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Broadway Q&A: Laura Donnelly of ‘The Ferryman’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

The ‘Outlander’ star reveals why doing ‘The Ferryman’ is a role of a lifetime

In the epic and funny play The Ferryman, Laura Donnelly plays Caitlin Carney, whose husband has been missing for ten years. She and her son have taken refuge with her brother-in-law Quinn (Paddy Considine), his wife Mary (Catherine McCormack), their seven children (ranging in ages from 9 months to 16), even more family members and assorted pets and livestock. 

Written by Jez Butterworth, the play won three Olivier Awards, including Best Play, Best Director for Sam Mendes and a Best Actress award for Donnelly. The play takes place in 1981 on Quinn’s farm in county Armagh, Northern Ireland. Even with all the uncertainty and tumult surrounding them, the family clings to rejoicing in the bonds that unite them. For the past several years the Belfast native has played Jenny Fraser Murray in Outlander on Starz. The Ferryman’s Broadway run was recently extended until July, and on film, Donnelly will soon appear in the movie Tolkien

Laura Donnelly as Caitlin Carney in ‘The Ferryman’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Laura Donnelly as Caitlin Carney in ‘The Ferryman’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Didn’t your partner, playwright Jez Butterworth, get the idea to write The Ferryman when the two of you were watching a TV documentary about people who had been killed by the IRA? 
Laura Donnelly: We had been watching a documentary on the “Disappeared.” (The special highlighted those who had vanished in Northern Island during the 1970s and 1980s.) At the end, when they showed the faces of that group, my uncle's face came up. I said to Jez, “That's my uncle. (He had disappeared on New Year’s Day in 1981, was killed by the IRA and found three years later.) It didn't seem like a big moment to me. A strange thing happens when you're from the North of Ireland.

But for Jez, it was a much bigger moment. It’s quite shocking to hear, particularly for somebody who is not from there. I told him the story of my uncle. We chatted about it for a long time over the course of two years. Then we both attended funerals of two of the Disappeared in Belfast. We sat in that church looking at front rows filled with people in their sixties. They had been friends or brothers or sisters of this boy who had disappeared when he was seventeen. Something about witnessing that, it began to haunt Jez. He began thinking more about disappearances in terms of relationships within families. That is really where the play came from.

When did you know you had to be an actress? 
Laura Donnelly
: When I was around six, I did a form of Irish dancing that was storytelling. My dance teacher, Patricia Mulholland, invented the Irish Ballet and Festival Dance, which was really the precursor to River Dance. She staged productions of the myths and legends of Ireland through this form of Irish ballet. I played the children’s parts. I remember leaving school early for the theater, putting on the costume and being backstage. I remember the sheer excitement and the pure adrenaline coursing through my veins. I never wanted to leave the theater or go back to school the next day. My dance teacher told my mother: “Mark my words, she'll be on the stage.” I guess there’s an element of the witches of Macbeth. Did I do it because she said I would? Or did she say I would because I was always destined to do it? But that was absolutely the moment when I decided that is what I had to do.

What do you adore about playing Caitlin in ‘The Ferryman’? 
Laura Donnelly
: What makes the character such a pleasure to act is what Caitlin is hiding. Often you read characters who are saying everything they are thinking. Or they don't have secrets. Yet from the moment we meet her, Caitlin has huge secrets. The audience gets to know those pretty early. It’s such fun to know that the audience is with me. It allows me to play that with so many layers. What Jez does so beautifully is give everybody on that stage something that they are trying to suppress and cover up. At the same time, they get on with their lives, keep their dignity and try to survive.   

Night after night, the show never gets tired because the writing is so beautiful. Another great joy is being part of such a wonderful and huge cast. There is as much joy off stage as there is on. We really have a sense of being a family. 

What do you love to do when you are not working? 
Laura Donnelly
:  Sleep. I have never done a job before that takes so much out of me physically, in terms of my energy level throughout the day.  I have had to use every hour that I’m not on stage to try and rest. The first time I did this play in the West End and was tired, I thought it was because I was pregnant. But now I feel just as tired. I have realized it’s the play that does it. It’s the emotional requirement that drains me. So after being with my girls and working, sleep is my priority. 

What do you miss most about doing Outlander?  
Laura Donnelly
:  For me, it’s more about the cast and crew. It was such a wonderful production to be part of because of the people. Many of the cast members are old friends of mine from college, because I studied in Scotland. When I filmed the show it was based out of Glasgow. I had a magical time studying in drama college there. So I love going up there and spending proper time in Glasgow with people I knew from back then. Going back to Outlander always felt like a homecoming. 

What was it like to make your Broadway debut in The River and star with Hugh Jackson? 
Laura Donnelly:  It was amazing and wonderful. To make my Broadway debut playing opposite Hugh Jackman was as good as it gets. He brings with him a whole Broadway buzz that made it an absolutely incredible experience for us.

What was one of the first shows you ever saw? 
Laura Donnelly
: I saw Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at Circle In The Square. We had come to New York to do The River at that theater, and it was my first time seeing a Broadway show. I had been in New York before, but didn’t see any Broadway shows. We were going to be moving into Circle in the Square next. So we went along to see the space and see her. She was just absolutely phenomenal. Then while I was doing The River, I saw as many shows as I could on my Monday off. But of course, our Broadway schedule is usually the same as everyone else’s Broadway schedule, so you don’t get to see a lot.

For more of the best of Broadway, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in December 2018.

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