Charlie's got the world at her feet
'Love/Hate' made her a star. Now Charlie Murphy is building an international career and taking the ups and downs of an actor's life in her stride, writes Julia Molony
The Soho hotel in Central London is a magnet for media types, rising starlets and television actors. But you wouldn't immediately place Charlie Murphy among them. With her backpack and warm coat on, she could pass as a college student taking a short-cut through the lobby on her way to class. She blends into a crowd. The impact of her restrained beauty dawns on you gradually - only after she's settled into her seat, made a start on her cup of coffee and fixed you with her clever brown eyes.
Chances are that you'll know Charlie as Siobhan Delaney from the hit drama Love/Hate. The role was her high-speed vehicle from virtually unknown Gaiety School of Acting graduate to national celebrity. She won an IFTA for her portrayal of Siobhan - who was originally supposed to be a minor player - the niece of crime boss Nidge Delaney. But Murphy's turn on the show was so compelling, apparently, that over the course of five seasons Siobhan evolved from minor character to series lead. Her on-screen death clinched the explosive denouement in the series finale.
Despite the high drama of Love/Hate, Charlie is self-contained as a performer. In life and on screen she has an inscrutability that suggests complex inner workings behind that porcelain exterior, and that has made her a favourite with directors of both television and theatre.
Love/Hate put her on the map. The makers were a "dream team" she says and the cast and crew became very close. "You're doing it for five years, so it's a family. Especially, some of the stuff I had to do later on as the series grew - really dark stuff, rape. Those days of filming were just gorgeous days. Everyone had a shorthand, you know. Everyone joked around when they knew they could and then were just mindful of each other when the darker stuff happened. It's kind of funny, the darker the stuff you do - in those situations when you have a gorgeous crew around you, the easier the day is. Because everyone is just so mindful and there's a real love on set and everyone is kind to each other and looking out for each other."
The show's international reach gave her a powerful calling card outside of Ireland too. About six years ago she went to London, where she now works regularly, and calls home.
Followers of her career will inevitably start wondering about the next rite-of-passage leap for any new Irish talent - stateside. Especially since, in a few weeks' time, she'll grace the big screen for the first time in The Foreigner, in which she appears alongside Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan. "That was a mad thing that happened last Christmas," she says, looking nonplussed. It's based on a book called The Chinaman...I play a femme-fatale character who is kind of a double agent. It was filmed all over London." She's pretty nonchalant about her first brush with Hollywood, saying only of Chan that "he was such a gent".
In fact, working in LA doesn't interest her. Currently her most audacious ambition is to carry on doing exactly what she has been up to thus far. "I would just love to keep straddling the line between film and television," she says. "If I could just keep doing that I would be very happy. I don't mind not hitting Hollywood." And she has zero interest in going to flog her wares during pilot season in LA. "It can be a bit gruelling and it's kind of pot luck and a lot of the scripts aren't very good. You jump on a conveyor belt and it's just something that doesn't really interest me."
Charlie grew up in Wexford, the fourth of six children. Her father is a Christian pastor, but when she was a teenager, her parents ran a hair salon. ''Growing up in a family-run business was brilliant training for what was to come,'' she says. And the experience taught her a great deal about "dealing with the public and throwing yourself out there. After school we'd come in and we'd chat with the ladies who were getting their hair done, and we always worked on Saturdays. I'd do reception or wash and blow-dries".
Watching her mother at work too, was an education. "She played a blinder in there dealing with difficult customers," she says. "She's a really good, quick-thinking problem solver - a really bubbly woman."
The experience set her up with a good work ethic, too. "You just have to get stuff done. After dinner on a Sunday you'd be cleaning the salon getting it ready for customers coming in on a Monday, that kind of stuff. You'd always be around doing odd jobs and it was just a given that everyone mucked in and did it."
There's no history of performance in the family, but a literary seam runs through it. She said: "There were books around...it's just a hobby but my dad is a gorgeous poet."
In fact, Charlie's interest in theatre sprang mainly from an accident of geography. "Me and my two younger sisters were kind of around at the right time. We moved a few different places growing up and we lived in the country as well. But as early teens we moved into Wexford town." Living on Wexford main street, the theatre was right across the road, and so the younger Murphy children were told "get your homework done and you can go over and audition", for whatever show was coming to town. "Who knows what I might have ended up doing if we'd stayed in the country?" As it was, she became a leading light in the local theatre and am-dram scene. "It was so much fun but very parochial," she says now. "I wasn't exposed to great writers. It was Calamity Jane and The Sound of Music - fun and brilliant and great for your confidence if you're not very good at sports,'' she says with a wry smile. Still, somehow among all of this, the teenage Charlie made the apparently unlikely discovery of dark, raw and heavyweight writers such as Enda Walsh and Sarah Kane. Her discovery of Walsh's work, through her drama teacher, was a seminal moment. And she credits the same teacher for steering her onto the right path. "You just don't know what would have happened if you didn't meet certain people. That was just an amazing exposure to what I wanted to do...(Enda's) work just blew my mind really.''
