‘She never courted fame’: As her final film is released, Barry and Sandra McGuigan pay tribute to their talented daughter Nika who died at just 33

In July, Nika McGuigan was awarded a posthumous Ifta for her role in Wildfire. Now, as the film is released, her parents and director Cathy Brady remember a talented young woman taken too soon

Actor Nika McGuigan. Photograph by: Steve Humphreys

Nika McGuigan, left, and Nora-Jane Noone in 'Wildfire'. Photograph by: Aidan Monaghan

Nika McGuigan with her father Barry at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in 2008. Photograph: Brian McEvoy

Can't Cope, Won't Cope stars Nika McGuigan and Seána Kerslake.

Regina Lavelle

Five years of hard work made Nika McGuigan’s last film, Wildfire, but it was serendipity that saw it finished. The feature-film debut of director Cathy Brady stars Nika opposite Nora-Jane Noone as two sisters whose grief over the death of their mother years previously plays out in different ways. Cathy and Nika had previously worked together on the RTÉ hit series Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope.

Set in the North with a political backdrop of both the Good Friday Agreement and the impending Brexit border, Wildfire is a haunting depiction of how trauma can trickle down the generations.

The shoot finished in December 2018. Then came New Year. Afterwards, Nika resumed doing auditions while Cathy was editing the film. At the time, they were both based in London, with Cathy in a Soho editing suite.

“We’d been working towards pick-ups [reshoots or new scenes to insert into the final edit] that we would shoot in September. But Nika was very involved in the edit. She saw one part, and she felt her character had been cut back too much. And she was right. There were a few lines that we needed to record, so I got her to send those over on her phone, not knowing what was about to happen.”

Nika had been experiencing stomach pains and had seen a doctor, but they were ascribed to pre-existing issues. Her cancer of the colon was diagnosed in late June 2019. She died five weeks later. Her family and friends were in shock, shattered.

Cathy was, by then, a close friend of Nika’s parents, Barry and Sandra McGuigan. The couple were delighted to see their daughter so invested in a film project after years in which roles had not come easy.

Nika McGuigan, left, and Nora-Jane Noone in 'Wildfire'. Photograph by: Aidan Monaghan

“She knew that Cathy got her,” Sandra tells me over a video call from their home in Kent. “And she knew when people didn’t get her. Even though it was frustrating, she navigated. She got it when there wasn’t chemistry. She got it when it wasn’t the right time.”

Landing her role in Wildfire was more than just a success of timing, however. It tapped into other aspects of Nika’s background and upbringing, had resonances with her own family’s past experiences on the Border in the 1980s.

Sandra and Barry had been childhood sweethearts, growing up across the road from each other. It was a particularly nasty period in the North during which Sandra had lost a first cousin. They married in 1981. “Clones was a Republican town,” says Barry, sitting beside his wife for our Zoom. “Let’s have no qualms about that. And about half a mile out the road, you had a border.

“When we built our home in 1983,” he continues, “it was 50 yards from the demarcation line. We had Southern water and Northern electricity. I’m a Catholic, and Sandra’s a Protestant. And I’m an Irish man who fought for the British [featherweight boxing] title in probably the worst time in Northern Ireland. People were saying, ‘Oh, McGuigan’s trying to be commercial’. I wasn’t. I was trying to navigate a dangerous, dangerous time. By wearing the dove of peace on my shorts and my dad singing Danny Boy, we didn’t have to alienate people. But there would have been hardline people who didn’t like me. There’s no doubt about that.”

Barry became World Featherweight Champion in 1985. Nika — full name Danika — was born a year later, the second of four children. “Nika was very, very sick as a little girl,” recalls Sandra. “We nearly lost her when she was nine months old, with febrile convulsions. She got a second set at a year-and-a-half. And then we moved to England in 1987.”

It was a busy time for the family, with Barry’s career, a growing family and moving country.

Nika, having recovered, was discovering her voice. And it was precocious, occasionally taking her mother by surprise. “She was a tiny little girl. And I’d be coming down the stairs ready to go out with the girls — I didn’t go out often. We had three under three-and-a-half and a five year old. And she’d look at you and go, ‘No. You’ve got the completely wrong thing on you’. I’d say to her, ‘Do I need to change?’ She’d go, ‘Yeah’.”

Early on, Nika became familiar with the demands of public life. There was her father’s experience of criticism. And there were famous faces around the house as Jim Sheridan worked on Barry’s autobiography. Then, when she was around nine, her father started training Daniel Day-Lewis for The Boxer.

