Niamh Algar on the new season of Raised by Wolves and what success means to her
Alex Ingram/Darwin Studio
‘I’m one of those people who never over-celebrates and never takes anything for granted. People say it’s an overnight success. But ten years of hard work created that kind of overnight success. Having a job and going from project to project, that is the real success to me. Anything that comes with it is a complete bonus,’ heartily says Irish actress Niamh Algar on the other end of our Zoom line.
The actress, who brings incredible levels of emotional depth, sensitivity, and versatility to all the roles that she’s crafting on-screen (Pure, MotherFatherSon, The Virtues, Calm With Horses, Raised by Wolves, Censor, Deceit), had another busy year on her books. In the midst of the pandemic, she spent eight months in South Africa shooting the second season of HBO Max’s sci-fi drama Raised by Wolves, helmed by Aaron Guzikowski and Ridley Scott, brought her acting chops to Sebastián Lelio’s psychological thriller The Wonder and brilliantly invoked the terror of ‘video-nasties’ in Prano Bailey-Bond’s psychological horror movie Censor.
A few years have passed since our last conversation, but some things haven’t changed amid tumultuous times. The passion and fascination with her craft, the thirst to challenge oneself and the deeply-rooted respect for her fellow creatives are still at the core of Algar’s day-to-day.
“I think when you also learn about something, it staggers your intrigue into wanting to explore more. By doing that, you’re opening up your knowledge of people. For me, it always helps to be more empathetic. When I look at the script, I’m never judging a character. You open the script with an open mind.”
Congratulations on Censor being long-listed for a BAFTA Award. What a great start to 2022!
I’m thrilled for director Prano Bailey-Bond, producer Helen Jones, and the whole team. It was such a passion project of mine to be involved in and to see how it’s grown over the year—the response that it had from Sundance, then from London’s Sundance Film Festival when it was released, as well as Mark Kermode naming it as one of his favorite films of the year. I’m proud of the work, and I’m just so thrilled for Prano because she works so hard. She’s very talented and has a very unique filmmaking vision. I can’t wait to see what she does next. It’s such a huge achievement to be even long-listed alone for a BAFTA.
With talent comes recognition. Do you still often have those pinch-me moments, whether it’s a nomination, working with a director or cast you wanted to work with?
I do. You have those moments where you find yourself dropping news. And you’re not doing this intentionally, as you’re just talking about your work, and then you realise—oh my God, I did work with Ridley Scott, my film has been long-listed or nominated for a BAFTA. I was invited to present an award as part of the BAFTA Breakthrough the year before. I was in the room talking with all the talent and thinking about being nominated one year. And then it happened next year.
I’m one of those people who never over-celebrates and never takes anything for granted. People say it’s an overnight success. But ten years of hard work created that kind of overnight success. Having a job and going from project to project, that is the real success for me. Anything that comes with it is a complete bonus. The most rewarding part for me is just sitting on set. I’m so grateful that I get to do the job that I dreamt of doing as a kid, and now I’m getting paid to do it. (laughing)
There also comes an opportunity to work with different people and figure out their ways of working. That can only make you better as an actor. What I’ve learnt about this industry is that it’s all about communication. You have to be quite permeable. You have to be that person that can be open to change. I think that’s always such a challenge because as an actor you don’t have a schedule. Just having to flex that muscle of being able to change anything at a moment’s notice, that’s when you really need to work on yourself as a person.
You’ve built such an array of incredible, complex characters on screen, and you’re known for your versatility. Did the elements that you’re looking for in your roles change throughout the years, and if so, how?
Totally. It’s almost like a coming of age story in your head. That influences the roles. If you were an Alexa, and then you’d say out loud, “I would love to do this,” then you would only need to inadvertently figure out those steps along the way.
When I was a kid, I used to daydream about being an actor and playing different roles. I visualised it before I did it. I think visualising is a big part of my approach to playing characters. When I read the script, I go away and start daydreaming about different scenes and how they might play out and what might go into research for that role. With something like Censor, it was at a time when I was looking for characters that were deeply-rooted in some sort of PTSD. I’ve explored it previously in a TV series called MotherFatherSon with the late Helen McCrory. Billy Howle was in that series as well.
