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Scott R. Larson

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Public Interview with Brenda Fricker

The best quote from Brenda Fricker actually came more than a couple of hours after her public interview was officially over. The great woman stuck around until after her most recent feature film, A Long Way from Home, had been screened and then took to the Town Hall Theatre stage again, along with the film’s writer/director Virginia Gilbert and Festival Programmer Gar O’Brien, for more questions. One particular scene came up in the questions, one in which Fricker’s character has to put an injured cat out of its misery. Cat owners Gilbert and O’Brien expressed anguish at the scene. Fricker said matter-of-factly, “Too many cats. Too few recipes.”

Yes, Fricker is a dog person. That was one of many things we learned about her in her official Galway Film Fleadh interview with Seán Rocks of RTÉ’s Arena program before the screening. (The RTÉ website should eventually have info on when the interview will be broadcast and/or podcasted.) We also learned that, over the years, she has named more than one dog Juno (a slight nod to the Seán O’Casey play Juno and the Paycock, in which she performed), but that one was named Mr. O’Flaherty.

The Dublin-born actor was a bit unsure walking onto the stage, and she was sucking drops to combat dry mouth, but she was sharp and feisty and well able to go when it came to Rocks’s questions—delighting in giving him jabs whenever she could. At 69, she describes herself as semi-retired but said she will consider taking on projects she likes with filmmakers she likes. The top of that list currently consists of her two most recent collaborators, the aforementioned Ms. Gilbert and Thom Fitzgerald, with whom she made the 2011 film Cloudburst, in which she and Olympia Dukakis play a lesbian couple.

Ever the pro, she played to the local crowd, praising the Galway Film Fleadh as the best film festival of all and saying that she has reason to believe that she was conceived in Oranmore, since she has a photo of her parents on their honeymoon there. Down-to-earth and plain-spoken and always ready for a good laugh, Fricker came off as someone who could be your liberal-minded granny or the neighbor you love chatting with.

Rocks was determined to come up with at least one question the much-interviewed actor had not been asked before, so he asked about her shoes. It turned out that she had bought them in New York and they cost her $800. But she seemed to think they were worth it—not only because they were great shoes but because the price included lifetime replacements.

Generally, the interviewer’s strategy was to take her through a list of her major movies and discuss them. In a departure from previous such interviews, clips of some of the films were shown on the screen. This is a great idea that I hope gets continued or even expanded. Some of my favorite memories of the Seattle International Film Festival were public interviews that began with an extended series of clips of the honoree’s work.

Of course, any discussion of the Fricker filmography would have to begin with the movie which made her Dublin’s favorite “Mrs. Brown” well ahead of Brendan O’Carroll’s appropriation of the name and which won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress—as well as a Best Actor Oscar for the man who played her son, Daniel Day-Lewis. Fricker was quick to insist that Hugh O’Conor deserved an Oscar as much as anyone for his portrayal of the young Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot.

She quickly followed up that triumph with another film by Sheridan. “I just thought I was going to be in all his films,” she said, and she was surprised when he told her that there was no part for her in the adaptation of John B. Keane’s play The Field. Rocks wanted to know how Fricker’s character, the mostly silent wife of Richard Harris’s Bull McCabe, got added to the film version. “I guess it was me,” she answered, sounding a bit surprised to realize she was responsible for such a significant change in someone else’s work. Her main memory of the production, which was filmed around the Galway/Mayo border town of Leenane: “drinking every night at the Renvyle Hotel.”

Sounding just a tad regretful, she said that after the Oscar win she was pretty much expected to do film work from then on. She appeared in big Hollywood movies like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, in which she played the Central Park pigeon lady, and Joel Schmacher’s John Grisham adaption, A Time to Kill. She also played the Scottish wife and mother of Mike Myers (in dual roles) in So I Married an Axe Murderer. We were treated to a clip where she impulsively engages in a lingering kiss with her son’s friend, played by Anthony LaPaglia. She confessed that bit of improvisation was her own suggestion since young LaPaglia was “so gorgeous.”

Seemingly always destined to play someone’s mother, she has appeared in a succession of maternal roles, including the titular crusading journalist’s mother Bernie in Schumacher’s Veronica Guerin. Fricker had nothing but praise for the movie’s star, Cate Blanchett, and said that acting with her was “easy.” The clip we were shown illustrated the unspoken pride the mother had for the doomed daughter, something Fricker said she gleaned from meeting the real Bernie.

Another case where she played an actual person was the TV movie Omagh, about the aftermath of the deadly 1998 Real IRA bombing in County Tyrone. She was clearly pleased and proud to have received a complimentary letter from then-police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan, whom she had portrayed.

The list of Fricker’s movies is so long and varied that there was never going to be time to discuss—or even mention—them all in the interview. Among the works that got slighted were Suri Krishnamma’s A Man of No Importance, Ann Benson Gyles’s Swann, Marc Evans’s Resurrection Man, Damien O’Donnell’s Inside I’m Dancing (aka Rory O’Shea Was Here), Gillies MacKinnon’s Tara Road, Anthony Byrne’s How About You and Rodrigo García’s Albert Nobbs.

In addition to her stage and film work, Fricker has also been featured in various television series over the years, notably the UK medical drama Casualty where over a decade and a half she played the nurse Megan Roach. In fact, her commitment to the show nearly caused her to be unavailable for the role in My Left Foot. As Fricker told it, the early episodes of Casualty were very “political” in that they were critical of government health policy. In fact, she said, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher actually had the show removed, although viewer demand brought it back. She said that after that it was much less political.

Interestingly, of all the roles she has played over the years—including the one that won her the Academy Award and made her an international star—the movie for which she says she gets recognized most often when walking down the streets of Dublin is none of the ones mentioned above. She said that, for three decades, taxi drivers and others call out to her, “Would you like to come to the field, Bridie?” It is a memorable line from a 1982 movie made for Irish television—seven years before My Left Foot. It was directed by Pat O’Connor, who would go on to make Cal, A Month in the Country, Circle of Friends and Dancing at Lughnasa.

It was called The Ballroom of Romance, and Fricker played a lonely farmer’s daughter looking for love at the local village ballroom, an institution that now seems to have faded away.

Fortunately, Brenda Fricker appears to be in no danger of fading away anytime soon—even if she has become more choosy about the work she takes on. Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Fitzgerald, you seem to be the only filmmakers absolutely guaranteed to be able to get her back on the set. You know what you have to do. (Attended 13 July 2014)