‘I’ve always been able to go “f**k it”. That’s the cathartic nature of theatre’ – Eileen Walsh

One of Ireland’s great stage actors, Eileen Walsh has played all kind of mothers – abused, grieving and even murderous – but she next takes to the stage as a 30-something craving a baby. She tells Maggie Armstrong about leaving work at the stage door, the switch to the small screen and teaching spinning classes at her local gym

Actor's life: 'We're not saving babies' lives and we're not down a mine. We are creating. We are very lucky' - actress Eileen Walsh. Photo: David Conachy
Actor’s life: ‘We’re not saving babies’ lives and we’re not down a mine. We are creating. We are very lucky’ – actress Eileen Walsh. Photo: David Conachy
Great stage actor: Eileen Walsh pictured at the Gate Theatre. Photo: David Conachy

When Eileen Walsh was 17, she played Runt in Enda Walsh’s play Disco Pigs, and at 23 she played an abused mother in The Magdalene Sisters – an unforgettable turn that suggested a maturity way beyond her years.

She has played the mother of a dying son (The Children Act), a deeply suffering mother (Eden), and of course the mother who kills her children (Medea).

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Walsh is one of the great stage actors, a hard and heavy hitter whose vulnerability can be chilling – which is why it has been a little disconcerting to see her turning up in sitcoms in recent years, playing breezy, romantic parts which in previous times might have been considered less important.

The Cork native was thoroughly enjoyable in Sky show Catastrophe as the salacious Kate, then in Women on the Verge as Alison, a 30-something urbanite who longs to be a mother. Now she is about to star, alongside Marty Rea, in Beginning by David Eldridge. Laura is another sperm-mad woman in her late 30s who has everything but the baby she craves. The two-hander places two sozzled souls together at the end of a house party in Crouch End, London, revealing the traumas of their past, exploring whether it’s possible to fall in love outside of a dating app. A romantic comedy, Beginning must be a piece of cake for Walsh?

Great stage actor: Eileen Walsh pictured at the Gate Theatre. Photo: David ConachyGreat stage actor: Eileen Walsh pictured at the Gate Theatre. Photo: David Conachy

Great stage actor: Eileen Walsh pictured at the Gate Theatre. Photo: David Conachy

“It’s a seemingly easy play,” she says. “Though I went home the other night and nearly started crying. This woman has everything. Amazing job, house, nice wardrobe. The one thing she doesn’t have, she f**king really wants. She wants a family.”

We are sitting in Dublin’s Gate theatre, before rehearsals. Walsh is upbeat to the point of giddy, an extrovert who tends to swear. She is relaxed and open, no topic seems off bounds. How many people confuse her with Catastrophe’s Kate, a fugitive mum on a sex rampage in London, who is always drunk?

“I had some of the mums at school meet me at drop-off saying ‘she’s just like you!’” she laughs, good-naturedly. “I would never be as flamboyantly, aggressively flirtatious as she is. And I love that I get the opportunity to do it.”

Producer, actress and fellow Irish woman Sharon Horgan “fought hard” to get Walsh the part after they had a successful chemistry meet. “It’s to see how you fizz together. I was basically fan-girling her.

“Sharon is a workhorse. You’ll see her at breakfast and she’s always on the phone and emailing and busy with the company, always working on a couple of projects, six or seven projects, Lord knows, and she’ll be trying to find new writers, championing women.

“She is tough, she hasn’t got to where she is for no reason. She expects a lot of you on set.”

Not a bother to this habitué of London’s National and Donmar stages, who has acted alongside the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Thompson and Cillian Murphy. The woman who played the title role as the earthy and complicated Portia Coughlan in Marina Carr’s play, and later, with athletic energy, Bessie Burgess in The Plough and the Stars.

Walsh describes her range as “either quirky, gawky, or viciously strong characters”, which is too limiting. She can play a leading lady as happily as she can creepy comic sidekick. She had the least glamorous part in the deeply unglamorous The Magdalene Sisters. How disturbing was it to inhabit Crispina, a special-needs captive forced to fellate a priest?

She shrugs perkily. “I think quite often, when you do the heavy pieces, it’s the most fun you’ll have. Because you can’t afford to be heavy.

“And we had no ego. Nobody was allowed to wax or shave, everybody was hairy, in awful brown dresses, greasy hair, sweaty, no make-up. I often said, if I don’t ever make another film in my life, at least I’ve made that film.”

This summer at the Galway International Arts Festival she will star again alongside her sister Catherine in Enda Walsh’s two-hander The Same. (“It’s f**king glorious,” says Walsh, who is great at selling a play.)

