Actor Niamh Algar: ‘Broken characters are the more rewarding ones’

Niamh Algar is sitting in front of a stunning, world-famous view. “Look at that,” she says, sweeping her arm away from her camera, towards a massive vista of Buckingham Palace. The Irish actor, 29, is holed up in a hotel in London, and the royal residence is in fact a spectacular bit of wallpaper. She is halfway through compulsory quarantine, having just returned from filming the sci-fi series Raised By Wolves in South Africa. She’s had a bright and busy few years, bouncing from acclaimed dramas to blockbusters, via indie films and a Guy Ritchie caper, so it’s little wonder she’s happy to have a few days off. “I was saying to a friend last night, it’s kind of nice because no one’s able to get to you. It’s actually a nice decompression time.”

She has recently finished work on two particularly intense roles. In new four-part TV drama Deceit she plays the undercover officer known as “Lizzie James”, who took part in the doomed honeytrap Operation Edzell in an attempt to ensnare the killer of Rachel Nickell, the 23-year-old woman who was murdered on Wimbledon Common in 1992. “I wasn’t aware of the story, so I had to educate myself on that,” says Algar. The real “Lizzie James” has lifelong anonymity, but Algar talked to other undercover officers about their work, and spent a lot of time researching police in the early 90s.

Does it change how you approach a part, if you’re playing real people? “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like I had this pressure of making sure that the families or the real ‘Sadie Byrne’ [[the name given by Deceit to the fictionalised character of the undercover officer whose code name was Lizzie James] wasn’t going to watch this and feel exposed. But I kept on reminding myself that this is the character of Sadie Byrne, and not a woman who’s going to watch it, potentially.” She laughs. “She might not watch it! She might be like: that sounds a bit grim. Sounds a bit tense.”

After Deceit, there is Censor, a fabulously inventive new British horror from first-time director Prano Bailey-Bond. It is set in the 1980s, against the backdrop of the moral panic about “video nasties”. Algar stars as the buttoned-up Enid, who spends her days watching gruesome horror films, evaluating them for certification. As a childhood trauma rears its head, reality starts to dissolve. “Oh, I love Enid! She’s so odd,” says Algar, laughing. As Enid sits through endless slashers, it’s hard not to think about the spectre of the internet-to-come, of online content and the people who moderate it. “I watched this documentary called The Cleaners, about people who scan through all the stuff on the internet and have to see the worst of humanity, and how that has such an immense psychological effect on them. Because, you know, we’re not meant to see these things. We’re really not.”

It was the first time Algar had done a period piece. “Now with phones, and contemporary horror films, it’s like, girl goes into the woods alone? You go: well if she’d brought her phone with her…”

Around the first lockdown, Algar went home to Ireland for a while, and started looking through her old diaries and report cards. “As you naturally do. A lot of them were like: Niamh can’t sit still. She’s good at English, but it would be nice if she could focus more.” Now, she wonders if it was undiagnosed ADHD. “Or just excessive energy, but I don’t see any problem with it. It just means I have to use it up in the day in order to function.”

She grew up just outside Mullingar, Westmeath, in the middle of nowhere, the youngest of five kids. All of her siblings were heavily involved in sport, and she rode ponies from the age of four until she left school. “I was the type of kid that would just go off and create these wild stories in my head and be in the woods and pretend I was Robin Hood, and come back at six o’clock in the evening when you knew your dinner was ready. And that was normal,” she says. Her dad is a mechanic, her mother a nurse. “So I think whenever I suggested I wanted to become an actor, they just saw a red alert, like: she’s throwing everything away.”

After school, she moved to Dublin to study design at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but soon knew it wasn’t for her. She got a job as a runner for an Irish production company, and quickly moved into acting full-time, arriving on British screens in 2018 with an extraordinary run of roles. She did arty Channel 4 comedy-drama with The Bisexual and Pure, appeared with Richard Gere and the late Helen McCrory in MotherFatherSon, and played Ursula, the ex-girlfriend of the doomed hired thug Arm in Calm With Horses, for which she earned a best supporting actress nomination at the 2021 Baftas. In 2019 she also starred as Dinah in Shane Meadows’s extraordinary, devastating TV drama The Virtues.

Algar’s entrance is memorable: during an argument, Dinah’s boyfriend attempts to carry her away, so she punches him, cleanly and professionally, knocking him to the ground. Algar has been boxing since her student days. “The cheapest gym would be a boxing gym, because it’s an accessible sport for a community,” she says. “I was the fittest I ever was. That kinetic energy of moving your body and connecting with a bag or pads, for me, it feels like it releases these happy endorphins.”

Did Meadows write Dinah’s entrance that way because of her skills, I ask? Yesterday, says Algar, her Virtues co-star Stephen Graham called for a chat, to keep her entertained in quarantine, and it reminded her of a strange story. Meadows famously uses workshops with his actors to create the characters, and one day, after a workshop, Algar walked past a gallery in London. “I stopped and saw this sculpture of a little girl, with her hands by her side, with boxing gloves on.” It was a piece called Bruiser, by the artist Schoony. She took a picture and sent it to Meadows. “I said, I think I’ve found Dinah’s inner child. And when the first draft of the script came through, it was her boxing the guy out.”

The Virtues premiered in May 2019, and after that, the story gets more peculiar. “When it came out, I got a message from Schoony on my Instagram. He said: ‘I really love the show, can I send you something?’” Her agent called to tell her there was an enormous parcel at the office. “I arrive home, and it’s one of the art pieces, of Bruiser.” No way, I say. “I’d never said anything to that artist,” she says. “I had goosebumps on the back of my neck. I was like, this is insane.”

For Raised By Wolves, which is executive-produced and part-directed by one of Algar’s childhood heroes, Ridley Scott (growing up, her sister’s pony was called GI Jane, and hers was called Maximus, after Gladiator), she recorded a regular audition tape, but also sent a video of herself boxing. “It’s that Ridley Scott world, where a lot of his female characters are not just emotionally strong, but they’re also quite physically strong. You look at Sigourney Weaver, and she completely commands her space. So I just put myself on tape, doing some pad work in the gym. I think they were probably like: this is unusual.” Unusual or not, it worked so well that when her character, Sue, was supposed to die at the end of season one, Scott and the showrunner, Aaron Guzikowski, sat her down to tell her they’d decided to keep her alive instead. “You’re just like: oh, thank God,” she says.

Algar clearly has a knack for tough, dark, demanding characters. “No matter how emotionally similar some of these characters are, they’re all immensely different,” she says. “Broken characters are the more rewarding ones, I find. Because essentially, we’re all hiding something, we’re vulnerable, we either choose to put this coarse exterior around ourselves, or exude this idea of happiness.” Having said that, she has no problem leaving it all behind at the end of the day. “Just because I play damaged characters, doesn’t mean I’m damaged,” she smiles. “But my mum is always asking me when I’m going to do a romcom.”

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