Smother - Dervla Kirwan interview

The Irish stage and screen star (Ballykissangel, Goodnight Sweetheart, Injustice, The Stranger) opens up about her role as the controlling matriarch of the Ahern family in the thrilling new drama Smother.

Dervla Kirwan interview

What attracted you to the role of Val?

It was the complexity: Val's desire to maintain control of her family, and her very toxic relationship with her husband Denis, as well as the breakdown of that and how it implodes. Then her relationship with her three daughters and each one having either a different father or mother - all the difficulties that a blended family can bring, I found that fascinating. And to be playing the lead is amazing, and back in my home country. It had all the right components.

Do you enjoy working in Ireland more than anywhere?

I like working full stop. I've got bills to pay like everyone else. But it's really special what Kate O'Riordan has written. Freud should sit down with Kate because it deserves a psychological forensic unpicking. As the story progresses, it gets darker and that dysfunction really manifests. The very odd way that Val controls her girls, and that is an expression of love. It doesn't really allow for truth in the family, it's all hiding of secrets. I think what's interesting for people to see, given the world we are living in, is that distortion of the truth and bringing it into the family.

Can you talk us through Val's family?

Jenny is Val's daughter from a first marriage. Anna is Denis's daughter from his first marriage and Grace is the third daughter from Val and Denis's marriage. Mairead is Val's sister, Dennis has a brother called Frank, and then Val has a partner called Carl.

Then Denis is found at the bottom of a cliff. You've said that something this well written, especially an Irish thriller, has been a long time coming?

Certainly for women. It's a huge privilege to get something so beautifully written and the amount of talent involved from our crew and cast. There's a great camaraderie and a tremendous work ethic. Everyone's working towards that same focus point, to be the best they can be. We all feel very nurtured and supported. But really it comes down to Kate O'Riordan's writing; I think she's done an incredible job. You really have to watch all of the episodes to see the scope and intricacy of the web of lies and deceit she's created.

How do you feel playing the lead?

I love being the lead and that I'm getting to work with formidable Irish talent. They're all at the top of their game and they bring so much to it. It's so exciting to be with people who are hungry and driven because it means that you never get bored of the job. And having just come out of a pandemic with our industry so hit, especially because I've predominantly done more theatre these last 10 years, to have got a job and not just any old job but a really wonderful one that speaks to women everywhere is just thrilling. It's all about the importance of the relationship between mothers and daughters and the very difficult complex ties that you have with your family. Families are such a strange dynamic but so informative as you grow up. It satisfies me as an actor to be doing something as good as this.

It's very female focused, too...

Yes. And also we're not playing women who are defined by our jobs. Because really, profession is one thing but family is everything.

Why do you think Smother is so appropriate as a title?

Because of Val's controlling. She is manipulative and so driven to control for the fear of being exposed. All those lies: the happy family barbecues, parties and pageant. Val's sister Mairead refers to the 'glittery Ahern pageant'. I think a lot of people fall into that trap; we all want to put on a show. Most people never stop acting 24/7 and there's a lot of risk in that position. There's a long way to fall in the eyes of Val's community, especially as it's a small community where everyone talks. People do gossip; the whole world thrives off it.

Can you relate to Val as a mother?

Not on any level. That's what really attracted me because these kinds of formidable women don't come along very often. She's quiet and self-controlled but she's spinning all the plates in the air and manipulating everyone. I find it interesting because she's very happy to point out the toxic masculinity within her husband but actually she's just as toxic. And then there's the elitist privilege that a big family like that has. They're untouchable in their community and that is universally recognisable - like their connection with the police. Everyone's doing things illicitly for them to maintain their control. That power and privilege creates a separation. It's that idea of not having any recourse or fear for reckless actions. There's no accountability for behaviour, no responsibility to anyone who hasn't got the power or privilege you do. That's very interesting to tap into I think. And there's a little bit of schadenfreude for the viewers as things start to unravel.

What response did you get when it aired in Ireland?

It's been really positive. My family and friends in Ireland loved it, too. Mind you I don't think my friends would ring up to say they didn't like it. That's them crossed off the Christmas card list! But people were glued to it and were really thrilled to see this domineering matriarch. I get an awful lot of women coming up to me really excited, wanting to know more about the story. It's wonderful when you get such a positive reaction on the street. During the pandemic, everyone's hungry to watch new material and the backdrop is so breathtaking. Lahinch in County Clare is such a beautiful place. It's a popular tourist destination; lots of Americans come over to play golf and there's a huge surfing community. Hopefully it'll put it even more on the map.

It'll be a much-needed boost for tourism...

