The award-winning actress Norma Sheahan has become a stalwart face of Irish comedy. Over the past two decades, the Cork lady has found herself in front of the camera on numerous occasions – everything from big screen roles in Intermission (John Crowley), Ondine (Neil Jordan) and Lost & Found (Liam O Mochain) to the Oscar nominated short New Boy (Steph Green). The latter transported the actress onto Hollywood’s most prestigious red carpet.
However, before launching onto the big screen, or any screen for that matter, Norma threaded some illustrious, stage boards. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), Norma won Best Actress at the Dublin Theatre Festival for her role in the world premiere of Bedbound by Enda Walsh. Other plays Norma appeared in include Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, Angela’s Ashes, The Constant Wife and more recently, the Abbey Theatre’s online Covid 19 play, Dear Ireland.
Television provided her with a broader entrance into comedy with roles in Moone Boy, Bridget & Eamon, Finding Joy, Women on the Verge, Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, and Damo & Ivor. Though not to be pigeonholed into comedic performances, there were also roles in The Clinic, Foyle’s War, Ripper Street and Rebellion. This year, pre-pandemic, Norma undertook a one woman show Heal Your Hole, a hilarious stand up performance which is now moving into the area of podcasts. With further shows planned for the future, the Heal Your Hole mission statement is building momentum.
In the midst of lockdown I spoke to the multi-talented and very busy lady about acting, comedy, Heal Your Hole, and of course Rik Mayal. What I found was a lighthearted, and honest portrayal of someone who knows the work involved in chasing your dreams.
Kevin Burke: Thank you Norma for taking time out from recording. Growing up did you have a role model that inspired you to move into acting?
Norma Sheahan: My mother encouraged us all to do acting, dancing, sport, music, etc… Basically any opportunities she never had herself. I loved everything. At one point I was doing singing, acting, drama theory, tap dancing, Irish dancing, disco dancing, set dancing, ballet, piano, music theory, swimming, basketball, and pony riding. My Mother acted with the (ICA) Irish Country Women’s association. And Dad was great in sing-songs. The Montforts Stage School in Cork gave me a love for musicals. Micheal McCarthy, my singing teacher, moved to London to play Javert in Les Miserables. Then Mairin Prendergast at the Cork School of Music honed my acting skills. Stripped away the panto layers and got real. She’s one of the greatest acting talents I’ve ever come across.
KB: What do you see as your first big break, and how did it happen?
NS: I’m lucky that all my ‘FIRSTS’ were substantial (apart from my first snog and ride). My first panto role was playing the lead of Little Red Riding Hood in the Cork Opera House panto at age 11. Hundreds of girls auditioned, and myself and Naomi Daly shared the role. My first professional play after training at RADA was the award winning Bedbound by Enda Walsh. This electric two-hander toured the UK and gave me a great showcase.
And my first screen job was the popular Irish TV show The Clinic. Where I got to play a layered whacky Corkonian (Basically myself!). I had no screen training because RADA focused on theatre, so I looked like a frozen rabbit in headlights in series one, which suited the suicidal character thankfully.
KB: Is acting a mentally tough industry to stay grounded in?
NS: No! You’re back on the shit heap after every job. So it’s more about building yourself up daily to have a thick skin.
KB: In 2009 you appeared at the Oscars courtesy of the short film New Boy. How surreal an experience was Hollywood?
NS: It [New Boy] was a great short film that Steph Green adapted from a Roddy Doyle story. It was lovely to be in an Oscar nominated production so I was keen to go. The night before I went to L.A I slept in Temple Street Hospital on a chair because my daughter had an infection. Then my sister Paula, my cousin Deirdre and my friend Amy packed a bag for me and sent me off on my first ever trip to L.A. Yes it was surreal!”
Thanks to Zanzibar, Buzz O’Neill, Désirée Finnegan and Dianne Schwalm we had access to phenomenal events. It was a special anniversary Oscars, so they invited extra stars from previous years like Sophia Loren, Anthony Hopkins, Beyoncé, Brad, Angelina, Daniel Craig, Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Natalie Portman and Elvis Costello. The Red Carpet was jammed! I stayed on it for so long that E-entertainment thought I was a PR person and had me redirecting stars their way.