Nika McGuigan with her father Barry at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in 2008. Photograph: Brian McEvoy

“I trained Daniel for two years when he trained for that movie,” says Barry. “Nika came over, and she was on set, and she saw how long it took to be authentic. She’d watch him in the gym with me, every day, road-running, sparring. She watched the film process, and she was over in Dublin watching the riot scene with us. Within a month, I had to come off the movie because she had developed leukaemia. I had to leave the set and go straight to the hospital.”

Cathy describes Nika as someone far older than her years. The family believe this is partly down to Nika’s experience of serious illness. “Leukaemia affects different people in different ways,” explains Sandra. “But it affects a part of the body before it’s diagnosed. Hers began as a throat infection. She needed a tracheotomy. She was only 11. It was very dramatic. But she was always leading the bravery.”

The family must have seemed besieged by suffering. A few years previously, Barry’s brother, Dermot, had taken his own life. “He was Nika’s godfather. And even though she was very young, that presence is in the family,” continues Sandra. “The whole family has to pull together to come through something like that. But losing somebody can create a real honesty of emotions, and sometimes it’s anger emotions.”

Barry continues: “The damage it does. The unspoken damage. And Nika had that sort of tacit understanding. She was so wise and so grown-up. She knew when to say something and when to not.”

Barry and Sandra took turns to stay with Nika at the hospital during her illness. When she wasn’t at the hospital, Sandra says she was “cosseted”; Barry says “mollycoddled a bit”.

At 13 and recovered, Nika asked to go to boarding school, at nearby Benenden. While there, she was cast in a school production of The Wind In The Willows at the London Palladium. After finishing school, she went to Dublin to study acting.

The early years of her career were difficult. She moved back to London after her training, but it was slow going. “You go for an audition, and you never know,” recalls Barry.

“I know she wondered if she would ever get a break,” says Sandra. “Because she was athletic, Nika.”

“She wasn’t stick-thin,” adds Barry. “She was curvaceous, and she trained really hard.”

Sandra continues: “She got some small parts. Then there was Can’t Cope. We knew about Cathy before we met her.”

In 2013, Cathy was staging two plays in London’s Lyric Theatre. She needed an actor who could perform a Northern Irish accent one night and a North of England accent the next. Stumped, Cathy asked casting director Maureen Hughes, who said she had just the person: Nika.

“Over two nights, she completely transformed character,” Cathy recalls. “She was just incredible. Such an incredible talent.”

Off-stage, the two hit it off as well. “I got to know her more, and I think we became friends before we became actor/director. So when Can’t Cope happened, there were several auditions and a lot of chemistry tests. When we put Nika and Seána [Kerslake] in a room together, it was electric.”

Sandra and Barry say Nika had a small circle of friends, but they were extremely close and she would drop everything for them. Cathy recalls one evening flying into London City Airport, and being on a train to the city centre, during which she and Nika had been texting. Not paying attention, Cathy missed her stop. She called Nika. “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m in Brighton, and I’m absolutely f***ed. I’ve no money to get a hotel, and I don’t know what to do.

“She said, ‘Wait there, and I’ll pick you up.’ She drove to Brighton to pick me up and got there about three in the morning.”

Nika was still waiting to hear if she booked Can’t Cope. “Nika was very cautious about saying, ‘I think I’m gonna get this’,” says Barry.

“She’d had too many disappointments,” says Sandra. “She kept her cards very close to her chest. She’d tell us she was going back for another audition but wouldn’t say if she thought it was looking good.”

It was looking good, and the buzz around the finished Can’t Cope exceeded everyone’s expectations. But, as Sandra observes, the life of an actor can be isolating. “As an actor or writer/director, there’s no base for you. You’re on your own the whole time, and that’s unnerving. Most people go on holiday for two weeks, and they come back and go, ‘Oh shit, everything’s been able to go on without me’. For actors, they work on this subject and complete it in its entirety, with a group of people that you bond with, and then you’re back to sitting on this lily pad.”

Nika and Cathy’s bond meant that Can’t Cope wasn’t just another job. Their connection had spawned a new project with the actor Nora-Jane Noone. “It was around trauma or repressed trauma and how that forces itself back into the present,” says Cathy. “That became our starting point, and it evolved. It made sense to bring it back to the borderlands and Northern Ireland. I came across the term intergenerational trauma, and it made sense to tell the story from the character’s point of view. Their past is going to be affected by their family dynamic, but also the community, also politically, socially.”