I think when you also learn about something, it staggers your intrigue into wanting to explore more. By doing that, you’re opening up your knowledge of people. For me, it always helps to be more empathetic. When I look at the script, I’m never judging a character. You open the script with an open mind. Of course, there are always some archetypes in a story. If we look at women’s roles and how they’ve changed, they’re no longer just the girlfriend or the wife of the lead. They have a narrative of their own.
I think whenever you begin to mature as a person, your interests change as well as your energy. Right now, I feel like I could have the energy of 10 men, looking for projects that are both physically and mentally demanding. Maybe in ten years’ time, I’ll be saying that let’s just look into roles where she’s just chilling by the window in a grey jumper, thinking about things. (laughing) I’ve got an amazing team around me, and that helps me to decide what projects are worth putting the energy into. It’s very important to have that positivity and clarity around you because it’s a tough industry. There are a lot of things to juggle both in the job and in your personal life. To have people that help you make these choices but aren’t pushing you and where you are maintaining the elements of control, agency and identity is very important.
Let’s talk about the new season of Raised by Wolves. I had a chance to watch the very first episode. Thanks to HBO Max.
How did you feel? Have you seen season one?
I did, yes. I think the best way to define it, without giving out any spoilers, would be that I’ve never seen anything like that on television. Maybe because of such a brilliant cast, writing, directing and producing of such a calibre that Ridley Scott brings to his projects. Raised by Wolves feels much more like a long-form movie than a series.
Yes, the production value is on screen. There will be new characters you’ll meet during this season. You’ll also get more of an understanding of what’s happening on planet Kepler-22b. I don’t know where the writer and creator of the series, Aaron Guzikowski, got these ideas from. You open this door, and it’s leading into what season one was, but have you checked inside this door? Because this is going to blow your mind. I love to watch things where you have to give in to the fantasy and go with it. Raised by Wolves is pure fantasy sci-fi, but at the center of it all, there’s a story about a family to which we can all relate.
My character, Sue, is very much like the eyes of the audience. She’s also almost the most normal character in the series. (laughing) I love the journey that she goes on in this season. In the first season, she’s very much with Mithraic as she has infiltrated them and pretended to be someone else. But in season two, Sue’s back with the atheists and is seen as this scum of the Earth.
What was also challenging about this season was that there were so many great set pieces. We shot in South Africa, and the magic of shooting there is that what you see on a screen is nature’s landscape. We’ve travelled far into the countryside to get these spectacular visuals. But my character will find herself very isolated, and to survive, she has to find a purpose in the colony. Aaron has taken and transported her to a very dark psychological place. As the season unfolds, you’ll identify a very different side of her, which I’m very excited for audiences and fans to see.
And in the very first episode, we see Sue embarking on this journey of self-discovery and purpose that you’ve talked about. It’s such an archaic heroine moment, isn’t it?
Yes. In season one we see someone who has a defined role as the wife of Marcus, played by Travis Fimmel. But now, she’s been given this role of a mother that she didn’t expect. I think it’s something that happens instinctually, and she becomes attached to this little boy, Paul, and that, for her, becomes her purpose. She also ultimately breaks little Paul’s heart. Then in season two, she’s trying her best to mend that relationship. It’s such a heartbreaking thing to see as she can’t take back what she did. And she did the worst possible thing that a mother could do by lying to her kid.
“It’s almost like a coming of age story in your head. That influences the roles. If you were an Alexa, and then you’d say out loud, “I would love to do this,” then you would only need to inadvertently figure out those steps along the way.”
It’s not the first time that you’re building the character of Sue. I imagine that it took some inner search and peeling some new inner layers of hers. Can you tell us more about the research process that you did for season two?
