The big interview: Actress Niamh Cusack

Her big break was in Heartbeat, now Niamh Cusack tells Nick Ahad how she’s been lured back to Yorkshire by an acting job she just couldn’t turn down.

Niamh Cusack
Niamh Cusack

As a member of an acting dynasty, it would be all too easy to take Niamh Cusack for granted.

However, when you really stop and think about it, acting dynasties, at least on this side of the Atlantic, aren’t actually all that common.

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Redgrave and Fox are the obvious ones and Ed Stoppard is doing dad Tom proud in the world of showbusiness. But then who?

Niamh Cusack

British theatre is full of one-offs, where a child follows a parent into the profession, but with the Cusacks it’s a true family business. They really can lay claim to the title “dynasty”.

Father Cyril was a film and television actor of some repute with a career that stretched many decades. Sister Sorcha and Sinead followed dad into the business, as did the fourth of five, Niamh.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that the three women of the family have not just had an adequate career in theatre, film and television, but all have really quite impressive CVs. Niamh’s two brothers also work in the industry, as producers.

It must make family gatherings interesting.

“I know, we’ve taken over the industry. We should probably count our blessings more than we do,” admits Cusack. The family do not, apparently, sit around talking about work and how fortunate they are to have done such brilliant acting jobs, consistently, over the years.

“I think it’s because you always worry about the next job. You don’t sit around thinking about it because you really are just always worrying about that next job. I think that will carry on until we finish our careers.”

Cusack, you can tell on first sight, is a serious actor. The giveaway? She’s meeting the press at Sheffield Crucible, where she is rehearsing the opening play of its Brian Friel Season, and lack of ego means she appears before them au naturel. In her mid-50s, there are plenty of women her age, let alone women in such a public profession, who wouldn’t step out of the door without at least a brushing of blusher. Cusack has higher thoughts on her mind.

Little wonder.

It’s not every day you get to do the work of one of the world’s greatest living dramatists – and for Cusack the added pleasure comes from the fact that it is a celebration of one of her countrymen.

“I am enjoying being in Sheffield and enjoying doing the play,” she says. The words appear massively understated, but the light in her eyes leaves you in no doubt that she is genuinely very excited. “It’s a big stretch, but also a real gift of a play. He leads us with so many hints in the script. He’s done so much of the work for you as an actor in the way he’s written it, the language, the punctuation. It’s beautifully modulated.”

Speaking of beautifully modulated, Cusack’s voice is, strange as it might sound to say, very Irish. Having worked with the RSC and around the world, and having lived in London for the majority of her adult life, you wonder if she might have picked up various different accents, but it appears – to English ears at any rate – entirely untouched. Her Irish roots remain lodged in her throat.

Born in Dublin in 1959, she looked destined to become a professional musician. She was good enough to secure a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Music, but an offer to join the theatre proved too tempting and she set off on a path of touring, living in digs and generally being peripatetic as a working actor.

Stints at the RSC and a very impressive performance in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where she also worked alongside future husband Finbar Lynch, followed.

Recently she won high praise in the National Theatre’s adaptation of the award winning novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, playing Siobhan both at the National and when it transferred last year to the West End.

She was taken into the hearts of Northerners when she played Dr Kate Rowan, wife to Nick Berry’s PC in the Yorkshire-set Heartbeat, for three years from 1992. The most important role she has played for the past 18 years, however, has been that of a mother. Cusack takes being a mother Very Seriously.

Proof comes from the fact that her son Calam had a big say in Cusack’s career even before he was born.

“When I got pregnant I was doing Heartbeat – that was why the character had to die. The show offered to write a baby in and they wrote me being pregnant into the show, but it was time for me to move on. It felt like it would be too big a decision to commit to staying before I knew what my baby was going to be like,” she says.

Once Calam came along, the decisions about her career were simple. She would work, as long as she was able to spend the time she wanted to with her son.

