|Having unexpectedly landed a starring role in Channel 4's hit series Shameless,
Anne-Marie Duff now finds herself going out with her onscreen boyfriend James
REAL LIFE ROMANCE - The Observer - February 8, 2004
(2122 total words in this text)
Sunday February 8, 2004
When Anne-Marie Duff got the call from the Shameless production team, she thought
she'd save everyone's time: straightaway, she said, they were barking up the
wrong tree. 'First of all, I told them I wasn't going up to Manchester to see
them, because they obviously didn't know who I was, that I wasn't a northern
girl, that I was 10 years older than I should be. They were insistent, so I
went up, but I genuinely thought they'd made a terrible mistake.'
As 20-year-old Fiona in Paul Abbott's relentless, hilarious and sentimental
Channel 4 drama, Duff is the pacemaker both of the Gallagher household, where
the family's cardiac rhythm is forever being mucked about by adrenaline, nicotine,
alcohol, narcotics and a dam-burst of adolescent hormones, and the series itself.
In the absence of her mother, who 'went for a loaf. Never came back', and her
father, benignly opted-out pisshead Frank, Fiona's in charge of discipline,
lunch money, morale and the washing machine.
It was a bit like that on set, too. 'As an actor, you move from job to job
knowing there's an end to it. But the kids are very raw, their nerve endings
are everywhere, and they think this is it, you're all going to be lifelong friends.
So you feel much more accountable; your level of responsibility is much greater.
Sets are tough places to be, and you would find yourself taking care of them,
especially John-Joe, who plays Liam; he's a tiny stick of dynamite - he could
go off at any time. We all became incredibly close. Yes, lots of lovely actors
on that series. Really good fun.'
This is the sort of thing actors say with wearisome regularity, but I have
it on good authority that Duff and co-star James McAvoy, Abbott's current rabbit's
foot, cast as a cocky hack in last year's State of Play , and now playing Steve,
Fiona's car-thief boyfriend, are an item. Duff turns scarlet when I ask if this
'Yes, it's true,' she says in a tiny voice. 'Can you see how much I'm blushing?'
That's as far as she'll go, though she admits stiffly that they have made a
pact not to talk about their relationship. When it comes to the age gap - Duff
is 33, McAvoy 24 - she'll only say they both corpsed repeatedly while filming
the final episode of the first series (unusually, a second was commissioned
way before transmission), when Steve wishes Fiona a happy twenty-first. 'Your
heart... it's a very fragile muscle. You have to take care of it, be old-fashioned
about it. If you work for Barclays, you don't go around telling people about
your private life.'
Duff and McAvoy may find this speculation inconvenient and embarrassing, but
that's the price you pay for landing mint roles in one of the best TV dramas
for months, and turning in such sparkly performances that audiences have no
choice but to root for you.
'It was really odd, but at the beginning, we didn't see that it was a comedy.
We thought it was quite a gritty drama. Hearing it aloud changed our opinion.
At the first read-through, we didn't know if it was OK to find it funny. These
people are incredibly resourceful... not in a conventional way, but they are
imaginative and loving. They're like animals in the way they protect their own.
It doesn't matter how crazy and dark something is as long as there's some love
Duff has been in Galway for the last four weeks, living in a rented flat while
rehearsing for Druid Theatre's tour of Playboy of the Western World. We meet
mid-evening at a Galway hotel bar after rehearsals. She is waiting on her own
in the corner, with a tea-cosy of a hat and a pink scarf bunched up on her knee.
Her eyes dwarf the rest of her face, like ET or a baby ostrich (which sounds
less nice than it looks. Maybe it's just as well that she never reads her own
When her hands aren't occupied with her vodka and tonic or her prawn salad,
they're tugging at her sleeves, smoothing her hair, fiddling with her earrings
(little hoops instead of Fiona's pennyfarthing wheels): she's a ballet of unease.
'As Fiona, I'd pop down to the shops at lunchtime, in that costume, when we
were filming, and I'd get "beep beep!" from white vans. I got more
of that than I've ever had in my adult life. She's got something, hasn't she?'
asks Duff, who gets you on board by constantly bouncing questions back. 'There's
something in all that gold and that manmade fibre that's obviously very attractive.
She's shiny - she glitters, doesn't she?' It was, she says, nice to play sorted
and sexy for a change, rather than 'greasy-haired in a potato sack'. There was
a year, not so long ago, when all she played were desperate Irish teenagers,
unwitting threats to the moral order, left to rot in convent laundries.
