In our latest look behind the scenes at Ireland's most popular soap, Fair City star Una Kavanagh writes for Culture about her character's journey - and her greatest acting challenge to date.
'A ribbon around a bomb'.
André Breton wrote this of Frida Kahlo’s work in the preface of her exhibition catalogue for The Julien Levy Gallery, New York 1938. I love this quote. When I first heard it I thought how perfect a description of her work. I have never forgotten it.
I’m borrowing it today for Heather Lyons Daly, a character I have had the privilege of playing since 2003. Her character, for me is this image - "a ribbon around a bomb"
Ever since she walked into Carrigstown to meet with her birth mother Renee Phelan and fall in love with her half brother Floyd, Heather has exploded the very centre of a family and core of a community. She has ignited potent storylines since the beginning which include adoption, incest, crime and prostitution, murder, euthanasia, extradition, Munchausen by Proxy, mental illness and the Irish medical and legal systems.
For the past 6 months, I have felt nothing short of humbled as so many people have come up to me and contacted me about themselves, or members of their families who are struggling with brain injuries.
All of these storylines revealed detailed research and brave writing about Irish cultural, social, legal and medical systems. At the very heart of them all you'll find Heather blazing through, with narratives that were never shy and always bold enough to challenge the status quo. The effect revealed through the relationships on all the members of her family unit - the Irish family unit. Hugely characterised by her narratives with her mother, daughter and sister, these extraordinary character-led storylines lent an optic to the private worlds, the kitchen sink dramas, the behind closed doors. The everyday struggles.
Most recently, Heather has suffered a horrific brain injury that has left her so completely vulnerable. It has been an extraordinary journey for me as an actor to bring this part of Heather’s story to life.
My intention always is to find the truth and integrity in playing her. Here is a woman, a patient, now traumatised and afraid, grappling to adjust to her new life. The research the writing team had done was extraordinary and the scripting of her journey so humane.
Sometimes as an artist or an actor you cherish work. I cherish Heather.
I had spent a lot of time researching her injuries, privately investigating the myriad of challenges and changes that would have happened to her. I began physically and verbally exploring the new world of her body and voice. How she would move and sound, her tone and speech patterns - her sensory and motor functions, her cognitive and communication struggles with language, memory and concentration. Her psychological and social skills, her fatigue, loneliness, fear, inappropriate behaviours. Her lack of independence and her utter dependence on her family to care for her. The many and complex challenges that would face her.
I remember how nervous I was using her voice for the first time in front of the director and other cast members at our rehearsals. It was one of those moments where all my private thoughts and work I had done would be revealed in this new embodiment. One of those moments when you just have to jump off. Feel the fear and do it anyway. That’s all I could do. On my first day of filming the post-coma scenes, when she had a lot to say and do, I was given a beautiful note. Simple but wonderful. "Don’t forget the old Heather is still inside". I never did.
Since then, approx 60 episodes later it has been a very special part of my life and I feel privileged to be part of the team, the huge team at Fair City to bring this story to an audience.
For the past 6 months, I have felt nothing short of humbled as so many people have come up to me and contacted me about themselves, or members of their families who are struggling with brain injuries. People have spoken to me about how difficult it is trying to care for loved ones with no support, and feeling lost in a system that can’t provide for them. Or indeed that it feels like they are mourning a mother, father, daughter, son who have changed utterly due to illness, age or traumatic injuries. The power of storytelling.
Sometimes as an artist or an actor you cherish work. I cherish Heather - A ribbon around a bomb.
Fair City airs on RTÉ One Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 8pm.