An actor’s life might not have been the most obvious choice for Wexford’s Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Murphy – her parents owned a hair salon, the wonderfully named Scissors Empire, and up to her late teenage years she and her siblings worked part-time in the family business, folding towels and sweeping up leftover locks. Destiny, however, selected thespian pursuits over tonsorial duties; it also helped that the Murphy family lived between two theatres – the Opera House and the Dun Mhuire. School visits to Wexford Opera Festival dress rehearsals were interspersed with partaking in fringe events that local theatre groups and Am-Dram societies would stage. So far, so familiar, but things were to change dramatically when Charlie the child morphed into Charlie the teenager. When she was 15, Charlie (it’s only ‘Charlotte’ to school teachers and the Passport Office) hooked up with local theatre group, Bare Cheek, and so began the excursion from provincial ambition to international achievement.
Bare Cheek, recalls Charlie, was aptly named – its artistic policy was (and continues) to present challenging work by contemporary playwrights. Before she could spin on a coin she was entangled in plays by the likes of British writers Steven Berkoff, Martin Crimp and Sarah Kane, and Irish writers Frank McGuinness and Enda Walsh.
“You’d be doing Calamity Jane and The Sound of Music just to get the buzz of it all,” she says over a coffee in the lounge area of an inordinately hip Dublin hotel. It’s a drizzly, dull Saturday morning, but Murphy is good company – alert, interested, focused. “The camaraderie, meeting people – it was such a joy as a teenager to be part of that.” Being introduced to serious playwrights, writers she had previously never been aware of was, she states, a defining, pivotal moment. “Geography made me fall upon theatre,” she reasons, “but Bare Cheek’s introduction to those writers made me realise that I wanted to be somewhere in that. We would be encouraged to create our own work, as well as doing the work of others. So that approach encouraged me to start writing, and gave me a fever to carry on doing it. We were given a blank canvas that was totally liberating and very expressive.”
Can she recall what it was she wanted to express? “Oh, God…” Seconds drift by in slow motion. “Some things that, you know…“ A few more seconds pass. Charlie’s hesitancy could stem from either complete forgetfulness or total recall (the former seems unlikely, the latter could be potentially awkward), but she skilfully bridges the two by defining the eternal emotional powder keg of the teenage mind. “You just go for it; your limbs go in every direction at once, don’t they?! You look back on your teenage self and accept the oddness of what you were thinking.”
What were her ambitions back then? She knew she had the acting bug, so what did she aim to do about it? “I more or less presumed that I wouldn’t make a living as an actor, but I didn’t dwell on that too long, I kind of accepted it. Maybe I thought that I could write? All I knew is that I wanted to be in the industry.”
Charlie Murphy has been in it ever since, and looks set to enhance her status as one of the new (and, frankly, brilliant) breed of Irish actors. She started off slowly and in low-key fashion with small parts in two RTE productions, The Clinic (2009) and Single-Handed (2010). It was with her role in an initially underrated RTE series, however, that Murphy’s career took off like a rocket.
Written by Stuart Carolan, and featuring quite probably the best ensemble cast of Irish actors ever assembled for an indigenous drama series, Love/Hate cast a coldly intelligent and often unsparing eye on Dublin’s gangland community. Over five seasons (2010-2014), Murphy played a blinder. As Siobhan, the niece of ambitious gangster kingpin, Nidge (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), she developed her character from ingénue to scene-stealer with assured incremental steps that travelled from touching to distressing.
“It was a pure gift to come back to every year,” she remarks, signalling that between filming each season of Love/Hate she was busy getting her name and face known outside Ireland in British television series such as Misfits, Ripper Street, The Village and, most notably, Happy Valley. As for Love/Hate, she admits, “the stars aligned for it in so many ways – the writing, the actors and the crew you worked with, but also for the age that I was. Love/Hate ran over five years, and each time I came back to it I became more comfortable in my skin as an actor. Because of that you relax more, and you’re not afraid of trying stuff out.”
Which brings us back to where it all started for Charlie Murphy: theatre. A few years ago, she appeared in Our Few And Evil Days at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Written by acclaimed Dublin-based playwright Mark O’Rowe, Murphy’s performance in the ensemble piece (which also featured Ciaran Hinds, Sinead Cusack, and her Love/Hate co-star, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) was outstanding. (When asked for his thoughts on Murphy, O’Rowe’s reply is commendable: “hard-working, truthful, incredibly skilled, and deeply empathetic as most brilliant actors are. I loved working with her, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”)
“Mark and Enda Walsh are my theatre heroes,” she declares, adding that O’Rowe’s Terminus, and Walsh’s Walworth Farce and Disco Pigs are “absolute favourites. I adore the writing, so being drawn to the weird, wonderful and dark is a given. There’s always humour there, too, which is another major appeal.”
Murphy is set to continue her exploration of weird, wonderful, dark and funny this month – she features, with Irish actor, Hugh O’Connor, in the debut Dublin production of Enda Walsh’s Arlington (A Love Story) in the Abbey Theatre. Asking about its storyline proves fruitless, but she captures the essence of it, perhaps, when she describes it as a typical Enda Walsh mindscape – “where you’re thrown into a bizarre world that can be treacherously dark, but at the same time has pockets of absolutely heart-breaking beauty.”
There is, of course, work that will be rolled out later this year – Murphy appears with Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan in The Foreigner. And she has latterly gained further praise for her work in the recently broadcast BBC television movie, To Walk Invisible, a robust biographical account of part of the lives of the Brontë sisters.
Famous movie stars, award-winning work, ticking off bucket list jobs – is she now totally spoiled for choice? Charlie Murphy touches the wooden leg of her chair, the wooden tabletop, my head (actually, no, not my head). “Well, you never want to jinx anything, do you?!”
(This is an updated version of the feature article, which originally appeared in Aer Lingus in-flight magazine, Cara, July 2016.)