Artist Interview: Actress Aisling O’Sullivan of The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Editor’s Note: University of Michigan student Zoey Bond spent several weeks with Druid Theatre Company as part of the UMS 21st Century Artist Internship program. The Company returns to Ann Arbor with a new production of Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane on March 9-11, 2017. The interview below is with Aisling O’Sullivan, the Irish actress who plays the beauty queen of Leenane.
Photo: The Beauty Queen of Leenane’s Aisling O’Sullivan (left) and Marie Mullen (right). Photo by Matthew Thompson.
Zoey Bond: You’ve worked on playwright Martin McDonagh’s text before, what draws you to his writing?
Aisling O’Sullivan: It’s his characters, the dilemmas, and the wit, I suppose. It’s more than just the writing. It’s the delight I get from performing in the plays, which is so much fun to do and challenging. They are deep. They’ve got all of the colors.
ZB: As you know, this new production casts Marie Mullen in the role of the scheming mother. She won a Tony Award for the role of the daughter in the 1996 Broadway production. Last week you started wearing Marie’s boots in rehearsal, so you were quite literally stepping into her shoes. What has this part of the process been like?
AO: I found it very difficult. In the past, if I’ve seen a performance, and then I have to do my performance, I think I can do better. I don’t feel I can better than Marie. I saw her originally, and she is just extraordinary and really painfully beautiful. It would have been one of Marie’s defining performances. I’ve known her for a long time, so stepping into her shoes, I’m trying to embrace it and go, “Okay, so I’m privileged to be asked by the same director who thinks there is something I can do that might equal Marie. I’ll give it a shot.” I’m going to do something totally different, or I’ll just do what she did. I’m just trying to embrace the memory of her, and the joy that I got from it. So stepping into her shoes helps me symbolically with all of that. And her shoes are nice.
ZB: So then, the follow-up question is: After seeing the original production, has it been hard for you to create your own version?
AO: Yes. It’s difficult because of the way Martin’s work has to be rehearsed. You don’t get to do the scene over and over from start to finish without stopping. I have no idea who is developing in me until we start running the show. And then I’ll start getting the sense of who this person is. At the moment, it’s very much stop, start, stop, start, which is not conducive for me anyway. I tend to work through moods and energy shifts. I’m not getting the sense of that, which is not a problem. I’m very curious as to who’s going to appear.
ZB: What excites you about audiences seeing this today, 20 years later? What continues to be relevant?
A: Well, I think I love the universality of his darkness in relationships. I love that he puts it out there. It’s impossible not to recognize yourself in these desperate, almost psychopathic relationships.
For me, the play would be about owning your own power, or that if anyone ever encroaches on that space, you have to fight very hard to protect it. You’re in big trouble if anyone masters you — and I’m speaking here about the mother-daughter relationship. You’re in big trouble because you have no power. You’ve lost your own. And dark things can happen from that kind of powerlessness.
ZB: How do you think American audiences will respond to seeing this Irish play?
AO: I don’t know. I performed in front of an audience in America for the first time last year. And it was a very strange and scary experience for me because I’have spent 20 years performing to mostly English and Irish audiences. I can read them. If you get to know a species of audience, you can read them and you know how to play them. But with the American audiences, I had no idea of your taste and your comedy. It was a very interesting experience for me because it was unique. It was a totally different culture. I’m very interested in learning more about that. About how you respond, what’s your funny bone? What things move you?
ZB: In the play, do you have a particular scene, or a moment, or a line that you feel resonates the most with you?
AO: Not yet, but I love the humility, and honesty, and gentleness in a lot of these characters. They drop in these little, gentle sentences, and I think they are gorgeous moments for me to hear, as a performer in it, anyway. That it isn’t just razor-sharp.
ZB: How do you find the love in such a dark play? Do you think it is there?
AO: Definitely. It’s a funny thing that deep love can exist with masses of irritation. I irritate people too, I know that. As you get older, it’s less of a big deal. I’d be horrified to think I was capable of irritating anyone or boring anyone when I was younger, but now I’ve accepted that about myself. I think it’s all over the place.
ZB: Do you have a certain routine that you use to prepare for every role, or does it differ for each production?
AO: I don’t, but I’ll tell you what happened. I have been very instinctive until fairly recently, in that I would come completely open and unprepared to the first day of rehearsal. That was the way I worked and great things could come because I hadn’t made any decisions. Well, I worked on my first Shakespeare with this company last year. I was playing a fairly major part, and I’d never spoken a word of Shakespeare in my life.
I turned up one day, one big Bambi in the forest and the tiger Shakespeare stepped out of the trees. I was pretty much on stage for five hours speaking pure poetry and not understanding it. That was a baptism of fire, and since then, I try to come as prepared as I can be, in terms of learning the lines. I don’t have them off, but I know where they’re going, and then I come into the rehearsal space having done a bit of work. I think that makes me feel much more like an artist.
People who have gone to drama school are horrified listening to me going, “What? No preparation at all?” [Laughs]
ZB: So, there is a fine line between coming prepared and knowing enough, but not knowing too much, so that you can still discover.
AO: Yes. I think if you come in with some ideas, your mind has worked enough on it that you can change course. But if you come in with no ideas, you’re just going to accept the ideas that come to you. I think the crucial bit for me is to love the character. Even if you’re playing a psycho, to find something that you love.
ZB: That’s a good lead into my next question. With which parts of Maureen do you feel you identify?
AO: I identify with the weakness in her, the self-doubt, the way she tries to protect herself in her relationships. I see so much of me, and so much humanity, in her. That’s what is so brilliant about the play. Martin McDonagh was so young when he wrote it, and he just hit the seam of something about human beings that doesn’t often get shown.
Druid Theatre Company returns to Ann Arbor with a new production of Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane on March 9-11, 2017.