“My life is so much richer for having had a child. I want to be around him and theatre really lends itself to being a mother – when you are rehearsing it’s tricky, but then when the show is running you have the daytime free. I think being a mother enriched me. That time that goes into observing being a human being when you are a mum is all valuable. I think parents are much more aware of how the world is – and that informs my acting.”

Clearly, then, Calam comes first. Is the fact that he has reached an age of independence the reason Cusack is up working in Sheffield for the first time? Partly.

“This is a theatre on the map. It’s got great pedigree and a track record of being the very best. I knew Daniel (Evans, the artistic director at Sheffield) when he was a young actor. I always liked him and was excited about the notion of someone like him running the theatre. I’ve wanted to come up and work here since he took over and this is the first chance I’ve had.”

There is also, of course, the work itself. In the Friel season Cusack stars in an intense two-hander being staged in the Crucible Studio. The play sees Friel take two of Chekhov’s characters: Sonya, Uncle Vanya’s dutiful niece and Andrey, the downtrodden intellectual brother of The Three Sisters and has them meeting 20 years after Chekhov had done with them.

The combination of Sheffield and Brian Friel was irresistible to Cusack: “He is Ireland’s greatest living playwright and he has always been part of my life and I think it’s great that Sheffield has decided to celebrate his work because he should be universally enjoyed and applauded.”

Warming to her subject, she adds: “Anyone studying English or playwriting or drama should see this. He is a real man of the theatre, he understands how it works and all three plays (that make up the Friel season) are a real gift for people wanting to understand that. He writes about real human issues in the same way that Shakespeare does, the same way that any great playwright does.”

Clearly, she’s a fan. Does the fact that the South Yorkshire theatre will be celebrating an Irish playwright lend an extra resonance to the project for Cusack?

“I think these plays really do have something in them for everyone. He is one of the greatest playwrights ever, I’m really proud to play a part in the season, I’m proud that we have him and I am very pleased that Sheffield has agreed that yes, he should be celebrated over here as well.”

Cusack’s director for Afterplay, the highly regarded Roisin McBrinn, a fellow Irishwoman, doesn’t feel any particular national pride at Friel being celebrated here in England – she believes the writer belongs to an international audience. Cusack has no such qualms about wearing the Irish flag on her heart when it comes to celebrating Friel.

“There’s something that feels very comforting about the fact that back in Ireland there is someone writing plays that will really resonate with so many people, whether that’s middle-aged women who see this play and recognise something of themselves in Sonya, or young men and women who are aware of being in love for the first time and see the amazing love story in Translations.”

Despite the fact that her life and work has been very London-bound – stints in television up here excepted – Cusack has done her homework on Sheffield. Friel is the latest playwright to be celebrated with a single season of his work at Sheffield Theatres. The tradition began in 2011 with a celebration of David Hare and in 2012 it was Michael Frayn who received the treatment.

“You had the Frayn season, didn’t you? The fact is there is more theatre to choose from in London, that’s why I’ve been based down there since I had Cal, but what I love doing is showing plays to people who have not seen them before. There is something about showing a play that is new to an audience that gives you an awful lot back. It feels like it’s been that way in Sheffield for a while now.”

The way she talks about acting, about sharing work with audiences, about being a parent, it all points at a woman who, without wishing to sound like a page from a How To Be A Hippy manual, is fully engaged in her life.

It’s why I need to finish off the first quote from this piece, when Cusack was talking about the “acting dynasty” of the family. She said that they will all continue worrying about the next job until they finish their careers – but it might not be for the reason you imagine. She went on: “It’s nothing to do with money. It’s because for all of us, acting is a lifeline, a kind of drug. And I don’t mean just standing on the stage, showing off. It’s the collaborative nature of acting, coming into contact with different definitions, with different imaginations, with different minds. It makes you think about life and about other human beings. I think it’s a real gift, actually. If you’re lucky enough to keep getting work.”

Niamh Cusack appears in Afterplay, Sheffield Studio, to March 1, as part of the Sheffield Theatres Brian Friel Season. Also showing: Translations, Sheffield Crucible and Wonderful Tennessee, Sheffield Lyceum, both run to March 8. 0114 249 6000,