Cathy hails from Newry and remembers the Troubles herself. “I was about 11 when the ceasefire happened, but I’ve memories of bomb scares in the town. It never directly affected my family, but there was the kind of fear that if you’re in a shop and you see a bag on the ground, you think, ‘That could be a bomb’. Or you’re walking home from school and you see the white tape up, and you’re thinking, ‘How do I get home if somebody’s been shot?’”

Though set in the present, Cathy agrees that the Troubles feel somehow present in Wildfire. “It’s a film set on the Border, so you can’t escape the Troubles. That’s part of the legacy. But it also deals with the internal violence implication of the Troubles or suicide in the family. It’s not a film about men and their guns and retribution and justice. Life is more complicated than that. You have wounds that aren’t fully healed. The violence goes deep and is much more unspoken.”

This is not popcorn cinema. Nor are the protagonists entirely sympathetic. Nika, Cathy says, was very protective over her character, Kelly. “Kelly’s a complicated character. She’s not straightforward. She’s not necessarily likeable. But Nika wanted to give her heart and vulnerability, and that takes empathy and understanding.”

Such a project might seem like an arduous trajectory for an actor who could have taken more accessible gigs. But that wasn’t the career Nika wanted. “She was proud of her name and proud of her father and her brothers, but she never courted fame,” says Barry. “She wanted to be successful in her own right, however long that was going to take. She had to have gravitas, build it from the ground up and put the effort in to create something sustainable.”

“She was a character actor, not a jobbing actor,” adds Cathy. “She wanted a role that was mysterious enough for her to investigate, and that’s not always the case. You get scripts, and the female roles can be so underwritten.”

The project was honed over time “like a sculpture”, says Cathy. The shoot started in October and finished in December. “I was in admiration of her, of her talent. She was a friend. She was a muse. I remember when we’d just finished the last shot, and Nika looked at me and said, ‘You know, if I never make another film in my life, I’ll die happy’. It was such a weird thing to say. But I said to her, ‘Yeah, I feel the same’.”

The team were planning to shoot the pick-ups in September, when Nika fell ill. Cathy was devastated. “We still had to finish the film, but I had to take some time away, because how do you complete a film without your best friend? But we had to go back within six weeks.”

It was Seána Kerslake, Nika’s Can’t Cope co-star, who stepped in to help finish the film. “She knew Nika, and she knew her mannerisms. She was fearless. She stepped into Nika’s shoes, literally,” Cathy says, pausing to take a breath. “It was horrendous.”

“Seána and Nika had an amazing relationship and they were good friends. It was very brave of her, and you sent me a picture, Cathy,” Sandra adds.

“It really threw me,” says Cathy. “We had to get a wig made to shoot Nika’s character from behind. When Seána put the wig on, I couldn’t believe how similar the profile was. The thing that struck me was their hands. Their hands were very similar.”

Can't Cope, Won't Cope stars Nika McGuigan and Seána Kerslake.

Cathy, Barry and Sandra are clearly extremely close. If any of them struggle to find the words, another steps in and takes up the story. “It’s tough to have perspective on this. It’s the greatest loss we’ve ever had. It’s the most awful, awful, awful thing. It’s two years now,” says Barry.

“People think that grief is something that people process. I don’t,” says Sandra. “But I know my Nika would be smiling at Seána. She’d know that Seána would be able to deliver.”

Cathy describes going back into the edit and Seána stepping in for her friend as the longest goodbye. “I remember Seána standing next to me on set, and I was squinting. It felt like Nika next to me. Because she was ripped away so far from all of us so fast, the process of the film and getting to share the film didn’t make it any easier, but it allowed the goodbye to stretch that little bit longer.”

Nika’s posthumous Ifta win for her role in the film lifted the family’s spirits, but the heaviest trophy cabinet will never dent the loss of a child. “Knowing what she suffered and what she went through in the last month of her life, she was an amazing girl. I’ve never seen courage like that in my life, and I hope I never have to see it again,” says Barry. “She faced it with so much courage.”

“For every parent who lost a child, the sadness is they never got to live out their lives the way we have been able,” adds Sandra. “That’s what every parent wants — their child to be happy and content.”

Wildfire is a tribute to Nika McGuigan’s commitment and ability. And her family and friends hope that it will be watched and enjoyed in tribute. “She got her lead role,” says Sandra.

Barry finishes: “We could have lost her at 11. We could have lost her at one. It doesn’t make you feel any better. But we got 33 years with her, which was… fabulous.” ‘Wildfire’ opens exclusively in cinemas on September 3

  • This article was amended on 29/8/21 to reflect that the director’s name is Cathy Brady not Cathy Armstrong as originally published.

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