Orla Brady interview: 'It turns out my mother is a huge Doctor Who fan'

The actress on her starring role in the Christmas Day episode of Doctor Who, working on Mistresses and her forthcoming Eileen Gray film

"It was exhausting to be young," Irish actress Orla Brady, 52, tells me frankly. "There was this critical voice going, 'Hopeless.' And now I like life to be a little bit easier, so I consciously switch it off."

It's hard to believe Brady was once a chubby convent girl with self-esteem issues. In the flesh, she's radiant.

On Christmas Day, she stars in Doctor Who – The Time of the Doctor, playing Tasha Lem, a "galactic nun", an old ally of the Doctor's.

She applauds Steven Moffat for casting actresses over the age of 40. "He's not looking for that babelicious thing you see on TV, where you start to think stories aren't relevant to those of us our age."

Brady has been based in LA for the past decade, working on Family Law, Nip/Tuck and JJ Abrams's Fringe. But she's best known for BBC serial Mistresses, where she played the lawyer who cheated on her husband with a colleague.

She hadn't watched Doctor Who since childhood. Her Mistresses co-star Sarah Parish, who was cast as a big red spider in the drama, warned her: "You'll probably play a cyborg's bottom." But Brady looks amazing as Lem in costumes with a Blade Runner vibe.

Brady grew up in Dublin where her father ran a pub. A tomboy, she hit puberty hard ("I weighed 10-and-a-half stone and thought I was a slug"). She read Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer and knew she wanted to act, but drifted – working as a waitress and shop assistant. At 26, she applied to study mime at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier, Paris.

"There's something about thinking of your character as an animal," she muses. "The way you walk, hold yourself. Are you a top dog in the room or a beta dog?"

Early on, she did theatre (House of Bernarda Alba at the Gate; Blinded by the Sun at the National). More recently, she's worked on TV. There is an earthy sensuousness to Brady. In Lucy Gannon's Pure Wickedness she played a neglected wife who has a sizzling affair with David Morrissey.

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Then came Mistresses. She applauds the way it was conceived by three women writers but regrets the way the BBC made it frivolous. "Which is a shame because it was an opportunity to talk about midlife love. You're 12 years down the line and when the crazy romance goes, where are you? Should you fall in and grow up or reasonably expect something like that to continue all our lives?"

In real life, she's married to English photographer Nick Brandt (who shot Michael Jackson's Earth Song). They live a very non-Hollywood life.

Brady refuses to fret about body image. "People say, 'You don't look 50.' But to borrow that Gloria Steinem line, 'This is what 50 looks like, and it's fine.'"

Next she's playing Irish designer Eileen Gray, opposite Alanis Morissette as Gray's lover, Marisa Damia, in new film The Price of Desire. "Eileen was never celebrated in her lifetime. And yet here was a woman who was a true modernist."

But first she'll be watching the Christmas special in Ireland with her family. "It turns out my mother is a huge Whovian and a Trekkie," she marvels. "She would have loved to have been an actress but Ireland was just this terrible, oppressive place for women of the time. So this one is for Kitty."


Liz Hoggard

The GuardianTramp

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