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Niamh Algar is the rising star of Shane Meadows’ knockout drama The Virtues

The Irish actor shines in the devastating yet tender story about personal trauma and redemption, alongside This is England’s Stephen Graham

In Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland, there sits a billboard on the outskirts of town. It features all of its now-famous local faces – Joe Dolan, Niall Breslin, One Direction’s Niall Horan. “I swear, Mullingar has something in the water,” says Niamh Algar, sitting across from me in the London BAFTA bar. “But – a wall full of men!” The 26-year-old actor has a running joke with her friend, roommate, and fellow Mullingar local, the author Nicole Flattery, “I tell her I’m gonna blow up a big photo of her face and just stick it on myself.”

The night before we meet, we had watched the premiere of Shane Meadows’ recent four-part drama, The Virtues. Emotionally corrosive, it’s a compelling look at individual trauma and the horrors of humanity close to home. It centres around Joseph, played by This is England and Line of Duty’s Stephen Graham, a man whose ex-wife and son have left for Australia. With nothing left to anchor him, he makes his way home to Ireland to visit a long-lost sibling and confront childhood-enveloping demons.

From this trip home comes painful memories, unraveling secrets, and Dinah, Joseph’s sister Anna’s sister-in-law, played by Algar. With a smattering of tattoos, a blonde undercut, and a hell of a right hook, Algar portrays a no-bullshit young woman with her own raw trauma to confront, forming a high-intensity connection with Joseph. On-screen together, Algar and Graham ignite. Her commitment to the character is undeniable, and rooted in devotion to Dinah’s truth – Meadows and Algar agreed to reshoot a crucial part of Dinah’s character arc and ending to do her justice.

In the last year and a half, Algar has taken on challenging roles that have allowed her to be creatively nomadic – The Bisexual and OCD dramedy Pure, as well as thriller MotherFatherSon; next up, she’s shooting her role as a soldier medic in Raised by Wolves, the sci-fi series executive produced by Ridley Scott. Whether a near-future army doctor, a sarcastic journalist, or an Irish woman who can spark out a man twice her size, Algar says she’s drawn to characters with their own intense narrative crescendos.

The first time I ever saw you was in the ‘We Face This Land’ video, which was a Repeal Project poetry performance at the time of the Irish abortion referendum. It is so incredibly moving.

Niamh Algar: The poem (by Sara Maria Griffin) is so immense. Dave Tynan who directed it sent me it, and I didn't have to think twice about being part of it. At the time, both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides of the referendum felt so strong – I think poetry and art that’s emanating with that kind of passion for truth has the power to diffuse hate and anger and hurt.

I was down shooting Calm with Horses in the west of Ireland when the vote happened. A lot of us got the next day off, and I saw so many people travelling home to go and vote – there’s so much love in that.

Home is a powerful thing – how did you get started in acting, do you come from a creative family?

Niamh Algar: I come from a large family with no actors in it. I started out doing art and design in college, with a vision to transition to acting. My friend Nicole Flattery (author of Show Them a Good Time) got me into reading and writing for drama. She has her new book out, Show Them a Good Time. I want her to make her story ‘Tracks’ into a film – I swear, if she doesn’t bring me in for a casting…

In college I was invited to The Factory, a Dublin creative hub for actors, but I didn’t do any formal training, which has possibly served me well. Mullingar definitely has something in the water though.

What was that first day on The Virtues set like, still being early on in your career?

Niamh Algar: I’d never worked with Shane before, so I came to set early to get a sense for it. On my first day, I watched the scene with Stephen (Graham) and his son from a monitor in a side room – I was in floods of tears. It felt like I was watching something totally goosebump-inducing on TV, rather than in the room next to me. I knew I was part of something really special. With Stephen, I really understand what people mean about being sucked into a scene. There's an incredible presence that he has, and a pacing to his acting where he's not afraid to sit in the silences. Shane built the story around us. If you're lucky enough to work with good actors, it makes your job a joy every day.

“Stephen Graham told me on my first day: ‘You’re not going to get better than this’. Like... cheers Stephen” – Niamh Algar

What was your previous knowledge of Shane’s work?

Niamh Algar: I was a huge Shane Meadows fan. My brother had a DVD of This Is England, so I watched it quite young. Seeing independent filmmaking like that in your early teens is incredible – I went on a Shane Meadows rampage – A Room for Romeo BrassDead Man's Shoes

The Virtues was your first major audition right? 

Niamh Algar: I came to London from Mullingar to see a film I had my first role in at London Film Festival. I stayed, did a couple of nights in a hostel to meet with agents and watch movies. I met my agent, and I swear to god – I said I want to do British TV just like This Is England. I got signed, stayed in London, and a few weeks later got a call to come in and do an improvised scene for Shane. We did it in this weird little arts centre in the middle of the city. 

