Phina Oruche started her career as a model before landing a part in Footballers’ Wives. She tells Niamh Walsh about her role as Marvellous in Taken Down and reveals how the show made her realise things could have turned out very differently
She has strutted the catwalks of Europe and America with the likes of supermodel Kate Moss, but after a successful stint as a model, the small screen beckoned for Phina Oruche.
The British-Nigerian actress was a breakout star in Nineties series Footballers’ Wives as Liberty Baker, after which she went on to star in Hollyoaks. She then landed her own radio show on BBC, which she says gave her a platform and voice.
Now after years off screen and being a ‘full-time soccer mum’, Phina is back on screen with a starring role in RTÉ’s new drama Taken Down, in which she plays a refugee caught up in a murder investigation.
Phina tells how she was gripped by the script, in particular the opening line of the introduction to her character, Marvellous.
‘We coast through life with blinkers on. And we have “luxury quality” problems. Everybody’s like that in the West, which is why people attack us. Our general bottom line is privilege. Now there are degrees of privilege based on age, race, gender, birth, etc, but privilege is pretty much in our countries. I never really lose sight of that, but this was brought home again to me because the opening line of the description of my character
‘I did experience racism in Dublin when I lived here’
was, “in another life she would be a TV presenter”. So I read into that and thought, “in another life, could she be me?”, and that’s scary. Marvellous made me realise that she could have been me and she made me think “did my mother have to live like that in any way, shape or form?”’
Born in Liverpool, Phina has lived in London, New York and Dublin, where she met her former husband and where she gave birth to her son. The couple lived in the leafy suburbs of Dublin 4 and she was delighted to return to Ireland after years away to film Taken Down. The drama series centres on direct provision for refugees, racism and crime.
While Phina has lived and worked around the world, it was in Dublin that she experienced a memorable incident of racism.
‘I lived here ten years ago. My [now ex] husband is Italian. I met him on a flight leaving Dublin. We were living somewhere along Haddington Road and we were out in one of those posh drinkeries. That was my stomping ground. We had literally just had the baby and my mother was in the house. So he took me out as we were newly married. We were in this place – and he’s Italian and I’m British-Nigerian – and this woman came up, and she was about 55, and she was like “how are youse, would you like a drink?” and we were like “no, we’re great, it’s grand”.
‘Then she went away and suddenly came back later and she said, “you are not welcome here, you’re not from here and you, you’re not an actress, you’re a phoney”. And we howl laughing about that to this day. That was when austerity was starting in Ireland when all of the cranes were starting to come down and the bubble had burst and everyone was trying to bail out. But I think the majority of people are good. I worked on a radio show seven years ago in Liverpool, so I got to know the black community there very well. And there had been a shift already between Liverpool blacks and the Somalis who had come to live in Liverpool. And I could notice that instead of a general welcome there was already a “they’re different from us” sense happening amongst us, which I find sad and shocking.’
Phina makes her screen debut on Taken Down tonight and she says she was thrilled when she landed the role.
‘I was delighted to get the role. She’s Nigerian. Normally I’m pretending to be Jamaican, American or English.’
While Taken Down is written by Stuart Carolan and directed by David Caffrey, Phina says she was blissfully unaware of Love/Hate.
‘Had I known what Love/Hate was or watched it, I think it would have coloured how I came to this character. And once I got the part I still didn’t watch it, because I didn’t want to go there, I didn’t want to get scared of David. I wanted all my cheekiness and bad behaviour intact. I didn’t want to fear him, or revere him. I revere him now anyway, but I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions.’
Now back on the screen and playing Marvellous, Phina has once again been bitten by the acting bug. And while she is relishing her return to drama, she says she doesn’t hanker to return to her Footballers’ Wives days.
‘Footballers’ Wives was great fun. I was playing another complicated girl, which I like to do,’ she says. ‘I don’t know if it’s coming back but I don’t know what’s to be gained by going back. I would hope to go forward.
‘Taken Down was such a great project from top to bottom. I auditioned with kids and I did this outrageous dance at the end of camera and they cast me because of the dance. It really turned the lights back on for me for acting.’ Taken Down continues at 9.30pm tonight on RTÉ One.
Role model: Phina as Marvellous in Taken Down (above) and as Liberty Baker (right) in Footballers’ Wives