Eileen O'Higgins on Mary Queen of Scots role, nerves and 'bestie' Saorise Ronan

Eileen O'Higgins still gets nervous about seeing her own performances but, with Mary Queen of Scots set to bring her worldwide recognition, the Castlewellan star had better get used to it. She tells Maureen Coleman about acting, school in Ballynahinch and being best friends with Saoirse Ronan

Castlewellan actress Eileen O'Higgins who appears in Mary Queen of Scots
Maureen Coleman

AS SOMEONE who doesn't like watching herself on the big screen, Castlewellan actress Eileen O'Higgins is beginning to overcome, or at least get used to, this slight discomfort.

Her latest movie role as one of four companions to Saoirse Ronan's Mary, Queen of Scots has certainly helped in this regard – she has just returned from the third premiere of the historical drama in as many months.

“We had the world premiere in Los Angeles in November, then one in London before Christmas then this amazing night at Edinburgh Castle, hosted by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon,” she says. “They had bagpipes, drummers and speeches and then these big burly men came into the hall, looking like they'd escaped from the set of Braveheart and there was a lot of drum banging and a proper Highland celebration.

“It was lovely to see everyone embracing Saoirse as Mary, Queen of Scots. It felt like a real cultural reception and was actually very moving.

“To go from California to Edinburgh Castle is quite incredible and shows how far a film can reach. When you watch one at home you never really get a sense of where it's being viewed. I love the acting part. Nothing makes me happier than when I'm in the process of doing it. But I don't like watching myself on screen and I get so nervous before a film comes out. I sometimes forget that people are going to watch it.”

O'Higgins, who trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, plays Mary Beaton in the film, one of the 'Four Marys', attendants and later, ladies-in-waiting, to the ill-fated Scottish queen.

Directed by Josie Rourke, the lavish drama stars Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I, opposite Ronan as the Scottish monarch. The film is based on John Guy's biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart and chronicles the conflict between Scotland and England in 1569. It also explores the relationship between the two regal cousins.

O'Higgins recalls studying the period in history while at Assumption Grammar in Ballynahinch but says appearing in the film has changed her perspective on Queen Mary.

The 'Five Marys', including Saoirse Ronan, centre, and Eileen O'Higgins, second right, in Mary Queen of Scots

“I think Mary has often been misinterpreted,” she says. “She was a very good leader, a smart and compassionate woman. It's interesting how history can taint views on that.

“People always think that Mary was against Elizabeth but there was respect between the two. They were both very powerful heads of state, navigating their ways, at the same time, in a male dominated court.

“It was a brilliant experience playing one of the Four Marys. Although we were together a lot of the time, we each had separate plot lines. We learned to move without looking at each other or saying anything, to collectively create a front around Mary. These four young females were very protective of her. But they also bring humour to the film, flouncing over from France, laughing and giggling and annoying the men of the court.

“We all got on really well. There was a real bond there and I dare say I'll stay friends with the other girls until we're old.”

It's not the first time O'Higgins has worked with three-time Oscar nominee Ronan. Nor is it the first time she's made a friend for life while on set.

In the 2015 Oscar-nominated movie Brooklyn, O'Higgins played the role of Nancy, best friend of Ronan's character Eilis Lacey. The heart-warming film, based on Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name, tells the story of a young Irish immigrant torn between her home in Co Wexford and the bright lights of 1950s New York.

In a case of life imitating art, the two actresses bonded on the set and are now best friends. O'Higgins accompanied Ronan to the Bafta Awards in London in 2015 and to the Golden Globes in 2018, when Ronan was named Best Actress in a Comedy for her role in Lady Bird. The Carlow actress even gave a shout out to her pal from the stage.

Eileen O'Higgins, far left, meets Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with fellow Mary Queen of Scots cast members at a reception in Edinburgh last week

“I've worked with Saoirse twice now and I have to say, she is just so phenomenally talented,” O'Higgins says. “She makes acting look so easy, and it's really not.

“She gives such a powerful performance in Mary Queen of Scots. To work with someone that talented is a joy. It's so lovely to have that trust when you're working together and the fact she is my best buddy makes it all the more special.

“We weren't just the Four Marys, we were the Five Marys on set and it was incredible to have that support and bond. I just felt really lucky.”

While her heart is very much in Castlewellan, O'Higgins, who also starred in the Barry Devlin-penned BBC One wartime drama My Mother And Other Strangers, currently lives in London. She is coy about her private life and much like Mary Beaton and Mary, Queen of Scots, is protective of her friendship with Ronan.

She says landing the role in Brooklyn was a turning point in her life. Not only did she meet her best friend but the film opened up doors and provided her with her first acting role in Ireland.

“I went to college in Wales and had never worked in Ireland before so that was lovely,” she says. “I've played other Irish roles since. The industry in Ireland is amazing. There are so many talented people and the crews are amazing.

“It's a tough industry to be in, though. There are so many great actors out there but if it's what makes you happy, do it. Just keep a sense of self. That's important.”

For the part of Mary Beaton in Mary Queen of Scots, O'Higgins had to learn to speak French and to talk with a Scottish accent.

“It's not so terribly different to ours which was a blessing and a curse,” she says. “It was hard sometimes not to slip back into a northern Irish accent.”

As well as starring in a National Geographic series about the life of Pablo Picasso, playing French again, O'Higgins will also be appearing in Misbehaviour, a film about the 1970 Miss World pageant.

In the meantime, with Mary Queen of Scots having opened across Ireland and Britain this weekend, she's nervous again.

“I was very lucky to have been part of Brooklyn because that films holds a wee place in so many Irish hearts,” she says. “I'm just hoping that the Scottish people will feel the same way about Mary Queen of Scots. I've a feeling they will.”

:: Mary Queen of Scots is in cinemas now.

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