By David Hennessy
Hollywood star Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in a new BBC drama that explores themes of conflict, deception and betrayal on both the political stage and a more personal level, set against the present day backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Honourable Woman sees Gyllenhaal, the star of movie hits like cult favourite Secretary, The Dark Knight and Donnie Darko (which also stars brother Jake), playing Nessa Stein, the daughter of a Zionist arms procurer who takes over the running of her father’s company and changes its purpose from supplying arms to providing communications.
The Irish World caught up with Genevieve O’Reilly, the Irish actress who plays Nessa’s advisor, Frances: “Of course, I knew Maggie’s work and was a great fan of her work and it was such a joy and an honour to work next to her, to watch her work. It’s such an intricate role for her, every day she had mountains to climb and I was standing there with her on some of those days and watching, she was just extraordinary, so dedicated and so passionate and a great woman.”
Gyllenhaal acted for Lenny Abrahamson in Frank and once again her accent is flawless for The Honourable Woman. If anyone was unfamiliar with her, they would think she was English: “She’s so comfortable with it. Both she and her husband Peter come to work in London quite a bit so she’s very comfortable in London, she’s very comfortable with the accent and she dedicated her job to the accent as well. She nailed it. It fits in her body so beautiful. I never felt like I was sitting with someone putting on an accent. She just wore it like a costume. And she wears it well.”
The Honourable Woman is Gyllenhaal’s first television role. Like Gillian Anderson before her with The Fall, she is another US star attracted to British television. Does this say something of how well the industry is doing here? “I hope so. I think television is really stepping up. I think television has really embraced filmic ideals, filmic ideas, filmic stories, filmic directors and I think it’s because audiences are demanding more. Audiences are so perceptive, so clever, we’re so educated visually now that our taste is bringing about this change so television is stepping up to that demand and therefore the writing’s better because it’s attracting the best of the industry. I think that raises the level of the industry as well, it continues to raise the bar. Each generation must improve and so I think we’re seeing that at the moment with television production.”
Born in Dublin and raised in Adelaide, Genevieve’s screen credits include The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Star Wars Episode III and Episodes, starring Matt Le Blanc and Stephen Mangan.
The actress was just adjusting to motherhood when she first got excited about the project: “So often these days, actors are sent a script and you have to make a decision on whether you are going to meet someone or not on a script.
“Hugo’s so generous as a writer, he sent all eight scripts so I got a bunch of them through the door so I read them all within a few hours and I had just had a baby. He was three weeks old when I got sent these scripts and I thought ‘I’ll read a bit’- I was breastfeeding through the scripts, I was so glued to them. They were the best scripts I had read in a long time.”
Hugo Blick is the award-winning writer and director of The Shadow Line who writes, directs and produced The Honourable Woman: “I had watched The Shadow Line and loved it and I remember watching it, thinking: ‘Gosh, I wish he had written some more female characters’. He writes at a pace and he writes kind of so the viewer is really leaning forward and always eager to know what is happening next so that’s kind of my taste in thriller drama.
This piece has so many wonderful females in it that I knew some extraordinary people would be attracted to it so I also thought I would just love to be a part of it. I was thrilled to take on the part of Nessa’s advisor.
“I went in to meet Hugo and this is also a sign of how generous Hugo is as a person. I went in with my four week old baby strapped to me and half of the audition was with him in a sling on my chest. He’s interested in actors, he’s interested in people and I think he’s been around the industry so long, he’s not really worried about all that pomp and ceremony. It was such a relief. He told me that day that he was hoping for Maggie at that stage.”
The excellent supporting cast also includes Irish actor Stephen Rea, Andrew Buchan of Broadchurch, Katherine Parkinson of The IT Crowd and Tobias Menzies.
Genevieve herself has yet to see any of The Honourable Woman as she has been busy filming Banished, a new drama from Jimmy McGovern, in Australia and Manchester. Banished is another ensemble cast that includes MyAnna Buring, Russell Tovey, Ewen Bremner and Irish actors Orla Brady and Ned Dennehy: “It’s set in the camp of the first settlers in Australia and I play Mary Johnson who is the reverend (Ewen Bremner)’s wife. It’s an extraordinary ensemble piece and I’m thrilled to be a part of that too.”
When The Irish World last met Genevieve in 2012, she was performing in George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma at The National Theatre. Her other theatre credits include Conor McPherson’s The Weir at The Gate Theatre, Dublin and an acclaimed turn as Helena, opposite Andrew Scott, in Ibsen’s epic Emperor and Galilean, also at the National.
Does she see herself returning to the stage in the near future? “I love the stage and I am the kind of actor who will always go back to the stage. I think that’s where I need to sharpen my tools, onstage. But with a very young family, stage is a massive commitment so at the moment I’m dipping in and out of bits of film and TV and I hope to go back to stage very soon. You can’t leave it too long.”
The Honourable Woman continues at 9pm on Thursdays on BBC2, also available on BBC iPlayer.