Doing it her way

Acclaimed actor Fiona Shaw caught up with Nancy Hawkes in between filming the latest season of the hit spy TV thriller, Killing Eve, to talk about her multifaceted career spanning television, film, and, most notably, the theatre.

09 Dec 2019
Photography: Clare Keogh

“I was stopped by a policeman the other day and I thought: 'My god! What have I done?' But he just wanted to say: ‘My wife and I LOVE Killing Eve!’ It was a relief I can tell you!” laughs the Cork-born actor, Fiona Shaw.

The cat-and-mouse British spy thriller, Killing Eve, is an international phenomenon since it premiered in 2018. Fiona plays MI6’s inscrutable Head of Russia Desk, Carolyn Martens – a role which earned her an Emmy nomination and won the British Academy Television Award for best supporting actress in 2019.

Killing Eve has attracted more attention than anything else I’ve done on television,” she says. “Children often recognise me because of my part as Petunia Dursley in Harry Potter. But now I’m stopped by people of all ages. I was in a restaurant recently, sitting in a window seat, when a group of Japanese tourists came in and asked if I would come out for photographs. I said: ‘No! I’m eating my lunch!’”

The thriller, adapted by Phoebe Waller Bridge from a series of novellas, Codename Villanelle, is syndicated around the world. She attributes its success to its razor-sharp writing, on the knife-edge of humour. “Phoebe somehow understands the real essence of the characters. This means that my character (Carolyn Martens) can do very wayward things and yet stay completely true to who she is. In series one, she is a rather staid individual who is the formal Head of Russia Desk of MI6. By episode five, she’s in Russia having an absolute ball!”

"Killing Eve has attracted more attention than anything else I’ve done on television," says Fiona.

One of the great pleasures of Killing Eve, she says, is shooting scenes using huge landmarks like Trafalgar Square or the Royal Albert Hall. “Yesterday, we were in the Saville Club [an elegant and exclusive private members-only establishment in Mayfair]. Although I’ve lived in London for 35 years, it’s surreal to suddenly be in a fantasy world, having access to these amazing locations that, when I first arrived in the 80s had once seemed out of bounds.”

It is indeed a world away from her early days as an aspiring drama student. She arrived in London on New Year’s Eve 1980, having recently graduated from UCC. “The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art [RADA] was unlike anything I could ever have imagined,” she recalls. “I had passed RADA many times looking at the carved name above the door and thought: ‘Aren’t the people in there so lucky?’ I felt I was outside a wall looking in.”

As punk had yet to hit Cork, Fiona cut a slightly quaint figure among her contemporaries in RADA: “Everyone in my class was a punk and I was wearing a tweed skirt and a sweater and still politely calling everyone Mr and Mrs!” she laughs. “At first I had a lot of catching up to do. I’d never even seen a Shakespeare play done properly. Life in RADA was very rigorous: I started classes at 10 in the morning and didn’t go home until 10 at night. Every hour was dedicated to training: movement in the mornings, then voice coaching, then speech, mime, dialect. When you train the mind and body so totally together, you transform. I’ve since realised that if you overcome yourself and do more than you ever thought yourself capable of, your world changes. You then find yourself on the inside of that wall.”

It was in a second-year production of The Miser, by Molière, in her role of Frosine, that she suddenly “took off” and won the prestigious High Comedy Prize. She left RADA with two further valuable prizes under her belt: The Ronson Award – for most promising young actor – and the Bancroft Gold Medal: “I felt I was the most unlikely person to win these accolades – but it gave me the confidence to keep going,” she remembers.

"Life is long, and an Arts degree gives you the gift of appreciating the pleasurable things in life. Arts broadens human consciousness. If you do an Arts degree, you’ll always have a rich life!” - Fiona Shaw

Fiona went on to the National Theatre – the “hot” place to be at the time – where she was cast as Julia in a hugely successful production of The Rivals. From there, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and played many of the major female roles: Beatrice, Portia, Katherine the Shrew, and the traditionally male Richard II (at the National Theatre). “It gave me very solid training. I effectively trained three times – my philosophy degree from UCC, RADA and the RSC,” she explains.

In 1989, she played the role of Electra. “Up until then, I’d mostly played comedy. Suddenly I discovered tragedy. I spent much of the 90s exploring classical tragedy plays but reinventing them to find the modern emotional connection. A production of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land in 1997 brought me all over the world. These projects took up literally years of my life. It was very hard work, but they were great experiments,” she adds.

