, ‘Oh, no, this is a little bit soulless’.”

Unlike this incisive essay, written with the benefit of hindsight, Rooney’s characters in fiction seem to frequently misunderstand or miscommunicate what’s going on in their lives. “The freight of all this emotional hinterland is there,” explains Mitchell of her scenes with Oliver. “Throughout the whole thing Paula is trying to contact Frances and see if she’s OK. They have a slightly fraught past and the father is not so well.”

Frances cannot articulate to her mother what is happening in her personal life — “so it all comes out like a kettle boiling”.

Playing mothers is possibly unavoidable for actresses in their 40s. In real life, Mitchell and Kelly do not have children, doting instead on their arthritic cockapoo, Murphy. “Didn’t happen for us,” she says, succinctly, before breaking into an anecdote about a former neighbour who had been the housekeeper at Claridge’s for many decades.

“I adored her. She would say, ‘Do you know, my dear, there are always compensations for everything.’ And she said it so many times, it was like it was tattooed on her forehead.”

Mitchell adds, of her own circumstances: “That was painful, not being able to do that. But she’s absolutely right. There are always compensations. She didn’t have children, funnily enough — Jesus Christ, I’m only just putting that together.”

Those compensations for not having children are “inestimable, but I just think it’s possible to get on. It’s OK. It really is”.

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James O' Donoghue as Calum and Justine Mitchell as Elaine in seaon two of Smother. Photo: Martin Maguire for RTÉ/ BBC Studios/ Treasure 2021

James O' Donoghue as Calum and Justine Mitchell as Elaine in seaon two of Smother. Photo: Martin Maguire for RTÉ/ BBC Studios/ Treasure 2021

James O' Donoghue as Calum and Justine Mitchell as Elaine in seaon two of Smother. Photo: Martin Maguire for RTÉ/ BBC Studios/ Treasure 2021

And as Smother kicks off again, Mitchell’s character Elaine seems hell-bent on winning her sons’ affections away from Anna, their father Rory’s wife. But it won’t be straightforward. Terminally ill Rory took the blame for Denis’s death, letting Elaine off the hook. But will someone spill this guilty secret?

And that’s just one intrigue in the series that stars Dervla Kirwan as the Ahern family matriarch, Val. Denis’s estranged son Finn, played by Coronation Street actor Dean Fagan, shows up at her door in tonight’s first episode. “He is such a great actor and you don’t know what he wants,” says Mitchell. “He brings a certain interesting flavour of suspicion. Is he nice? Is he not?”

The same could be said of Elaine, as fans of the show are quick to express. “We were doing a scene in Spanish Point during Smother, season two. This woman was out powerwalking, and she walked past me and she said, ‘You should be in prison!’ I just looked at her and laughed and said, ‘Well, how do you know I’m not? I could be on day release!’” 

Season two of ‘Smother’ begins tonight on RTÉ One at 9.30pm


Photography by: Eoin Greally. Styling by: Hannah Coogan. Hair and make-up by: Jade Farmiloe. Location: Ballymore’s Wardian London, see wardianlondon.com


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