She made her name as a TV and radio presenter, but Laura Whitmore is about to make her big screen debut, as actress and screenwriter, writes Esther McCarthy.
Her on-camera poise has made her one of our hottest TV presenters and exports, but now Laura Whitmore can add another string to her bow: Screenwriter. Next week, the star will debut her short film, Sadhbh, at its world premiere in the Irish Film Festival London. It tells the story of a young mother, facing and struggling with the pressures of not being good enough.
“I was writing this little story quite a while ago,” she tells me. “It was initially a passion project that we were just doing for ourselves, some people who wanted to work together for a long time.
“It’s my first time screenwriting professionally. It kind of happened organically. We filmed this at the beginning of the year and it’s really exciting now to be able to premiere it in London.”
With an annual festival and a vibrant series of year-round screenings and workshops, the festival has become one of the most established Irish cultural events in the UK. Patrons include Colin Farrell, Lenny Abrahamson, and Moe Dunford. Is Laura nervous at releasing her short into the world?
“To be honest with you it’s just great to be included and actually the night that we’re screening there’s seven films altogether being shown. I’m really excited to look at the other films. Maybe I’m biased but I think Irish people as a nation, we’re storytellers. And every single film is somehow related to an Irish writer or director, Irish talent.”
Laura says the idea for the film, in which she also stars, was prompted by reaching an age in her life (she’s now 34) where many of her peers are starting to settle down.
“It’s not based on anyone in particular, but it’s a story that I wrote over a year ago, and I think I was definitely influenced by things I see around me. By friends having children, by that turn of age when people are starting to have kids and settle down.
Last month, Laura wrote a piece for the 1,000th issue of Hot Press about what is a taboo subject for many women — losing a baby in pregnancy. She told how she learned her baby had no heartbeat during her 12-week scan, weeks after learning she was pregnant. She has since been moved by how many women subsequently contacted her. “I kind of feel everything I wanted to say was in that piece,” she says.
“I thought, if I can put my voice in there, maybe I could do something that’s relatable to a lot of women. After the article I had so many women contact me, thanking me for making it public and that it’s not a taboo thing.
“It’s just an honest piece that I felt belonged in that publication at that particular time. That women can talk about our bodies and we can talk about the fact we get periods. We can talk about the fact that women have to hide their pregnancy up to a certain time. I had everyone ask me to go on TV shows and radio shows to talk about it. But I feel like what I have to say on it is in that article.”
Laura has had to navigate the delicate nature of fame ever since she beat a host of wannabes to become the face of MTV News in 2008. She has learned to manage huge media interest in her ever since, steadily developing career longevity through a series of high-profile jobs including I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! Now!
“I think you just have to take everything with a little pinch of salt,” she says. “I definitely feel I was lucky in that when I first moved to London and I won a big job of being the face of MTV Europe, that Instagram didn’t exist then, Twitter didn’t exist. Or if it did, I wasn’t on Twitter then. It wasn’t a big thing.
“And I was a bit older. I’d finished my degree. I was 23, rather than being a 17-year-old. So I think I probably was lucky in that way. I think it’s much harder for a younger generation because you’re seeing so many things online. I mean, if somebody thought I was shit at what I was doing, I didn’t get to see that they thought I was shit! Now, everyone is everyone’s critic and they let them know when they have that contact with you immediately.”
Such has been the success of her presenting career that many may not realise Laura originally harboured ambitions to act. Most recently, she starred with Amy Huberman in the first series of Finding Joy, and toured with Shane Richie in the stage thriller Not Dead Enough. It all started at a young age growing up in her native Bray, Co Wicklow.
“I remember when I was a kid, my teacher told my mum that I was really shy and not talking in class. So she sent me to drama lessons. She says it was either the best thing or the worst thing that she did. It kind of gives you that confidence,” Laura says of learning the art of performance.
“I was always involved in doing plays and theatre. I studied Shakespeare at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts). I studied in the Leinster School of music and drama as well as doing journalism at DCU. So I kind of had it in my background. But I always feel that as important as it is to study, that doing is the best way to learn. The same with presenting — until I started actually doing it, you realise just how much work goes into it and how it’s very different to what you think it’s going to be.”
While taking her course in RADA, Laura would spot Tom Hiddleston rehearsing next door or Kenneth Branagh hanging out in the canteen. “I thought it was going to be all lah-di-dah. But half the time I was rolling around on the ground, pretending to be a tree,” she laughs.
“I always go back to storytelling. My favourite thing is to tell stories. Whether that’s interviewing someone, whether it’s portraying a character, or writing or telling my story, whatever it may be. I think that’s always been something that I wanted to do, whether it’s through journalism or whether it’s through drama.”
Radio is another passion for the presenter, who did an internship at Newstalk before making her way to London. Following a run on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Sunday Session, she was recently given a permanent Sunday morning slot on the channel, where she’ll interview big-name guests from the worlds of politics, music, and showbiz — much to the delight, she says, of her dad Sean, who is a big fan of 5 Live.
“It’s great, because it’s a talk show. Newstalk was my internship, but I didn’t think I’d be working on a talk show. With MTV there was so much music, and I cover a lot of music festivals. When I was a researcher in Newstalk, working on the lunchtime show, I never thought that I’d be the actual host.
“With our show as well, it’s definitely pushing me more than some of the interviews I’ve done before. When you do MTV, The Brits or the Baftas I mean, it’s brilliant. But it’s a quick interview. With radio you’ve got time and you have proper conversations. That’s a bit intimidating, but it’s also quite exciting.”
It comes as little surprise that she was a huge fan of Gay Byrne, and the news he has passed comes just days before we speak. She describes a brief encounter with him during a visit to RTÉ as “the most starstruck I’ve ever been”.
“When you grow up with someone like that, that is in your home, on your telly, in your living room every Friday night for 37 years… I mean, what a legacy. It’s such a soothing, familiar voice. And he was trusted. He was trusted as a broadcaster.”
Sadhbh premieres at the Irish Film Festival London,November 20-24.