Niamh Algar On BAFTAs, Blue Screens And Olivia Colman

The Irish actress is longlisted for her role in Calm With Horses.

Niamh Algar

by Guy Pewsey |
Updated on

In the past twelve months, trips to the cinema have been limited. For many of us, it has been a year since we sat in plush seats with boxes of overpriced popcorn. And yet, the film industry has been finding new ways to release pictures, to the extent that this year’s awards season will be as fiercely fought as ever. A case in point? The BAFTAs, which will be returning in some shape or form in April. The nominations will be announced in March, but a look at the longlists is already a who’s who of international talent. For Niamh Algar, star of Censor and Calm With Horses, it’s good company to be in.

‘I didn’t know that was the number!’ she says, surprised, when I go through the statistics that culminated in her being longlisted for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Calm With Horses. She’s calling from her flat in West London. BAFTA received 234 submissions in the category, whittling it all down to a fifteen-strong longlist. ‘To be longlisted alone is such a huge thing,' she says. 'It means so much to me to be on the list of all those incredible women. These are the women that I look up to, so it's quite surreal.’ Those women include such talent as Olivia Colman, Glenn Close and Saoirse Ronan. It’s Olivia who stands out to Niamh as a particular idol, though.

‘I've always looked up, especially, to Olivia,’ she says. ‘Tyrannosaur [the acclaimed 2011 drama] was the first thing I ever saw her in, and her performance was just so heart-breaking. Also, you can tell that she's a very kind soul.’

Calm With Horses saw Niamh play Ursula, whose relationship with an enforcer for an Irish drug-dealing family causes emotional and physical conflict. The film received rave reviews, but it is the sort of work – independent, lacking an A-List lead – that often misses out on award nods. The fact that it is part of the conversation, then, is victory enough. ‘So much goes into actually making a film, especially an independent film,’ she explains. ‘So to have audiences that actually see it and enjoy it? To even get to that step? I just feel like it's such an achievement in itself.’

Calm With Horses has been just one project in a busy few years for Niamh. She stars in Raised By Wolves, the sci-fi series from Ridley Scott. She took the lead in Censor, a chilling horror from director Prano Bailey-Bond. And she held her own alongside the fiercely talented Stephen Graham in mini-series The Virtues. She makes interesting, varied choices. She doesn’t actively choose a role that contradicts her last – going from a dark drama made on a shoestring to a Marvel-esque blockbuster, for example – saying it’s about what’s on the page.

‘It’s always the work,’ she says. ‘It's the stories that you're telling, and the characters that you get to play. it's the richness of the characters, and I just want to continue to enjoy this journey. We’re not here for a long time, just for a good time: you have to make the most of it and do the work that you're going to be proud of.’ Her work on Raised By Wolves enlightened her to the unique skill required to bring CGI and sci-fi to life, made to look so easy by the stars of superhero franchises and space fantasy capers. ‘it just opened my eyes up to just how amazing those actors are, you know? You're completely in the hands of the visual effects aspect, and you just have to be completely committed and embrace the idea that, over here, the monster is going to come and attack me. That is your job. It's now a luxury for when you have actual physical effects that you can interact with.’

Niamh’s role of Ursula is somewhat reminiscent of a performance like Lorraine Bracco’s in Goodfellas. On paper, both could be read as simply the girlfriend or romantic interest of the anti-hero, the woman he comes home to, the ball he is chained to. But, as in the Scorsese classic, it’s the performance that elevates things. ‘it was important to me not to just be the girlfriend's who's trying to pull this guy away from his narrative,’ she explains. ‘Reading the script, I just felt like there was something between the lines, something that I knew that I could bring something to that character. She's an incredibly strong character, but not in a aggressive way. A lot of the time, women are portrayed on screen as the subordinate, but she’s anything but.’

Generally, Niamh’s choice of scripts to pursue comes down to several factors. ‘I suppose it starts with if it begins to scare you, because you go “I've never tried this before” or someone wouldn't see me as that type of person. But then, there also has to be that emotional connection, that's going to anchor you.’ It’s this blend that has taken her to her next project, My Name Is Lizzie, set to hit our screens later this year. ‘So my route with that character was that she's pretending to be someone else. And I'm like, “Okay, I know what that is like, I'm an actor!”’

Niamh will have to wait a little longer to see if she snags a coveted place on the shortlist. But one thing is clear either way: with an impressive roster of performances behind her, and the nation set to be gripped by My Name is Lizzie, it might not be too long before she and the Olivia Colmans of the world are battling it out for podium space again.

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