Fiona Shaw: ‘I fantasise about being Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s mother’

The actor gushed about the Fleabag and Killing Eve sensation in an honest Letter to My Younger Self

At 16, I was really interested in tennis but I had no hopes of being a professional because my temperament was completely unsuited. I took lessons and my elder brother John was a good guide. But whenever I got to a final, I was so delighted by the theatricality of it I always lost. My mind would go entirely into entertaining the audience and not into winning points. I also struggled at the cello, which I loved, at the Municipal School of Music in Cork. But I did speech and drama there too, and that was my forte. So at least one of the three survived my adolescence.

Anxiety in teenage years is the most terrible thing. Like a lot of 16-year-olds, I was panicking. I wish I had relaxed more and not felt profound guilt when my report said I could do better. My dad was a doctor, my uncles and aunts were doctors, but I did not think I wanted to be a doctor. I would tell my younger self to have the confidence to look into the deep core of her heart. The right thing will unfold if you apply yourself to the thing you love.

I was trying on coats of life. I fell in love at 16 with a lovely man called Stephen who was at Oxford. The glamour of having a beau at Oxford! He would write postcards making literary allusions to university life. I wasn’t precocious, but I felt very heady about language. Meanwhile we had the holy Catholic Church and very strict parenting so there was a narrow gap in which I could be imaginative and full of yearning.

Alan Rickman Fiona Shaw
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Fiona Shaw with close friend and acting mentor Alan Rickman at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York (Credit: Pinterest)

I wasn’t in any way gay until I was. One goes on developing. As a teenager, I was very modest in my romantic life. I had this wonderful boyfriend, then another, then later I became gay. It was a shock. I was full of self-hatred and thought I would come back into the fold shortly. But I just didn’t. I would tell my younger self you must be very gentle on yourself, you are not in control of those aspects of yourself and you mustn’t try to be.

My teacher told me I must go to Rada. I don’t think anyone in Cork had heard of Rada, but that became my plan. My father put a kibosh on it, saying I’d do nothing until I got a degree. There is a wider context – Ireland in the 1970s was a growing country and the education of women, which I feel strongly about, was on the rise. So it was good he said that. I read philosophy in an attempt to get a pure education that was not going to equip me for a task I had no intention of doing. I am now probably best at deciphering, unpicking and clarifying difficult texts. So I learnt an invaluable skill.

I had multiple lives after my teenage years. Going to Rada was seismic. I really left Ireland, in a way my contemporaries’ children now don’t leave home. I was embracing a new life, flatshares in Camden and Brixton. It was so different, so urban, so frightening. I had a new adolescence at Rada. We were physically stretched and pushed and pulled. By the end, I was much thinner and much more disciplined. I won the Bancroft Gold Medal [in 1982]. For somebody who was way behind – the principal said I’d smelt of libraries when I arrived – it was a huge boost. I went straight to the National Theatre and then the RSC.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

I was massively under the influence of Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson at the RSC. They took me under their wing. I learned a pile from them. Alan played Jacob in my first production, As You Like It, but that year my brother was killed [in 1985 her 18-year-old sibling Peter died in a car crash]. You are skinless when you lose a member of your family like that. I was away from home, worried about my family, and opening at the RSC, having the most thrilling moment and the worst moment of my life at the same time.

From the end of the Eighties, I worked with Deborah Warner who was the most astonishing talent. She had an absolute eye and ear for truth. That was the greatest, most creative time of my life from about 28 to 38. But making Three Men and a Little Lady [in 1990] ruined my career in Hollywood. I was no longer seen as a leading lady, I was seen as a comic turn. That was my demise! But to that younger self I would say, ‘Who cares?’

I have been the victim of heartache and the cause of it. But that is the nature of a life. People have different romantic lives. I know people who met the love of their life at 16. I certainly didn’t. I had many loves along the way, all of whom I loved. I wasn’t tortured by it. My interest was in life. Get on with what you are focused on, your love life will sort itself out. Eventually!

At the age of 59, I married. I had long relationships along the way but never wanted to marry. But it suddenly seems the nicest state anybody could ever be in. Until now, a bit of me was still that 16-year-old kicking against the respectability of all things parental. I now see that staying out in the free, wild, bohemian world has its drawbacks – you spend many a year on your own. It is also true I didn’t want to be diverted from work. I was terribly obsessed and all my romances happened within work, I was in love with directors or actors. I live now with an economist [wife Sonali Deraniyagala].

Sonali Deraniyagala Fiona Shaw
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Fiona Shaw and wife Sonali Deraniyagala at the BAFTAs (Credit: Alamy)

Meeting my wife was a miracle. I read her book [2013’s Wave], but I have met writers before and not married them! But it is not just a book – it is a memoir about something as catastrophic as all the things I have lived through in the imagination of my work. I had done plays about catastrophe – Mother Courage, killing children – Medea, the waste of life – Hedda Gabler. I have flirted safely with all these catastrophes and then met someone who has lived through the biggest catastrophe I could imagine and who had such dignity and such laughter still within her [Deraniyagala lost her parents, husband and two sons in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004]. I felt devotion to this person who has lived on a frequency I don’t think any person I have encountered could have survived. And she is also great fun and we have a great time!

I fantasise about being Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s mother. But that is a vanity. You just want some of her to rub off on you because she leaves gold dust in her wake. Phoebe is a force. When you are in the same room you feel her vibrancy. She has light beaming out of her. I don’t know her psyche, but there must be a deep seam of pain and sorrow, because you can’t write as well as she can without it.

What would most surprise my younger self is how similar to her I am. I am still that 16-year-old, still delighted by everything. I was swooning with Anton Lesser yesterday about the line ‘Do I dwell in the suburbs of your affection?’ from Julius Caesar, which we did together [in 2005]. I am delighted by gardens. By late evenings in Ireland when the sun doesn’t set until 9pm. I love having a drink in the evening, which I started loving at 16. I’m fundamentally delighted by the same things. I worked hard and became a different person – I couldn’t have dreamt I would be living in Islington or have a place in New York or be married to a woman – but I think I am very much the same.

Season Two of Killing Eve is available in full on BBC iPlayer now and airs on BBC One on Saturdays