Exclusive Interview: Niamh Algar

Niamh Algar explains how her latest role gave her a new appreciation of the work done by the NHS, and made her realise the importance of switching off at the end of the day and leaving the stresses of work on set.

Photography by Suzie Howell | Styling by Laura WeatherburnHair by Patrick Wilson | Make up by Kenneth SohShot on location at The Zetter Townhouse, Clerkenwell

Produced by World Productions, the team behind Line of Duty, and directed by Philip Barantini, who brought us the multiple Bafta-nominated Boiling Point, ITV’s newest thriller Malpractice has already piqued the interest of critics ahead of its release this month. Through the cat and mouse drama of a medical investigation, the series, written by former emergency doctor Grace Ofori-Attah, tells the story of a damaged doctor caught up in a dangerous conspiracy.

That lead, Dr. Lucinda Edwards, is played by Niamh Algar, the 2018 Screen International Star of Tomorrow and 2019 BAFTA Breakthrough Brit who is known for her roles in Shane Meadows’ The Virtues and true crime honeytrap drama Deceit. “The story begins on the most nightmarish shift of her life, that ends in the death of a young overdose patient,” Niamh tells me. “And so, an enquiry is launched into this young lady’s death, and we follow this doctor and her journey through trying to deal with this inquest, while managing her home life. But it is not like your typical, linear narrative. There are so many obstacles that are thrown in the way, and when you think you have something figured out, then another thing happens.”

Alongside the appeal of such a stellar team, the character was very tempting for Niamh. “I really felt for her,” she explains. “She was in this really unfair position. Coming from a family where my sister-in-law worked in A&E and my mum was a nurse, I felt that it really captured the pressure  that medical staff are under, and the scrutiny, and I just really wanted to be involved in it. It was a no brainer really.”

Niamh wears dress by Dior, and earrings by Rachel Boston

With its many twists and turns, the show is an intense viewing experience, and Niamh assures me that filming the series was equally intense. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t,” she laughs. “It was an endurance of a shoot, but an incredibly rewarding one. There were a lot of factors to keep track of. With a show like this, we don’t shoot it linearly, so because it was such a massive arc for the character, where one thing is affecting the next action, mentally tracking that was definitely challenging. Then, on top of that, there were the medical procedures.”

Niamh was keen to give as accurate a portrayal of this aspect as she could. “Before starting this project, I consulted with as many A&E staff as I could, to get a greater understanding of what it would be like to work in that environment. I went through the script from beginning to end and took out the medical procedures and medical terminology, and broke it all down to understand exactly what was being talked about,” she explains.

The most valuable insights came from shadowing an A&E consultant’, she tells me. “For me, I work visually, and I have to be able to see what it is that I am doing, or saying, for it to make sense. It was an absolutely incredible experience,” she recalls. “Just to get that opportunity to see first-hand, from start to finish of a shift. This woman that I was shadowing, she took about a half an hour break in a 12-hour shift. It is an incredibly emotionally and physically taxing job, and just to see the level of skill that these people have is absolutely fascinating.”

Niamh wears dress by Magda Butrym

Indeed, it gave her a whole new appreciation of what doctors do. “It’s the idea that you’re dealing with someone on the worst day of their life, on repeat,” she explains. “And that must be very emotionally taxing. It is a profession that I feel we have taken for granted too often; it is only now, because of all the strikes that are happening, that people are listening. It is mind boggling that there is such little empathy toward them from the government; maybe, if they went in and saw for themselves what is expected… For people to be waiting five, six hours on hospital chairs to get seen by a doctor. And the doctors know that by the time they get to them, they don’t even have a bed for them. She described it, I remember, this doctor described it to me as like being kicked in the leg before a race, and then your boss asking you at the end of the race why you didn’t win. And I was like, God, that kind of says everything!”

Something else that the consultant said while they were working together has stuck with Niamh. “We were nearing the end of one of the shifts and I asked her: ‘How do you turn off after this?’,” she recalls. “Because a lot had happened in one of the nights that I was there. And I was like: ‘How do you go home and turn off?’. And I think it was one of the first times I had asked her a question that she found hard to answer, and she was like, ‘I don’t!’.”

It was a throwaway comment that gave Niamh pause for thought about how she herself switched off once filming had begun. Though she might not have been responsible for the lives of others, the stress proved hard to shake off. “It felt real, but it was not real,” she explains. “I think that is the important thing to remember: this is not happening. It is pretend, but your body does not know that. It has created these chemicals in your brain that tell you that something bad has happened. I think that is the hard reset to have, conditioning yourself to let go of a lot of stuff that you’ve dealt with during the day, and especially when it plays on repeat because you do the same scenes over and over again.”

Niamh wears blue suit by Alex Perry

Where that was concerned, this shoot had its own unique challenges. “My boyfriend (Lorne MacFadyen) was in the show with me. He was playing my husband,” she reveals. “We started it out like, this is great, everything is going amazing. And then there were scenes where we were fighting and arguing with each other. And we would go home, and it would be hard to be like, OK, that was the characters…” she laughs. “Letting go is something that I’m working on. And taking a lot more seriously now that I have come out of a character like this – realising that, oh yeah, you should listen to yourself.”

