Most five-year-olds can tell you what they want to be. Few will actually follow through with that exact plan. But Irish actress Valene Kane’s determination has paid off.
Most recently, she appeared in BBC2’s Death and Nightingales, acting again alongside Jamie Dornan, her co-star from The Fall. She played Felicity Jones’s mother in Star Wars: Rogue One, has a HBO drama in the works and her latest film, Sonja: The White Swan, in which she plays the co-lead, has just been selected for the Sundance Film Festival.
The film tells the story of Sonja Henie, the inventor of modern figure-skating who went on to become the biggest star in Hollywood in her time. Valene plays Henie’s assistant Connie, a sort of amalgamation of several real life characters. The narrative unfolds through her eyes.
“I’m very ambitious,” Valene admits. “I’m always thinking ‘What’s next?’ ‘How can I improve my position, how can I give myself more opportunity?’” Valene’s first big break was as Rose Stagg in The Fall, ex-girlfriend of serial killer Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan. She was 26 when she landed the part. “I think I’m lucky in a way that it didn’t happen earlier, because I don’t know if I would have done good work. I was a bit immature. Quite young, very green.”
The series heralded a penchant for darker material, which Valene has displayed throughout her career. While there have been several comedic outings, including the Australian comedy series The Other Guy, Valene tends to go for the gritty. Sonja: The White Swan, is, she says, a “darker take” on the life of figure skater Sonja Henie.
“I’m very into familial, complicated, dark stories,” Valene reflects. “I just like real life stuff. This is such an epic, but the story is a very human one. I play a very working-class girl who moves to Hollywood. Maybe she wanted to be an actress at some point, but she ended up in a typing pool.”
The movie focuses on the relationship between the two women; that’s what drew Valene to the part. “We so rarely see the dynamic of two women on screen whose relationship is based on their partnership, rather than on men.” “I have such close girls in my life. My girls from home who I grew up with, went to school with, are still my best friends. Without my WhatsApp groups I would be in a very dire situation. All over the world, I’m able to reach in and go ‘ooooh, help, what do I do in this situation?’”
In expectation of a boy, her parents had decided upon Valentine as the baby’s name; Valene was their creation upon the arrival of a daughter. Growing up in Newry, “my awareness was that soldiers were on our streets and in our back garden. From a young age you would make a cup of tea for a soldier in your back yard, and that was normal. I didn’t really understand religion, and politics, until much later.”
There were no thespians in the Kane family. She professes herself baffled as to where the desire to act came from. Significantly younger than her siblings, from the age of nine she was the only child in the house. “I had a very duplicitous upbringing where I was the youngest in a family for 10 years, and then I was the only one. My parents were a lot older, and they’re amazing, but they’re not theatrical at all.”
You get the sense that acting offered an outlet, the promise of a vivid alternative world for this girl with a rich imagination and a voracious reading habit, who would buy Vogue magazine each month. “I don’t know how, but I became obsessed with the French New Wave. By 11 I had decided that I was going to be Anna Karina when I grew up. I was just weird looking; very unattractive, braces, terrible eyesight, so I had milk bottle glasses. It was an escape probably, into a more glamorous world. I lived in my head.”
For a time, when her father, former Down GAA player Val Kane, was sick, he would pick his daughter up from school every day and they would spend the afternoon watching movies. In an interview with his daughter, he confessed to making it difficult for her to earn a place in drama school, telling The Irish News “My wife and I were both horrified when Valene told us she wanted to be an actor. I deliberately made it as awkward as possible for her. When she went over for an interview at London Central School of Drama I told her she would being going on her own.”
His daughter’s determination seems to have won his respect, as he went on to compare her focus to that of a professional sports person. “I went to the National Youth Theatre when I was 14,” Valene recalls. “I still don’t know how my parents let me do that; they were quite strict.” A two-week course in London provided something of an epiphany. “It changed my life. Because I saw that it was a possibility. That I could go to drama school. The little girl form Newry could do this.”
And so she did; gaining a place at the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, whose alumni include Dame Judi Dench, Sir Laurence Olivier, Julie Christie and Carrie Fisher. She describes marching into an estate agent’s in London to take on a four bedroom property, then putting signs up around the area in search of flatmates. “There’s no way I could do that now. I was insanely determined,” she smiles. “And brave; so brave.”
Unfortunately, that bravery took a hit at the notoriously brutal world of London’s top drama schools. “It crashed,” she says now of her teenage confidence, laughing gently. “It crashed and burned so hard. It was really bad. I left drama school without an agent. That really was soul destroying.”
Valene has presumed that, like her peers, she would go to drama school, get an agent, start working. “And none of those things were happening for me. And I had this boyfriend, this love of my life, who broke up with me in third year. It was the worst. It was just a year of ‘oh here you want another hit? Here you go. You want another one? This is it’.”
