Monday 18 February 2019

It's a long long way from Clare to here

Ken Murray

Clare woman Hylda Queally is agent to the stars in Hollywood. She talks to Ken Murray about her path to success

'I KNOW them all in Hollywood. After all, that's the nature of what I do," says top Hollywood agent Hylda Queally, from Co Clare, who makes it clear that doing business on a daily basis with Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone or Titanic director James Cameron is all part of just another day at the office.

"Getting to know about an upcoming movie is all about having a good working relationship with a top producer, director or studio head," says the 41-year-old former banker with AIB, and former employee of Aer Rianta at Shannon, who is now one of the top behind-the-scenes movers and shakers in Tinseltown. Her clients now include Titanic star Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Oscar winners William Hurt and Hilary Swank, and Robson Green of ITV's Robson and Jerome fame, to name a few.

As senior vice-president and co-head of the film division at the Beverly Hills office of the giant William Morris Agency (WMA), she has played her own part in determining who appears in some of the biggest movie blockbusters we have seen on our screens in recent years.

"When Kate Winslet originally got the part in Titanic, I had no idea of how big it would be. Kate was doing press interviews for the film Sense and Sensibility and I managed to get hold of the synopsis of Titanic. I arranged a meeting with director James Cameron. Kate was screen-tested and the rest is history," says Hylda.

"It was only when we saw the finished product that we knew it was going to be huge. The average person has seen Titanic three times. The film opened up endless opportunities for Kate, who is now very much on the Hollywood A-list of celebrities."

Hylda, whose office is just around the corner from the fashionable districts of Rodeo and Canon Drive in tnorth-west Los Angeles, is really looking forward to next year's release of the Hollywood version of the life of the assassinated Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin which stars one of her other top clients, Cate Blanchett.

Her canny ability to get hold of hot scripts has helped Hylda enormously to place one of her top talents in this regard.

"The William Morris Agency represented the original screenplay writer Mary-Agnes Donoghue, whose script had been bought by producer Jerry Bruckheimer," says Hylda.

(Jerry Bruckheimer is the man who brought us Beverly Hills Cop, The Rock, Days of Thunder, Top Gun and Pearl Harbor.)

"I got my hands on the script for the Veronica Guerin movie early on. I called Jerry to see what the status of the production was. He was in the process of placing a director and selected Joel Schumacher, who in turn wanted my client Cate Blanchett," says Hylda.

The film has yet to get a formal title and is still in production and editing.

"Joel, Jerry and Cate had a very positive experience with the shooting in Ireland. The crew were fantastic and everybody had a great time," says Hylda, whose position sees her dividing time between Los Angeles, New York and London, where The William Morris Agency at 104, the oldest theatrical agency in the world has offices.

As she stares out the darkened windows of the plush William Morris Plaza, one can only take one's hat off to her. Hylda has risen to the top in her chosen area and achieved her own personal "American dream" via determined ambition and a stroke of good luck.

Born into farming stock in the hurling stronghold of Barefield, close to Ennis, in 1961, her love of showbiz was inspired at an early age by her set-dancing father and nurtured by her mother, Phil.

The eldest of three her brother Raymond is a news cameraman with ITN in London, while her sister Stephanie is a mother and qualified nurse Hylda went to Barefield National School before moving on to Colaiste Mhuire in Ennis.

After completing her Leaving Certificate in 1978, a spell at the McNamara Secretarial College in Limerick saw her go through several career moves from AONTAS in Dublin, Inland Motors in Ennis, Aer Rianta in Shannon and AIB in London.

She then decided to come back home and check out the business of actor representation in Dublin.

"In the early Eighties I came home, and the agency scene in Dublin was pretty small. Terry Hayden, Barry Manning, Brian O'Donoghue and Christine Sheridan were the prominent people of the time and from what I remember, Terry was the only full-time person at it," says Hylda.

"I printed up business cards for Limelight Management and went down to the Project Theatre where the Rough Magic company was performing. I took on some of their performers, and some from the Abbey Theatre came on board as well."

EVEN in the Eighties when people were deserting these shores for greener fields, Hylda slogged it out, despite the difficulties of the-then struggling Irish economy.

"We had RTE 1 and RTE 2 for Irish home-based TV drama, which wasn't so bad. I also knocked on the doors at the BBC and Granada to get work for my talent. In fact, I managed to get a few of my clients on Casualty.

"I must admit I found it hard to break into London. At one stage I was offered work in an agency there, but I wanted to be on another level and in real terms there was only one place to be."

There then followed an extraordinary set of circumstances which put Hylda on the road to a little fame and, presumably, fortune.

"I contacted movie agent Paul Kohner in Los Angeles with a view to setting up a meeting with him, and arrived here on March 4, 1988. Unfortunately, as I was on my way here to meet him, he passed away.

"I arrived here and practically knew nobody. As it happened there was a writers' strike on in Hollywood and that meant that lots of agents were sitting in their offices with very little to do," she says.

"Once I was in LA I didn't want my trip to go to waste, so I rang around and managed to get an appointment with most agencies. Towards the end of my trip there I met with Nicole David, who offered me work with the Triad agency. I ran the international area for them."

This was Hylda's opportunity, and that all-important break set her on her way.

So Hylda left Dublin in January 1989 and joined Triad, where one of her first clients was a then unknown actor by the name of Brad Pitt. "I put him into Thelma and Louise and his career took off from there," she says, without any sense of regret.

With Brad's star on the ascent, he fled the Triad nest for the giant CAA agency. However, just as Hylda was firmly establishing her reputation in Hollywood, William Morris bought the Triad group and, as part of the deal, Hylda found herself catapulted up the ladder, landing a senior VP job at WMA.

"I like to grow and nurture my own talent. It's a lot more rewarding to see a career grow," says Hylda.

Hylda comes home to Barefield twice a year from her base in Pacific Palisades, near fashionable Malibu, where she lives with her computer executive husband and two children, Charlotte Clare (7) and son Ryan Morrison (4) whose godmother just happens to be one Kate Winslet. ("I've no doubt that in years to come, Ryan will say, "Thank God that Leonardo di Caprio fella left a lifejacket for Kate when that ship went down!")

In a business where certain stars can command up to $20m per movie and some agents take a five to 20 per cent cut, Hylda is keen to push female actors up into that layer of earners.

She is full of praise for Julia Roberts.

"There is still a glass ceiling for actresses in Hollywood. It's great to see Julia Roberts command the same fees as high-profile male actors. It's really difficult for actresses though, because there are fewer good parts for women and therefore, it's more competitive.

"And as women get older, opportunities become fewer."

So what advice would Hylda give to budding Irish starlets hoping to break into Hollywood?

"It's a lot more prudent for a budding actor to come out here when they have a movie they can show on tape and can talk about it.

"Timing is the key. It's a lot more productive for me if someone arrives here with product to present then it's easier to form an opinion on the suitability of that person. The right place, right time scenario can also be a key factor," she says.

"Sometimes the look of an actor has to be right and sometimes the accent has to be right. All actors should work on a mid-Atlantic accent."

Hylda's secretary pops her head in the door to tell her that somebody is holding on the phone for what one presumes could be the next multi-million dollar deal.

It's at times like this that one can't help but think of the words of that famous Ralph McTell ballad: "It's a long long way from Clare to here."

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