'I never wanted to be a film star'

Despite being part of a theatrical dynasty and married to Jeremy Irons, Sinéad Cusack has no time for the trappings of fame. Her dream was simply to be a classical actress – her latest role is as a cancer-stricken woman in The Sea – and she’d have preferred her actor son to become a plumber Words Gaby Koppel

here’s a flash of steel in Sinéad Cusack’s astonishing blue eyes that says she knows exactly who she is. Having rejected our stylist’s wardrobe, she allows the make-up artist to come near her elfin features only with some reluctance. This isn’t a prima donna moment, quite the reverse. You get the impression that Cusack can’t be doing with the trappings of stardom. A classical actress and scion of a renowned Irish theatrical dynasty, she’s all about the craft and not interested in the paraphernalia of fame. That must make being
Mrs Jeremy Irons very hard work.
‘I find the world of celebrity
both daunting and slightly repugnant,’ she says later in her velvety brogue. ‘Self-promotion is actually not what I’m about.
I like promoting a character, I like promoting a story. I like promoting
a play, but I don’t like promoting me.’
Nevertheless, professional to
the last, she sparkles for the camera, moving around the studio with
a litheness that belies her 65 years.
Her appearance could hardly
be in greater contrast to the cancer-stricken character she plays
in her latest film, as dying Anna Morden in The Sea, based on
John Banville’s novel, winner of the 2005 Man Booker prize-winning novel. The film follows the journey of Anna’s husband, fiftysomething Max Morden (played by Ciarán Hinds), as he revisits the scene of
a childhood trauma after her death.
‘I read the book as soon as it came out – and when I heard a rumour afoot that it was going to be made into a movie I thought, well, how is that possible? Three timelines,
an interior monologue of one man,
a contemplation of grief and loss. How do you turn that into a movie?’
But she was interested...
‘The thing that I search for every time that I take something on is
a journey and the challenge – because I am not interested if there isn’t a journey. It sounds a bit grandiose, but transformation always interests me, be it redemptive or the opposite.’
So tempting was the role that Cusack was willing to take a risk with debut director Stephen Brown, reassured by the ‘wonderful’ cast and crew he’d assembled – including Charlotte Rampling, Rufus Sewell, and Natascha McElhone.
Brown is dutiful in his tributes to her, describing her as ‘vastly knowledgeable, fiercely Irish, loyal, scary, beautiful’. But, reading between the lines, it’s also clear that perfectionism could also take Cusack right to the edge of being in the awkward squad.
In portraying Anna’s decline Brown sweated through several tense meetings before Cusack’s exacting standards were met. ‘Every last detail had to be absolutely right before she could truly inhabit the part and feel comfortable,’ he said. Indeed, she built her reputation on
a panoply of Shakespearian leading ladies from Beatrice to Lady Macbeth and back via Cleopatra – and is no stranger to film and TV.
Later, over a goat’s cheese salad
in the late autumn sun, she reflects with a dry humour on the strange turns her life has taken.
She grew up in Ireland as the child of actors – her father was the eminent Cyril Cusack and her mother Maureen Kiely – but they actively discouraged any thoughts that their children should join the profession. Television and films were banned at home because Cyril Cusack thought them a corrupting influence and wanted his six clever children to pursue academic careers.
When Sinéad announced she’d decided to become an actress, his now infamous response was that she might do passably in film and television because she was blonde and pretty but ‘you’ll never succeed as a classical actress because
you haven’t got the equipment’. It’s
a phrase that has baffled and provoked her ever since, as if she’s compelled to prove him wrong.
She had form as a rebellious teenager, having nearly been thrown out of her convent boarding school for a scandalising sketch about
the Profumo affair. Then, without telling her parents, she auditioned for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin – Ireland’s national theatre – and was offered the job at the very moment she was due to start an English degree at the city’s University College. ‘They were pretty fed up.
I think they were angry. They
said if you want to join the Abbey you have to continue with your university studies at the same time. For three years I did exactly that.
‘I was stretched so thin. It was
a schizophrenic existence. I used to skip lectures and go to rehearsals
in the morning. Then I would run up to the university in the afternoon and take my tutorials, then do the show in the evening.’
She never graduated, yet her career took off like a rocket. And though some of the early roles turned out to be in high-profile mis-hits such as Hoffman with
Peter Sellers and Alfred the
Great with David Hemmings, they put her firmly into the public eye.
‘It was the most astonishing thing to happen and the most unexpected thing. And so I was sidetracked into a world I never expected to enter.’
Invited onto a Dublin TV chat show, she met and later went out with footballer George Best, who she describes as ‘one of the earliest victims of celebrity’. One memorable day they were besieged in her flat
by the paparazzi. ‘I had no idea
he existed in that sort of spotlight.
When I first met him I had no idea who he was really. I thought he
was a long-distance runner. I hadn’t followed football at that point.
But he was a fantastic man and great fun, and I got pulled into that – willingly – at a time when George was going through quite a difficult period in his professional life and so I was also thrust into the spotlight. And that was a terrible shock.
I found it all very distressing, and
I saw its effect on him.’
She also realised how far she’d drifted from the academic and theatrical heartlands where she felt at home. It would take years of hard work and determination to ditch
the reputation for youthful wildness (arguably, only partly successfully) and achieve her ambitions.

