- Film & TV
- 13 Apr 22
Olwen Fouéré reflects on a remarkable career spanning over five decades on the stage and the screen – discussing witches, relationships and looking beyond our 'ordinary reality'.
About halfway through our conversation, Olwen Fouére comes out with a statement I have serious trouble believing:
"I am very lazy,” she divulges. “I love doing nothing.”
Of course, her CV would beg to differ. Recent roles in Robert Eggers’ The Northman, Lagan Media Production's An Diabhal Inti, the TV adaptation of Graham Norton’s Holding, and this year’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre are just a selection of the projects that kept the Irish actor busy during the pandemic. She’s also made notable appearances over the last few years in The Survivalist, Mandy, Sea Fever, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – plus stage productions of Marina Carr’s iGirl, and Riverrun, Olwen's own adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
“It’s because I always go, ‘That sounds great! It’s only a few days, it’ll be fine!’” she says of her hectic schedule. “It’s all really interesting stuff, and I’m fortunate enough to have a good tribe of people that I work with. But I’m always saying, ‘How can I empty my life a little bit more?’”
Between all of that, she recently found time to catch a screening of A Breton In Connemara, Bob Gallagher’s film about her father, Yann Fouéré, which features as part of the Abair series. Yann, a prominent Breton nationalist, was forced to relocate to Ireland following the Second World War – resulting in Olwen being born and raised in Connemara. In addition to live music from Sarah Ghriallais and Clarisse Lavanant, one of Olwen’s own highlights from the screening was Dundalk folk group The Mary Wallopers.
“They’re real bauld boys, it was great!” she enthuses. “It was so nice to be just in a room with people playing live. There’s nothing like it. At the end, Clarisse stood up and sang the Breton National Anthem, and I was in floods of tears at that.
“My dad would have been very happy for his life’s work to be transmitted in that way, through music,” she adds. “Because, as we know, music is the highest art form. It communicates across so many different generations, boundaries, and languages. That’s what’s so blissful about it.”
Although she’s had a base in Dublin for years, and continues to travel extensively for her work, the question of ‘home’ remains a tricky topic for Olwen.
“I don’t really have one,” she elaborates. “I think the West, which is where I was born, is the closest thing to home. It’s right out on the edge of Europe, on the edge of the Atlantic. I feel like I belong out there.”
“That whole western coast of Ireland has something magnetic about it,” she reflects. “It’s full of magic, and there’s the same kind of wild spirit in the people. The Holding cast was the best tribe you could be with.”
During the pandemic, Olwen also managed to convince writer/director Paula Kehoe to shoot most of her scenes in An Diabhal Inti – a series exploring witchcraft accusations in Ireland – on Omey Island, just two miles from her Connemara home.
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Olwen previously explored the theme of witches in Jesse Jones’ visual art project, Tremble Tremble, which represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 2017. The title was inspired by the wages for housework movement in 1970s Italy, during which women famously chanted: “Tremate, tremate, le streghe sono tornate!” (“Tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!”)
“It’s something to do with being an older woman – I’m surrounded by witch scripts!” Olwen laughs. “But Tremble Tremble was really about reclaiming that space. It was about the emergence of a more sovereign female energy. Witch is a weird word. It has so many associations that we need to dismantle.
“I’ve always been interested in people who are deemed ‘other’ – the marginalised, those who are attacked or persecuted for being different or having access to certain powers that are not regarded as ‘normal’,” she adds. "Basically, the weirdos. Like me!”
She acknowledges that a lot of her work would have "been considered very avant garde" when it was first performed – reflecting a long-standing interest in "non-ordinary reality."
"Our so-called ‘ordinary’ reality is so limited," she notes. "It’s so tiny and minute, in terms of what our imaginations are capable of. We really do exist within such a tiny fraction of our capacity as sentient beings.”
While some would argue that our worlds have never been bigger in this age of social media, Olwen reckons that “human’s animal capacities are diminishing massively”, particularly as we continue to destroy other species on Earth.
“I think it’s time for the human species to depart this planet,” she sighs. “Obviously there is a whole virtual world out there – which, in some ways, you could think of as an expanding of our consciousness. But it doesn’t work in the same way. It does increase communication, and it does increase our access to certain types of knowledge and information. But I’m not sure what reality we really live in now. We probably live more in a virtual reality.”
Although her fearlessly experimental approach has resulted in a remarkably prolific career, spanning decades and art forms, Olwen, who's now in her late 60s, admits that she does stop and think about her legacy from time to time. But she also points out the difficulty with that, given that so much of her work “is ephemeral, and not really documented.”
“So I’ll be forgotten about quite quickly!” she laughs. “I hope not, but that’s what you do think. What will be left? The few academics who have written about the work, and the odd scrap of film.
“That’s actually why film is quite appealing,” she adds. “At least it will stay there forever. But then, of course, you think about the films you weren’t good in…”
Self-deprecation aside, Olwen admits she “couldn’t believe it” when she saw that The Irish Times had included her in their list of ‘The 50 greatest Irish film actors of all time’ in 2020.
“I don’t think of myself as having much of an ego, but I was so thrilled about that,” she smiles. “Somebody had bought the newspaper that day, funnily enough, and I remember seeing the headline – and I went, ‘Ah well, I’ll never be on that!’ But there I was! Number 22!
“I know these things are all arbitrary, and decided by two or three people,” she adds. “It’s like awards – they’re all quite random, in many ways. But I have to say, I was thrilled.”
It’s the kind of honour Olwen likely never expected when she first found herself drawn to the arts as a young woman. She remembers the Irish theatre world in those early days of her career, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as “really quite extraordinary.”
“Ireland was so economically depressed – and the only people who were still around were people who were doggedly, stubbornly sticking their heels in, and carrying on,” she recalls. “Things like ‘career’ were never mentioned. Nobody thought about ‘career’. It was all about creating a piece of work which had a resonance.
“I still felt very much a foreigner in Ireland, even though I was born in Ireland," she continues. "I definitely think it’s through the work I did that I became assimilated into Ireland, in a way that I’m very happy about.”
She’s also positive about the current state of Irish theatre – though she notes that it did go through a somewhat uninspiring patch.
“People are always surprised when I say this, but if you talk to anyone of that time they’d probably agree – in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the arts were far less conservative,” she reflects. “And then, it went through a very conservative phase. But it has emerged out of that now. In the last ten years or so, it’s started to really produce some amazing artists, and break the forms. It’s much more exploratory and unconventional.”
She’s equally wary of conservatism in everyday society.
“Even though we’re kind of dismantling a lot of the gender norms, there’s still a lot of conservatism out there, in social terms,” she states. “I think conservatism is all tied up in capitalism.”
While breaking down traditions and norms has been a long-established feature of her work, she tells me that she never consciously set out to follow a similar philosophy in her personal life – despite speaking candidly about her own open relationship.
“That’s just the way my life went,” she says. “It wasn’t a decision. People have said to me, ‘Well, this goes on with people all the time, but they hide it, and don’t discuss it.’ But I’ve always believed, if you’re in a relationship, honesty is the first thing. It’s not a relationship if you can’t tell each other things, or if you don’t tell each other things.
“Life is so short,” she adds. “You’ve got to follow these things. Things like love and passion are not things that you make a decision about. Love happens. That’s the magic of it. So it wasn’t about a philosophy of life. It was more like, this has happened, and you shouldn’t walk away from it.”
An Diabhal Inti is available to stream now on the TG4 Player. Holding is airing every Tuesday at 9pm on Virgin Media More. The Northman is in cinemas this Friday.
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