Film / Photography

Actress Niamh Algar on why truth is the cornerstone of filmmaking

The rising star of Shane Meadows' 'The Virtues' opens up.

Like many pre-teens in the late 90s, young Niamh Algar was enamoured with Leonardo DiCaprio. But it wasn’t his floppy hair and baby face that made an impression on the now 26-year-old actress, instead it was the ceremony of cinema that came with one of the actor’s biggest roles of that decade, Titanic. “I remember my sisters were all going to see it and I wasn’t allowed to go and I was just absolutely infuriated,” she says. “Then later that week my mum took me to see it by myself, and I just remember it being a really special event in my early life. This film was so hugely anticipated and there I was, sitting in the cinema, staring up at it.”

Growing up near Mullingar in central Ireland, Niamh may have been miles away from the bright lights of the big city, but her dreams were no less shiny, and, as a youngster, her creative education came in several forms: she saved up all her Christmas and birthday money to buy a camera, made short films on the family camcorder, hung out at a local theatre group and used to accompany her mother – an artist– to galleries and exhibitions. Film, too, became an early passion. “I remember watching Girl, Interrupted when I was about 11 or 12 and it had a really profound effect on me,” she says. “Then in English class in school we had a teacher who showed us films like My Left Foot and The Magdalene Sisters. Despite living in the countryside I learnt a lot about different life experience through film.”

“Then in my last year in school I made a short film, and incorporated interviews with everyone from our year into it, and it was then screened at our graduation. Watching people’s reaction to that made me realise that it was actually something I was good at, that maybe I could find a career in.”

Telling your school careers advisor, however, that acting is the path you plan to take usually starts with an extended “hmmm”, and ends with stern conversation about a sensible back-up plan, and because of this, Niamh was reticent to verbalise her desire, especially to her parents. “I knew I wanted to be an actor,” she says, “but any actors that I knew weren’t making a living from it, so I knew that it was going to be a real struggle to make it work financially.” It was a conversation with her journalist uncle that eventually allayed her fears. “He basically told me that my parents would worry about me no matter what, but in order to survive I had to have passion,” she says. “I felt like I was waiting for that validation to really go for it.”

 

Emboldened by her fiery ambition, Niamh made the move across country to Dublin, where she enrolled in weekly classes at the Factory (now Bow Street Academy), an acting school and “hub for writers, actors and directors to work and collaborate.” The Factory’s founders, including directors John Carney and Lance Daly, would often test out scenes from their upcoming features with local actors, giving Niamh hands-on experience and the chance to further evolve her craft. “There was never a wrong actor or a wrong decision in a scene,” she says, “and that’s where the idea of what filmmaking and acting could be really grew for me.”

While working in Dublin. Niamh hit the audition circuit and landed a role in Without Name, a mystery drama directed by Lorcan Finnegan. The film screened at both the Toronto Film Festival and London Film Festival, and from here Niamh’s career picked up momentum, and quickly. “I went to London for the film festival and basically didn’t leave,” she says, laughing. Picking up an agent – and a spare room from a friend ­– she hit the ground running, and nailed the first audition that she was sent on. And that audition was no small feat. Though she downplays her success, Niamh’s first job in London was in fact a lead role in British auteur Shane Meadows’ upcoming emotional knockout The Virtues. Starring opposite Stephen Graham, who gives one of the most raw, uncompromising performances in recent television memory, as a man coming to terms with a troubled childhood, Niamh plays Dinah, an outspoken, brash Irish woman, who is hiding scars of her own. For Niamh, working with Shane was the first pinch-me moment of her career.

“When I was younger, my brother was really into films, and he had a shelf of DVDs in his room that I wasn’t allowed to touch, but obviously I did,” she remembers, “and one of the films I took was This Is England. It was one of the first independent films that I had watched and it blew my mind,” she says. “It made me feel differently about film, and the storytelling was so raw that when I first watched it I wasn’t sure if it was a film or a documentary. From there I threw myself into watching his other work.

“Shane is always trying to find the truth in storytelling, and he does that through so much research. He made me learn about my character on a much deeper level,” she says. “And on set if something wasn’t working he would allow us to stop for the day and we’d go and get something to eat and talk through it and then figure it out that way. He’s not afraid to make mistakes, and that’s so important. He gets the honest performances that he does because actors trust him, and that is such a huge part of this job.”

One might think that putting herself in the mindset of such a damaged, frayed character for a year of her life would have taken its toll on Niamh, but she insists that it had in fact, the opposite effect. “I find acting extremely cathartic,” she says. “Everyone has personal trauma in life, and for me, acting is an escape from that. You allow yourself to feel these feelings that we usually suppress because you don’t always want to share the damaged side of you, or those difficult emotions.”

Certain film, television and even fashion has recently been called into question for glamorising working-class life and the difficulties that come with living on the breadline, but Meadows’ work is known for an unfiltered and unflinching honesty. It can be hard to watch, but, as Niamh agrees, is necessary to keep the truth alive in filmmaking.

 

“Audiences want to be entertained but they also want to be enlightened,” she says. “I don’t think everyone can do what Shane does – he brings this extra layer of integrity to everything he does. The truth is difficult to watch, and he can make people feel differently about issues through his work. Film has the power to inspire change through storytelling, and that’s its whole beauty. People shouldn’t ever run away from the truth, and Shane isn’t afraid of the ugly side of life.”

Speaking of change, Niamh notes that she has come into the industry at a time when it’s facing a long overdue shake up of its own. I mention that the roles she has played to date are all emotionally deep and complex, adjectives that weren’t traditionally associated with roles for women. “In terms of the complexity of female roles the tide is definitely changing,” she says. “Like everything, it has a long way to go, but the stories that I have been reading recently lead me to believe that it’s an exciting time. I think that we have to be optimistic and continue to drive these conversations forward so that the industry doesn’t slip back into old ways.”

There looks to be no setbacks in Niamh’s future. Next up is MotherFatherSon, a political thriller starring Richard Gere and written by Tom Rob Smith, who recently penned The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and Ridley Scott’s Raised by Wolves a big budget sci-fi series in which Niamh plays a resourceful army medic tasked with protecting a new human race being raised on a virgin planet. “If you’d said to me five years ago that I’d be working with Shane Meadows and Ridley Scott I would have laughed at you,” she says. “Their work gives me goosebumps. I suppose not leaving London after the film festival two years ago was a good idea after all!”

The Virtues is released on Channel 4 on 15th May 2019.

15 May 2019