Emily Taaffe started her acting career just three years ago yet she has already played her first lead at the National Theatre. As she prepares to play Abigail in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Taaffe talks to Caroline Bishop about another career first: acting in all weathers at the Open Air theatre in Regent’s Park.
CV in brief
2007 Professional stage debut in Intemperance at the Liverpool Everyman
2008 Irina in Three Sisters at the Abbey, Dublin
2009 Esme in Rock N Roll at the Library Theatre Manchester
Daphne in the National Theatre’s adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Nation
2010 Abigail in The Crucible at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre
Where did you grow up?
I grew up near a place called Drogheda in a village called Tullyallen. It’s about an hour north of Dublin, on the north-east coast.
What got you interested in acting?
I am the youngest of five so I’ve always been a bit of a show off. When I was 13 I joined the local youth theatre and really loved all the acting and thought I definitely wanted to pursue it. When I left school I went to university in Trinity College Dublin and studied Drama and Theatre Studies so I kind of had a taste of everything really, all the different aspects of it. I knew that I definitely wanted to work in the arts in some way. While I was there I was really involved in the drama society and I figured out that that was definitely what I wanted to pursue. So I applied to do the postgraduate course at LAMDA and was lucky enough to get in. It wasn’t ever a eureka moment. I knew I always enjoyed it but it was a slow realisation to actually wanting to do it as a full-time career.
What was your first acting role?
I was really lucky, I had my first acting job ready before I left drama school. I auditioned for the Liverpool Everyman and I did a play there called Intemperance, which was a new play by Lizzie Nunnery about Irish immigrants in Liverpool in the 1850s. That was a fantastic first job, I was working with a brilliant couple of actors. I left drama school thinking, ‘oh this is great, this is what it’s like’. I sailed into professional life thinking it was that easy.
But it can’t always have been like that. What is the most obscure job you’ve done?
After that first job there was a little bit of time where I was just auditioning and I’ve done all sorts of random things – flyering, the obligatory call-centre stint, lots of waitressing, temping.
You then landed the role of Daphne in Nation…
That was fantastic. I had worked with Mark Ravenhill, I had participated in a workshop that he had organised. As a result of working with him on that he recommended I be seen for Daphne. So I went in and auditioned and was lucky enough to land the role. It was an absolutely incredible experience. I was cast quite early on in the process, before the script was written, so I got to take part in all the workshops, and be involved in creating the world of the play and the various aspects of the production and then also workshopping the script in all its various manifestations. It was amazing, it was really challenging, but it was such a gift actually, so many firsts for me: my first job at the National, to be playing such a brilliant part in the Olivier theatre, a fantastic company, an adaptation of a brilliant novel by a fantastic playwright under a wonderful director.
Now you are playing Abigail in The Crucible, which isn’t as sympathetic a role…
It’s lovely because it’s so different to Daphne. She was so morally upright and Abigail is so different to that, and that’s fantastic for me to try and get myself inside the head of somebody like that. It’s fantastic to work on such a brilliant play and it’s so complicated. Because it’s so good, it’s so well written, it doesn’t reveal itself to you straight away. Abigail is so different to everyone else I’ve played because usually your character has an objective and they know what they want. She does very much know what she wants but she reacts to what is put in front of her and she has to sort of roll with the society and what’s given to her so she turns on a sixpence a lot of the time. It’s very difficult to rationalise a lot of her behaviour because she goes with her gut and is very much led by her feelings as opposed to her head, so that’s a real challenge.
Do you have to sympathise with a character to play it?
I think so. I mean, I don’t know if you necessarily have to sympathise, but you have to understand why she does what she does. You might not agree with it and it might not be what you would do but… I think you have to try and leave the judgement of the person at the door because otherwise you are judging her and playing her at the same time which I think is impossible. For me, the overriding thing about Abigail is her love for John, and that leads her to make decisions that perhaps in hindsight she wouldn’t have done, or that you and I would look at and disapprove of. I don’t think she is inherently bad, I just think she’s young and in love. It makes people do crazy things sometimes. She is very much a survivor as well and has to fight her corner which leads her to do certain things.
Are you hopeful for a dry summer?
No! We have been rehearsing in Commercial Street for the last few weeks and I think next week we go over to the park. So I’m planning on packing lots of blankets and warm things! The only thing is, at least we’re not having to trip around in diaphanous chiffon, we are pretty covered up, so that’s something. And in terms of the mood of the play, it doesn’t rely on baking sunshine for everyone to have a good time. I think it will be quite a different experience, I’m really looking forward to it.
What is the best thing about being on stage?
That’s a really difficult question. What the audience brings really affects what happens on the stage. It’s a really communal experience and I really love that, I love the give and take, and the ebb and flow. Some nights it’s better than others and some nights it doesn’t quite all gel together but then hopefully the next night…. That’s probably my favourite thing, the fact that it’s always exciting and there’s always the possibility for something new to happen and that can be the most amazing thing if suddenly something sparks off and you’ve never done it quite that way before.
…and the worst?
Its like anything isn’t it, you have good days and bad days. Corpsing is probably one of the most painful things! You know when something goes wrong and you can’t stop laughing. It’s that awful thing of knowing that it’s absolutely the worst thing you can be doing and that makes you laugh even more. That’s pretty painful!
For me the bad bits about being an actor are when you’re not working. But ask me at the end of the summer when I’ve had to stand on stage in the pouring rain!
If you weren’t an actor what would you be?
I toyed with lots of different ones actually, like lawyer, journalist, barrister… When I was about eight to 10 I thought I wanted to be a doctor for a while, and I used to really enjoy horse riding and things so I kind or toyed with the idea of going into that line of work, but I don’t like being outside in the cold enough to do that… hmm!
I think realistically if I hadn’t become an actor I would have been working in theatre in some way or another. I loved the whole thing too much to think about not being involved in it in some way.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
I remember a teacher at LAMDA, when we were about to leave, saying to us that everybody’s journey is different. I think it’s really important – because it’s an industry where it’s very easy to compare yourself to other people – to keep it in mind that actually you are an individual and it’s your particular journey, not anyone else’s, and to not look outside of yourself too much and compare yourself to other people, because I think that way lies unhappiness.