Actress Mariah Louca on being a trans woman in a trans role on Belfast stage
In All Mod Cons, currently being staged at Belfast's Lyric theatre, actress Mariah Louca plays a transgender woman. Does it matter that she herself is a trans woman? Well, yes and no, she tells Jane Hardy
TALKING to Mariah Louca (40) about her role in Erica Murray's new play, All Mod Cons, you sense the complexity of theatre. The play, running at the Lyric in Belfast, is about the universal themes of grief, how the family landscape shifts after loss and the challenge of change.
Louca's character Jean happens to be transgender. So too is the actress, who is from Sheffield and reveals that she doesn't actually like the term.
"I say trans woman or trans man not transgender. The trouble with gender identity in our society is it's become fetishised and seems to obsess on the medical side rather than being inclusive. When you see a woman, you don't say 'There's someone born with a vagina'," Louca says.
She admits that her own CV, being born male and identifying as female, allows her to understand the character's journey.
"I do see the point of informed experience, and when I saw the casting call, thought it was an interesting and worthy thing to do."
When playwright Murray advertised, she specified they were looking for a trans actress to play Jean. The Limerick writer, who is Lyric artist in residence, explains why: "It was because that was what the role required. It's so important who is representing whom. We're past the time when a man could play a trans woman."
Yet Louca reveals an understandable reluctance to be pigeonholed: "I wouldn't have been interested in the role if the drama had been exclusively about the trans experience. I related to the role because, like Jean, I lost my mother young, when I was in my 20s.
"The character's a sister, a daughter, a friend. There are heightened moments when Jean and her brother Gary speak their truth to each other with brutal honesty, and love. Jean says she felt the need to get away: 'I was dying in this house, alone with you and her.'"
Louca reveals she does not regard herself as a theatrical pioneer. "We don't know if anybody trans has acted here before, and that's the important point. I didn't disclose before this production as I felt I wanted to be considered as an actress first and foremost."
The question of drawing on personal experience was secondary for Louca.
"While I think it's important, it's not everything. I recently saw Cate Blanchett at The National Theatre in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, which was about sado-masochism in marriage. It was brilliant, but I don't think Cate Blanchett has experienced that."
The reason Louca has gone public now is interesting and partly about job opportunities in the business.
"When it comes to trans narratives and stories, what it rests on is opportunity. If trans actors and actresses in the industry aren't getting seen for parts because they're trans, that throws up an issue.
"Because when you have non-trans people playing trans parts, then trans people will say 'Where do I go?' If I can't even play what's representative of myself, what can I play?'"
She cites Eddie Redmayne playing Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl and Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry as recent contentious, although brilliantly acted, examples.
"There are [trans] people out there who could fulfil those roles," she says.
Louca came late to acting as a career.
"Dance was my thing and I got a scholarship to the London Contemporary Dance School when I was 15 but family illness prevented me taking it up."
She ended up moving into other areas.
"I was a songwriter, lived in New York for a bit, then moved into corporate work."
Finally, she decided to follow the dream she'd had since watching Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction at age nine; she graduated from the Guildford School of Acting last summer, narrowly missing out on playing Lady Macbeth in her final year.
"I let the director choose, and played Gertrude in Hamlet but I still covet Lady Macbeth."
She has visited Belfast before. Does she find Northern Ireland's gender debate troubling?
"I'm half Irish, half Greek Cypriot. Although my mother was from Dublin, I was fairly ignorant about the climate here. Having spoken to people, I now have an idea. It makes the piece more relevant than ever."
Louca dismisses questions about when she knew she was trans and whether she has a partner as irrelevant. As she goes on to say, the need to know everything about performers is part of our tabloid culture.
"We're so obsessed with actors' and actresses' private lives it makes it difficult to suspend belief. When you see somebody like Angelina Jolie, whom I regard as a great actress, it's harder because of the focus on her private life."
She says she hadn't wanted to discuss gender before taking this role.
"I felt it was important now to show that actually it's not really important. If people come along expecting a show about the trans journey, they'll be disappointed, it's something that's referred to obliquely. But it's a great play written by a very sharp writer with dark comedy."
:: All Mod Cons is at the Lyric until June 9; lyrictheatre.com