The virtues of Niamh Algar
The rising Irish actor talks Shane Meadow’s plaintive new drama – one so naturalistic and tender that it feels intensely close to documentary.
Niamh Algar has been up since 4.45am but by 11.30am, on the blower from Cape Town, she shows no sign of a mid morning slump. Maybe it’s the boxing session first thing, the fact that she’s on set of her next big TV show (Ridley Scott’s new sci fi, Raised by Wolves) or that she’s on the line to talk about her latest (Shane Meadows’ brand new drama, The Virtues). Whichever it is, in her words, she is raring to go.
It’s this special kind of energy that’s seen Algar slay in her lane, the one marked rising star. She’s been in two of Channel 4’s more recent zeitgeist nailing dramedies (The Bisexual and Pure) and each time, she’s stood out with bold hair (bleach blonde with a severe undercut), conviction and a physical confidence I suggest might be down to ten years working out in the boxing ring, but which she ascribes to trying to make herself heard as the youngest of five siblings growing up in Ireland’s midlands.
It’s also this that made Algar stand out at casting for the new Shane Meadows drama. Actually, what happened is she accosted him. I’ll let her pick up the story. “I think he was actually going to the toilet. I was standing out in the waiting area. I knew Shane from watching his work so when he walked out I thought ‘ah, cool that’s Shane’. It wasn’t that I thought about it, I just thought, it’s really good to meet you.” So she introduced herself, which he loved and hoped she was as good in the audition.
She was (‘unbelievable’ is how he describes her) and within three weeks of landing in London from Dublin to further her career, Algar found herself moving to Sheffield, signed on to a year long apprenticeship in the Shane Meadows method. The Staffordshire born writer and director’s work, from films like A Room for Romeo Brass to the movie-turned-TV series This is England, is steeped in authenticity. To get there, actors go through an intensive pre-production period of rehearsals, hanging out, and in Algar’s case getting a haircut.
“I had natural long blonde hair and Shane asked if I’d mind changing, cut wise, colour wise and I was like, you can do whatever the hell you want with it. We got the clippers one day, shaved an undercut on one side, bleached it white blonde and physically and mentally started building the character,” says the 28-year-old. “To be submerged for that amount of time is amazing. I didn’t do any formal drama training but I picked up more in that year than I would in a lifetime.”
Shane Meadows has a knack for developing talent (Vicky McClure and Paddy Considine were early discoveries) and in The Virtues, he casts long standing collaborator Stephen Graham (This is England) alongside fresh faces like Algar, who studied furniture design at college while taking jobs on local productions, and Helen Behan, who is a full time nurse (the director met Behan in a pub in Ireland and wrote the character Anna in The Virtues with her in mind – she is still working as a nurse).
If This is England was Meadows at his most vibrant – rowdy, witty and resilient – The Virtues sees the writer director shift gears into a more plaintive mode. There’s a heartfelt script, co-written with Jack Thorne, and a beautiful score by P.J. Harvey but the casting is most inspired. The Virtues is so naturalistic and tender that it feels intensely close to documentary.
The story begins with Joseph, played by Graham, who leaves Liverpool for Ireland in search of a painful past. It’s here, that Algar’s character Dinah, appears. Both characters are trouble, but Meadows asks us to empathise. “Joe and Dinah are broken characters and you have to see what broke them to begin with,” says Algar. “We judge people on a surface level, we do it naturally as human beings. What we don’t do is find out why they are that way.”
The Virtues delves into the why. The narrative unspools slowly and sometimes hazily, like a painfully repressed memory. It would do the drama an injustice to reveal any more, because it should ideally be watched as the characters themselves excavate their specific traumas. The idea for the series came a similar place: Meadows’ own childhood ordeal, when he was abused by an older boy, aged nine. He discussed this with cast during production. What was that like? “Shane is incredibly open and I shared things with Shane that would never go anywhere,” Algar says. “That’s the trust in someone. He creates an environment where you can do that. That’s vitally important on a film like that. To have that trust and emotion and feeling secure to go anywhere.”
All of this intense prep – and what sounds like group therapy – led Algar to a place where she was altogether ready to show what she could do. “Shane tries to create these core memories so that when you are getting mad with someone in a scene or trying to make someone laugh, you can picture that because you spend so much time together,” she says. “It gives you time to get there, to be in the character long enough. When it came to filming, I was raring to go.”
The Virtues starts Wednesday 15th May, 9pm on C4