Her work has earned her the most prestigious accolades awarded for theatrical performances: the Olivier Award for Actress of the Year in 1990 for a number of roles – Celia in As You Like It at the Old Vic, the title role of Electra at the RSC at the Barbican and as Shen Te/Shui Ta in The Good Person of Sichuan at the National Theatre, the Olivier Award in 1994 for Best Actress for Young Woman in Machinal, and the Drama Desk Award in 1997 for Outstanding One-Person Show for The Waste Land. She was also awarded an honorary CBE in 2001.

Aside from her obvious talent, Fiona’s singlemindedness would seem to have also defined her journey. For instance, in the early days, when she had a brief encounter with the mainstream film industry in Hollywood: “I’d already done some films in the late 80s – My Left Foot, and Mountains of the Moon. The LA film industry was very interested in me but said I was ‘already old’.” She was just 28.

“I turned my back on Hollywood and thought: ‘I’m going to do my own thing.’ I was enjoying success doing what I was doing in the theatre, so why would I scrabble around in a competition that I couldn’t win? I am very pleased that I didn’t fall on the rocks of not being pretty enough or young enough, or available enough.”

“I made my own career, and that career was the theatre," she said. “I became completely absorbed and I dedicated the next twenty years of my life to that path.”

Fiona Shaw and Gene Collins on graduation day

Ireland has changed immeasurably of course, since Fiona (Fifi) Wilson grew up in Cork in the 60s and early 70s. But she is keen to acknowledge the solid, loving and stimulating foundation her childhood there provided, for her to explore the world beyond: “The longer I live away, the more I see how valuable it was to have been brought up in Cork. I have a lovely family and there was always great conversation, music and entertainment at home,” she muses.

She attended Scoil Mhuire on Wellington Road in the city centre. “It was a superb school run by Kate Cahill and Mary O’Donovan. They called me into her office and said: ‘Fifi, you can be a force for good… or not. It’s up to you which one you choose.’ At that moment I wasn’t sure which one I preferred. I didn’t know I was a force for anything! The school celebrated our imaginations. We all behaved badly, made noise and got into trouble, of course. But the standard was very high, particularly in the arts subjects.”

Inspired by her drama coach, Abigail Scott (later Hennessy) of the Cork School of Music, Fiona decided she wanted to train to be an actor. “Abby had trained at RADA and that put the notion of being trained elsewhere into my head.” But her parents encouraged her to go to university first, so she enrolled in UCC in 1976 to study philosophy.

“I’ve always appreciated the idea of education for education’s sake. Life is long, and an arts degree gives you the gift of appreciating the pleasurable things in life. Arts broadens human consciousness. If you do an arts degree, you’ll always have a rich life,” she says.

“When I was 50 (she is now 61), I found I was tired from doing so many theatre productions. To balance my theatre work, I decided to work with some opera. I was asked to direct Riders to the Sea for the English National Opera. I went on to direct The Marriage of Figaro and The Rape of Lucretia which I thoroughly enjoyed.” More recently Fiona has had a number of standout roles during what is widely regarded to be a ‘golden age’ for television – in True Blood, Killing Eve and Fleabag.

“I turned my back on Hollywood and thought: ‘I’m going to do my own thing.’ I was enjoying success doing what I was doing in the theatre, so why would I scrabble around in a competition that I couldn’t win? I am very pleased that I didn’t fall on the rocks of not being pretty enough or young enough, or available enough” – Fiona Shaw

“Maybe it took me until my 50s to not mind what the camera sees – not in the sense of vanity, but I enjoy that I can now act on camera, as I did on the stage, but without huge physical demands,” she reflects. “I’ve never kept a television, so now I have a projector in my sitting room so I can project shows and films – large, onto a wall and really study them closely. I am a novice in television, and I’m having a gorgeous young career in it!” she laughs.

When in character, her accent is impeccably cut-glass English quality. In reality, her voice retains the rich, soft Cork tones of her roots. She visits her family back home regularly. The Ireland she left in the late 70s is a world away from the modern Ireland, proud of its place in Europe and embracing recent seismic changes to its social fabric.

The passing of the marriage equality referendum of 2015 is close to her heart: Fiona married her wife, Sri Lankan-born economist, Sonali Deraniyagala, in 2018. “I embrace the result of the marriage referendum in Ireland like everyone should. Anything that allows the human project to expand is a good thing. People should love and marry who they want; it helps integrate society. It helps define the country as a true democracy.”

“I’ve never been so proud to be Irish than right now,” she says. “It is wonderful seeing the elegance of the new generation – their assuredness, their Europeanness, the internationalism of what it is to be Irish. It’s healthy and it’s open. Ireland’s optimism is breath-taking.”

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