Furniture designer Eileen Gray was one of Ireland’s most pioneering women, yet most of us have never even heard of her. That’s all set to change now Orla Brady is playing her in a new movie, writes Esther McCarthy.

From Sheila Cloney in A Love Divided, to Wuthering Heights’ Cathy, to the feisty Siobhan in BBC’s Mistresses, Orla Brady has made a career of playing strong, interesting women. 

Her latest role sees her play one of the most interesting yet.

Eileen Gray is one of the most pioneering Irishwomen that you may not have heard of. 

A furniture designer and architect whose designs broke new ground and remain influential to this day, Gray is revered in France (where she spent much of her life) but is still being discovered outside design circles in her native country.

As a woman who moved among the great and the good in 1920s and 30s Paris, working with well-known figures such as Le Corbusier and living on her own terms, Gray’s was a life less ordinary.

Brady, who plays the designer in Mary McGuckian’s new film, The Price of Desire, readily admits that like many of us she knew little of Gray before taking on the film.

“We all know of her now, but when Mary first started thinking of making a film about Eileen’s life, there was very little common knowledge of her,” said the actress.

“When I was offered the role and I was asking about her, if someone was a design student or an art student, they knew exactly who she was — other than that, no.

“Even though she moved in the sort of circles with people who lived very big lives, she didn’t seem to be interested in putting it out there about herself. 

"When I first saw a picture of E-1027 (the famous modernist villa designed by Gray that became her home on the Cote D’Azur, overlooking the Bay of Monaco), I remember squinting at it, thinking: ‘It looks very familiar, why is that?’

" Of course it’s because it’s become a normality, a currency that we use. But at the time it was extraordinary, radical.

“We have very little sense of how she would have gone against the establishment of the time to design something so pure.

“After making the film, I’d go into friends’ houses, people would ask: ‘What have you been doing?’ I’d tell them, and they wouldn’t have a clue who she was, and I would turn around and there would be an E-1027 table. They are everywhere. 

"I’ve walked into so many people’s homes and seen that and the Bibendum chair (one of Gray’s most famous and mimicked designs).”

Orla Brady as Eileen Gray, one of the most influential designers of the 20th century.
Orla Brady as Eileen Gray, one of the most influential designers of the 20th century.

Brady’s breakout performance in A Love Divided was as Sheila Cloney, a Protestant woman in Wexford’s Fethard-on-Sea, who refused to be forced into raising her daughter as Catholic and sparked a boycott that made headlines worldwide. She agrees playing real-life characters brings certain challenges.

“Is it tricky? Of course. You do hope that you’re not misinterpreting someone,” she said.

“Even if you’re lucky enough to have first-hand reports of people, you still don’t know everything that was going on. 

"You have to bring imagination to bear in quite the same way as you do with a fictional character. It’s about finding the emotional life of this woman (Gray).

“You’re trying to show the woman, just get inside her a little bit. You’re hoping that you’re well informed, that you’re in the zone with her, but it is, to a degree, guesswork.

“I may well have said the same thing 15 years ago when I was playing Sheila Cloney. 

"That time she was alive, but she didn’t want to meet anyone to do with the film. She was a very self-effacing woman, she was just getting on with her life.

“You still have to decide, given what you know about her, what would she be thinking and feeling and how would she react in this moment?”

The stills photographs for The Price of Desire were taking by Julian Lennon, son of John, a musician and photographer whose snaps have earned him acclaim.

Top Irish designer Peter O’Brien was on hand to recreate the costumes of the period.

Orla Brady as Eileen Gray, one of the most influential designers of the 20th century.
Orla Brady as Eileen Gray, one of the most influential designers of the 20th century.

“They were hard for me to wear,” laughs Brady, who looks terrific having turned 55 this year.

“I’m not tall, and I’m not thin. There were huge palazzo pants, big capes, flowing things, Audrey Hepburn gear. But if you’re five feet four, as I am, they could look quite comical.

“This is a man used to working with the best models in the world, and suddenly he’s confronted with a very ordinary female shape. 

"He had to work to make Eileen look elegant, because I’m not a naturally elegant person. He was lovely, he’s an absolute gentleman. 

"I expected somebody who was kind of…grand. But he was very sympathetic, and very humorous, which is kind of what you need in drama.”

Orla Brady cut her teeth in theatre before moving to London in her twenties to pursue an acting career. 

“I’ve lived more years out of Ireland than in,” she observes.

Fifteen years ago she made the move to California, where she lives with her husband, well-known wildlife photographer Nick Brandt.

“My husband always says: ‘Why do you say you live in LA when you don’t?’ It’s the nearest place that people know, but we live on the Santa Monica mountains. I rarely go into the city — it’s kind of like living in Greystones, compared to Dublin.

“My life isn’t LA. I drive in occasionally, but we get friends to come out a lot, to spend weekends here. I’ve got more comfortable being at home, rather than being out.

“There was a point where I used to go to my local coffee shop in the village, and on the rare occasion I had make up on, the girl would always say: ‘Oooh! Big audition today then!’” she laughs. 

“She was so used to seeing me looking like a dog’s dinner. On the basis of that, I do try to make more effort. But if you do a job that involves dressing up, your instinct is to dress down.”

So if we see her wearing lots of make up, we should assume a huge casting is in the offing?

“I’m really trying for Star Wars at that point!”

While Star Wars might be nice, Brady is doing fine. 

She’s rarely been out of work throughout her career, mixing up low budget and mainstream films with high-profile television work.

She’s just completed an as-yet-untitled film with Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan.

“Pierce and I play husband and wife, and Jackie Chan is the lead. It was great fun. Jackie is hilarious, he’s been famous forever, an icon. 

"As is often true, the big people are really nice when you meet them. And Pierce is one of the most courteous men you could ever meet.”

Yet, she reveals, she really struggles with nerves when it comes to auditioning for new roles. 

“I find auditions very difficult. I don’t have to do them very often because now I get offers - and I’m frantically touching wood here because that could all change,” she said.

“I had to do an audition for the new show I’m doing. I found it difficult, in fact I nearly backed out of it. I did it, but it really cost me to do it. 

"I remember the day of the audition, Nick was away and I was on my own. I remember waking up at 2am. Bang. Awake. I got up and tried to do yoga and think about why I might get the job.

“Do I fear it? Yes I do. There’s something about a level of nerves where you can’t relax and feel it. I got through it because it was a very, very supportive room. 

"I think it takes a certain personality type to do well (in auditions). The ability to do them and do them well is a separate skill from whether you can do a role.”

Brady’s also set to reprise her role in the show Into the Badlands, a martial arts/drama for AMC that proved to be a big hit in its first season.

“I’m not a fighting part — there are three characters who are fighters out of seven leads. I’m jealous of them getting to fight all the time. 

"Again I feel I had the huge luck to get a part where I can be in my fifties and play a woman who’s autonomous, who’s striking out, who’s doing something new, who’s a strong female character.”

The Price of Desire opened in select cinemas on May 27. 

The Light House Cinema, Smithfield will host an afternoon and evening celebrating Eileen Gray with a screening of the film alongside companion documentary Gray Matters. 


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