20 Questions With...Niamh Cusack
Date: 6 February 2006
Actress Niamh Cusack Ė currently reprising her role in Mammals on tour - shares her views on what makes a great play, why young people are so important to theatre & working with her Three Sisters.
Sister of fellow actresses Sinead and Sorcha, Niamh Cusack has her own myriad stage and screen credits to her name and is a familiar face from various television dramas. Her recent theatre credits include Breathing Corpses at the Royal Court and His Dark Materials at the National Theatre.
In the West End, Cusack has appeared in The Maids at the Donmar Warehouse, Not I at the Barbican, Indian Ink at the Aldwych, The Tutor at the Old Vic. She has also taken leading roles in As You Like It, The Art of Success, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Mary After The Queen with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).
She has starred in productions at many leading Off-West End and regional venues, including Nabakovís Gloves at Hampstead Theatre, The Merchant of Venice at Chichester Festival Theatre, The Three Sisters at the Gate and Royal Court, Playboy of the Western World at West Yorkshire Playhouse, The Admirable Crichton at the Triumph and Haymarket, Captain Swing at Leeds Playhouse, A Woman of No Importance and A Dollís House at the Gate in Dublin, The Phoenix at the Bush, The Plough and Stars at the Young Vic, The Fairy Queen (Aix en Provence) and The Three Sisters at Manchesterís Royal Exchange.
Cusackís television credits include Miss Marple, Too Good To Be True, State of Mind, Trust, Little Bird, Always and Everyone, Rhinoceros, Colour Blind, Trauma, Heartbeat, Angel Train, Poirot, Jeeves and Wooster, Chalkface, A Marriage of Inconvenience and Till We Meet Again. On film, sheís been seen in The Closer You Get, Playboys, Shadow Under The Sun, Paris by Night, Lucky Sunil and Fools of Fortune.
Cusack is currently on tour reprising her performance in Mammals, the debut stage play by actress-turned-writer Amelia Bullmore, which received its world premiere at the Bush in spring 2005 (See News, 3 Mar 2005). Cusack plays Jane Hammersby, a wife and mother trying to hold her family together.
Date & place of birth
Born 20 October 1959 in Dublin, Ireland.
Lives now in
I went to Guildhall. I did a year there, but I didnít finish the course because I got offered a job at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. I trained as a musician at the Royal Academy of Music. I worked as musician until I was 23 and then wasnít getting much work in London. I enrolled on a course at City Lit, which was a great drama course, and I remember coming back after the first week there saying, ďthis is what Iím going to doĒ. As it happened, a lot of people I was studying with were also trying to get into drama school, so I tried it, too.
What made you want to become an actor? What was your first big break?
I saw a translation of Three Sisters which was done by Brian Friel, a touring production, in Dublin and I thought, ďI know how to play Irina.Ē I was a classical musician originally, a classical flautist, and worked in an orchestra in Dublin. In spite of coming from a theatrical family, I was the one everyone was hoping had got away, but when I saw Three Sisters I thought, ďI know how to play itĒ. I have three sisters myself, and I just knew exactly how to play the role. I would say my first big break was doing Three Sisters at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I then went on to do a few seasons at the RSC and that was the next big break, playing Desdemona in Othello with David Suchet really set me on my way.
Career highlights & favourite productions to date
I did Three Sisters again about 15 years later with two of my sisters and my father Cyril at the Gate in Dublin, and that was a huge marker in my career. I worked with Karel Reisz with A Dollís House, Karel is one of my heroes and I loved playing Nora. And I suppose this play that Iím doing now is also a highlight. I really love it.
Karel Reisz and Anna Mackmin (who directed Breathing Corpses). I think what they have in common is they both love actors, they both have a great intuition about people. Karel is one the cleverest, most mature, kindest people Iíve ever known and an incredibly impressive person. Anna just has the ability to make everyone feel like theyíre playing rather than working when theyíre with her. They both have a huge amount of energy but are also ruthlessly critical in a very constructive way. Itís the best possible parenting: they love you and think youíre fantastic but can also tell you what your faults are.
Shakespeare, Chekhov, Amelia Bullmore and Tom Stoppard. It doesnít matter whether it is a classical or modern play as long as the role is good I think. I like plays that make human beings seem great or epic, I love doing plays where you think all the human emotions and predicaments are big things rather than little things, they are grand adventures. All those playwrights do that.
Whatís the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last thing?
