Tara Fitzgerald on fleas, miners and and Game of Thrones fanmail

The actress spoke to Country Life's Jack Watkins about coming of age, the North-South divide and how her perspective has changed as she prepares to enter her fifties.

We’re in a room in the Royal Albert Hall with an elevated view across to Kensington Gardens, where Tara Fitzgerald is reflecting on a momentous period in her life. Just over 20 years ago, she was here filming the scenes of the British film Brassed Off, in which she was a flugelhorn-playing member of a Yorkshire colliery brass band. She’s returned to talk about that, and other things, before the gala celebration of the film next month.

Although Tara seemed, then, to be one of Britain’s rising stars, she admits that, underneath her gamine poise, she was battling with uncertainty. ‘Like a lot of young people, I had this duality. I was incredibly excited because I was making lots of films and yet I was really frightened because I had no frame of reference,’ she confesses. ‘I was self-critical in terms of how I looked and insecure about my talents. As you get older, you become more philosophical about that.’

Brassed Off was a tragicomedy that humanised the plight of mining communities who, a decade earlier, had been simplistically painted as militant thugs being led over a cliff by Marxist-sympathising union leaders in that malignly divisive way that the mainstream media can have when faced with difficult issues.

The actress, Sussex-born to an Irish mother and an Italian father, saw a different picture. Most of the film was shot on location in Grimethorpe, where the mine had closed in 1993.

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‘They’d basically had everything stripped away from them, with no alternative presented,’ she recalls. ‘The South, in general, is a much more privileged region than the North and it wasn’t always appreciated how things such as a colliery band were something that went right into the jugular. As someone once said, you need three things in life – something to work on, someone to love, or love you, and something to look forward to – and I think they felt they’d been denied most of those things.’

In the film, the personification of the struggle for dignity in the face of adversity was the late Pete Postlethwaite. ‘Ah, Peter,’ she says, in wistful remembrance. ‘He was so easy to work with. When someone’s that good at their job, you don’t even have to think about it. You just react to what they’re giving you and stop feeling self-conscious.’

“A woman in her fifties is virtually ignored. In films, she might reappear in her sixties, but then as a matriarch figure and depicted only in relation to someone else.”

He was one of the ‘older male actors’ she feels fortunate to have worked with, including Peter O’Toole, John Hurt and Albert Finney, in each of whom she seems to have drawn out gentle, protective instincts. She appeared with Mr Finney a couple of years before Brassed Off in a minor character comedy,

A Man Of No Importance, in which he starred as an Oscar Wilde-quoting Dublin bus conductor. When I mention how much I enjoyed it, she seems pleased. ‘It was a delicate work that went slightly under the radar. I haven’t met many people who know it, but those who do much appreciate it.

‘For the shoot, I rented this old cottage with my friend Rufus Sewell, without knowing it had a flea epidemic. I was so badly bitten and there was a love scene coming up and I was afraid the bites would show. Albert arranged for me to be put up for two nights in a hotel prior to the shooting. He was so elegant and discreet about it, because I didn’t discover that it was him until much later.’

For a time, Hollywood seemed to beckon, but Tara admits: ‘I just didn’t feel comfortable there. I’ve never had a career plan, but always felt more connected to this country and Europe – the sensibilities we attribute to the landmass and the film traditions – although the market has become much more globally cohesive now, so that people are aware of what an Iranian film director is doing, for instance.’

Tara Fitzgerald

Without neglecting her home base or her stage origins – she played Lady Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe last summer – Tara’s international standing was helped by being cast in the hit drama Game Of Thrones. ‘That’s been a real gamechanger,’ she says. ‘Being part of that global phenomenon has helped my profile, because people are so passionate about it.’ She gets fanmail from all over the world.

Tara has also taken her first steps as a director. After directing a short, which did well on the festival circuit, she’s in the process of editing a second, based on a Shirley Jackson story, The Lottery. She’s also planning a full-length feature film about two women in their fifties who are reunited after 30 years, which she expects to shoot next year.

There are two reasons to wish the project success. First, there should be more British female directors and, second, the film’s protagonists are from the ‘grey pound’ demographic, one that’s being almost entirely missed by film-makers, despite the immense hunger among that age group for the cinema.

‘A woman in her fifties is virtually ignored,’ says Tara, who will be 50 in September. ‘In films, she might reappear in her sixties, but then as a matriarch figure and depicted only in relation to someone else – unless they’re playing a queen. And there’s this huge pool of talented actresses in that age group who are not being capitalised on. [Spanish film maker] Pedro Almodóvar uses women in all their ages and is daring enough to put an older woman in the lead.’

It’s a point that needs making and that Tara is well placed to deliver. Let’s hope she succeeds. The insecure young actress of two decades ago is finding herself by letting her independent-minded spirit shine through.

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Brassed Off Live is at the Royal Albert Hall on May 9, featuring a pre-show talk (020–7589 8212; www.royalalberthall.com)