She and Catherine both play the same woman who meets herself in 10 years’ time following a psychiatric episode.

(“I wrote it for Eileen and Catherine,” Enda Walsh says. “They both have very specific and definite energies about them as actors and people.”)

Playing so many troubled women does not seem to trouble Eileen Walsh, because she never takes her work home, being, she says, “a demon for having a cut-off point. I get to 6 o’clock and, oh my God, I need a glass of wine.”

How does this chameleon do it, manage to disappear and re-emerge fully embodied by every part she plays?

“It’s something you just drown in a bit,” she says, adding, “We’re not saving babies’ lives, and we’re not down a f**king mine. You’re creating. We’re very, very lucky.”

When she is in Cork, she always makes time to go to Yoga Republic on Douglas Street. “There’s an instructor there, Sackies, who always fits me in. He tells me, ‘Once you’re centred, you’ve got to look up, don’t look down, if you look down, you feel down’.”

And what’s this I’ve heard about Walsh teaching spinning classes in a studio near their home? She nods with great severity.

“I adore it, I would do it for free. It’s so good for your mental health, your shape, it keeps your brain ticking over.”

Her sister Catherine, a very successful stage actor (who just played Kate in The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Gaiety in Dublin), has always been a force for good in Eileen’s life. It was Catherine who talked sense to her when she was considering not taking the role of Bessie Burgess in the Abbey’s high-profile 2016 production of The Plough and the Stars.

“Because I thought, surely Nora is the part, I can’t believe I’m too old to play Nora, and I never got to play Nora!

“I was f**king boring the head off Catherine, who was like, Eileen don’t be a f**king idiot, take the f**king part.”

It was Catherine who originally encouraged her to take drama classes at age 13 in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, which brought her on to Trinity College to study drama.

Eileen was in her first year when Enda asked her if she would like to be in Disco Pigs. “Enda had seen me in Danti-Dan [by Gina Moxley]. He called me and asked if we could meet for a coffee. We went to Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street [Dublin] and I remember him handing the script across. I couldn’t understand any of it. It was written in the dialect.”

Someone else might have been frightened cold by the opportunity, but not Walsh. “Being allowed to be wrong is the most freeing thing, being allowed to be a mess.

“I was full of confidence. I adored my job, I knew I was good at it – and that sounds incredibly cocky. That’s the kind of confidence you dream of getting back again because you get knocked then as you get older and you start doubting yourself.”

She laughs heartily, recalling how she told Enda she wasn’t sure about moving back to Cork to do the play. “It turned out to be the most amazing opportunity,” she says, recalling the sell-out tour on which she met her husband, Stuart McCaffer, who was working as a barber near the theatre in Edinburgh.

The thing about Walsh is that she has a great man behind her. “Stuart is monumentally creative. And a backbone to our relationship. He’s the one who basically single parents while I’m away learning lines.”

They live in north-west London with two girls, Tippy (13) and Ethel (10), and their Dalmatian-springer spaniel cross, Albert, in a little “Coronation Street-style house” beside the new high-speed railway. “Kids don’t want to know about your job. They want you to plait their hair and put the nit treatment in.”

How would her kids describe her? She ponders. “I’m good craic… and we answer everything. They ask a question, we answer it as straight up as we can, and take any shame out of it.” Recently she had to explain as best she could what a vibrator was. Via Facetime. While on the set of Women on the Verge, having her hair done.

“I don’t know what kind of a mum I am. An absent mum? Respect for the person who has to stay at home, doing the lunches – and then when they’re half-eaten, coming home, washing them out, getting the uniforms.”

She describes herself as a “terrible friend” though her friends and collaborators have excellent things to say about her. Mark O’Halloran (whose film Rialto Walsh will appear in this year) describes her as “brilliant”, “and a splendid person, too”. The Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone has said that “rehearsing with her is a massive process of discovery, because I never know how she’s going to approach a character”.

She claims she hasn’t read a theatre review with her name in it ever since she got “stinking reviews” in John Osborne’s play The Entertainer. “Worst reviews in my life,” she exclaims. “I remember going back to my apartment every night, and probably drinking a bottle of wine. You don’t need to read anything. You’ll get a vibe. You’ll know if you’re in a three star, or a four star. You’ll definitely know if you’re in a one star… Even if the reviews are shit, you’ll still have to go in tomorrow… and if they’re brilliant, you’ll never be able to be that brilliant twice.

“I’ve always been able to go ‘f**k it’. That’s part of the cathartic nature of theatre. You get to wash out all that laundry. Then you leave it at stage door.”

‘Beginning’ by David Eldridge plays at The Gate, Dublin until April 20

Indo Review


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