Straight-talking Victoria Smurfit is conquering Hollywood, revelling in motherhood and discovering it’s never too late for romance. Is there anything this woman can’t do, asks ROSALEEN MCMEEL.
Victoria Smurfit is perched on a stoop outside her LA home with her mobile phone pressed up to her ear. She’s sitting in the morning sunlight amongst falling leaves, generously sharing insights into her fascinating life. Meanwhile, I’m settled in a glass- walled of ice looking out on a concrete courtyard as the sun sets on yet another autumn day in Dublin. Our worlds couldn’t be further apart, and yet, as the conversation flows, it feels like she’s in the next room. That’s Victoria’s charm. Smart, funny and utterly relatable, she makes a late-evening interview seem anything but work.
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Following our London-based shoot, she had to jet back to LA, so we’re making do with a long-distance call. Unlike most phone interviewees, Smurfit is as forthcoming in person as she is on a transatlantic connection. She chats comfortably and candidly. There’s something about her openness and self-effacing humour that fosters a sense of familiarity. Mind you, it’s easy to feel you known Victoria Smurfit. After all, she’s been on our screens for the last two decades.
From an early role on Ballykissangel alongside Colin Farrell, Smurfit landed parts in movies such as The Beach and About a Boy. She made her name in the UK playing DCI Róisín Connor in the long-running TV adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s Trial & Retribution. After moving to LA in 2011 with her young family and then- husband, Douglas Baxter, Victoria was cast alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers in big-budget series Dracula, before landing the role of Cruella de Vil in the hugely popular fantasy series Once Upon a Time. In between roles, she’s been busy writing and producing, and has just wrapped on her latest film with Hollywood legend Bruce Dern (Coming Home, Nebraska) and Sean Astin (Thee Goonies, The Lord of the Rings), which was part of the reason for her speedy return to LA.
“It was a fabulous experience,” she says. “We were shooting in an incredible house up in Malibu, and it was great to go to work from your front door. So much of the time [as an actor] you’re on a plane to Vancouver or wherever. You rarely get to work from your front door. I’d bring the kids to school, then drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, to Malibu, climb the mountain to the top of the Ventura Hills and go to work in this extraordinary $8m house with Bruce Dern, and it was just kind of extraordinary. I loved the glamour of that.” The film’s working title is The Lears and is a modern comic adaptation on King Lear. “It’s going to all the festivals, so we’ll see if it’s picked up,” she says with a level of measured pride. “With these films, you make them, and then it’s over to the producers, who have to sell them at the festivals.”
Pouring heart and soul into a project only for it never to see the light of day is something Smurfit has had to adjust to over the years. “It’s frustrating,” she tells me, “but I’ve been at this long enough to know that you could shoot twelve scenes in an episode and only three of them end up on the screen, or you can be dubbed over. There are so many different things that can happen to destroy your confidence; you just have to crack on and know you did the job to the best of your ability, and move on.”
Smurfit could have chosen an easier path. Her grandfather Jefferson began the family fortunes with his eponymous box-making company, which under the direction of his sons, her uncle Michael and father Dermot, became global heavyweight Smurfit Kappa Group. Both regularly appear on Ireland’s rich lists. Despite her privileged background, Victoria Smurfit doesn’t give off any sense of entitlement. Instead, she appears genuinely humble and grateful for the hand life has dealt her. She also acknowledges the responsibility of carrying such a family name and joyfully recalls the moment she knew she’d truly succeeded.
“I remember being extremely pleased when I was doing a show, maybe Trial & Retribution – it took as long as then – when the Irish press described me as ‘Victoria Smurfit, actress’ rather than ‘Victoria Smurfit, daughter of…’ I had a real sense of pride that what I had done had come first,” she explains.
My family are extraordinary; they are talented, successful, fun, extraordinary people, they really, really are. I’m enormously proud to come from such a batch of capable human beings, but when you’re trying to branch out into a different area, you get kudos sometimes when you don’t deserve it and you get knocked sometimes when you don’t deserve it, so it’s nice that it’s live or die on your own merit.”
Smurfit’s decision to enter the wonderful world of acting at a young age was met with some resistance. “My dad just laughed at me when I told him I wanted to be an actress. He said, ‘You are aware that this is the business of rejection, and you will get rejected more times than you’ll know what to do with.’ I said, ‘yes, yes’, like I knew what he meant, but I didn’t. What did I know?” she laughs. “I’m fully aware, I’ll never be as financially successful as my father, but I’m doing something different.” As for the next generation?
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“I secretly hope none of my kids want to go into [acting] because you don’t want your children to be battered by rejection, and there are far more sensible businesses to go into. Sometimes, people come to me and say my son or my daughter wants to be an actor – what should I say to them, and I tell them, ‘No matter what you say to them, if they really want to do it, they’re just going to do it.’”
Smurfit’s attitude to living life without regrets is inspiring. The busy mum-of-three put her money where her mouth was when she moved to LA in 2011. “The decision to move was partly to do with seeing my life playing out. I could see how it would play out until the end of time. I was more scared of waking up one day and asking why did I never try it? I had a fear of that and I had a fear of regretting what I didn’t do.”
