‘Nika gave her heart and soul in her final film – and there is some relief in that’

John Meagher

It was a television moment to stop viewers in their tracks. Barry McGuigan, a veritable legend of Irish sport, could not hold back the tears as he talked to Ryan Tubridy about the loss to cancer of his daughter, Nika.

His pain was so raw that many Late Late Show viewers would have felt voyeuristic simply watching – and, yet, it was hard to avert the gaze. Devastating grief is all around – we just hope it won’t visit us.

Nora-Jane Noone knows more than most about Barry McGuigan’s anguished grief. She became close to Nika when they were cast as troubled sisters in the twin lead roles in the powerful new Irish film Wildfire. The parts demanded that both actresses dig deep in their emotional lockers – and they did. The reward is an Ifta nomination for Noone – and a posthumous nod for Nika McGuigan.

“She was a really brilliant actor and there was so much more that she would have done,” Noone says, speaking via Zoom from the garden of her home in a sun-drenched Los Angeles.

“It’s very hard for me to watch the film now and to think back on all the things we went through together. I’m able to appreciate her [as an actor] when I watch it, but it’s tough because there are so many emotional scenes in there.

“Nika gave her heart and soul to it so fully – and there’s some relief in that she got to do that [in what would be her final film]. She was full of life – such a big personality and you do think of what she would have accomplished had she gone on.”

She pauses. Tears well in her eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s in interviews that it really hits because often in life you don’t have time... I’ve just had a baby and you don’t have a second. It’s very hard to sum up how I feel because we connected so strongly – not just as actors, but as people.”

Even without knowing Nika McGuigan’s fate, Wildfire makes for a tough viewing experience. Set on the other side of the Border, in a small-minded community that’s still haunted by the fall-out of the Troubles, it centres on sisters who have been badly scarred by the tragic death of their mother while they were children.

It was inspired casting from writer-director Cathy Brady. With Galwegian Noone mastering a Northern Irish brogue and McGuigan shedding her English accent for the role, it’s difficult to believe that the women aren’t sisters in real life, such is their likeness in the film and the rare chemistry that sparks between them.

Nora-Jane Noone has been regarded as one of the country’s most gifted actors for the best part of 20 years. She made her professional acting debut in the most auspicious manner possible when she landed the lead role in The Magdalene Sisters when she was 17.

The 2002 film was directed by the uncompromising Scottish actor Peter Mullan, and it cast a cold eye over Ireland’s bleak mother-and-baby-home industry. It won multiple awards and was critically acclaimed and it captured the brutal reality for many.

“It changed my whole life,” she says of the film. “I think I would have found my way to creativity somehow, but I’m not exactly sure or in what vein.” Noone says she knew in her teens that she wanted to making a living in the arts.

“But the film happened and it had such a huge impact. It’s such an important story and it felt special to be part of something that started a conversation that really needed to be happening in Ireland. I hadn’t known anything about the Magdalene laundries before I did that film and it really opened my eyes to what film can do, the kind of stories it can tell and how it can impact what’s going on in the world.”

Despite living in first London and then LA for almost all of her adult life, she has kept a keen eye on what’s been happening back home, especially when it comes to Ireland’s sordid history of mistreating women. The discovery of hundreds of children’s bodies at a mother and baby home in Tuam, in her home county of Galway, was yet another reminder of a shameful legacy.

“It’s a horror, but at the same time I’m glad it’s coming out and people are being vindicated. And it’s important that these women continue to be championed by the public – and that was certainly not the case a few decades ago. Everyone wanted it to be brushed under the carpet. There was a sort of conditioning, a ‘Shhhh — don’t go there’.”

With her first child born in January 2020, she says she took a short pause from acting. Josie – who was named after Noone’s own mother “who’s the best in the world” – was born in Galway.

Noone and her Cuban-American actor husband Chris Marquette spent two months in Ireland before returning to LA.

“When we landed, LA had just gone into lockdown,” she says. “We only found out in the plane – it was announced while it was up in the air.

“For a couple of months...we were very much in the house on our own.” The experience was “intense”, not least because she and Marquette were getting used to parenthood for the first time. “Lockdown just amplified everything – you had no distraction, nowhere else to go. If we’d been able to walk out and have a coffee somewhere – just a change of scene to break it up. But not having that was very hard. But she’s amazing and she’s always been the absolute highlight.”

The three returned to Ireland on December 1 – “just after it opened up after the second lockdown” – for what, ostensibly, was to be a relatively short visit for Christmas. But with Covid taking a turn for the worse in January and February, they found themselves staying much longer. They only returned to LA towards the end of June.

“Lockdown makes you think about being away from your family and how painful that can be. You find yourself wondering, ‘How long is this going to be?’ And it’s a horrible feeling to know that you’re far away and that you can’t get back. You want to share your new child with everybody. It feels like we’re over the worst of it, but so much is still up in the air.”

Nora-Jane Noone has been nominated for Best Actress in tomorrow’s Ifta awards for her performance in Wildfire.

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