- 02 Apr 21
Gemma-Leah Devereux on starring in RTÉ’s new Smother thriller, and appearing opposite Renee Zellweger in the acclaimed 'Judy'.
Having worked with some of Ireland’s brightest and most experienced acting talents, Gemma-Leah Devereux rose to prominence after appearing as Lady FitzGerald in the final season of The Tudors in 2010. She also earned critical acclaim for her portrayal of Ruth Shine in 2018 docudrama Citizen Lane, opposite Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, and subsequently scored the coveted role of Liza Minnelli in Rupert Goold’s Judy.
Now, Devereux has returned to Irish shores to appear in RTÉ’s Lahinch-set thriller Smother, where she offers a standout performance alongside the likes of Dervla Kirwan, Seána Kerslake, Stewart Graham and Niamh Walsh.
Pitched as a homegrown blend of Agatha Christie and Scandi Noir, the claustrophobic whodunit began airing on March 7 and has gripped the nation ever since. Written by Bantry’s Kate O’Riordan, Smother follows family matriarch Val Ahern (Kirwan), a devoted mother who is determined to protect her three daughters Jenny (Walsh),
Anna (Devereux), and Grace (Kerslake), at any cost.
“We started filming in February 2020, but production got shut down around mid-March when the virus hit,” Gemma-Leah explains, recalling the surreal disruption. “We came back in October to finish shooting, and we were getting tested twice a week, with the crew in their own bubble and the actors in another.
“Everyone was in great form when we came back, because we were incredibly happy to be working again. We got a second lease of life, knowing how lucky we were to be on set. I’ve known some of the crew members since I was a kid from past projects, but being on set during COVID allowed us all to become even closer.”
Of course, when working on a thriller with plenty of twists and turns, one has to be careful about revealing plot developments.
“Smother is my first murder mystery,” notes Devereux. “But I’ve been successfully keeping the show’s secret under wraps thus far. I was very careful even during filming not to speak too much about what I was working on. Members of my family are taking bets on the storylines – they have so many theories about which character is the perpetrator. I’m confident that Smother’s ending will shock people. A lot of viewers know the patterns of thrillers, but I still think Kate has created something unpredictable.”
The actress is also excited to have worked with such an accomplished array of performers.
“It’s an incredible cast,” she enthuses. “Everyone totally complements each other. I was over the moon when I heard that Dervla Kirwan was cast as my mother. There’s something special about working with an Irish actress who you’ve always looked up to. I’ve been friends with Seána Kerslake (Grace) for a long time; we had been waiting years to work together.”
The show’s compelling narrative kicks off the morning after a family party, when Val’s husband, Denis (Stuart Graham), is found dead at the foot of a cliff close to the family home. Val begins to delve into the events of the night before, exploring Denis’s relationships with his children, stepchildren, and his siblings, in order to find out who might have been responsible.
“I love the amount of strong female personalities in the show, especially Val Ahern,”, Devereux enthuses. “We’re seeing that more and more on screen, but a number of years ago, you probably wouldn’t have seen such a female-led crime noir drama on television.”
Elsewhere, Smother’s riveting subplots explore reproductive rights, mental illness, domestic abuse, coercive control and the burden of familial relationships.
“A lot of the male characters are extremely calculating, Dennis especially,” Gemma-Leah reflects. “It’s such an Irish family trope to want to appear perfect from the outside. It’s all very sweet, but behind closed doors, it’s a whole other story. Kate highlights the uncomfortable incidents that can occur in domestic lives. Abuse can thrive when society keeps it hushed up because of shame, a burden which often falls on women’s shoulders. Irish storytellers are brutally honest, we really see people for what they are.”
Devereux has also enjoyed several other noteworthy moments in her career to date. In 2019’s Judy, she portrayed Liza Minnelli opposite Renée Zellweger, with the latter scooping an Oscar for her portrayal of Judy Garland.
Minnelli, the daughter of the film icon, remarked that she “doesn’t approve or sanction” the film “in any way”.
“It’s always lovely when the subject supports the creative project, but I totally understand it can’t always be that way,” says Gemma-Leah. “A lot of people didn’t realise what Judy Garland’s life actually entailed, and how sad her experiences were. Playing Liza Minnelli was absolutely amazing, but also terrifying, because she’s such an icon and everyone has their own vision of her.
“Renée is absolutely lovely, and was very much in character the entire time. She was constantly making sure everyone was saying my name correctly! It’s amazing to work with someone who performs at such a high level – because we show up to work ready to meet that standard.”
• Smother airs every Sunday at 9.30pm on RTÉ One