I think it will play a blinder for tourism. The house that the Ahern family lives in, which is so stunning, is normally a small hotel (Moy House) and they've been inundated with calls for bookings. The more series there are means it will seep into the public consciousness and people will want to go and visit. That's huge for County Clare and for Ireland in general.

There are some lovely houses and interiors...

When I arrived on set I was like, oh my God! I knew they had money but this is beyond. And historically the Ahern family house would have been owned by an English aristocratic family. So it's very interesting to see a post colonial and very modern Ireland presenting a very challenging, updated view and perspective. This is who Ireland is and what we're presenting to the world. We're not something from the 19th century or 1950s, this is 2020. What a miserable year that was!

Are you excited to be reflecting a more contemporary side of Ireland?

Very much so. It also reflects the skills of our extraordinary community here in film and television. Our industry here is second to none in the world, and this drama shows us at our very best. It's beautiful to look at, it's contemporary and it's not in any way about a happy family. It's dark and shows people making what they think in the moment are the right decisions for the very best reason, that actually have huge negative consequences. I think everyone can identify with that.

It's totally different from Ballykissangel

Yes, but I also think the viewers it'll attract will have an insatiable appetite for it. I absolutely love watching crime dramas and trying to find out who did what and why. I like my brain being tested. When viewers keep with the story, it'll be really deeply satisfying when the reveal happens. When I read the script, I just couldn't believe I didn't see it coming.

There are so many good dramas being filmed in Ireland at the moment...

Yes there are some huge dramas coming in. It's not just Ireland though; this pandemic has highlighted how much we need entertainment. We're locked in our homes, we can't go anywhere, we need not just distraction but shows that reveal a bit about the human psyche. What I love about Smother is that it's honest and truthful. I'm not playing some hyper vampish neurotic female. I'm playing a highly calculating, compassionate woman who has twisted things and that's really interesting.

Have you spent much time in County Clare before?

No, I've never been. It really is four seasons in one hour at the moment in County Clare, which poses a few difficulties when we're filming. But the people here are just incredible. I left London because my husband and I love the countryside and we didn't know who our neighbours were. The connectivity is not there in a big city. And for better or for worse, I love smaller communities because people do know when you've not collected your mail and want to make sure you're okay. We need to get back to that.

You stopped filming Smother at the beginning of the first lockdown and started again in September didn't you?

Yes and that was like a Herculean task but the producers were amazing. I think they were so excited with what they saw in the first five weeks, they were determined to come back and complete the series. And we were too because you don't get scripts like this every day. So when we came back in September during the pandemic there was no question that we weren't going to finish it. It's really special and such good friendships were formed. I'm promoting the first series and have just finished my first week filming the second series, and I've never in my 30-year career experienced that. Smother has guts, bones and sinew and I just know that people will love it.

You were worried at the beginning of your 40s that there wasn't going to be enough good material for you...

Absolutely. And luckily I had a tremendous theatre career working at The National and the Donmar Warehouse being directed by people like Richard Eyre, and on stage with Sir Ian McKellen. I've been very lucky to have had that because in TV there was virtually nothing. Although I've had a great run recently doing The Stranger for Netflix, which was an amazing experience, it's been very slim pickings. My agent said recently that if this was 10 years ago, they'd be calling me to say my career was over simply because there was nothing being made for women of my age group. But now that's changed and we see women in business, politics and running our police force. Women are so visually in such powerful positions that television has to reflect that. There are great careers to be had in acting now well in to your 80s and that just wouldn't have happened 10-20 years ago. It's fantastic but it requires all actresses to persevere in creating work for themselves. I'm self-employed and have two kids, I've got to keep working and can't give up. And I don't want to. I've always said that I'm never retiring. I'm turning 50 this year and I'm excited. My theory is I'm a very resilient woman so even if it had all gone away, I would have found another way to make a living and be creative. Because that's just who I am; I'm very stubborn! We get knocked back but we get up again and that's just the theory of careers. Careers are made through your failures, not just your successes.

So you don't feel overwhelmed about turning 50 then?

Oh no I feel fantastic! I really do. And this is a perimenopausal woman speaking to you from Ireland! If you keep your curiosity and joy alive and your connection to your joy, it's everything in life. You bring that to your work environment and your family relationships, no matter how complex they are. And you have to keep your gratitude. Life is a miracle. We're in a capitalist society that will commodify everything and wants to take the joy away from us to sell it back to us. We've got to keep it to ourselves. 50 is just a number. I'm going to be saying this to you when I'm 80 if I still have all my marbles! It's a massive journey and everyone gets knocked along the way. But you've just got to pick yourself up and connect with your excitement. It's really important.