The opening eight minutes of Peter Mullan's spare and unsparing The Magdalene
Sisters, in which Duff's character, Margaret, who has just been raped by a cousin
at a wedding reception, is then rejected by her own family, are held together
by her extraordinarily still performance. We do not hear what is being said
as word slips around the wedding party, but Duff's eyes, closely tracking the
rumours, say it all: tiny facial tremors marking her progress from shock via
fearfulness and shame to, most dreadfully, a sort of deadened resignation.
Though she had been one to watch at the National Theatre (nominated for an
Ian Charleson award for her Cordelia to Ian Holm's Lear, and an Olivier for
her work in Collected Stories opposite Helen Mirren), The Magdalene Sisters
took her to another level, winning best picture at the Venice Film Festival.
She'd filmed that in the July; in November, she started on the BBC's Sinners,
also set in the Magdalene laundries. The shoot took place in Galway and had
a cathartic effect on the community.
'People knew what we were filming and after a while they would stop me in the
street and tell me their stories which is flattering, humbling, exciting, all
of that, but after a while, you think: I'm full of this now, I don't think I
can take any more. I did start to get a bit blue.' Describing her ability to
inhabit a role, Garry Hynes, who is currently directing her in Playboy, says:
'She is not careful of herself.' Howard Davies, who has directed her twice on
stage, agrees: 'She throws herself into the part, almost as if she's bruising
herself against it.'
So it wasn't the happiest of years. 'Not only did you have the grim storylines,
but you looked like an ironing board with greasy hair and terrible fingernails,'
says Duff. She remembers 'getting back to London and buying Vogue, Elle, and
getting my highlights redone. Everything.'
Her mother, from County Donegal, worked in a shoe shop; her father, from Meath,
is a painter and decorator. Duff was born in Chiswick, grew up in Hayes, and
is now in the process of moving to north London's Stroud Green. The fact that
she has repeatedly been cast as Irish is baffling. 'I'm not the full Paddy.
I never thought that would happen. I think it's a load of bollocks to walk around
saying you're something when you're not. I'm a Londoner; that's what I miss.'
Her parents had first coaxed her into a youth drama group when she was 11 or
12. 'I was quite shy. I used to write stories all the time, and I think that
was a worry for my parents. They thought it might make me a bit more extrovert.'
In her mid-teens, involved in an amateur theatre company called Argosy Players,
she began to think seriously about applying to drama schools. Her first application
'At the time, I was desperately unhappy about it, but I just wasn't polished.
I got too nervous in the audition. It wasn't a world I was familiar with...
if you're not from acting families or families who go to the theatre all the
time, it's an exotic zoo.' So she went away and did some more A-levels, and
studied film and theatre studies. 'I felt I would be more articulate, better-versed
when it came to reapplying.' She ended up alongside John Simm, Anastasia Hille
and her good friend, Paul Bettany, at the Drama Centre - 'a very intense training,
quite relentless, brilliant and terrifying in equal measures'. She felt at home
there almost immediately. 'Everyone had the same want, and that's a relief.
If you really crave something, it's a relief to meet people who are like-minded.'
An uncertain acting career wasn't necessarily what her parents had in mind for
her, but they took it on the chin, and then it turned out not to be so uncertain
Howard Davies says she has a disconcerting ability to look unlike herself whenever
he sees her. 'If you meet her on the street, you almost don't recognise her...
she has to come right up and say hello before you realise who it is.' Duff says
she is lucky like that. 'I never seem to get recognised.'
Shameless may change things a little but, to Duff, recognisability is a state
of mind. 'You want to have enough of a profile to be able to do all the work
you can, but at the same time you want to have your own space. But there are
a lot of actors who achieve it, a lot of movie stars even, people like Emily
Watson and Cate Blanchett. They seem to be able to carry on with their lives
and still produce wonderful, high-profile work. I suppose it's whether you want
to be a famous person, or whether you want to be an actor. You have to decide
what your priorities are. Great actor, huge star. Sometimes, the two walk hand
in hand. Most of the time, they don't.'
Ballykissangel united Stephen Tompkinson and Dervla Kirwan, who got engaged
in 1997. They parted in 1999.
Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly married in January 2003, a year after meeting
on the set of A Beautiful Mind.
Kooky pair Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton met while playing a married
couple in Pushing Tin in 1998. They wed in 2000 but she filed for divorce in
A fling between Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan when they were filming Proof of
Life in 2000 led to the end of Ryan's marriage to actor Dennis Quaid.
Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh fell in love making The Fortunes of War in
1987, married in 1989, starred together many times, but separated in 1995.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, met while making Cleopatra in 1963. Both
had to get divorced before marrying in 1964. They divorced in 1974, remarried
in 1975, then divorced again in 1976.
· Playboy of the Western World opens at Galway's Town Hall Theatre on
Tuesday. Shameless continues on C4 on Tuesdays