Teenage Dreams: Sarah Bolger on her surprising religious side
Up for an Ifta again for her role as Mary Tudor in 'The Tudors', Sarah Bolger tells Barry Egan about being a child star, her love of the Smiths, and her blessed hands, with which she gives out Communion in her local church. Photography by Kip Carroll
'Success," icon of the silver screen Ingrid Bergman once said, "is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get."
Nineteen-year-old Irish movie star Sarah Bolger seems to be happy with what she's got. She's incredibly grounded for someone who has had Tom Cruise sing Happy Birthday to her at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles in 2004. She seems more than together for a teenager who has been nominated at the forthcoming Iftas for the award of Actress in a Supporting Role Television, for her performance as Mary Tudor in The Tudors -- the self-same role for which she won the Ifta in 2010 -- but there is more to it than that with Sarah Bolger.
She is anything but cocky. She is genuinely entertaining, and nice with it. I thought I was getting a rushed 15-minute chat before her taxi picked her up to take her home. In the end, she was in no rush anywhere, and we talked for almost two hours. I was more than happy to do so. She is anything but pretentious or aloof. When asked about her favourite film, she happily chirps that it is The Fugitive with Harrison Ford. My face goes white at the rubbish choice of film.
What, do you fancy Harrison Ford or something?
Does he remind you of your father?
Should you not be saying something unwatchably 'pretentious, moi?' by Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard?
"That's to be expected," she laughs.
I am just giving you the chance to wipe away the stain of The Fugitive as your favourite film.
"It is a good movie; I stand over that movie. I am going to get a T-shirt made and wear it: 'I love The Fugitive.'"
She still lives at home in Rathfarnham in Dublin with her parents, her sister and her dog, Darby. Of the last, a black Russian terrier named from the film Darby O'Gill And The Little People, Sarah says with frightening conviction: "I'm telling you now -- no man will ever fill the void that Darby leaves in my heart. I love the dog."
Stop, or I'll have you put to death.
"It's true. I love the dog. She comes for drives with me in the back of my car. Darby is not aggressive or judgmental. She just is. That's what I love about her. She sits there and watches The Fugitive with me."
Sarah then adds Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation to her list of favourite films. Unlike the character in that movie, played by Scarlett Johansson, Sarah has never "been detatched from everything and even detatched from yourself. No, because I am always travelling with family. I am never alone." Sarah would have loved to have played Johansson's part in Lost In Translation.
Another part she would have loved to have played was Keira Knightley's role as Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist in Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice. "I love that book. I enjoy filming in those times. I don't know if I would like to live in those times. I would miss my iPhone too much."
Sarah also loves Moulin Rouge!. "I love Baz Luhrmann. I would work with him in a second," she says. "I have to admit I love To Kill A Mockingbird too. I did that book for Junior Cert." She also did Hamlet. "I loved Ophelia. She has a breakdown. I don't know how she dies. A modern-day drug overdose. I am thinking of adapting it."
Despite her tender years, there is a kind of ageless quality to Ms Bolger. There is something in her demeanour that dares you to pin her down or sum her up in a neat line, but you can't. She has the kind of bewitching beauty that would have put a chill in Alfred Hitchcock's heart (or thereabouts). "I love Hitchcock. I loved The Birds and Vertigo," she says as she orders coffee. "I am a huge fan of Hitchcock."
So, who is Sarah?
"Sarah is a butcher's daughter who lives in Rathfarnham," she says, said butcher being her father, Derek, "and loves astronomy." She lives near the Yellow House pub, not far from where I grew up. We bond immediately. I tell her that when the Pope had his Mass in Dublin, my parents and I had to wait outside Rathfarnham Church at 6am to be bussed to the Phoenix Park.
"On Sundays, I'm a minister of the Eucharist at that church in Rathfarnham," she says. "I became a minister of the Eucharist when I was 17. My parents aren't very strict Catholics, but for some reason I decided this is what I want to do, and I have kept it up."
What do you think the reason is?
"Because my grandmother -- my mum's mum, Maura -- was very religious, and I used to be up in the choir and I always wanted to be downstairs. My mum kept saying: 'Sarah, no one is going to go to your queue if you are the girl who is in the papers.' But I liked the idea."
Asked how her religious side manifested itself, Sarah says that after her mother's parents died, she prayed every single night. "They were religious. I just wanted to be a part of it, and after a while I decided that going to Mass was something I wanted to be involved in -- not particularly because of the Bible. It is not very clear to me," she says, adding that being a minister of the Eucharist means, "I have blessed hands. I got my hands blessed by the priest and I am able to give out Holy Communion at Mass. It is lovely to be part of it."
I asked Sarah of the blessed hands whether she thinks she was a saint in a previous life. "Absolutely not. There is just no way."
Have you had any visions?
"No. I believe there is a God and there are many ways of getting to Him. That's Mahatma Gandhi, not myself. It is just something that I'm part of," Sarah says, adding that she goes to 10.30 Mass every Sunday morning, even when she is away. "I just finished filming in Montreal and I still went to Mass every Sunday."
