Sunday, November 1, 2009

Queen Vic

I rather like Victoria Smurfit, and I didn't really expect to. Read all about it, y'all...

By Susan Daly

Saturday October 24 2009

Victoria Smurfit has to try very hard not to look cross. Her angular face is built for stern close-ups. As displayed to full scary advantage in her role as TV detective Róisin Connor in Trial and Retribution, it is, she says, a face that lends itself to tough.

"Playing Róisin, more often than not, I'd get women coming up saying, 'I'd love to be you in that part, I'd love to be that cross'," she laughs. Men, on the other hand, would tell her husband Doug Baxter: "Good luck to you, married to that one."

Now that she is joining the cast of RTE's The Clinic, Smurfit is having to soften her edges. But there is another reason why it's been a leap for her to take the role of Dr Edel Swift, the latest arrival to the fictional Clarence Street Clinic.

"It's the closest part I've ever played to myself," she says.

Dr Edel is a mother of two, devoted to the job but trying to make time for a home life. It's the dilemma of modern motherhood that Smurfit, mum to three children under the age of five, can relate to. When we meet for morning coffee in Dublin city centre, she is pink-cheeked from pedalling her bicycle furiously from her Ranelagh home, all apologies for being a few minutes late.

She describes her morning so far in an entertaining stream of consciousness. "After I'd dropped Evie to school, Ridley to playschool, arranged a babysitter for Flynn, I realised when I got home I had yoghurt all down my trousers. Pull on another pair, pull on the boots, put on mascara -- will it come off on the bike? -- who cares, come on, let's go!"

She doesn't look like a harassed mummy; tight jeans, on-trend ankle boots, chartreuse-coloured sweater that brings out the green in her eyes. "I would say they are very pink," she demurs. "I had about four minutes' sleep."

Sleep deprivation must be a fact of life at this stage in the Smurfit-Baxter household. They officially moved back from London to Dublin in 2001, two years into their marriage, and Waterford native Baxter established three companies: Ocean PR, Ocean advertising and Birth Digital. Smurfit continued to be in demand in the UK, where she had largely forged her career.

So, the family would decamp to rented accommodation in England for the best part of the year while she filmed Trial and Retribution and other projects. Filming The Clinic this summer was like freewheeling downhill by comparison.

"In The Clinic, it's just down the road and the cast is so big you're one of eight or 10 characters, whereas in Trial I was in every day, all day, six days a week," she says. "It was pretty hardcore."

On-set in England, her two girls, Evie, now almost five, and Ridley, two, would come to her at lunch for some intense quality time, but then she would "brush the glitter off" and run back to set and arrest another fictional ne'er-do-well.

"You do what you do but, by the same token, sometimes you would go to bed at night with your heart beating out of your chest, thinking: 'I'm not sure I can handle the stress.' They were 20-hour days for nine months. When I started the gig it was five weeks, but then it became nine months."

Now that the family has been completed by 11-month-old Flynn, she is happy to be mostly on home ground. Working mums, she acknowledges, have to deal with "vast lumps" of guilt.

"You're constantly torn. You're at work, you should be with the kids. You're with the kids, you should be out earning money."

The assumption, of course, has been that Victoria Smurfit, as a member of one of Ireland's richest families, does not necessarily need to be out earning her own dough. Her father Dermot, along with his brothers Michael and Alan, are major shareholders in a billion-euro paper and packaging company.

She's heard the silver spoon stuff all before. "I don't tend to get it so much anymore because I've enough of a backlog of my own work that I'm seen separately. But it is something I have come across a lot: 'Why do you work?'

"I think, 'are you serious?' They assume I don't have to. I work for my soul and my wallet."

She has said before that her father did not supplement her fledgling acting career, nor did she ask for any, working consistently since graduating from acting school in Bristol in 1995. If anything, she says, she is entirely following in the family footsteps.

Her grandfather Jefferson was a working-class man from Wigan in northern England who came to Ireland after the Second World War and established the business from scratch. His sons began their careers working on the warehouse floor.

"They made all their own money and they did it the hard way," she says firmly. "They weren't trust fund babes. There are no sick days. They're extraordinarily talented men that I grew up admiring."

Although she spent childhood in a lofty pile in salubrious Dalkey, Victoria was packed off to boarding school in England at the age of 14, like her brother Desmond Jnr. The family name was not the calling card in England that it would have been here.

"They know the name more now because of the job I do and it would be brought up that way round. I'm very proud of that," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, I come from a hard-working family and I don't want to let the side down."