So does she have any tips? “I meditate,” she says. “I got big into meditation. Just taking moments of getting away from your phone. I suppose being selfish in a way; taking an hour where you just can kind of sit with your emotions, or even just in silence, and allow yourself to kind of reset in a way. Before, I used to do a lot of exercise, I used to go to the gym or go boxing, and that’s great and all, but if you’re doing a 14-16 hour day, that’s not possible. And I like journalling, writing everything down. It’s good to focus on the really good stuff that happened during the day, and hone in on that. Because I think that we can get fixated on the stuff that we feel we could have done better – that’s naturally where we kind of default to, we are our own best critic. But you can be your best friend as well. And journalling for me has now become a natural default at the end of a shooting day.”

Niamh has another surprising hobby that helps her to unwind. “I am obsessed with LEGO, that’s something people don’t know about me,” she laughs. “I have been in the big LEGO store like the nerd that I am, waiting for new collections. I got a Mandalorian mask at Christmas. And there is a Harry Potter themed set that I have. I find it really relaxing. If I’m trying to learn lines, I’ll listen to the script on my earphones and be making LEGO at the same time. It is a great way of distracting yourself.”

Niamh wears top and skirt, both by A.W.A.K.E Mode

Growing up outside Mullingar, Westmeath, in rural Ireland, Niamh dreamed of acting. “I think I wasn’t so much bored as a kid, but I found myself daydreaming,” she recalls. “Daydreaming in the sense where I would imagine that I was in another world, in another setting. And as a kid, I think TV and film for me was like a form of escapism. An escape from this quite lonely, rural setting. I remember seeing Titanic when I was about 10 and thinking, that’s what I want to do, I want to be an actor. I saw Kate Winslet on screen and thought: Wow, what an incredible job, imagine being able to go on all those adventures and journeys, and playing pretend for a living!”

In her small Irish community, nobody Niamh knew had done anything like this, and drama school was financially out of reach, but she refused to let that stand in her way. “After school, I studied design, but found myself in as many courses as possible in drama and performing arts,” she explains. “I always knew that it was something that I was going to end up doing, because I am quite stubborn in that sense. I’m glad that I didn’t listen to people around me. I pursued it – if it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be letting anybody else down, because I hadn’t made any promises to anyone. I had only made promises to myself. You won’t regret something if you don’t try it, and go for it.”

Describing how this perseverance paid off, she tells me, “I was part of this drama centre in Dublin called The Factory, and Barry Keoghan was there as well. It was like a group of actors who weren’t doing a full time acting course, but had been part of this Tuesday workshop. And eventually they did this full-time one year course. So, myself and Barry were part of that. And at the end of that I got cast in a feature film called Without Name in Ireland. That film ended up screening at Toronto Film Festival, and from there I got my agent. From Toronto it was then going to be screening in London, and I had gotten a grant from the Irish Film Board, from Culture Ireland, and I used the £500 for the flights to get from Toronto to London, and stayed long enough to meet my agent and do a few meetings. And off the back of that came my audition for The Virtues. So, that was basically the beginning of it.”

Niamh wears top and skirt, both by A.W.A.K.E Mode

She has been living in London and working in the industry since then, and has not looked back. From thrillers to horrors, and blockbusters to indie films, hers has been a varied career, though she does seem to be drawn to demanding characters with dark sides. So, how does she decide which projects she would like to be involved with, I wonder. “It is always going to be the team that is going to be involved,” she explains. “And the story. The story, and the characters. If it is something that you read, and it hits a nerve, in a good way, you know you are on to something. And I always like to pursue things, and challenge myself to do something that I haven’t done before.”

Speaking of which, if she could choose her next challenge, what would it be? “I would love to do some comedy; it would make a nice change!” She laughs. “That is what I watch when I go home. I watch as much comedy as possible. I love things like Fleabag, I think it was such incredibly smart writing. And then I love, you know, Daisy May Cooper in This Country. I watched that series on repeat like five or six times. I think comedy is something that’s quite overlooked, especially in the awards season. It’s always the gritty dramas that take the attention of film critics. But I think it’s much harder to try and make someone laugh than to make them cry. So, yeah, I’d love to explore comedy, and kind of more comedic characters.”

While she waits for that perfect comedic role to present itself, she is looking forward to starting work on a new job next month. “I will start filming a feature film with Charlotte Rampling in the summertime, it’s called Mooring,” she reveals. “I am very excited about that. We have been attempting to shoot it for a while, and neither of us have been available, and now we are finally both available at the same time, so we are just going for it and we will finally get around to shooting it. She is someone whose career I am just in awe of. I’m very grateful that I get to work with her because she’s a hero of mine.” It sounds like a dream.

Malpractice will be available to watch on ITV and ITVX later this month