She is heading to Pittsburgh next to film a new show for Fox called Locke & Key where she plays an improbably athletic girl: "I'm now doing intense swimming and intense running. I'm totally unfit."
Dublin will always be her home, she says. "Whether or not my time will be spent here, I'm not sure. I hope to do more Irish projects which will be filmed here, but at the moment things just seem to be bringing me abroad."
I ask her if she missed out on her youth because of the career she chose -- more probably, it chose her. Did you grow up too quickly as a result?
She shakes her head. "No, I think you are taken more seriously as a young adult when you are on a film set and you are doing a job and people expect something from you. Is that losing my youth? Not at all. I had a fantastic childhood. Yes, it wasn't spent entirely in school, but I will never not say that those years were the best years of my life. I enjoyed every second of it. I had friends and I did normal stuff. I have to say in America I was never in the papers. So I was never a big deal. I missed out on all the best friends thing, I guess, but . . ."
How would you feel if your daughter one day told you she wanted to be an actress? Would you let her?
"Yes, and I would hope to give her the same guidance my parents gave me. They did everything. I couldn't have done it without them."
One of the brightest stars in the firmament of Irish acting, Sarah Bolger has kept up the good work ever since acting alongside her younger sister, Emma, in Jim Sheridan's Oscar-nominated movie, In America, in 2002. I rang Jim Sheridan for his recollections of young Sarah on that film. The memories are -- like Sarah -- anything but bland. "On the first day of shooting, something went wrong with somebody else and I said 'Action!' then 'Shit!' She came over to me and she took me aside, and she said to me: 'It was OK to curse in front of me because I'm 10, but not in front of my sister because she is only six,'" Jim recalls with a laugh. "Sarah is great -- very together, even back then. She is an amazing actress. I want to work with her again before she wins an Oscar."
That mightn't be far in the future, either, if the dashing young Dubliner keeps going the way she is going. She is certainly a magnificently talented actress. "Acting is something I want to do for the rest of my life," she says, all 19 years of her.
She moved to New York for acting; to film Sheridan's In America. "I was there with my whole family, and then in Los Angeles, and then we were brought back for all the awards ceremonies for In America."
The difference between Sarah Bolger before she went into acting at the tender age of 10 and Sarah Bolger the actress that emerged is non-existent, she claims. "There was never a Sarah that was never interested in acting or theatre or some sort of loud form of communication, if not singing," she says.
I wonder where the inspiration to be in the arts came from. "It was my mum's mum who could sing. She used to sing with me when I was younger. That's all I wanted: to sit in the middle of my family and put on a one-woman show."
Why do you think you chose to do that -- take the theatrical route -- rather than sit in the corner channelling Barbie or Sindy? "When I did the first film with Tony Doyle, A Love Divided, with Liam Cunningham and Orla Brady [in 1999], I enjoyed acting. It wasn't until after Jim Sheridan's film that I realised that this was the job that I never, ever wanted to be apart from."
When did you realise you could act?
"I have yet to make that realisation."
Many others would beg to differ.
"Being an actor is being able to turn off yourself."
What, precisely, are you turning off?
"When you're on a film set, you study the character. You study the background."
She denies Mary Tudor was an evil bint. (We brush over the fact that Mary was known as Bloody Mary for her persecution of Protestants, in a vain attempt to restore Catholicism in England.) "Not in her youth," she laughs. "She was a misguided woman -- isolated from her family. She was lonely. She had no one."
You are a young woman isolated from your family, but presumably you are not going to turn out like Mary Tudor. "But I'm not in a position of power. And my family are fantastic. The support that they give me is nothing like Henry Tudor."
In any event, Mary Tudor is something of a transitional character for Sarah. She is an older character, for starters. Sarah adds that it is also "an older style of acting. I even felt it was the way she held herself and the way she spoke; that lack of rolling your eyes. Just little things like that that make you a woman. Mary Tudor was just this elegant woman -- and, yes, a she-devil at times." Sarah's research on the role included reading every book on Bloody Mary. On top of that, Sarah studied her in school when she was 16.
How does your father compare to Henry VIII?
"My parents are the most in-love people I've ever met in my entire life. So, in that sense, there is just no comparison. They literally have travelled all around the world with me, giving up . . . my mum gave up her life to travel with me, which I can never repay her for. This industry is vast, and you can get so lost so easily. My mum kept me grounded."
As the aforesaid mother, Monica, told the Sunday Independent in 2009: "She has lived a life in her years already. She's been doing this for ages, dealing with adults and taking meetings that would daunt anybody since she was small. She takes it all in her stride."
Sarah says she is careful about the roles she chooses. In terms of darker roles in the future -- Saoirse Ronan's part in The Lovely Bones as a young girl murdered by a paedophile springs to mind -- "there is nothing wrong with anything as long as you feel comfortable doing it. I wouldn't do nudity, but that is just me. That is something I would protect because I don't know that I would feel comfortable in that position. Anything else, I'm sure if I put my heart and soul into doing it then I could do anything.
I'm sure Saoirse felt the same. That role is a great role. What is great about The Lovely Bones is that nothing was shown. It was implied. It was left to your imagination. That is the smart way to do it. I guess you have to be careful. My agents in LA and London and my parents are very cautious about what I do. It is group collaboration."
