From Love/Hate to Once, Maureen Hughes is Ireland’s go-to casting agent. Esther McCarthy meets the woman who made Cillian Murphy a star.
She’s the woman synonymous with the Irish film and television industry, the casting director whose shrewd eye and finely-tuned instinct has paired the right actor with the perfect role.
Little wonder, then, that Maureen Hughes is on the speed dial of some of our most influential actors and filmmakers.
She was one of the first people to see the early potential in several of our best-loved actors including Sarah Greene, Cillian Murphy and Barry Keoghan — just don’t tell her she’s ‘discovered’ some of our greatest acting talents.
“Great talent outs itself,” she believes.
“I think you can nurture it, you can mind it. I think someone like me can be important in terms of, perhaps, positioning it sometimes. But I don’t take credit for it.
"I can’t bear that. I didn’t discover Cillian Murphy. Cillian Murphy discovered Cillian Murphy.”
Still, Hughes’ CV reads like a who’s who in Irish — and thanks to our current successes on the world stage — international film, TV and theatre.
As the person tasked with finding the perfect actor for a director and production, her experience is crucial to the success of a project.
Casting is like an invisible art: when it works well it seems fluid and seamless, but when an actor is miscast, it can ruin the entire end result.
That’s why Hughes is so treasured within her working community.
Since she first found Neil Jordan his Butcher Boy in that remarkable performance from Eamonn Owens (under the tutelage of fellow casting director Susie Figgis) she’s brought actors to some of our most-loved shows.
We meet at Dublin’s Bow Street in Smithfield, where many of our emerging talents go to train under the expertise and care of a team that also includes filmmaker Shimmy Marcus.
Jack Reynor is a past pupil.
She says some actors regard her as “a total mammy” and it’s easy to see why.
Despite initially protesting that she hates interviews, she’s a warm, amiable and open interviewee, and you get the sense that she really cares about the young talents she nurtures.
It was she who helped filmmaker John Carney find the perfect characters for his Oscar-winning Once; she who cast the Oscar-winning short, Six Shooter, for Martin McDonagh; she who put a young actress named Eve Hewson opposite Sean Penn in This Must be the Place; and she who saw Sarah Greene on the stage and decided she must have her in Noble.
Then a TV series called Love/Hate happened. When writer and creator Stuart Carolan sought the right young actors to bring his gritty tales of strife in Dublin’s gangland to life, it was Hughes he turned to.
“It was incredible for all of us,” she says of the experience.
“I did know from the first scripts that I wanted it. I remember thinking: ‘If we get this right, it could be amazing’ .
"It was just four episodes initially. But the characters were amazing in it.
“They didn’t want any recognisable faces in it. But I felt we needed an actor who would make people watch the first season. And that’s why we came up with Aidan Gillen.
"He’d done The Wire and Queer as Folk, and he was huge. I thought he was perfect for John Boy.
“Tom Vaughan-Lawlor I’d been watching on stage and was in love with. I always knew he was Nidge. I do think Stuart wrote for them once we found them.
“I found Peter Coonan on the internet. The film Between the Canals hadn’t yet come out but I saw a clip of it. I was looking for Fran and I thought: ‘Who is this kid with the missing tooth and the great Dublin accent?’ I found him and we brought him in.”
The low-budget thriller showcased Coonan so effectively, Carolan wrote his missing tooth into Love/Hate in one of its best-known storylines.
“But I can remember Peter coming in for casting and me looking at him thinking: ‘Who is this?!’ she laughs.
“He had a lemon Pringle v-neck jumper, grey slacks, floppy hair, and I thought: ‘This isn’t the guy.’ But it was him.”
She says it was one of the most collaborative projects she’s ever worked on, which is how she likes it.
“It’s about your relationship with the director and producer, if they trust you. Otherwise, you’re just a person for hire in terms of putting on the auditions and sending the tapes.
"But I’ve never been that type of casting director — I want in, I want to explain why, to fight for actors.”
Maureen Hughes started her career at Galway’s Druid Theatre, and followed Garry Hynes to The Abbey when she made the leap.
But from early on, she had a sense that casting was her calling, and credits two of our best-known filmmakers with their support.
“Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan who were my first two employers in film. I was sent out to find The Butcher Boy, which I did.
Then I worked as an assistant to Jim on The Boxer, which became like a masterclass in filmmaking.
“I was there for the casting process, the shooting process, the throwing the script out of the caravan process, then running out and picking up the pages and sticking them all together again!
"Part of Jim’s genius is he totally understands filming not being a mystery. It’s about humans — the human condition. I think he’s fantastic, and he’s been extremely kind to me.”
She has worked steadily ever since, and has thrived under the creative community that was The Factory, now Bow Street since their move to Smithfield.
She’s not a big fan of the audition process, where actors perform their lines, and prefers to cast instinctively, based on her experience.
“I think it’s different for every casting director. You kind of have a smell, an idea. There are others who totally trust the audition process and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
"I don’t naturally trust it, I never have. I know some really great actors who are not good in an audition room.
"I work completely and utterly on instinct. It was an instinct honed on Druid, I think, then going into The Abbey with Garry.”
Her theatre background has served her well in terms of spotting talent.
She first saw Cillian Murphy, Sarah Greene and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, among others, performing on stage.
“I saw Cillian doing Disco Pigs onstage in London and thought: ‘Oh my God, who is this kid?’ I rang him for a reading of a Martin McDonagh play.
"He said: ‘I’m in a band and a label are trying to sign us up and I’m doing a law degree’. I do know he did the reading and he decided to become an actor.
"I remember casting him in Sweetie Barrett, in a tiny, tiny role, Andrew Scott is in it too. We knew then, but they were all tiny roles. They were at the beginning of their careers.”
Later this month she’ll return to the Fastnet Film Festival in Schull, which is quickly gaining a strong reputation within the Irish and international film community.
She’ll present a workshop on self-taping for actors, which she finds is becoming an essential tool.
“We’re casting European actors in Game of Thrones and Vikings, and likewise, Irish actors are getting cast in American and English projects.
"Self-taping gets the work into the right offices very quickly. I can do one here right now and have it on a Vimeo link to LA when they wake up.
“The day of the audition is almost over, it’s going to be all self-tapes eventually.
"While I absolutely feel it’s important for the director to meet and press the flesh of the actor they’re going to work with, what you’re going to be looking at is the director meeting the top three self-tapers.”
It’s been a tremendous period for Irish film and Hughes feels we’re not done yet.
“It’s an extraordinary time, and I think it’s going to get better and better. It starts at home, which gives people a really secure footing — everyone got the breaks here first.
“People like Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne are the grandfathers, Colin Farrell is the daddy and all these people are coming through after them.
"The girls are doing well too — Ruth Negga, Kerry Condon, Ruth Bradley, Charlie Murphy — they’ve worked very hard to get themselves out there and are doing great.”
The Fastnet Film Festival in Schull May 25-29.
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