Denise Gough’s latest role is “destroying” her — but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Irish actress is appearing at London’s National Theatre in Angels In America, an epic two-part play lasting almost eight hours.
“I’ve literally not had any sleep,” says Gough as she nurses a coffee cup, her blonde hair cut into an elfin crop.
“Theatre is highly adrenalised, especially the sort of stuff I seem to do, and it kind of takes over.”
The star, crowned best actress at last year’s Olivier Awards for her breakthrough role in the play People, Places And Things, clearly adores theatre (“I’m at home there”), but can’t help hankering for the slightly more cosseted existence she had filming her new TV show, Paula.
“I have no fear on stage, I know it so well. But I’m thinking it’s harder work,” she says with a grin. “In TV, you get picked up in cars, you get brought food, you can sleep...”
Not that RTÉ-BBC drama Paula was a walk in the park. In the three-part revenge thriller from acclaimed Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Gough plays a chemistry teacher whose life takes a destructive turn after a one-night stand with a charming but dangerous handyman (played by Victoria actor Tom Hughes).
It’s a complex, gripping role — and one Gough admits she owes to the success of People, Places And Things.
After more than a decade of regular rejection as a jobbing actress, Gough’s performance as a drug and alcohol addict earned her rave reviews and more offers of work than ever before.
“If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have got a look-in to play a lead on a TV show of this calibre. So I’m really grateful that one allowed the other,” she says.
Gough is refreshingly outspoken when asked why the script for Paula appealed to her — and reveals she made sure she was “on top whack” (above her male co-stars) for the lead role.
“First of all, no woman was tied up, raped and left in a car, because you read so much of that stuff that you become kind of immune to it.
“It felt like a story about a human woman, as opposed to a story about a woman who is connected only to the men.”
Paula hires Hughes’ character to sort out a vermin problem in her basement and, after a few glasses of whiskey that evening, the pair sleep together. “She seduces him in quite a bold way we don’t see very often,” says Gough. “Paula doesn’t need chemistry, she just takes what she wants, physically.”
The actress is surprised when people say Paula isn’t particularly likeable. “That’s such a funny thing that we say about women in this position. We don’t say that about Jamie Dornan, he’s just hot and he kills women,” she says, referring to former model Dornan’s murderous character in The Fall. “I like playing women who aren’t apologetic for the things they do in their lives, they’re just living like everyone else and making a load of screw-ups along the way maybe.”
Gough is grateful success has come later for her. “I don’t have to be an ingenue. Everyone seems to be butt-naked in everything now and I seem to have gone over into a really nice time for this to be happening.”
There is, however, a sex scene between her character and Hughes’ —one Gough admits she is nervous about her father seeing.
“But in the next thing I do, I’m mauling a woman, so he’s going to have to get used to it. I’m now nearly 38, I can’t keep going, ‘Oh, I wonder what my dad’s thinking’. He’ll get over it. He can fast forward.”
The seventh in a family of 11 children, Gough moved to London from Co Clare aged 16 and says she is OK with the “Cinderella story” people like to pin to her.
“What people have latched onto with me is this old-school story of graft. I left drama school at 22 and it hasn’t been easy. As my agent will attest to, there have been times when I’ve called her and said, ‘I can’t do this any more’.”
“The amount it takes to keep your self-esteem up when you are being rejected and you have no money, is pretty shit. But I kept working and so this is my pay-off. I’m enjoying that. There’s a raft of very young people coming out of drama school or who have millions of followers on Twitter that are suddenly movie stars. There has to be somebody who is flying the flag for just hard graft.”
Besides, the actress jokes, gesturing to her chic (and expensive-looking) tailored black top and trousers: “Now I have loads of money, people lend me shit.”
As the offers keep coming in, Gough plans to continue choosing work she believes in.
“Before People, Places And Things, I remember going up for something I really didn’t want to do. I thought, ‘Oh my God, please don’t let me get it, because if I get it then I have to do it’. And that happens for a lot of people.
“I managed to avoid that, and have my moment of success in a play. So I’ve got everything I wanted. I never have to worry about winning an Olivier again; I’ve done it. Nothing is about anything other than, ‘What do I want to do in this moment?’”