Could you see yourself doing something like a Kate Winslet part in a film such as Revolutionary Road, in which a depressed married woman aborts her child and kills herself in the process?
"I don't see why not," she says. "Maybe not now. I don't think anyone would believe me -- that I had kids. But I think if you had to draw on your own experiences all the time for acting you would have to live 10 lives."
You would have to go off and kill Protestants en masse to play Mary Tudor.
"Thank God I didn't think of that. I didn't slaughter anyone. That was a good move, because jail wouldn't have been good."
She is whip-smart, obviously. "I think there is far more to the industry than just acting," she says. "It is a great thing to see people delve into producing and directing. That is something that interests me: to be completely a part of the creative side of things. I would love to create a project before you step on a film set -- not necessarily to be a writer. I don't think I am that way inclined. Not that I wouldn't give it a go, but I would look at people like Sandra Bullock and Natalie Portman, who have their own production companies and who are putting together movies, and not necessarily ones that they're in. I think to be an actor you have also to be a great businesswoman." She would love to produce in the future.
Not surprisingly, Sarah is insightful about the business and the acting process. "I find the random eighth take where you've just stopped crying and you can't cry are the best takes," she says. "The best take is the one where I can't bear to do another take." People say she looks like Ellen Pompeo in Grey's Anatomy. She says she doesn't stop for a second to wonder what people think of Sarah Bolger, internationally respected actress. "The image I hope to give out is of a nice butcher's daughter who likes coffee."
Bolger is open and natural to talk to. She says "pardon me" quite a lot, and it is endearing. She is 19-going-on-40 some moments, and just a teenager the next moment: when she is asking for a Pepsi at the bar and talking about her dog and saying how much she loves music. Her favourite band is The Smiths. Her favourite Smiths' song is There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. "And if a 10-ton truck kills the both of us,/To die by your side,/Well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine," she sings.
"I love the romanticism of it," she explains. "I am a huge, huge fan of Morrissey. He has to be cool."
Is it not quite melancholic?
"It doesn't make me sad. I love singing to The Smiths. I love hearing it in my car."
I'm not saying you are a manic-depressive with suicidal tendencies. I'm just saying it is intriguing that you chose The Smiths as opposed to Westlife. "I also like Simon and Garfunkel, The Veronicas . . ."
Her bedroom, she says, is pink and shiny. When she returned from Montreal where she was filming The Moth Diaries for three months, her mother had put up wallpaper. "It is quite metallic-y -- pink, silver. It is very pretty but, I mean, it is not how I'd do my house up, but I like my room."
She talks in depth then about what she loved about Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell And The Butterfly before seguing into her take on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel before giving her views on modern life, existentialism and humanity, followed by some wise words on Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and the like.
I tell her that on the way here I feared that I was going to interview a child with nothing to say.
"So, did you think you interviewed a child?" she hoots.
I mention a movie I saw in 1991. "The year I was born," she points out, adding, "It creeps some people out."
I ask her what characteristics she feels she inherited from her parents. The answer is almost shocking. "They are very relaxed people. I am not relaxed." There is a pause before she says, almost weirdly, "I'm always prepared. Like the scouts."
Apart from Pride And Prejudice -- her all-time favourite read -- the book Sarah is most passionate about at the moment is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. "It's brilliant," she says munching hungrily on the hotel-bar's nuts. "It's about a girl who lives in this post-apocalyptical time. It's kind of like The Road. But this world is almost corrupt. It is actually very moving. It turns out that the sectors of the world that have been created over the last 200 years, they have to push their kids towards this game called the Hunger Game, survival for your life. It is really just a show for their world to watch. It is just so interesting and dark," says Sarah, who is just so interesting and non-dark. "It is like reality TV."
Sarah watched The X Factor. "I so wanted One Direction to win!" she hoots.
She has heard the song Sarah by Thin Lizzy, but never Sara by Bob Dylan, which is surprising, because she is a huge Dylan fan.
What makes you depressed?
"Lack of milk in the house. I am addicted to tea. When there is no milk -- oh Lord."
That will plunge you into depression?
"OK," she grins, "mild sadness. I have no need to be depressed right now. Maybe in the future."
She plays with her hair a lot when she talks, twisting it constantly in her fingers. "It is a thinking thing. I do it a lot, especially during exams."
She has two iPhones: one for America and one for Ireland.
She is mad into gadgets and technology. "I love fixing things."
I can't even change a lightbulb.
"But then again," she soothes, "who wants to change a lightbulb?"
She then tells me a joke. "How many actors does it take to change a lightbulb?"
There is long, theatrical pause while she thinks of the punchline.
"Two!" the actress whom I hope gets her blessed hands on the Ifta award then belly laughs, "One to change it and the other one to go: 'I could have done that better.'"
The eighth annual Irish Film & Television Awards will be held in Dublin on Saturday, February 12. The Ifta ceremony will be broadcast live on RTE One at 9.30pm. See www.ifta.ie or www.facebook.com/iftaonline
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