It was interesting. I had a chat with Aaron, and he was trying to reiterate that Sue’s a soldier and that there’s this deep-lying PTSD that a soldier would’ve had to go through to survive as she’s now left the army. I also was reminded that there are those residing factors that she’s struggling with. Aaron also said to visualize how those cracks in a person who’s being seen as so strong and guarded, will look like. From a physical point of view, the second series starts six or seven months after the last time we saw the characters, who also must’ve been in the wild all this time. I thought that I’d start going to the gym and working out as well as living on a plant-based diet. (laughing) But ultimately, my preparation for this season was reconnecting with the cast. We’ve got Ethan Hazzard, Aasiya Shah… We’ve also got a new character played by James Harkness. It’s ultimately about building these dynamics as there’s visually so much going on in the scripts. As an actor, you have to ground it in truth and honesty. The characters aren’t fazed by any new technology in the series. You have to find things that will stand out and that you as an actor will latch onto. I have a lot of props. My character goes through a lot of them. (laughing)
Have you taken anything back with you from the set? I’d be tempted!
I tried, but it was tricky. There was one cool prop that you’ll see later on in the episodes. I asked, “Can I please keep it?” and they were like “no.” I always get the medical props, but they’re not your typical syringe vials.
I also spent a week with my sister, who’s a vet, back in season one learning how to stitch wounds on animals, as there was supposed to be a moment with my character stitching wounds. But Ridley said, “Oh no, we’re just going to spray this can,” which looked like a can of hairspray, and that ultimately sealed the wound. (laughing)
You can use these skills for the next season or role. Method acting, here I come!
People never use method acting whenever they’re playing a nice guy. It always happens when you’re playing a psycho, a serial killer, or someone who has anger issues. (laughing) You never see someone getting deep into a character who’s going around and getting everyone drinks or calling you from a shop and asking if he can get you something. No one ever does method acting on nice guys, so I think I might have to try it this year for a week, playing a nice person and going around doing good deeds. (laughing)
“I don’t know where the writer and creator of the series, Aaron Guzikowski, got these ideas from. You open this door, and it’s leading into what season one was, but have you checked inside this door? Because this is going to blow your mind. I love to watch things where you have to give in to the fantasy and go with it. Raised by Wolves is pure fantasy sci-fi, but at the center of it all, there’s a story about a family to which we can all relate.”
Nao Kawakami/The Wall Group
The last time we were chatting, I recall you sharing a great piece of advice given to you by actor Stephen Graham on the importance of taking good care of yourself outside of acting. How you’ve been practicing self-care now? Does that still entail boxing sessions?
I’ve slowed down on the boxing. I’m working on a project right now that’s getting physically demanding, so I’m working with trainer Mark Mené five days a week. Because building muscle has a downside of your muscles hurting, I’ve gotten into doing ice baths. My boyfriend introduced me to the Wim Hof Method. My optimal time is three and a half minutes. The first time I did it, I thought about why would anyone do that. Then, after a while… It’s the clarity you get afterwards and the feeling of being very present in that moment that counts. It’s also all about trying to find stable breathing and a heartbeat. All you’re thinking and feeling in the bath of freezing ice is about getting out. It’s also painful. But when you work through all of that, there’s a sense of this almost calm. I’ve been doing this with some yoga every morning just before filming.
You also have to make sure that you eat right, get enough sleep, and drink enough water. I think we always take those special, yet simple needs for granted. I look at my career as a marathon. It’s not just a short sprint. If you want to go from project to project, it’s about maintaining a routine of good self-care throughout the time, so you’re not putting your body through extreme experiences for three months and saying that you’ll rest at the end. That leads to burnout. It’s about maintaining good mental and physical health, which also benefits the people around you.
I know that the time for our conversation is ticking out, and my last question this time would be, what are you working on right now?
I would love to say what I’m working on now, and I know that there’ll be a press release coming out soon. I would love to say, but I can’t. It’s with someone who I’ve wanted to work with for a long time, and it’s got a great cast. It’s exploring something that I haven’t played as a character before. I know, it’s so vague. (laughing)
I’ve also finished working with an amazing director, Sebastián Lelio, on The Wonder. It’s a film adaptation of the book written by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote The Room. Florence Pugh is playing the lead. She’s an absolute dream of a human being to work with, and she deserves every bit of praise that she’s getting for her performances. I can’t wait for that film to come out. Eventually. I also have a project with Charlotte Rampling, which is called Mooring. We’re hoping to make it this year. That’s what’s happening at the moment. (switches the American accent on and breaks into laughter)
Raised By Wolves is now streaming on HBO Max and HBO GO. Watch the trailer below:
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