ER knack for playing strong women on the big and small screen has made her one of our best-known exports. But sometimes there’s no place like home.
So when Victoria Smurfit recently found herself in the Offaly countryside working with cast and crew she’d known for years — including some she worked with at the very beginning of her career — she felt a sense of joy.
“It was great craic,” she smiles at the memory. “We laughed from morning ’til night. Some of them I worked with on Ballykissangel, so it was a real homecoming, great fun.”
The result is The Secret Market, which will screen as part of the prestigious shorts programme at this year’s Cork Film Festival.
In Garret Daly’s twisty thriller (co-directed by Martina McGlynn), she plays Amy, a doctor who discovers an anonymous body has a secret about her that they intend to reveal to the world unless she bids to buy it back at auction.
“I get to read a lot of stuff, I’m very lucky, and I kind of loved that. You know we come from a kind of curtain-twitching community, but now that curtain-twitching community is everywhere because of technology. You can spy on people in all sorts of ways.
“I liked this idea that if you did have this big horrendous secret, and there was a market for it, what you would do and how you would cope.
“I’d like to think that people are watching it and thinking, what’s my secret? What would I pay to hide? And that if you don’t have that secret, have you lived incorrectly?” she laughs.
When we speak, the busy actress has just finished work for the day on the second series of Marcella, the gritty crime noir series that has proved a ratings smash for ITV and Netflix.
Having stomped many of the same London streets for years as detective Roisin Connor in Lynda La Plante’s Trial & Retribution, she’s bemused to not be grilling suspects this time round.
“It’s funny being part of a police series and not asking everyone where they were at 0800 hours. It’s kind of nice being on the other side,” she smiles.
“I’m on board for season two. It’s going really well, but it’s a hell of a commute,” added the LA-based Dubliner.
“You only know from script to script who and what you are. It’s a leap of faith for the actors as well. You don’t find out whodunnit, every character is a dark shade of grey. You don’t really know until the series finds out who you really are, which is a fascinating way to work.
“I’d heard everybody talking about it but I hadn’t the chance to see it. When I knew I was getting on board, I thought: ‘Ah, I’ll watch episode one.’ The next thing you know, the night’s gone and I’ve ploughed through the series and it’s 5am. It’s really compelling viewing so I’m thrilled to be part of it. And I’m getting to be Irish in it, which is great.”
The day before, she shot key scenes with actress Anna Friel, who plays the title character. “She’s great, she’s really focused and she’s so good as this character. She’s great fun — we were working together yesterday, hooting laughing. But she’s a perfectionist, she wants it done right, which I love.”
Ever since the-then teenage Smurfit made her big-screen debut in Irish drama The Run of the Country, the daughter of top businessman Dermot Smurfit has mixed up big studio productions with smaller independent projects.
She held her own opposite Hugh Grant in About A Boy, starred in TV’s Cold Feet, and took a smaller role in The Beach to work with the great Danny Boyle. As the conflicted detective in La Plante’s Trial & Retribution, she made the role her own, solving gritty murders and whodunnits.
After being based in Dublin most of her life, six years ago she decided to move to Los Angeles with her young family, and later said: “I preferred the idea of trying and failing than not trying at all.”
MERICA has been good to her, offering an outdoors, active lifestyle and roles in TV’s Once Upon a Time as the delightfully villainous Cruella De Vil, and in forthcoming movie The Lears opposite Bruce Dern.
Her three children with ex-husband Doug Baxter — Evie, Ridley and Flynn — means life is always busy but never boring.
“One of them turns 13 next month. I officially have a teenager, I might have to move out,” she laughs.
In fact, Ridley and Flynn have become very adept at the martial art Tae Kwon Do, and have even persuaded mum to take it up.
“They’re nearly black belts. They’ve got me doing it, so I’m way down the ranks and they have great fun teaching me all the forms and the moves. They’re brilliant, they’re proper Ninjas and I want my daughter to know that no matter what that she’s able to fend for herself.”
Eldest daughter Eve has been practising a different discipline. “She loves flying trapeze, she’s a different character altogether. Swinging from 35 feet up doing flips instead, that’s her thing.
“It’s six years since I moved to LA. It’s flown, and I still feel like I’m new.”
Still, she describes herself as “an adaptable little gypsy”.
“Putting down roots wherever you happen to be is part and parcel of being an actor, as you frequently travel to shoot at specific locations. Once you leave where you’re from, the world becomes your oyster. You can find home anywhere. The kids love it, though one of them did turn to me the other day and say: ‘Mum if Kim Jong-Un is going to blow us up, can we move back to Dublin?’ I said I’m really hoping he’s not going to,” she laughed. “I love the fact that they’re plugged into the craziness that’s going on in the world.”
Still, living in America with Donald Trump as president is no laughing matter, she agrees. It must be strange to live in a state — California — where just 31% of the population voted for Trump.
OES she feel it has impacted on daily life? “It does, because everybody’s furious. My American friends are angry that the country that they believed in, fly the flag for, they don’t recognise anymore.
“The humanitarian disruptions that he has created are just astonishing, he’s systematically just taking the place apart. I feel like he’s a taken a beautiful but flawed car, and he’s stripping it for parts and selling it off around the world. It’s sad, and it has definitely impacted on daily life. As for his narcissism, throw a stick and you could hit somebody with that, but he’s terribly disruptive.”
She is heartened by the growth in prestige for the Irish film and TV industry both at home and abroad, and was reminded of its professionalism first-hand when she filmed The Secret Market here.
“Everyone worked with great humour, great speed. We’ve just got the best crews. Ireland is the most fun and professional place to work. Each department works in its space. But the best crews work because they understand what the other department needs. Because they work in tandem with each other, everyone works hand in hand in a way that is apparently more seemless. Everybody’s got each other’s back.”
She adds that while ultimately the industry in LA is a business where decisions made and directions taken have to make practical and financial sense, being Irish does no harm.
“I have to say, you do get an easier welcome when you’re Irish. We’ve always been a nation of poets and writers and artists and that’s respected. And I think… certainly the feeling I get in America is their overwhelming sense of: ‘How can so many Irish people come out of such a small island and make such a big impact?’
“I think the difference is, sometimes, that you take the work seriously but not yourself. I think the Irish are sensational with being able to marry a good time with a hard-working time. And that kind of brings lightness to your day. I think people find it infectious.”
The Secret Market will be screened at the Gate on November 11 at 11.45am.