Far from playing the poor-little-rich-girl card, she pokes fun at it. She and husband Doug agreed to pose for a spread in VIP Magazine a few weeks after Flynn was born last November, but with the proviso that they could "take the mick".

She thinks back to the resulting photographs and laughs. "That's what we did: we had fun with the concept of this Victoria Smurfit." So you had Victoria stiff-backed on a horse on the steps of uncle Michael's exclusive K-Club, Victoria in a ball gown with a woolly jumper over the top.

"I'm bizarrely proud of it because we took a running publication that has a particular style and did something different," she says. "I mean, I'm standing on a table in a sparkly dress and playing with the chandelier. It was ridiculous!"

Not everybody got the joke -- one paper sniped cattily that she had done herself "few favours" with the shoot and likened Doug's appearance to that of a "lord of the manor". Victoria couldn't care less.

"I wouldn't have done that 10 years ago because I was trying to get away from that," she says. "But as far as I'm concerned now, if I haven't stood on my own reputation at this stage, I never will and if you don't get it by now, you never will."

If there is one advantage to having what a newspaper critic once called "the best name and crossest face in TV", a description Smurfit loves, it's that you can be imperious when the occasion calls for it. While she declares 90pc of actors a joy to work with -- she finds fellow Clinic newbie Alison Doody and old hand Amy Huberman to be "just delicious", naturally -- she is tickled when she comes across the occasional bitchy outburst.

Shortly after the birth of one of her daughters, she was presenting an award at the BAFTAs, trying not to get wobbly on a single glass of wine when she was caught off-guard by another actress's comment to her about "post-pregnancy nasal hair". She could only ask Doug: "I don't have, do I?" to which he replied in the negative. You have to laugh, she says.

And it's not always the women, she says, telling the story of a male actor who was guesting on Trial and Retribution. "Every now and then you come across somebody who takes themselves too seriously. He was going on and on and on about the scene. We all knew what the scene was about, but he just wanted to hear himself talking.

"I'm the regular so I'm just sitting there going 'Fine, great, brilliant, whatever ... ' And I just sort of did that [she wipes her eye] and he said: 'Oh, I'm sorry, is mummy tired?'"

Sharp intake of breath. "I'm in Róisin mode at this stage and I say, 'No, Victoria is'. And when I call myself Victoria, you know you are in trouble." She's not a luvvie, she's a fighter.

It's partly why she didn't feel that Hollywood was a fit for her. I venture that even though she and Doody are eternally wheeled out as Irish actresses done good on the international scene, the reality is that Smurfit's only well-known film roles are in About A Boy, a small part in The Beach and a lead in action flick Bulletproof Monk. Doody is best-known for her turn in a 1989 Indiana Jones film.

To Victoria's credit, she nods emphatically that it is her TV work that has made her career, from an early role in Ballykissangel to period drama Berkeley Square, huge hit Cold Feet and onto Trial.

She finds the experience of making a big-budget film to be "terribly lonely", preferring the energy and pace of frenetic small-screen productions. This is not surprising coming from a woman who copes with the experience of childbirth by thinking of it as an "extreme sport". She can't be doing with sitting in a trailer for a day and a half, only coming out for a scene that has two lines of dialogue, "a lot of pushing and shoving and someone flying out of the sky", she says wryly. "I find my brain rots slightly."

I take it she is referring to Bulletproof Monk, a film she describes as "pretty rubbishy". At an early table reading of the script with the director, she found that Tinseltown is not devoid of people taking themselves too seriously. She read the role with the comic intent that got her the part with the producer. The director admonished her for not taking his 'War and Peace' seriously enough.

"'War and Peace?' I was thinking. 'This is called Bulletproof Monk! Come on!'"

In any case, she had reached a point where she realised a superstar trailer and an entourage were not what she wanted. "It was either this is something you pursue 100pc or I want to have a family. And I wanted to have a family."

With her own parents, Caroline and Dermot, having divorced when she was still at school, it would be easy to play pop psychologist about the importance of a steady family unit to Victoria. In reality, I don't think there is much the woman who describes herself as a "headstrong bugger" does that she hasn't decided for herself.

She didn't marry a version of daddy. While Dermot Snr "loves being called a magnate", Doug -- who is also an exhibiting photographer -- "hates" being called an advertising executive. Far from banking on some fabulous inheritance, she wants to be working when she's 80. She recognises the propensity in herself as an actress to want to ask needily 'Was that alright?' then corrects herself.

"For goodness sake, I'm 36, I've three children, I've been working in this for 15 years. Just suck it up and get on with it!"

And I bet she calls herself Victoria as she says it.

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