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Catherine McCormack - Life after Braveheart
29 May 2001
The article below was printed in the Herald newspaper of 19 May 2001.
She made her name as Mel Gibson’s fair lady in Braveheart, and a Hollywood career could have been hers. But the head-strong actress had her own plans and now they are taking her behind the camera and back to the stage

'Every part I was sent seemed to be for tragic women with long hair. So I got my hair cut and sat around, because I wanted to do with strong women in them who have something to say.'

Britain is producing some of the worst films in the world, according to Catherine McCormack. From someone who has just directed her first film, that could be construed as offering a hostage to fortune. But McCormack has dissembled enough. She’s fed up with male directors "who don’t understand women at all" and equally angry with undemanding, caricature roles for women, however well-executed the rest of the film.

She belongs to that rare, and therefore interesting, species: the actor who has turned her back on publicity in the pursuit of integrity. In this case it is the result neither of sour grapes nor of the sort of worthiness which is incompatible with humour. She has had both her moment in the sun and has demonstrated an endearing capacity to laugh off her excruciatingly embarrassing moments of Hollywood tackiness.

As Murron, the woman who swept William Wallace off his feet, Catherine McCormack suffered a grisly death in Braveheart, but the sweet-faced girt who starred alongside Mel Gibson emerged from the film to world-wide predictions that she would be the new Kate Winslet. Disappointed interviewers ever since have described her as attractive, but more girl-next-door than the radiant beauty who brought out the romantic in the warrior hero.

That was entirely deliberate; there’s more to Catherine McCormack than meets the eye. The English beauty may have spurred Mel Gibson’s Wallace to vengeance, but she was not about to sacrifice her fledgling career to the beautifu1 victim syndrome, even if it did he1p along a romance with Joseph Fiennes. Even then, when a bit of "golden couple" publicity could only have helped her career, she refused to give an inch.

It did not take her long – approximately 10 days in Los Angeles – to deduce that much of the acclaim resulting from Braveheart in 1995, when she was 23, was "bullshit". She said later: "I think if I’d stayed in America I would have been a paranoid wreck by now." It was her second film. She had made her film debut the previous year playing the key role of a neurotic student in Loaded, directed by Anna Campion, who had already directed her – straight out of college – in the television film In the Wood. She was born on New Year’s Day, 1972, in Alton, Hampshire. Her father was a steelworker and her mother died from the disease Lupus when Catherine was only six. She was educated at a private convent school in Alton before going to the Oxford School of Drama in Woodstock.

It’s part of the McCormack legend now that, despite a raft of offers, she didn’t work for eight months after Braveheart, except in the all-too-gritty role of barmaid in a west London pub. "Every part I was sent seemed to be for tragic women with long hair. So I got my hair cut and sat around, because I wanted to do films with strong women in them who have something to say," she said.

In fact, the Scottish connection continued as she played opposite Billy Connolly in the TV film, Deacon Brodie. She plays Brodie’s lover, an ex-prostitute called Annie Grant.

She was the mother of his illegitimate child, and his final sexual conquest before he went to the gallows. According to McCormack: "For her, it was an unrequited love. It’s really about the decline of a woman in love and that love turns into an obsession. It is a wonderful character because she is so vulnerable and so desperately in love. She ends up in an almost schizophrenic state of mind. She has too much love in her heart and it gets broken in the end."

She moved on to a more demanding, but not dissimilar role in 1998. She was the honest courtesan, in the sixteenth-century drama of that name, set in Venice and co-starring Rufus Sewell. Based on the historical character of Veronica Franco and variously described as "a costume romp" and "a dull period drama", it was something of a disappointment to McCormack who accepted it because "it was a wonderful female role about a real woman." Hoping, she has cheerfully admitted since, that she was going to further her career by a piece of solid acting in a La Reine Margot sort of film, she has learned to laugh at her naivete. She did, however, make a small, personal, and, it seems, proud stand against the Hollywood-isation of history.

She has not been shy to reveal that the director took her out for a meal one night and ordered a couple of bottles of wine. After a few glasses he asked if she would be prepared to use sticky tape to pull up her breasts. She laughed – and refused.

She also took advantage of the offer of a body double for the explicit sex scenes. Revenge is always sweet, but she did not allow it to cloud her vision of how she wanted her career to proceed. After The Honest Courtesan – translated into Dangeous Beauty for an American audience who did not know what courtesan meant – she confessed: "I hated it myself. I wouldn’t have offered me any films after that."

Perhaps it was having an Irish grandfather which prompted her to accept the role of a young v oman who has an illegitimate child in defiance of the strict morality of small-town 1930s Ireland, in Dancing at Lughnasa. Despite starring Meryl Streep, it was not well-received critically, although for the first time McCormack had a role which offered real scope for her acting abilities. She herself embraced it as a learning experience, saying afterwards: "There was one point when even Meryl Streep suddenly confessed how worried she was over one of her scenes.

"I thought if someone like her is worried, with two Oscars and a great reputation over the past 20 years, there was hope for me yet."

Hope has been moving steadily and admirably closer to reality ever since. Despite choosing film parts with care, they have been a motley selection, including Jocelyn, a bespectacled, oddball hypochondriac who tends tombstones for absentee families in Born Romantic.

She has co-starred opposite Sean Penn in the melodrama, The Weight of Water, with Brad Pitt in Spy Game, and with Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor of Panama. Her conclusion is that having tried the good parts with bad directors and the small parts with good directors, neither combination has satisfied her ambitions.

She has returned, with obvious joy, to the stage and made the first moves towards directing.

Last year she played the title role in Anna Weiss, a complex play about the subject of false memory syndrome. The father’s alleged molestation of his daughter and her relationship with the therapist, Anna, are ambiguous.

The obviously draining role, however, was one McCormack relished. It was much more her kind of role than playing romantic leading ladies, she says. She’s now to be found treading the boards once more, this time at the Soho Theatre in London. After shooting to fame six years ago as the girl who was kissed by Mel Gibson and confessing to being "in constant shock because I just couldn’t believe I was doing it," Catherine McCormack is the female lead in Kiss Me Like You Mean It, a romance by the young playwright, Chris Chibnall.

She’s reportedly not overwhelmed by the script, which may be dangerously close to sentimental, but delighted to have an input to its evolution, a rare experience, she acknowledges, for an actor, who is more used to being dictated to by a director or a writer.

That comment perhaps holds the key to her future career. She has just directed her first film – an adaptation of William Boyd’s short story Cork – which she hopes to develop into a feature and clearly relishes the very different form of creativity from "standing there, speaking a few lines and moping."

"Unless you are getting the Kate Winslet roles all the time, you have to take control," she once said. At 29, it looks as though she has.

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Other Catherine McCormack movies:
The Land Girls (1998)
Shadow of the Vampire (2001)