Instead, she deicide to take two years out; travelling, living in Paris for a time, partying, making new friends. “Not because I thought ‘I don’t want to do this,’” she says now of putting a pause on her acting dreams. “It wasn’t giving back to me. I was really lost. It took me awhile to build my confidence back up again. I think I built it up in a way that made me a better actor. Not the blind kind of confidence that you have when you’re younger. I had to really go and question myself. ‘Ok why am I doing this? Do I want to be famous? Because if it’s fame I need to stop’.”
Time to Think
She realised though that what she wanted to do was what she had always wanted, since childhood; to tell stories. “So it was about building myself back up again.”
Now Valene works almost constantly. Sought after by directors, she is curating her career choices. “Now I feel like I’m able to go ‘yes, I want to do this project and this project’.
Much to the chagrin of my agents, who are like ‘why aren’t you taking this? Did you see how much it’s going to pay?’” Even with success though, life as an actor though is not easy. When we speak, she is at home in Newry, having just given a speech to teenagers at her former grammar school. “I tried to give as honest an account of my experience as I could. Because it’s not easy; it’s still really hard, and tough.
Last week I got a huge yes to a HBO series, but on the same day I got a no to a feature film that I’d been waiting on for weeks, and I wanted it so bad, and it was an amazing director. So I had this day of ‘I’m unsure, what am I feeling?’” She still has to network, to put herself out there, writing letters to directors whose work she admires, asking to be seen for parts. “You still have to canvas.”
The peripatetic lifestyle of an actor is something she struggles with. Her latest film was a six month shoot and last year she spent a total of six weeks at her home in London. “It’s super lonely. And it doesn’t get easier. I like to do a lot of independent films that don’t pay a lot,” she laughs. It’s a lifestyle that probably didn’t help the anxiety she has suffered from for much of the last decade. In Australia filming 2017’s The Other Guy, Valene recalls meeting Sarah Wilson, author of the New York Times bestseller First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety, at a Pilates class. The two went for coffee, and Wilson later sent Valene her book.
Coming to Terms
“The universe is so mad I think; the gifts it gives you. I didn’t realise I was craving it, but I was in a really, really anxious place. Questioning everything. I had been struggling with anxiety pretty badly probably for ten years. But in a very Irish way I was going ‘I’m fine. Maybe I’m just drinking too much. Maybe I’m not sleeping enough.” It was slightly career related, but really general life-anxiety, she says now. “I think you get into your thirties, and you question everything. Am I doing the right thing? Do I want children? Is my relationship good? Am I living in the right area? And I found that it was just getting worse. Simple decisions seemed like a huge thing. And then I read this book, and was like ‘oooh, ok so I’ve got anxiety. This is very clear.’”
Putting a name on the reason for how she was feeling was reassuring, and the book taught her coping mechanisms, amongst them, long walks, shutting off from social media. She also tried Wilson’s I Quit Sugar program. “It was really life changing. And I didn’t think it would be. When people used to say to me ‘Oh I’m off sugar’, I was like ‘What a loser, how could you not have chocolate?’” Valene giggles in her soft Newry accent. “And then I tried it, and I was like ‘Wow this is amazing. It’s three o’clock and I’m not feeling like I’m going to die if I don’t have coffee or sugar’.”
On set, and away from friends, her home and husband, Valene sticks to a fairly rigorous set of habits in order to stay mentally buoyant. It’s particularly necessary in the face of working days that begin at 5am and go on to 9pm. Her next shoot is in London – the HBO series, of working title Gangs of London a gangland drama – so she can stay at home throughout filming, a fact that delights her. Being married to an actor, who understands the nomadic lifestyle the career can demand, must help.
Valene’s husband is actor Ed Cooper Clarke, who played Tim Grey in Downton Abbey. They met while performing in a play together. “We played lovers,” Valene laughs. “We’ve been together ten years now, so he’s really used to me. He just ignores whatever madness I have to do,” she smiles. “I probably meditated every single day on Sonja, didn’t really drink any alcohol. The hours were crazy. I won’t eat bread (when on set), or pasta or anything that’s going to make me want more comfort food. I’ll try to have no more than one cup of coffee in the morning. Because the more parameters you have, you can relax around those parameters.”
It’s a new set of rules that has given Valene a new lease of life that we can only hope to emulate in the face of a fresh year. “Now I’m very happy. I’m having a great time in life.”
PHOTOGRAPHY by Louise Samuelsen; STYLING by Sarah O’Hegarty; MAKEUP by Celebrity Makeup Artist Christine Lucignano using Drunk Elephant Skincare and Hourglass Cosmetics; HAIR by Joe Hayes at Toni & Guy; PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTED by Marcus Cassidy; STYLING ASSISTED by Martin O’Neill