‘The minute I turned 40 I was given a resting bitch face’

If you weren’t moved by her savvy sister in Ballykissangel or enchanted (and terrified) by her Cruella de Vil in Once Upon a Time, Deadly Cuts may be the movie that finally nudges you into the Victoria Smurfit fan club.

Writer-director Rachel Carey’s black comedy pitches Angeline Ball’s working-class salon owner against local hoodlum Deano (Ian Lloyd Anderson) and snooty hairdressing rival, Pippa (Smurfit, occasionally pictured on a well-greased hunk).

A professional showdown – presided over by Pauline McLynn – pitches Ball’s mismatched stylists – played by Ericka Roe, Shauna Higgins, Lauren Larkin and Denise McCormack – against their culturally southside nemesis. “Don’t be intimidated by her with the hundred-euro brows,” runs the sage advice as the girls rev up their hairdryers. 

It’s a battle of our two blondest national treasures. It’s a heap of silly fun, too.

The whole process was hilarious just from start to finish. It’s good to take the mick out of myself and go as far as I can run in the other direction. And I got to chew all of the scenery

“The whole process was hilarious just from start to finish,” says Smurfit. “There were many times where – particularly trying to work with Lady McLynn – when l just had to stare at the floor because I kept on corpsing so violently. I think there’s a perception of me that’s [drops into her roundest south Dublin accent] like this. It’s good to take the mick out of myself and go as far as I can run in the other direction. And I got to chew all of the scenery.”

As well as having a female writer-director attached, Deadly Cuts was produced by Liz Gill, Auveen Lush and Ciara O’Sullivan. It’s emblematic of a post-Weinstein shift that Smurfit is witnessing throughout the industry. 

“All sorts of things have collided at the same time – Me Too, BLM – that have finally blown the unspoken stuff out of the water, which is fantastic,” says the actor, who is currently writing a script about the “ridiculousness of being a 40-year-old woman”.

“But you also have a younger generation of women coming up through the ranks saying: well, there’s no reason why they can’t or they shouldn’t write or direct. Those opportunities wouldn’t have occurred to me as an 18-year-old because there was no representation there in any way, shape or form. In terms of the parts that are available for women, many more women are writing. Many more women are at the top of the networks. And many men within the industry have realised who’s actually watching.

It’s the greatest compliment when your kids say I’m not going to be disloyal to your Cruella. But to everybody else – for goodness sake, it’s just a character

“On Deadly Cuts there was a lot of female energy, which made it an extremely comfortable place to be. You’re not tiptoeing around anything. Failure is not an issue, because if it’s a disaster you get to try again. I just shot a show and I loved that there were women clapper loaders, women sparks, women in every department. It’s about bloody time.”

Her role in Deadly Cuts was the latest in a series of screen heroines others might call “difficult women”. Her wildly popular turn in Once Upon a Time ensured that many internet diehards – and her own daughter Evie – refused to watch Emma Stone’s reboot on principle. 

“I get a lot of stuff on Twitter going, I won’t be seeing this film,” says Smurfit. “It’s the greatest compliment when your kids say I’m not going to be disloyal to your Cruella. But to everybody else – for goodness sake, it’s just a character. I didn’t go back and watch Glenn Close when I did it. I watched the animated version. But if I had watched Glenn Close, who is such a hero of mine, I would have freaked myself out. I would have likes to have seen Emma Stone. I hardly ever get to the cinema. And when I do it’s for Marvel movies because – hello – I have three kids.”  

Between Cruella and Deadly Cuts, Smurfit has required many hours to practise her very impressive resting bitch face of late, I suggest.   “Oh no,” she says. “I don’t have to practise my resting bitch face. The minute I turned 40, I was given a resting bitch face. After Cruella, I thought I’m never going to get to play somebody so over-the-top evil again. But along came Deadly Cuts. And nature has made that stuff really easy for me.”  

Victoria Smurfit in Deadly Cuts
Victoria Smurfit in Deadly Cuts

Smurfit was born into the Smurfit packaging dynasty, although one might never imagine as much listening to her recount the three-mile walks she and her brother took to the local video store at weekends, or indeed, the squabbles they had over what video to rent. (“He always wanted something like Aliens; I always wanted Some Like it Hot. I was older so I usually won,” she recalls.) She remains close to her sibling, Dermot, a lawyer and businessman.

“He got the uber-brain,” she says. “He was pushed. I don’t want to be unfair to my dad because he’s a product of his time. But he would look at our report cards, and Dermot would be doing brilliantly, but if he got, like, 92 per cent, he’d get pulled up. I was coming in around the mid-60s and that was fine. It was the 80s, you know? People just assumed I’d get married and I’d be okay.”

Acting snuck up on her. She was wary of school plays (“too much tits and teeth; it wasn’t for me”) until completing an A-level in theatre studies.

“I told my mom and she was very, very keen that we pursued whatever we wanted to do rather than be pigeonholed. I told my dad. He said: all right, as long as you’re aware you’re going into the business of rejection, then go for it. He was right. There’s no natural trajectory where there is in most businesses. There’s no natural meritocracy. The most talented actors aren’t always going to get there, wherever there is.

“I was lucky enough to go to drama school. But the moment I made The Run of the Country between my second and third year, I realised that my pay cheque was exactly the amount of money my dad had paid for my fees. I had worked for my food money. And beer money. I worked in a diner and nightclub. But he had paid my tuition. So I handed him my pay cheque and he said: ‘Thank you.’” She laughs. “And then he handed it straight back.” 

That morning, I was literally in my wedding dress and I’m about to go into the scene and I get a call from my divorce lawyer, saying my decree nisi has come through

She was still studying at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School when she landed her first major film role in The Run of the Country, a Co Cavan-set romcom costarring Matt Keeslar and Albert Finney. 

“It was my first job and I was trained in a theatre school, not a film school,” she recalls. “And Albert would tell me, don’t trip over the cables, do not look at your mark, you know… lots of little tricks and techniques. He was really, really generous with his time, and very gentle. Because he also knew how to take the piss. We’d be rehearsing. And we’d go yak, yak, yak, yak, yak. And then they’d shoot my side. And then they’d come over to Albert and he’d say yak yak yak. Until the actual shot. And then he’d go from 40 per cent to 100 and say: ‘Never waste it on rehearsal.’”

Smurfit has subsequently worked with such stars as Chow Yun-Fat (“he was such an interesting man, I learned a lot from watching him”), Hugh Grant (“endlessly entertaining”), and Bruce Dern. She played the latter’s fiancee in The Lears, a clever 2017 reworking of the Shakespeare play, in which an elderly millionaire tells his adult children that he’s about to marry his personal assistant (played by Smurfit). The shoot coincided with Smurfit’s divorce from Douglas Baxter, her husband of 15 years and father of her three children, in 2017.

“I haven’t spent an awful lot of my career being emotionally vulnerable,” she says. “But in that film, there’s a scene where I was trying on my wedding dress. And I had to admit to the daughter of the man I am marrying that I wasn’t sure I wanted to marry him. I knew that I had to go from 100 to zero and fall apart. Some actresses literally have tears in their handbag. They can pull it out. That’s just their skill set. I really have to work on this.

“That morning, I was literally in my wedding dress and I’m about to go into the scene and I get a call from my divorce lawyer, saying my decree nisi has come through. And even though myself and my husband had agreed to divorce [and] there was no animosity, it was still a very powerful moment. And I remember putting down the phone and thinking, Sit on this and wait for the take. Hold on to it, Smurfit, you old pro.”

Deadly Cuts is in cinemas from Friday, October 8th

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