Saturday 21 September 2019

'I was a complete nobody there' - Victoria Smurfit on why she quit her American dream

After risking it all to break the US, the Irish actress has relocated to London where she'll be closer to family and medical support as her daughter fights a degenerative eye disorder

Actress Victoria Smurfit launching the Longines Irish Champions Weekend 2019 at the Merrion Hotel. Picture: Robbie Reynolds
Actress Victoria Smurfit launching the Longines Irish Champions Weekend 2019 at the Merrion Hotel. Picture: Robbie Reynolds
Victoria Smurfit. Photo: Gregg DeGuire/Getty Images
Victoria Smurfit. Photo: David Conachy
Vampy Vic: The actress starred in Dracula
Puppy snatcher: Victoria as Cruella de Vil in Once Upon a Time
Victoria Smurfit

Deirdre Reynolds

Victoria Smurfit couldn't be accused of using her famous family name to open doors in Hollywood.

Not least because nobody recognised it - or her - when she made the daring decision to try to crack the States when she was 36.

Since swanning into Fitzgerald's bar in Ballykissangel back in 1998, the mum-of-three has become a familiar and formidable face on television screens this side of the Irish Sea.

But the IFTA-winning star revealed how she may as well have left her glittering CV at home when she packed her bags for Tinseltown as a complete nobody in 2010.

"Complete and utter," she nods of the anonymity that went with moving continents mid-career.

"I think it's the reason why an awful lot of people don't stay, because you go over to the States, and your CV to date counts for nothing.

"Nothing counts, just what's happening in the room, and I think that's what wobbles a lot of people," reckons the Dubliner, "but I'm a bit of a stubborn creature.

"I've worked through that and it is a very interesting process when you get completely disassembled and everything that you've achieved or haven't achieved, and the labels you've been given and the boxes you've been put in, are suddenly valueless.

"So it's a really interesting disassembling of an ego and a reassemble from scratch again."

Most recently seen camping it up as Cruella De Vil on ABC fantasy Once Upon a Time, it's a gamble that paid off for the performer, who'd best known for playing detective Roisin Connor on ITV crime drama Trial & Retribution in the Noughties.

Next she faces the even scarier task of unpacking boxes after moving back to London, where she'll co-parent Evie (14), Ridley (12) and Flynn (10) with ex-husband Douglas Baxter.

"I've still got boxes for months to go, but it'll be grand," Victoria convinces Magazine+ during a flying visit back to the capital to spread the word about the upcoming Longines Irish Champions Weekend at Leopardstown and the Curragh.

"It does mean now that I'll be able to bring the kids over for more things - [to] see more family and be more connected to where they're from.

"I've been living in America for eight-and-a -half years, and I've managed to get home two or three times a year since, which has been fantastic, and the kids come.

"I brought them over the last couple of summers and they [got] very cross with me," she laughs at grey clouds swirling outside the window of the Merrion Hotel. "They want to come to this, to drizzle, because it's 73[°F] and sunny in Santa Monica, and every time I brought them back, it's been a heatwave - it's like, 'Muuum!'

"We've moved back to the UK now, so they'll have plenty of drizzle!"

For Vic herself, who's the niece of packing magnate Michael Smurfit, you could argue that it never rains but it pours, after her marriage of 15 years collapsed in 2015.

Just two years later, her eldest daughter Evie was diagnosed with Stargardt's Macular Dystrophy, a genetic eye disorder causing progressive loss of vision.

But it was the shock of a gunman targeting the teen's US school that was widely reported as the reason behind the family's second move in a decade.

"Which wasn't true because the decision had been made already," the 45 year-old picks the story up.

"Having said that, when you look at it, America has gotten an awful lot more agitated recently and they don't have gun control and that is a major issue.

"I think now we've got back to this side of the world, there is definitely a level of comfortable that you don't really realise you weren't until you are again.

"And so that's fantastic, but it's certainly not the [only] reason.

"There's a hundred reasons why we want to be back around family," she lists a few. "Access to great doctors for my daughter, access to more family resources as her eye issue progresses, and for them to be plugged back into where they're from, because even though they've grown up in the States, they understand the mentality of here more.

"It was fantastic, and we've had a great time. I've learnt a lot and the kids have learnt a lot, and been brought up in the American [way of] thinking.

"Now, it's time to just put some parameters around it with proper Irish and English thinking, so they're getting the best of both worlds really.

"They might sound American, but they feel Irish. I've put them on a race against time who's going to lose their American accent the quickest!"

As well as being an ambassador for Fighting Blindness, brave Evie famously opened up about her condition on The Late Late Show last year,

And mum Victoria, who also works with the patient-led charity, told how she couldn't be any prouder of her "rock star" daughter.

"Evie's wanted very much to be open about it, so that anybody else going through this doesn't feel alone," she praises, "so I've been really impressed with her wanting to do that.

"It's doing what it's doing," she adds of the degenerative disease. "We were in Switzerland for the last couple of days going to see a top doc there, Dr Scholl, and brilliantly he confirmed that she's going to keep her peripherals."

Six years after getting her big US break alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers in NBC bodice-ripper Dracula, Victoria revealed she's currently working on two new dramas in the UK and US.

But it was playing Disney's iconic puppy-snatcher from 2014 to 2018 that truly helped her earn her spots in Hollywood.

"After Dracula, I thought I may never get a job as camp and as well-dressed as this, and then up comes Cruella de Vil," smile the in-demand star, who's also confirmed she's "off the market" romantically after splitting from film-maker boyfriend Alistair Ramsden last year.

"Glenn Close is one of my idols, so I went into a complete flop sweat thinking, 'How do you follow Glenn Close?'

"And I thought 'Don't even think about it', so [I] went back to the cartoon, and it was great fun."

"I actually auditioned to play Belle's mother," reveals Victoria, who's also appeared in The Beach and About a Boy on the big screen and The Clinic on the small screen. "Then I got a call to say, 'You're playing Cruella de Vil.'

"So I auditioned to play the nice part and [ended up playing the mean part].

"Playing a villain is a lot of fun because you just get to rip open parts of you and just see how far you can go."

So having conquered La La Land, could the racing heiress return to her roots on terrestrial telly now that she's based just an hour away?

"Absolutely," she enthuses, "one hundred per cent."

"We're in the golden age of TV right now and I hear there's great things happening here at home.

"I've got my work cut out to catch up on everything!"

⬤ Longines Irish Champions Weekend takes places on Saturday, September 14 at Leopardstown Racecourse and Sunday, September 15 at the newly redeveloped Curragh Racecourse. See irishchampionsweekend.ie.

Irish Independent

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