KB: How did you move from serious outings such as The Clinic, into less serious roles with Moone Boy?
NS: The move there was a natural progression because Chris O’Dowd, who wrote Moone Boy with Nick Vincent Murphy, had worked with me on The Clinic for two years. We got on, so he was kind enough to give me a role in Moone Boy. I’m whacky in both shows so it wasn’t that much of a leap. It was a joy to have most of my scenes with Deirdre O’Kane. Plus the trail of talent which included – Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Sharon Horgan, Peter McDonald etc.
KB: Is comedy something you always had an interest in doing?
NS: I just knew from age seven that I wanted to be an actor, so that’s what I’m doing. I was the class clown from time to time, but I also trained at RADA which is as serious as it gets. Tragic comedy is my forte. That’s where real life hovers for me. I moved away from theatre when I had my twins, and then a third daughter two years later, because theatre wouldn’t pay enough to cover childcare. I focused on voiceovers and filming for twelve years. I’m not good at coming across mysteriously in auditions and hence I tend to get the comic job offers over straight offers.
KB: Are you ever afraid of stereotyping, where you are repeating the same general character in different television series?
NS: I just like to work. And I can’t afford to be very choosy. Stereotyping can be handy, if you’re the go-to gangster or go-to bitch, etc…
The only thing anyone should be afraid of is losing the motivation to generate their own work, and just sit waiting for the phone to ring. Then you’re f’cked.
KB: In Damo & Ivor you played opposite the late Rik Mayall, how was it working with Rik?
NS: Unfortunately he passed away two weeks before we shot series two. Due to his availability we shot all his scenes in a few days. It was blissful, he didn’t seem like someone who was a year away from death. He was a big kid, oozing with ideas. The crew were in awe of him. And they usually think actors are a pain in the hole. I wasn’t starstruck because we didn’t have the TV channels growing up in the countryside, so I never saw Bottom or The Young Ones or Drop Dead Fred.
KB: What goes into preparing for Heal Your Hole, given all the focus of the show is primarily on you?
NS: I have never felt so alive. I’m writing, performing, producing, promoting, etc… Each venue has a unique audience. So the promoting and the performing of the show has to connect with the area. This keeps it fresh. At times it’s draining but the audience charge you up with the impetus to plough on.
KB: How much of the show is improvised or is there a script that allows you deviate?
NS: The show has a start, middle and end, but the journey is never the same. I’m a visual person so it’s liberating to have the show roughly in my brain, and then go play with the audience for 80 minutes. Stories and comic healing.
KB: Was it more nerve wracking for you when the shows started to sell out?
NS: I’m blessed that they’ve all been 70 per cent to 100 per cent full. Performing comedy to tumbleweed would be tougher I’d say. I’ve skipped that phase by becoming a standup later in life. I’m so grateful when people turn up. I offer them money back, and the freedom to leave at any point, so they don’t feel trapped.
KB: What are you working on presently?
NS: My Podcasts – Heal Your Hole with Norma Sheahan is on Apple and Spotify now. So I’m churning out one a week and loving it. I’m writing a Heal Your Hole with Norma Sheahan pocket book as a Christmas stocking filler.
I’m planning post-quarantine dates for my Heal Your Hole comedy tour. All will be up on healyourhole.com. I’m selling Heal Your Hole merchandise on my site too, and it’s surprisingly popular! I’ve just finished filming a short play for the Abbey Theatre in my toilet today. Part of Dear Ireland, their online show. I’ve built a sound studio in the boot of my car for recording voice overs, and the podcasts. Basically every day is different”.
– PS. I’m homeschooling three primary school children. They’re fab though!!
KB: With the success of Heal Your Hole, has it fired your creativity to do more shows in a similar format?
NS: There are an endless amount of holes that need healing! So it’s constantly evolving. I do enjoy this format but I’m open to anything. I adore filming, it’s so luxurious to turn up and deliver other people’s work. Theatre is fun too, losing yourself in a character. And voice overs are my favourite. One hour can equal half a week’s wage!! I’m a ‘yes’ person! I wake up like a blank canvas every day. Bring it on!
Except for when I’ve PMT or I’m doing my taxes or the house is a pigsty or I get another rejection. But otherwise I’m on fire.