‘People have always seen a vivacious blonde when they look at me,” Angeline Ball tells me at the beginning of our conversation. “But there has always been an undercurrent of sadness in my personality.”
That undercurrent comes from a number of sources; childhood grief, adult strife and a certain artistic temperament which she has learned to cherish. It is clearly to be heard on Angeline’s musical comeback, an album of self-written tracks that has smoky, easy listening vocals, reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt and KD Lang.
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It’s a record that has been “inside me for so long”, she says, and comes as a little ennui had started to set in with her long acting career – she had become “bored” with the roles she was being offered, she explains.
And the vivacious blonde needed to be killed, even though she does appear again on the album’s photography, in which Angeline appears with cowboy boots and a flower in her hair, looking very much like a young Dolly Parton.
The record comes almost 30 years since Angeline took her debut film role, a part that still very much defines her: Imelda Quirke in The Commitments.
The film, which dealt with a group of working-class Dubliners who dreamed of making it big in the music world, is now iconic and Angeline’s performance as the brassy young chanteuse was memorably brilliant.
The young actress, with her halo of blonde curls and bee-stung lips, seemed like a kind of northside Marilyn Monroe, and the film seemed emblematic of a new national confidence.
We may have been “the blacks of Europe” as the famous quote in the film goes, but by dint of the type of talent and beauty that Angeline and the other bright young things in the film displayed, we had more than earned our place at the table.
Alan Parker, who directed the film, had read Roddy Doyle’s comic novel of the same name in 1988, but it was 1990 before production got under way in Dublin.
At 21, Angeline was auditioned by casting director Ron Hubbard, whom she instantly impressed with her voice and on-camera charisma.
The filming involved long days and she had “no sense” as it was going on how special a film it was. When it was released critics raved at the mixture of salty Dublin humour and sensuous Motown-inspired musical numbers and the film was a box office smash both here, and in America, where a thesaurus of Dublin slang was distributed to critics by distributors Twentieth Century Fox.
“We were very closeted about the success of it all,” Angeline recalls. “I think they wanted to keep us modest, in line with the humbleness of the film. We were heavily chaperoned and there was no time to absorb how big it was. Now young people are very savvy with fame. They understand what’s to come, while we were left in the dark, which I don’t necessarily think was a bad thing. The film had a sort of je ne sais quoi, a rawness and vulnerability. And I think I was a bit like that too.”
After the film became a hit she began to get recognised on the street, something which didn’t always sit easily with her.
“After a while I decided to dye my hair brown, but that didn’t work. Of course I was invited to this and that. You could turn the dial up and go to every opening of an envelope.”
While the film’s enduring magic made profits for Twentieth Century Fox, its young cast had to content themselves with the money they were paid for the original contracts they signed; there were no residuals.
Did that ever seem unjust to her? “I had never thought about it that way. There is no point in being bitter about these things. We were paid a certain amount of money, that was it. Something like that happens all the time in show business. None of us were driven by the money. We just really loved the music.”
That love of music went back to her childhood; she was a singing, dancing Billie Barrie kid. She grew up in Cabra, and says, although the area was poor, there was a strong sense of community spirit, which she felt part of. “Everyone was in the same boat and people had a great camaraderie and people made the best of what they had. I can’t get over it now with the iPhones and iPads my kids have – they can’t be spontaneous and make the best of what they’ve got in the way we did when we were kids.”
When she was 12 her life changed forever; her father, James, then still in his fifties, died of a heart attack. This was the moment, she says, when her inner life began to darken and she developed a “sadness” that stays with her even now. It also meant, she says, that she developed a kind of independence.
“You don’t absorb the grief of it fully at 12 but life throws you curveballs and I’m a very deep thinker, so it did affect me, hugely, of course it did,” she explains. “People imagine a fun-loving blonde but I have a kind of depth, a kind of sadness. I think Irish people do generally.”
That independence later translated into a work ethic that kicked into high gear after the success of The Commitments, as everyone involved struggled to capitalise on the film’s success. “There was a big period of adjustment for me (after it came out),” she recalls. “It was quite difficult. I was chasing a foothold in the industry not because I wanted to be a star but because I loved that little buzzy feeling I got after I did a great scene.”
She would reunite with Alan Parker when he made his film version of Evita, starring Madonna. Angeline was flown to London to do backing vocals on several of the Queen of Pop’s tracks, but unfortunately the two never crossed paths.
“I was so disappointed not to meet Madonna,” she recalls. “She had already done her vocals the week before.”
In the years that followed, Angeline, like Madonna herself, struggled to carve out an acting niche and she says this was partly to do with the legacy of The Commitments and the perception of her as a singer.
“There’s lately been a huge influx of actors who can also sing – I’m thinking of people like Hugh Jackman or Bradley Cooper – but back then you were sort of considered a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none if you did that, which was ridiculous. There was also a bit of me progressing as an artist. I wanted to master the craft of acting whereas, all modesty aside, I always felt I could sing blindfolded.”
She took some work, despite her better instincts. “Yeah I won’t mention names but there are some jobs you do because they are a stepping stone. You think it’s going to be one thing and it turns out to be another.”