When she decided to pursue acting professionally, Walsh's play Disco Pigs was top of her dream projects list. "That play really made me go 'oh my God people can write this stuff and you can play these parts - this is incredible.'" And, as luck would have it, about a decade later, she was chosen to play Runt in a Young Vic production of the play - her first job in the UK.
And the association with Walsh's work has continued… she'll be reviving her role in his hit play Arlington on stage at the Abbey, before the production then tours to St Anne's warehouse in New York this spring. It's an episodic, non-linear piece in Walsh's signature poetic style, and Murphy plays Isla, a woman "who has been living in this waiting room for the majority of her life - since she was a toddler. It's about that and coping with that confined space. Her job is to create her dreams. She describes her dreams and her hopes and aspirations. And then they are transferred into video footage, by an unseen operator".
Working with Enda Walsh, who also directs, lives up to her own teenage dreams. "It's just a privilege to have Enda in the room. He's just explaining everything, you figure it out as you go along together. He's very open to talking about it," she says.
The play is abstract and "open to interpretation". A big change then, from the plot-driven, gritty material of Love/Hate. "So many of my friends and family came to see it and all of them got different things out of it. And it's funny, we still debate what the ending is and what it's about.
"My character, she's a caged animal really. So in order to keep her sanity she has different places on stage she does ritualistic things - it's very physical."
Back in Wexford, her parents had some initial misgivings about her career choice. Especially, perhaps, when she dropped out of Ballyfermot College, where she was studying film production, in favour of going to drama school. "I went no, sod this. I want to just really try it - risk it," she remembers.
"There's always worry, I think, when you know your kid is going to go into something like (acting)," she says of her parents' reaction. ''You go, 'I hope they're good enough, or I hope they get the right breaks'. It's a lot to do with getting the right breaks as well. Mum and Dad, even during Love/Hate would be saying, 'maybe if you did a night course in English studies, or something like that, so you can teach. Something to fall back on'. They've stopped saying that now. But only just. It is like rags to riches and back to rags again. There's so many ups and downs to it."
She didn't work at all in the first year after she graduated from the Gaiety. But she held her nerve, with the help of the rest of her class. "You leave the nest together and you're in that group of people, then you're checking in on each other and watching Cash in the Attic and making beans on toast and going, 'aargh. What the fuck are we doing!'"
Her first break, when it came, turned out to be a good experience but a false start. "I did a play called This is Our Youth, and then worked with Loose Canon Theatre Company. And then I felt like I was the kiss of death in a way because that was 2008, and then the crash happened and all the public funding (for theatre) got cut. Luckily, it was at that moment that Love/Hate came along.
"You learn so much about yourself when you are not working," she says. "What you do with your time...with that never-ending not knowing and how you refocus yourself and position yourself in what you're doing." In the downtimes, she keeps herself busy with yoga, and arts and crafts.
"I do knitting and that sort of stuff. And then just, exercise, watch movies. Kill time." She has a boyfriend, though she won't identify him. Except to say that he is Irish and also an actor. "Keeping it local," she jokes. It works well that they are in the same industry. "It's a good shorthand and we've a lot of the same friends and it's lovely."
Charlie lives in North London with fellow Love/Hate alumnus Ruth Bradley, who forms a crucial part of the support network that she has built around herself since moving to London, which helped immensely to smooth the transition into her new life in the city.
"There's a gorgeous community of Irish people over here. A few of us went to hot yoga this morning. We help each other with self-tapes and learning lines. It's like a real hippie commune,'' she says. "So it's actually fine." It's six years since she got her first job in the UK, but she only feels she's been "really living here for the last two years. All my things are here now, mentally I go, 'I'm here now.'"
In the meantime, she's been notching up a nice range of roles, including a run in prime-time BBC shows, including Ripper Street, The Village and Happy Valley. The latter, she says was another gruelling, but life-affirming experience, in which she relived the experience of playing the victim of sexual assault and this time, kidnapping too. "For Happy Valley as well - some of the darker stuff we had in that - rape scenes and kidnappings as well. I just had a gorgeous crew on that so we just had a lovely time doing it."
Both in work and in life, Murphy seems to have mastered the knack of emotional discipline, and to have learned the vital skill of holding her nerve. Maybe it's all that hot yoga she does.
"I try not to panic too much about things," she says. "It is hard. But you can teach yourself. And just take the jobs as they come and just know that if you just put your head down and do your homework and concentrate on what you are doing then hopefully, work creates more work." It certainly seems to be working a charm for her so far.
Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival's productions 'Arlington' and 'Ballyturk' by Enda Walsh come to the Abbey Theatre next month. 'Arlington', starring Charlie Murphy, Hugh O'Conor and Oona Doherty runs at the Abbey Theatre from February 10-25. abbeytheatre.ie