The Dublin actress has relocated to London with her family, including daughter Evie, who has Stargardt Disease. After eight years in Hollywood, it was time, she tells Esther McCarthy.
ACTRESS Victoria Smurfit is the epitome of glamour as she breezes into Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. But she’s quick to credit her hair and make-up artists.
Lightly tanned and glowing in an all-white, one-shoulder ensemble, it’s hard to believe it’s two decades since she became a household name as feisty young barmaid Orla O’Connell, in Ballykissangel.
It has been a summer of new for her: new home, new beginnings, and a new country and culture to experience with daughters, Evie (14) and Ridley (12), and son, Flynn (10), her children with former husband, Doug Baxter. This summer, following eight years in Los Angeles, they relocated to Surrey, an hour south of London.
“It’s been a crazy summer, after eight years living in LA,” she says. “They’re very excited for their new school. They’re going to go to an American school in Surrey, as it’s just a completely different system, so I’ve moved close to there.”
Packing up your life to move to a new home can be emotional. “I thought it would be. It was exhausting, but throwing stuff out is very freeing. And I think it’s only when you move house, you realise how many cupboards you have, and how much rubbish is in them. I gave a lot of my stuff to friends; I’ve left my DNA around L.A. All the kids just went: ‘OK. Grab your stuff. Bye house. Let’s go in the car’, and off we went. It was just time for all of us. It was just time, and they’re loving it.”
A terrifying incident reaffirmed her decision to move: a shooter tried, unsuccessfully, to target the children’s school in Santa Monica. She was alerted by text by Evie and told her daughter to hide, as per protocol. The school went into lockdown and for an hour she did not know what was happening.
“I wouldn’t have known if Evie wasn’t a ‘divil’ and she didn’t have her phone in the classroom, but she did. “They rehearse a lockdown once a month. They all pick a hiding spot in the room and you stay there as quiet as you can. Ridley said she was very aware that when she looked up at her teacher that he looked terrified, whereas, normally, the teachers know the drill is coming.
“You know, it’s what the kids have to learn. We all have different things that you adjust with. But their gun policy is so crazy and nothing’s changing.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Surrey that she made another realisation. “What’s really interesting is that I hadn’t realised, really, until we got here, that in the last year and a half, since the powers that be changed over there, that there’s been a kind of a real low-grade fear that you live with there.
“In a bit of a way, it’s like you live with a low-grade feeling of damp, if you live here in January; it’s there and it was only when we arrived, you realise.”
She is in Dublin, her home town, as launch ambassador for the Longines Irish Champions Weekend. The two-day event, one of the biggest on the racing calendar, takes place in Leopardstown and The Curragh on September 14th and 15th. It will be her children’s first-ever day at the races.
“I was lucky enough to have grown up going to these events. The one I wish I’d been to was when Vintage Crop won the Melbourne Cup; that would have been a treat. I grew up around horse racing, with the family. My uncle (businessman Michael Smurfit) has had a 60-year love of horses and when we were lucky around the holidays, we’d get to go with him. We’d go with dad (Dermot), and the family, at Christmas.
“It’s closing up the season and it’s all the very best horses and all the very best jockeys coming together.
“Longines brings an elegance to whatever they’re doing. On top of that, you also have the Pat Smullen charity race. So you’re bringing all the legends out of retirement to be able to raise funds. Pat, who retired this year, following a cancer diagnosis, is organising the event to raise funding for research.”
Smurfit has had a busy career since she first pulled pints in Fitzgerald’s of Ballykissangel. She starred opposite Hugh Grant in About a Boy and as a TV detective in Lynda La Plante’s gritty series, Trial & Retribution. Recent successes have included her fun Cruella De Vil in global TV smash Once Upon a Time and police drama Marcella, but recently she has been concentrating on the move and her family.
Evie has been diagnosed with Stargardt Disease, which causes progressive sight loss. A few days ago, Victoria took her eldest daughter to a specialist clinic in Switzerland, a trip documented on social media at Evie’s request.
“That was entirely her thing. She said to me, a couple of months ago: ‘Mom, do you think there’ll ever be a cure?’ And I said: ‘My darlin’, I don’t know. I believe so and I wish for that, hope for that, pray for that.’ And then, she goes: ‘Do you think there’s going to be a cure before I lose my sight?’ ‘I don’t know. I hope for it. I wish for it. I pray for it’.
“And she just turned to me, and she’s fourteen-and-a-half, and she says: ‘Well, if I have to go through this so the next generation of kids with Stargardt’s don’t, then so be it. But we will find something’. And I just thought, what an incredible young lady. She’s really incredible,” she said, clearly moved by her girl’s courage.
She has vowed to do whatever she can to support her. “One of my sort of action plans is I want to make sure that the top docs in L.A. New York, London, Dublin, all of the top places, are fully aware of this girl, Evie Baxter, who is an advocate for Fighting Blindness, who is an articulate, gorgeous, held-together young lady. So that when the clinicians, when the scientists, when the geneticists, have a breakthrough, they go: ‘You know who needs this? That’s Evie Baxter.’
“We’re just gonna keep banging the drums and picking up every stone and looking under it for the clues. To find a solution.”
In recent years, Smurfit has been developing her own projects, including a drama set in a boxing club and a TV series in the US. Writing has become creatively important to her, she says.
“To me, it manages the crazy. You know, we all have thousands of ideas and thoughts and feelings and words and I can put it all into a place that is fun. It’s like my therapy, I guess. Because the joy of it is I can play every character; I kind of like that.”
She’s looking forward to spending the rest of the summer introducing her children to a country she herself knows well. “I thought, we’ll take this summer off and go and settle the kids, so that they know where they’re at and what they’re doing and introduce them to a British pub lunch, which they love, and then get back to it come September.
“In the US, you can go for months and months and not find a degree of separation. So people don’t necessarily have the connectivity that we have. One of the most important things for me, for the kids, is to get a sense that you belong to a community. It’s really important to have that sense of belonging. “I think that’s vital. So that’s a big difference. That, and proximity to Hula Hoops and Tayto has been extremely important to my kids.”
- The Longines Irish Champions Weekend takes place in Leopardstown and The Curragh on September 14th and 15th.