I saw Death of a Salesman at the National about 25 years ago now and I was completely unable to move from my seat. I can still remember how I felt, I was devastated. It stayed with me for a very long time, itís still with me, 25 years on. Iíve recently been to see three plays: Heroes; Pillars of the Community; and Bottle Universe. Heroes. I loved Heroes because itís a play about men and was so moving and funny and all about the opposite sex that I donít understand at all - it was making sense of these complete aliens! I empathised with them and was with them throughout their little journey. Pillars was fantastic, a really clear production of a very difficult play - I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. And Bottle Universe at the Bush was a really good production, beautifully acted, I was delighted by it.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
The future has to lie with young people. I think what the National is doing at the moment, with a lot of plays embracing young people and an audience that wouldnít necessarily walk through door very often, is wonderful. Ticket prices have to come down, and I think visits to the theatre should be timetabled into the school curriculum. I feel the government doesnít take on the power of theatre in terms of making people understand the world they live in. Theatre has the power a book has but sometimes seeing people in front of you is more powerful. So theatre visits and workshops in schools should be very important.
If you hadnít become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I was a musician first, but I think I would love to have been a doctor. Unfortunately, I faint at the sight of blood so I wouldnít have been much use in the operating theatre! Iíve always been fascinated with people who can help mend people. I thought of being a surgeon or psychiatrist if I wasnít going to be an actress. Maybe I could be a psychotherapist. Iíve always wanted to be a writer, but I have no ability for writing. Iíd love to write novels. I donít think Iíd ever write a play.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Thatís a difficult one. I would like to play Varia in The Cherry Orchard. And I may be too old now, but Iíd like to play Beatrice in Much Ado. I love her wit and the fact she thinks on her feet, which is something I donít do. But I think every character you play lives inside you for the rest of your life - Iíd love to take some of Beatriceís wit!
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Iíd quite like to try being a man for one day only. I was thinking about this, in case it came up, and I think Iíd like to spend a day as Robert Fisk whoís a political journalist who reports on the Middle East. Iíve always admired people who are living on the edge, whose knowledge of political situations is on the ground, rather than being a politician. They are really hearing peopleís stories, and having that sort of courage would be amazing.
My absolute favourite book for a long time was Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. One of my favourite authors is Margaret Atwood. Sheís got an extraordinary mind. Iíve just finished reading Sebastian Barryís latest book, A Long, Long Way.
Favourite holiday destinations
The west of Ireland is somewhere I go a lot. I love Greece and I love Italy. We went to Greece actually the last time we went on holiday. We went to a little island, and it was really lovely and unspoilt, just great. We had lovely weather the people are really friendly. And I happen to love feta cheese, which is a good thing if youíre in Greece!
Favourite after-show haunts
I tend to go home most nights, but if Iím in the West End, I sometimes go to Orsoís. I donít really go out that often because I tend to run home or just have a quick drink with friends.
What made you want to accept your role in Mammals?
Jane is a fantastic, really well-written part. I identify with a lot of her anxieties. The play is written by an actress who Iíve worked with - I really wanted to do the play because I love Amelia so much. I was really keen to want to do it, so when I read it and it was brilliant, I was so pleased because then I really really wanted to do it! My character is funny and moving and articulate and inarticulate at the same time. Sheís an everywoman I think we can all relate to.
Youíre reprising your role from the showís earlier run at the Bush. Have you made many changes this time round? What is it like to be working with different cast members in the tour?
I think the play is going to really fit well into other spaces because although it's about a day in the life of a family, itís epic. Thatís what I love about plays. Itís all about the big things that happen and their friendships are under stress, their relationships with their children. It really could fit into a big theatre quite as well as a small one. What Iím trying to do is do even less than I did before - less is more - and just let the character speak for herself. We only have one change of cast since the Bush: Anna Chancellor, who Iíve admired for many years even since I went to see her in The Way of the World in a music hall theatre in the East End. God, sheís good. Sheís deft and clear and funny. I havenít toured a huge amount before, but I always enjoyed going to Newcastle with RSC productions. In a way, you learned the play more taking it away from London audiences because you get a very different reaction.
Mammals received excellent reviews & two Whatsonstage.com Award nominations (for Best New Comedy & London Newcomer of the Year for Bullmore). What do you think distinguishes it?
I think itís because it is such a mixture of truth and heart and great craft and fun and you donít often get to see new writers writing such a crafted play. Itís full of all the best things in a farce - people coming in at all the wrong times, overhearing things they shouldnít hear - and it makes you cry. It also surprises you. I donít think you know what the outcome is until the very very end.
Whatís the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during the run at the Bush?
The only trip up I had before was, I have a problem keeping a straight face, and there are a few dangers in the humour so Iíll have to be careful about that!
What are your plans for the future?
I donít know what the future has in store after this. Iíll probably have to come home and make up for the fact Iíve been away. Iíll have to do lots of cooking!
- Niamh Cusack was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Mammals tours until 18 March 2006, visiting Cambridge, Sheffield, Guildford, Richmond, Exeter and Liverpool.