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Niamh Algar on Acting
25 Aug 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Irish Actress Niamh Algar.
With the IFTA Awards Viewing Season in full swing, we showcase Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke with Actor Niamh Algar, who marks a spectacular few years of work with three IFTA nominations for the 2020 IFTA Film & Drama Awards. A Screen Star of Tomorrow and a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, Algar has starred in The Virtues for Channel 4 and MotherFatherSon for the BBC. Earlier this year, Niamh starred in Nick Rowland's Calm with Horses, produced by Element Pictures and Michael Fassbenders’ DMC Films.

Nominated this year for Calm with Horses, The Virtues, and Pure, Algar will next be seen in Ridley Scott's series Raised by Wolves for HBO Max and will appear in Guy Ritchie’s Cash Truck in 2021 opposite Jason Statham, Josh Hartnet, and Scott Eastwood.

What do you look out for in a script?

“I look at the subject of the story and if it resonates with me, and of course, the character.”

What attracted your roles in Calm With Horses, The Virtues, and Pure?

“When I first read Calm With Horses, I immediately fell in love with Ursula. She is the emotional heartbeat in the story and she is both complex and flawed. Going through the script it was so compelling to read a caring and powerful woman that never loses focus on what’s important to her. Joe Murtagh, the writer, had captured the strength of this woman in just a few scenes. Also the moments capturing the connection between her and Arm weren’t overwritten. I knew when I first read the audition scenes with Cosmo Jarvis that we could create so much of their past history in the silences.

“The Virtues was a no brainer. Shane Meadows in my option is one of the best directors of our generation, if he’d of asked me to play a tree in the background I would have jumped at the chance.

“For Pure it was the subject matter. Before reading the script my understanding of OCD was someone who washed their hands a hundred times a day or someone who was scared to walk on cracks, I had never seen compulsive behaviour captured in this way before, Amber who I played also shared that naivety. She was also an Irish girl living in London trying to find her feet, I related to that as I just moved to London 6 months previously to shoot the Virtues.”

How did you approach playing your character in these projects, and how much rehearsal was involved?

“Like the majority of Shane Meadows work, he spends a lot of time workshopping the characters and scenes in advance. Working out dynamics and building chemistry between each of the characters over many weeks/months in rehearsals. Spending so much time as these characters in that space, improv becomes fluidic.

“As a cast we spent a lot of time hanging out forming natural bonds. For the character of Dinah I spent weeks researching substance abuse, adoption and meeting with social workers discussing the processes involved in regaining custody of a child. Discussions around repealing the 8th amendment had just begun in Ireland, and from reading the many harrowing online threads regarding women's choice over the autonomy of their body I had incredibly truthful source material to ground this character in. I felt it was important to shine a light on a character like Dinah whom society often misinterprets or overlooks.

“Calm With Horses was a similar process; spending time researching non-verbal autism and speaking with Autism Ireland. I was fortunate enough to consult with a mother whom like Ursula came from a single parent house hold in rural Ireland and faced the challenges of raising an autistic son where special need amenities were lacking. Ursula is quite the opposite to Dinah, she lives very much in the present and chooses not to allow her past history affect her present. A lot of that is to protect her son, the most important thing for me to focus on leading up to the shoot was building trust with Kiljan Mornoney who plays Jack. I also workshopped with Cosmo Jarvis, worked out their back story while sitting by a lake in Lough Rea with a bag of cans chatting about past relationships. There is a lot of trust between myself and Cosmo which definitely allowed for us to push each other emotionally in a safe way in scenes.

“For Pure we unfortunately didn’t get an opportunity for rehearsals but everyone in the cast and crew got on instantly. My first time meeting Charly Clive was when we shot a night club scene where my character is introduced into the story. Shooting chronologically that way allowed for us and for our characters to form a connection that was true to real life. Our directors Aneil Karia and Alicia MacDonald were incredible to work with and creatively they gave us a lot of freedom.”

How do you like to work with Directors and do you like to have a collaborative process? 

“Every job has a different process. The most important thing is to have clear communication and trust.”

Tell me about your experience on set, and your favourite moment during this production? 

“My favourite moment on the set of The Virtues was filming the scene in the car with Helen Behan and Stephen Graham. It's a scene where Dinah and Anna collect Joseph from the pub after he’s been kicked out. Absolute chaos unfolds in the back seat when Joseph discovers Anna's handbag, helping himself to a full face of lipstick. I broke character about twenty times laughing as each take got funnier.

“On Calm With Horses I really enjoyed shooting what is essentially Ursula's last scene in the film when she arrives at the Devers house to confront Arm. It's a massive turning point for Arm and Ursula in the story and it was a really rewarding scene to go toe to toe with Cosmo on. For Pure it was possibly the dinner party scene in the final episode. It's the first time all the characters are in the one place and it was also our last day of filming. The entire shoot was a lot of fun to be honest and we as a cast are still close. I was fortunate to work with Anthony Welsh again in Calm With Horses.”

What was your first paid role as an actor, and what were the key things you learned from doing that role? 

“During college I worked as a trainee in Art Department (behind the camera) to pay for drama classes and to be honest that was my education into screen acting. I learnt how a set was run, the roles each department played into getting a project made. Filmmaking is a collaborative process it isn’t just one person. Some of the best filmmakers I’ve worked with over the years share a common trait that they worked their way up in different departments.”

What Filmmaker or Actor has influenced or inspired you the most?

“Some actors/filmmakers who inspire me are Charlize Theron, Gena Rowlands, Cate Blanchett, Andrea Arnold, Lynn Ramsay and Shane Meadows.”

What international performance by an actor has blown you away?

“Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. She’s just INCREDIBLE.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that has really impressed you (not one that you were in)? 

“(A Date for) Mad Mary. Seána Kerslake is one of my closest friends and when that film first came out I was such a fan girl around her. I still am but she puts up with it.”

What Director or Actor would you most like to work with and why (Irish or international)? 

“Jessie Buckley. Her body of work to date has been inspiring. She makes really interesting choices and I’d love to work with her.”

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection? 

“It's important to take the work seriously but not to take yourself too seriously.”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career thus far that you would share with young aspiring Actors?

“I worked with Michael Smiley just before lockdown on a film and he passed on the best advice to me which was to ‘commit and embrace'. Commit to your choices and embrace changes.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

“Lockdown has given me extra time to work on the character study for a script that will start into production in September. It's given me the time to reflect on possible choice for the character and develop dialogues with the filmmakers. Most importantly lockdown has given me valuable time with my family.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.





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