Middletown: Eva Birthistle Interview

Sunday Times

October 29, 2006

Interview: Dye another day

Eva Birthistle's steely determination has taken her from Glenroe to her role in the ‘intense' film Middletown. But she doesn't always want to be serious, discovers Paul Byrne


It was the kind of part that most young actresses would jump at, a regular role in Ireland's longest-running drama. Yet scarcely had Eva Birthistle, then barely in her twenties, made her screen debut in Glenroe than she began to feel restless.

Even as Birthistle was attracting nationwide attention with her character, Regina Crosbie - the golden-haired, tractor- driving farmer with the cut-glass accent - the actress knew she would soon have to forsake the security of a soap opera. From the outset, she made it clear she would not be typecast as a "dumb blonde".


A decade on and there is little danger of Birthistle being seen in such stereotypical terms, and not just because her blonde tresses are dyed a darker hue. Since leaving Glenroe - and Ireland - to throw herself into the uncertain environment of the London screen world, the 32-year-old actress has become a versatile presence on both film and television - her roles with challenging directors such as Ken Loach and Neil Jordan are testament to her adventurous spirit. But as she gets ready to grace the big screen again, in Brian Kirk's film Middletown, Birthistle downplays the importance of her obvious creative itchiness in her career.


"I've been incredibly lucky," she says. "On the other hand, holding out for the right roles is a difficult path to take. I've only just recently given up doing other jobs to subsidise my acting habit."


Certainly, Birthistle's resumé is studded with appearances in workaday television fare such as Holby City and Silent Witness, but her ability to land more outré work is no coincidence. Her disarming modesty belies an altogether steelier determination to follow her muse, an ambition that has required sacrifice but is now yielding rewards.


"It would be wonderful to think that I had a huge amount of control over the roles I play," says Birthistle. "Until your name is established, you really have to take the best offer on the table. Sometimes, that means going without work for a few months here and there, but you just have to keep reminding yourself that this is about the rest of your life, not next week's rent."


Such a headstrong attitude doubtless served Birthistle well for her latest role. In Middletown she plays the stubborn Caroline, wife to Daniel Mays's hapless Jim. Together they make a couple whose smalltown life is almost torn apart by the return of Jim's older brother, Gabriel (Matthew Macfadyen), from missionary work abroad. Gabriel isn't impressed by the sins he sees being committed in every corner of his beloved Middletown, especially those in the back room of the bar owned by Caroline's family.


Gerard McSorley appears as the proud father, who gradually becomes aware of the possibility that, in pushing favoured son Gabriel into the service of the Lord, he may have created a self-righteous monster.


"On the surface, it is a pretty intense piece of work," says Birthistle. "And it meant that you had to throw yourself completely into this world.


"Like Gabriel, you had to believe. And you had to have absolute faith in the director, Brian Kirk. Because it is almost like a biblical fable. Or even a Johnny Cash song come to life.


"For the actors," she adds, "it was all about finding the emotional truth of these characters, believing what they believed. It was an intense shoot, so much so that, once the cameras stopped rolling, we would all crease up with laughter. It was a way of letting off the steam from this pressure cooker of a story."


Birthistle's own story gives a clue as to how someone so pleasant and self-effacing in person should be so obviously driven when it comes to her vocation. Certainly, from early on she was on the move: as a teenager her family moved from her birthplace of Bray, Co Wicklow, to Londonderry, then in the grip of the Troubles.


As if such upheaval were not enough, Birthistle, a Catholic, attended a Protestant school, which meant she regularly suffered abuse from both sides of the sectarian divide. Though she has said in the past that she was glad to have gone through such singular experiences, such events can only have sharpened her sense of determined individualism. And her background almost certainly fed into her later role in Ae Fond Kiss, the Loach film that saw Birthistle play a white Scottish woman whose romance with a Scots Asian man crosses racial lines.


Certainly, by the time she headed back to Dublin, she had decided to become an actor. Having entertained "all the usual teen career choices, such as teaching, or working with horses", studying drama at school inspired Birthistle to enroll for a Betty Ann Norton acting course, which in turn inspired her to study performing arts at Derry tech immediately after her O-levels.


"It wasn't a case of being pushed on the stage by an overzealous mum," she says. "I just found myself being drawn to acting more and more. I was well aware of the difficulties, of the fragility and instability of such a profession, but I was determined. There have been times when I felt I may have made the wrong decision, but, thankfully, I haven't felt that way for a long, long time."


Certainly, even when she was in Glenroe, Birthistle was beginning to make her distinctive presence felt on the big screen, with parts in Alan Gilsenan's All Souls' Day and Owen McPolin's Drinking Crude. And having stuck to her creative instincts, she is now able to work on offbeat film projects such as Lukas Erni's comedy Save Angel Hope and Eitan Arrusi's horror Reverb as well as high-profile television projects such as the upcoming thriller series State Within.


But she remains most excited by meaty roles in challenging, original films. She is currently working with Peter Greenaway on the cerebral British director's new film, Nightwatching, in which Birthistle plays opposite Martin Freeman, of The Office fame, as Saskia, the wife of the 17th-century Dutch master painter Rembrandt.


"It's making a film like this - or Middletown, or Ae Fond Kiss - that reminds me of why I took up acting in the first place. It's the thrill of the unknown, of creating a piece of work that isn't predetermined, that isn't aimed at pleasing a particular market, or isn't designed purely as product.


"I have nothing against a good old-fashioned blockbuster, but for me the biggest thrill is being part of a piece of work where the die isn't cast until it's up on screen."


Given her attraction to such work, Birthistle sees little logic in returning to Ireland just yet.


"It would be wonderful if we could produce more films such as (Leonard Abrahamson's film) Adam & Paul," she says. "But, by and large, Irish films struggle on an international stage. And that is because many of them are not particularly good, pure and simple.


"It has got nothing to do with bad marketing, or bad luck. Is it okay to say that the Irish film industry needs a kick up the rear? So I am happy in London, as there is far more going on here for an actor. And it is only an hour away from Dublin, so it is the best of both worlds."


By following such instincts, Birthistle has carved out her own distinctive niche - though she has put herself out of the dumb blonde market.


"The tragic thing is," she laughs, "I very rarely get offered any dumb blonde roles. It's all very insulting. I tend to get offered the really intense roles, the women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or diligently fighting the good fight. At this point, I'd sign up for a Carry On film, just to prove I can play the dumb blonde role."


Middletown is on release from Friday