I was just fascinated by his process – those scenes with Vicky McClure and Stephen in This is England are magical, and so seamless. He has a gift of leaving scenes to breathe, letting scenes run. Weeks are spent workshopping, building chemistries with myself and Stephen, Frank Laverty who plays my brother, and Helen Behan who plays my sister-in-law. When my mum saw it for the first time at the BAFTA screening she said it felt like she was watching a real family in a real house. Everything is grounded, whatever is thrown at you with the script or plot, you know how to react with trust and soul, because of Shane.

How did you connect with your character Dinah?

Niamh Algar: When Shane’s casting, he’s very much looking to see what you would bring to a role, rather than offering much of a description. In an audition I brought up boxing – I had done when I was younger, as a way to physically build confidence. Boxing was a cathartic release. Dinah uses everything physical to solve problems. I saw the script, the scene where she sparks out her boyfriend – she gets hit, and just picks herself up, and doesn't take any shit. 

She can physically look after herself but she’s emotionally guarded, broken and damaged like Joseph, working on her own path – I love her complexities, and how that develops over the entire series. She has this character crescendo – I'm so proud of it. It was a real collaboration with Shane.

How do you give your characters the depth they deserve?

Niamh Algar: For Dinah, we met with social workers to make sure we were doing things right. I wanted to represent my character and her story as best I could. I always enjoy playing characters that are societally overlooked, who reactly in different ways to trauma. Shane describes it as a fork in the road.

My MotherFatherSon character is a British army soldier with immense PTSD. It was amazing to research, as my knowledge of PTSD before was really surface level. I went to the DMRC in Medley and met with people in rehabilitation after coming back from tours. It’s challenging, getting to someone’s truth like that, asking questions in a safe way to make it sensitive. You do your homework and it’s your responsibility.

Empathy must feel like an important trait in acting, right?

Niamh Algar: I think that’s why I got into acting – going to movies and seeing characters on screen from different backgrounds and places I’d never been but good relate to, expanding perspective. I love researching, trying on, walking in other character’s shoes. I'm drawn towards characters that are gritty, more complex, and challenging.

Have your found your acting niche or are you keen to explore more?

Niamh Algar: Stephen Graham told me on my first day: ‘You’re not going to get better than this’. Like... cheers Stephen, I'll just retire now, hang up them acting boots, walk away, done! He is right in a sense though – I’ve carried those practices of maintaining truth into my next jobs that Shane has instilled in me. 

How does that transpire in the sci-fi series Raised by Wolves with Ridley Scott?

Niamh Algar: I have been blessed to be able to challenge myself artistically, but you still have to find that emotional core even if your character is 200 years in the future.

This character that I'm playing is very physical, with an American accent, and I've got a mullet. My hair has changed for every job I’ve done! Obviously the looks from This is England are so iconic, and I knew Shane wanted Dinah’s chequered character to come through. We bleached my hair and shaved the side – it looks like a mistake, which I love. 

Ridley also has a strong vision – of course when I got on that make-up and hair truck on my first day and saw those mullets all over the moodboard, I knew what I was in for. 

“I have been blessed to be able to challenge myself artistically, but you still have to find that emotional core even if your character is 200 years in the future” – Niamh Algar

What’s working with Ridley Scott like?

Niamh Algar: He’s a big kid, that’s so passionate and visual – almost everything on set is built for us so he makes life easy as an actor. He explains every moment, but he also gives you so much freedom. I come away feeling creative. Same with Shane – they never overcook anything, when they capture the magic in one take, they’re done. I grew up watching Alien too – I’m kind of following up Sigourney Weaver! That original strong female sci-fi character.

Then it’s interesting that you worked differently on Pure – I read you deliberately avoided the book it’s based on, so you went in blind.

Niamh Algar: Again, my knowledge of OCD before was pretty poor – you know, flicking on and off the lights. My character was in the dark too, and I wanted that to be real. It’s an honour to have been part of a show like Pure that has really resonated with people. I want to be proud of the characters that I’ve portrayed on screen. I have young nieces and nephews, and I want them to be proud of what I do too.

You’ve also played two queer characters, in shows that have given their LGBTQ+ characters depth and perspective.

Niamh Algar: I have really enjoyed the uptake in LGBT characters on screen, where they aren’t just a plot element. They have a story that goes beyond their sexuality or gender, and I’m really honoured to give them that. 

Would you ever be interested in writing and directing?

Niamh Algar: I’d love to direct later in my life when I’ve soaked everything around me up like a sponge. I’m on one of the best television productions, working with the best cinematographers, lighting designers, directors. When I eventually go to direct, I’ll try and be like a young Katherine Bigelow, or Lynne Ramsay.

The Virtues is available on All4 now