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not normal Normal People's Aislín McGuckin explains why she relishes playing 'damaged' women


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Enniskillen-born actor Aislín McGuckin played Marianne’s frighteningly ice-cold mother Denise

Enniskillen-born actor Aislín McGuckin played Marianne’s frighteningly ice-cold mother Denise

Enniskillen-born actor Aislín McGuckin played Marianne’s frighteningly ice-cold mother Denise

As Marianne's ice-cold mum in Normal People, she was one of the most reviled figures of lockdown binge-watching. And that's precisely what drew Aislín McGuckin to the thankless role of Denise Sheridan.

While Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal sizzled as clandestine lovers Marianne and Connell in the BBC smash, the Fermanagh-born actor simmered brilliantly in the background as the matriarch whose own victimhood carves an emotional ravine between her and her daughter.

"She really divided viewers," admits Aislín. "You don't entirely know what's going on with her - there's no flashback to show you the damaged history or why she's behaving the way she is.

"And they're the parts, sadly, I love - not even angry, but damaged [women]. Lady Macbeth, this - they're roles I relish getting the chance to investigate. It's safe territory going into these darker places.

"It's funny because if you know me then you know I'm not as hard as she looked. Friends have said they would have found it more painful [to watch] than strangers who were just going, 'You were an absolute bitch who deserved everything!'"

Streamed more than 62 million times, the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's 2018 novel became the most viewed series on BBC iPlayer last year, most recently earning Mescal the Bafta for Leading Actor, among an abundance of other awards bestowed on the drama.

But stage and screen veteran Aislín confesses she wasn't entirely sold on playing the aloof solicitor at first.

"She isn't a character who particularly features in the novel, so when the call came through I was sort of, 'Hmmm'. Once I met Lenny [Abrahamson, director] the whole thing was different - Lenny could paint a wall and you'd be fascinated.

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Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones sizzled on screen as troubled young lovers Connell and Marianne in Normal People.

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones sizzled on screen as troubled young lovers Connell and Marianne in Normal People.

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones sizzled on screen as troubled young lovers Connell and Marianne in Normal People.

"I think we all knew that it was special, but that doesn't always then correlate with [its success]. It was the timing of it - people have said Normal People was a real lifeline during the worst periods of lockdown."

Despite starring in the most talked about show of 2020, as well as popping up nightly as Dr Liz Merrick in reruns of Heartbeat, Aislín she doesn't even own a television five years after relocating from London to Dublin. Instead, she jokes, there were regular rows over the laptop at home in Ranelagh, where she now lives with her children Mireille (15), Lorcan (11) and Senan (eight) during lockdown.

"Thankfully I don't have a TV so I'm not having to revisit that," laughs the Enniskillen native, who starred in the quaint British police drama from 2003-2004. "But I hear it's back regularly. It's a show that was bringing an innocence back - we had far too much fun filming it.

"It's hard to look back at the very, very young version of oneself. The first job I did was a play called The Steward of Christendom [in 1995] that started in London and came to the Gate, and had the exceptional Donal McCann in the lead role, and people still come up and talk to me about it. I was a baby, but it was a play that made such an impact here and in London and we toured the world with it then."

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Now the performer, whom others may recognise from Outlander, is hoping to make an impact on the next generation as the new patron of Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival for Young People.

The award-winning Belfast charity, whose previous patrons include Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell, is set to present a digital season of film screenings, Q and As and workshops for four to 25-year-olds this July and August.

And Aislín, who stars in short film The Carer - one of three made by aspiring young filmmakers aged between 18 and 25 as part of the festival - reveals she was thrilled to get the call: "I would have absolutely adored something like that when I was starting out because it seems so unattainable when you're still in school and so glamorous.

"I joined an amateur company called Stage Aid in the late 1980s, [but] there was no talk of going off to drama school or anything like that. I had got in to study law in Manchester and that was going to be the path - but I had other ideas. Once I got in, my parents were brilliant. They went, 'if you're absolutely committed to this, go for it'. I hope I'm the same with mine.

"The two boys made a short film during lockdown with their dad," adds Aislín, who was married to fellow actor Aidan McArdle from 2004-2019. "They don't openly say they want to be actors but they're very artistic. Will they go into it? I'd hope not - it's such a tough profession. Both their dad and I would say it's whatever will make them happy."

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Aislín McGuckin.

Aislín McGuckin.

Aislín McGuckin.

The 46-year-old next appears on the small screen in female-led Nordic noir Cold Courage, and following Kate Winslet's staggering turn as a grieving detective in Mare of Easttown, believes it proof that midlife no longer means middling roles for women.

"I completely think it's changing now," Aislín says. "It does feel like ageing doesn't mean you don't work. If anything, I think there are other stories now that will be told. It doesn't feel frightening to be ageing - it's quite exciting actually."

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