Sex symbol? I’m a great-grandmother!
F ionnula Flanagan can’t decide whether the current political system in Ireland is run on fear, shame or embarrassment. Although she’s lived in Los Angeles for 42 years, she insists that she is constantly exercised about the state of things in Ireland, from where she and her four siblings emigrated to America in the Sixties. She’s estranged now from her two sisters, one of whom lives up the road in San Francisco, the other in Canada, but remains close to her two brothers. ‘I’m close to my brother in New Jersey, because we’re close in age, and my other brother who’s in Sydney but my sisters are alienated from me, or I am from them,’ she admits. ‘I think it’s sort of a hallmark of Irish families that they have splits down the middle.’
Fionnula’s own family have had to fight hard to stay together over the years as she and her husband, and later her two stepsons, battled with drug and alcohol addictions. Those tumultuous years don’t seem to have taken a physical toll on Fionnula, however. At 70, she is as strikingly beautiful as when she landed her first Hollywood roles as a flame-haired twentysomething.
Today, we are sitting in the kitchen of her house just off Mulholland Drive — overlooking spectacular views of the LA sprawl down to the Pacific — a big pot of Barry’s tea on the table between us. Long a welcoming place for Irish visitors to LA, particularly during Oscars week, the house is full of books, myriad paintings and sculptures of nudes. Fionnula’s constant companion, Betty, the black mongrel she adopted from the rescue centre and who goes on set with her, dozes nearby. It is quiet here, an oasis and a lookout where Fionnula has lived ever since she moved to the city. ‘I started giving a little tea party here the weekend of the Oscars, knowing that, unless you’re a nominee, you don’t get invited to any of the big parties going on,’ she says. ‘I thought it would be nice to have a little event for the families. [Nominees] only get two tickets for the Oscars and they often come with their families and have the horrible job of having to choose who to take. That was the whole purpose of the tea party and now every other Irish person in the city hurries over for it. I’ve no idea how we manage to fit them all in, but they spill out onto the patio and it works.’
As one of the very few Irish women to have had such long and sustained success on TV and film in Hollywood, Fionnula regrets that so few of her fellow Irish actresses have made LA their home. The hit 1970s show Rich Man Poor Man — which won Fionnula an Emmy and launched her in the US — was a mixed blessing for her, as success in television made it more difficult for her to break into feature films. But seeing how tough the business has become, she wouldn’t dream of offering anyone advice on their career.
‘Nobody comes to me for advice,’ she says. ‘If anyone had advised me not to go into the business, I wouldn’t have listened to them anyway. It’s very hard for young actors. They seem to come here around Oscar time, then they go away again. There are very few Irish actresses who come and dig their trench and stay. They come for pilot season and if they get a show, they stay, but it takes a few years to begin to make a career. I’m fortunate that I now get invited to work in Ireland and other places, but that didn’t happen immediately and it took a long time before I broke into film.’
Television has been very good to her over the years. She starred in How The West Was Won, the very successful series Brotherhood, had a couple of seasons on Lost, and is about to start filming Defiance, a new sci-fi series from the producers of Grey’s Anatomy. The experience of being on television and literally being in people’s living rooms has made for some very strange fan experiences for Fionnula over the years.
‘With television, you become part of the fabric of people’s everyday lives. When I was doing How The West Was Won, I used to get a lot of letters from lunatic asylums and people in prison. I don’t know what they were projecting onto me, but I had red hair and I was really cute. I rode horses and I refused to wear any of those awful bonnets.
‘When I was doing Lost, it had a kind of magical quality that people identified with; they instantly felt they knew these characters. People would stop me on the street and scream things at me from traffic islands. I was walking down the street one day and this man chased me and caught my arm and kept shouting, “Eloise! Eloise!” I was thinking, “That sounds vaguely familiar.” Then he caught up with me and he said, “That was your photo on the desk, wasn’t it?” I realised he was talking about my character on Lost and he had a whole theory about it. I said, “I’m terribly sorry. I’m absolutely the wrong person to ask, because I’ve never seen the show. Never.”’
She is bracing herself for similar fan intensity when Defiance — which is set in the near future on an Earth that is ravaged by war and inhabited by the surviving humans and aliens. It goes on the air next April and will coincide with the launch of a multimedia game. ‘Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing and think I should be out feeding the hens!’ Fionnula says with a laugh. The offers of work keep coming in, though, and she is also writing scripts and hoping to produce some of her own work. In the 1970s, she wrote a stage play, James Joyce’s Women later made into a movie. Fionnula was considered a real sexpot as a young woman and to this day, she reprises Molly Bloom in private and in performances on Bloomsday.
It’s an impressive role for a woman who is now a great-grandmother. When she met her husband, Dr Garrett O’Connor, in Baltimore in 1970, he had two boys, aged 10 and 11, and was still married. Garrett divorced their mother, who moved back to England, while he and Fionnula moved to LA with the boys. She readily admits that the shock of raising two pre- teens took its toll, and all of the members of the family would go on to fight drug and alcohol addictions in later years. ‘I was definitely a wicked stepmother and they were two terrorists in training, and we had some rough years, but they’ve grown into terrific men and I admire them enormously. There’s a reason why children come into the world aged zero, so that parents have the chance to get used to them. They were sprung on me, like Venus on the half-shell. Both Garrett and I were drinking and using, and their mother lived far away, and they wanted their parents back together. It was very poignant to watch. Every time they tried to destroy me, I had to try to remember that. In the end, we all got lucky. They survived me and Garrett, and they should be given medals for that!’
Fionnula’s stepsons are now in their 50s and are themselves grandparents. They still live nearby, and Fionnula and her husband are a big part of their lives. ‘I was very, very involved with the rearing of my granddaughter, Kalina who is now 26 and