From medicine to magic

Fiona Shaw’s long career includes My Left Foot, Harry Potter, True Blood and much theatre, winning the Olivier Award four times

By David Hennessy

A four time Olivier Award winning actress, Cork’s Fiona Shaw is one of Ireland’s most accomplished thespians. Part of the exciting new wave of talent to emerge from London’s renowned acting school RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) that also included Jonathan Pryce, Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Anton Lesser, Kenneth Branagh and Bruce Payne, Fiona was acclaimed in 1983 for her portrayal of Julia in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals at the National Theatre. She went on to take the Olivier Award for Electra, As You Like It and The Good Person of Sichuan in 1989-90 and again for Machinal in 1994.

One of her earliest screen roles was playing Doctor Eileen Cole in My Left Foot and Fiona has gone on to become a familiar figure on our screens with notable recent roles being Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films and Marnie Stonebrook in the HBO’s True Blood.

With My Left Foot freshly released on blu-ray, Fiona reflected on Jim Sheridan’s debut film almost 25 years on with The Irish World: “Of course, it’s such a long time ago. The year I made My Left Foot, I was performing at The Barbican, I was playing The Taming of the Shrew and a play called New Inn, and I also was doing Mary Stewart. I was absolutely flat out that year. My Left Foot was such a surprising thing, I had never really been in a film before and they asked me to do it and I was commuting between the two so I always had a leg in My Left Foot but also another leg in this other theatrical world and I used to dip into this marvellous world of the obsessional Christy Brown. It’s a beautiful memory for me of having done it. It is interesting it’s coming out on blu-ray and of course, it will look like a historical piece now.”

Did Fiona undertake special research to play the doctor who comes into Christy Brown’s life? “I did and funny enough it was based on a man, it wasn’t a woman. My uncle was a doctor in Dublin, he’s retired now but, my uncle knew that man on whom the part was based who had helped Christy Brown. It was fictionalised and probably rightly so because Christy was sort of surrounded by these women in his life, wasn’t he? They had a huge power in his life.”

My Left Foot won Oscars for Brenda Fricker and Daniel Day-Lewis as well as earning nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Was its phenomenal success unexpected for those involved? “I would say it was. It probably now doesn’t appear to be because Daniel’s career has been so stellar but it  was a small film sort of begun on a credit card really, but it has a huge passion, its heart is in the right place, but how it caught the imagination of America, I think, stunned everybody.”

Fiona with Daniel Day Lewis in a scene from My Left Foot

The film’s star has of course gone on to a record breaking three Oscar wins. Would Fiona have believed that this was ahead of him when she was working closely with a young Daniel Day-Lewis on My Left Foot? “I probably would have believed it actually. He always had three Oscars at least in him. In the theatre, I try and act with the wheels coming off but in film (there is) something about Daniel, his method which suits himself and he has spoken widely about: His ability to just sort of sandblast all the reality away except the thing that he is playing has been his invention in a way. He has invented a way of acting and he has become synonymous with it and it really is a target all the time, he subjugates himself quite remarkably and turns himself into these characters.”

Daniel has accredited all his subsequent success to My Left Foot, indicating it restored his passion for the craft. Fiona has similar sentiments having now gone on to have a long and impressive screen career: “I think it did lead to other films. That same year Bob Rafelson turned up and asked to see a section of it and he offered me Mountains of the Moon. I probably should have gone to Hollywood then but I was so embroiled in my theatre, classical world which had taken off and within two years I’d done The Good Person of Sichuan at The National, Hedda Gabler at the Abbey and in the West End, Richard II: I got terribly involved in these huge international theatre pieces. Richard II went to Austria and the north of Paris, I had a very rare theatrical career which was international. I was so into that, I didn’t concentrate on film in the same way for those ensuing years. But I did do Mountains of the Moon which I loved doing, that was a big film.”

When The Irish World catch up with Fiona, the actress has just returned from a Broadway run of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary which has seen her nominated for Outstanding Solo Performance at Outer Critics Circle Awards. “I’m sitting now in my house in London and I can’t tell you the pleasure of being back in it,” she says.

She is set to return to New York later in the year when her recitation of The Rime of Ancient Mariner gets its American premiere in December.: “In December I’m going to be doing The Rime of Ancient Mariner which we did in London last year and we did in Greece also last year. We did it at the Epidaurus which was just a thrilling thing to do, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (renowned theatre director and director of films such as Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady) who is just marvellous and a lovely dancer who dances it and I perform it with him so it’s a beautiful thing to do actually. It was really a labour of love.”

Performing Scenes from an Execution at the National Theatre, London. Picture: Mark Douet

Joined onstage by a dancer, she delivers the text single-handedly, how challenging is this for her memory and stamina? “Well I did (TS Eliot’s) The Waste Land [which Fiona won a Drama Desk Award for in 1996] some years ago so I knew that these things are possible. They’re very hard when you set into them but they are also very basic: People love a story, audiences love to hear one voice taking them through something and so it’s a very pleasurable activity because the audience listen like children. I think in that way, it’s a very natural thing to do even though you have to take a bit of time to learn it obviously but it’s very natural and very fulfilling. I think it’s a very nice way of performing.”

Would Fiona favour stage or screen work? “I think women in screen tend to be attendant characters, they tend to be the girl on the side or the girlfriend or the doctor at the edge. But in the theatre, I’ve been usually the protagonist and I have to say it was great, it was very rewarding to play the protagonist, to be the person who carries the evening through, who is the sort of physical focal point of the evening. That is a huge responsibility but it is what makes leading acting the thing that one wants to do. I think there’s such a limit for women in film that I’ve been very glad the robustness of my theatre career has given me these huge roles to play.”

Playing Harry’s aunt in the Harry Potter films, Fiona never got to display that much sorcery. Did playing the leader of a Wiccan coven in True Blood make up for this? “It was marvellous, I loved it,” she laughs. “I was always delighted to be in Harry Potter and the great thing was because I didn’t have a lot of magic, I didn’t have to hang around for the ions of time that it took to make the magic. We did some magic, we had the letters arriving in the early films and it was great fun to do the letters arriving into the fireplace. Also I had early times where I had to deal with owls who were outside looking at me and I was looking at them and so there was a lot of quite delicate work in that. But the people that really dealt with magic had a huge blue screen life and I didn’t have to have that so I had a very steady part in Harry Potter which I really enjoyed.”

For the full interview, pick up the June 8 print edition of The Irish World.

Competition 

The Irish World has ten copies of My Left Foot to give away.

Freshly released on blu-ray, Jim Sheridan’s debut film set Daniel Day-Lewis on the way to the record breaking three Oscars that has many referring to Day-Lewis as the greatest actor of all time. Day-Lewis collected his first Academy Award for Best Actor for My Left Foot in 1990. He was also nominated for In the Name of the Father and Gangs of New York but added to his collection with one for There Will Be Blood in 2008 and his most recent one for Lincoln this year.

For your chance to win a copy of this classic film on a new format, send your name, address, email, telephone number and answer to the question below to: My Left Foot competition, The Irish World, 934 North Circular Road, NW2 7JR. Standard terms and conditions apply. Closing date: June 10. 

Question: Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for Best Actor for My Left Foot. What two other films did he also pick up the award for?

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