Even today, her academic background is never far from Cusack’s discourse, and manifests itself in the forensic level of scrutiny she brings to a text. She loved John Banville’s ‘wonderfully nuanced’ script for The Sea, particularly the complexities in Anna’s relationship with Max.
‘I loved doing it, I loved making
it and I loved her. Because there
was such anger there. It was muted,
but it was there. There was love,
and there was also resentment. There were all those tensions within
that marriage, and that appealed. Because that’s what I think marriage is, all those contradictions and ambiguities.’
It’s hard not to suggest that it resonated with her personal experience. Having married fellow actor Jeremy Irons in 1978, there came a moment when they reached a turning point. The release of
both the Granada television series Brideshead Revisited and the
film of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981 propelled Irons towards the heights of international stardom. Inevitably, the marriage has been conducted in the full gaze of publicity ever since.
Moments of indiscretion have been leapt on by the media – there was her supposed clinch with neighbour Jeremy Paxman, and Irons’ reference to the marriage as ‘dysfunctional’. Despite all that, they seem to be still very much together.
There’s absolutely no suggestion of jealousy on her part. In fact she says that when Irons’ film profile took off, it came at a moment when she had finally begun to achieve her own professional ambitions elsewhere. ‘I never wanted to be
a film star,’ she says. ‘I knew that people around me were seeking
that path but it wasn’t one I wanted.
I knew what I wanted.’
Burdened for years by the dolly-bird tag that stuck after the brief moment with George Best, she had finally clawed her way into the Royal Shakespeare Company. ‘I was doing precisely what I wanted to
do at a time when he was being shot into the stratosphere, and I didn’t really notice there was a differential. I was in Stratford with my child.
To me, I was a jammy bugger. So it wasn’t as though I was sitting
at home twiddling my thumbs and wishing for things.’
Many relationships would have buckled under the strain of accommodating two such wildly diverging aspirations, but the pair are united by (at least) one thing: that abhorrence of celebrity froth. Cusack shrugs comfortably. ‘He’s an oddity, Jeremy. He’s an eccentric,’ she says. ‘He loves living in England and Ireland. He has no desire to – and withstood all pressure to – move to Hollywood.’ She acknowledges her husband also loves his film life, but other things keep him grounded. ‘He likes his motorbike, and his horses and his garden.’
Nowadays the pair divide their time between homes in Oxfordshire and Ireland, where they own the romantic-sounding Kilcoe Castle in West Cork, with pieds-à-terre in London and Dublin.
She talks guardedly about her two sons with Irons – Sam is
a photographer and Max has joined his parents in the acting profession, ignoring his mother’s suggestion that he’d do better to get himself an ‘honourable’ trade ‘like plumbing’. She’s quietly proud of his successes, including the recent television series The White Queen.
There is another son, Richard Boyd Barrett, whom she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager, and who is now a prominent left- wing politician – a member of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament.
She says she thought about him every day, and searched for him for 16 years before being reunited,
‘It’s a hole in your soul, isn’t it?’ But
she defers to his adoptive family:
‘I am his biological mother but I am not his parent. They are his parents,
so I have to make that very clear.’ She sees Richard, and has even campaigned for him. But she won’t be drawn any further on this
and suddenly there’s a glint of the
scary Sinéad warning me to step right back.
Cusack shows no sign of being prepared to slow down or – heaven forbid – retire. But, having had
to fight so hard for what she wanted, there’s still an air of surprise that somehow it’s all worked out. And those challenging roles are still coming in. As she says, ‘Every time
a new job comes along, I think how did this happen?’
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