In 2000 she met her partner Patrice Gueroult, a Frenchman from Marseille, on a boat on the Thames. He had known Bronagh Gallagher, who also starred in The Commitments, from art college and he and Angeline immediately hit it off.
Dozens of articles online describe him as her husband, but, in fact, they have never married. What was the reason for that, I wonder. “I just think personally there are little girls that grow up and all they want to do is wear the white dress, but that’s never been me,” Angeline explains. “Maybe it’s the tomboy in me, but I never wanted to feel as though I was owned by someone. The whole Catholic thing that was attached to the institution of marriage also made it seem very binding, very heavy. Weddings are really stressful and they test a couple and I’d wonder would it be a day that’s just about us or would it be about other people.”
Nearly 10 years ago she told another interviewer that they would think about doing it “very soon” and similarly, now, she expresses a vague notion of getting hitched.
“Possibly now we might have to think about it because of property and tax and this sort of thing. I’ve been a bridesmaid once for my sister so you could say always the bridesmaid never the bride,” she adds, laughing.
As for the mistaken references to him as her husband: “I’ve never said ‘husband’ and after the horse has bolted there doesn’t seem to be very much point in grabbing it back into the stable.”
She has two children with Gueroult, a son, Max, aged nine, and a daughter, Katie Rose, who celebrated her 16th birthday a few days before we met.
“She’s not rebelling yet, even if she is at that age,” Angeline tells me, of her daughter. “She is going through her GSCEs at the moment. She is very talented, an incredible artist. I wouldn’t stop her going into acting or music but I want her to have her education. My kids both have an instrument that they play. I think it’s such a precarious industry and not stable month-to-month.”
That instability made it tricky having children in the first place, she explains.
“It was difficult,” she says. “You can’t get insured once you’re pregnant. Unless you’re in a show where they can write it in or cover you with handbags, you’re in trouble. You don’t get maternity leave or sick pay. You can’t afford to halt a production. I haven’t worked as much as I should have because of having children. I am very happy with the life I’ve managed to keep – acting while still raising my children.”
Getting older doesn’t bother her – she will turn 51 this month – and, despite her youthful looks, she says she has never had any ‘work’ done.
“There is pressure to get things surgically tweaked but I don’t know where that’s come from. It’s not a nice look, it’s awful. If you look after yourself and put on the creams then you’re doing all you can do; that’s what I do try to,” she says.
There is still ageism in the industry, she says. “It’s getting better but there is still sexism and ageism in this industry. Look at Madonna there is an underlying ageism that she should be hanging it all up and putting her slippers on whereas nobody would say that about, say, Mick Jagger, who is older than she is.”
Sexism is another slowly improving problem in the entertainment world, she says. “There was always a sort of an undercurrent of #MeToo stuff in the acting world, it was always there. I have to say, though, that no powerful man did or said anything inappropriate to me.”
In the last few years she has qualified as a yoga and Pilates instructor and she says these disciplines are part of what helps keep her feeling healthy and young.
“More than anything, though, music is still my life,” she adds. ‘I’ve lasted a long time in this industry and I’m ready for this new beginning. In acting you’re at the mercy of a lot of other elements and a lot of other people. With music I can be my own boss. And that is what I’ve always wanted.”
For news and announcements about Angeline’s singles ‘Sinking’ and ‘Holding On’ see instagram.com/angelineball/ and facebook.com/angelineballoffical/
What the other ‘Commitments’ did next
1 Glen Hansard
Like Angeline, Glen Hansard has said that he felt The Commitments, in which he played guitarist Outspan Foster, distracted from his musical career; he claimed he had been “burned” by the film. After the publicity had died down Hansard returned to play with his band, The Frames, with which he enjoyed intermittent chart success. As a side project, he formed the folk group The Swell Season with Czech singer and future girlfriend Marketa Irglova. The pair starred in and wrote the score for John Kearney’s romantic musical, Once. The lead song from that score, Falling Slowly, went on to win an Oscar for the pair. Hansard has since recorded two solo albums, one of which, Didn’t He Ramble, was nominated for a Grammy Award.
2 Maria Doyle Kennedy
Of all The Commitments’ alumni Maria Doyle Kennedy has probably gone on to enjoy the strongest acting career with performances in hit shows Queer as Folk, The Tudors, Orphan Black and Dexter, as well as notable big screen turns in the likes of Albert Nobbs (alongside Glenn Close) and the Maeve Binchy adaptation Tara Road. She also starred in UTV’s big-budget blockbuster Titanic and became one of television’s most compelling villains thanks to a great performance as Machiavellian Mrs Bates in Downton Abbey. She has also continued her musical career – she released some new songs earlier this year and she recently collaborated with Feist & Jarvis Cocker on a video for the song Century.
3 Andrew Strong
When The Commitments came out, lead singer Andrew Strong, with his booming voice and musical pedigree (his father was a musician and singing coach), seemed like the strongest candidate for continued success. It didn’t quite work out like that though and while Strong released a solo album in 1994 and toured the world with stars like Prince, Elton John and Bryan Adams, he never again quite captured the public’s attention like he had as the gurning lead singer of The Commitments.
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