Uprooting a young family and moving to Hollywood in your late thirties is a bold move by most standards. “Only crazy people do that,” she laughs, recalling the decision. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to cope with it when I was 20 because it is more cut and shut, it is blunter, more brutal. There’s a much bigger pool of actors and to a degree, everything you’ve done before you arrive in LA doesn’t really count, unless you’ve arrived on the back of a massive Oscar win, which I didn’t, so it was like starting again, which was brutal on the ego, but you either close up shop or go back or keep pushing, and I just kept pushing.”
The gamble paid off in many respects. “ The lifestyle for the kids is fantastic – they’re outside every day, they’re meeting all different types of human beings, from all different walks of life, and it’s really fascinating, and so I am glad we did it, I’m glad we made the move. But it’s like that film Sliding Doors – you still do wonder what life would have been like if I’d stayed in Dublin, if I hadn’t left London. You can’t help but wonder every now and again and hope you’ve made the right decision.” I detect a touch of momentary melancholy, which I suspect may or may not be linked with Smurfit’s subsequent divorce from her children’s father in 2015, a blow that hit the actress hard, but one from which she has thankfully recovered. “I think that hideous old adage about trusting yourself is something I’ve only learned recently, and uh, it’s so hard to talk about this without sounding negative or like a victim, because I’m not interested in any of that rubbish. I think no matter what, life comes with knocks, that’s how it comes, that’s how you learn,” she says, pragmatically. “If I’m on a film set, I don’t want the director to tell me what I did right, I want him to tell me what I can improve. Nobody is untouched by the swings and roundabouts of life, and love and pain and loss. What I have learned is that when you’re at the bottom of the pendulum, it can only go up, and when you’re at the top at some point it’s going to go down. I’m a fairly optimistic human being, and I’ve definitely been guilty of thinking of everything as sugar candy mountain, and being surprised when it’s not. I think I’ve finally dumped that ideology for the idea that life is swings and roundabouts and what goes up goes down. The hope that I take from it is that when you’re at the bottom, that too shall pass. That is momentarily there for you to dig deep and plough forward,” she says before laughing and claiming that she sounds like some sort of “strange self-help guru”.
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Smurfit’s journey has made her self-aware, and when I suggest she exudes a sense of self- confidence, she laughs, slightly embarrassed.
“I think if you’re able to hang on in this business, and get past your twenties, when you’re questioning everything, yet you’ve got a fool-hardy sense of going forward, going blindly, but you’re riddled with insecurity; and then you hit your thirties, and I spent mine giving birth, working – I didn’t have time to think about it, but I didn’t have a vast amount of confidence; so then in this decade something happened when I turned 40, where I just thought, I don’t care. I just don’t really care. I’ve given up worrying about what other people think. Do I still kind of hate myself at times? Absolutely, but I get better at shrugging it off. I don’t take myself terribly seriously, I take my work terribly seriously,” she says.
“I’m not so paranoid anymore. I do have a sense that I do know what I’m doing to a certain degree, but I’m still desperate to keep learning. Keep pushing myself out there and into situations where I’m scared because that’s where I learn the most.”
When it comes to the lessons she wants to teach her three children, son Flynn, eight, and daughters Ridley, nine, and Evie, twelve, she says the most important thing is honesty.
“Not only with others, but with themselves,” she explains. “I want them to be honest about what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling and what they want. I don’t want them to hide their light under a bushel. I always say to my Evie, you don’t need to tell me what you think I want to hear, I can take whatever it is, I can take it, so long as it’s honest; if it’s a lie, I’ll have no truck with it, but if it’s honest, no matter what it is, we can deal.”
The wonderful thing she’s learned about motherhood is that the lessons work both ways. “They have taught me about the capacity for love. I had no idea that unconditional love was an actual thing,” she says. “I’ve learned some patience, also that fantastic parental deafness that you get, where you don’t realise how noisy your children are being. I think God blesses the parent with a small dose of deafness just in order for them to survive. “Everyone talks about the stresses of parenthood, and it is 24/7, and it is terrifying to think you’re in charge of small human beings, but I’m so overwhelmed by the joy and the fun. My kids are so fun. We roar howling laughing all of the time. They all have this quick wit and this hilarious bit of observational moments that leave me in stitches. There are no layers, they just call it, which I just absolutely adore. They are great fun, they really are.”
There’s a lightness to Smurfit’s outlook on life, and I ask her if a new romance with filmmaker Alistair Ramsden, whom she met on the set of Bait, a film which she produced, has had anything to do with this bright approach. She’s understandably coy, but doesn’t hold back. “It’s nice to know there’s life in the old dog yet. It’s a brave new world, and modern families are being accepted so much more now, and I’m really happy.” I’m inclined to believe her. “Like I say about the swings and roundabouts, if you’d asked me a while back if I’d be waking up happy, I’d have said, ‘no, I won’t’. But I’ll always believe that the best is yet to come, and I’m very happy at the moment. I’m being treated well, and I appreciate that.”
PHOTOGRAPHED BY OLIVER PEARCE, ASSISTED BY DANIEL HACK. STYLED BY ELLIE LINES. HAIR BY OLIVER RAW. MAKE-UP BY CELEBRITY MAKE-UP ARTIST CHRISTINE LUCIGNANO USING BOURJOIS. SHOT ON LOCATION AT 40 WINKS LONDON, 40WINKS.ORG.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of IMAGE magazine.