Set in the 1960s, The Miracle Club follows three generations of Dublin women, played by Kathy Bates, Maggie Smith, and Agnes O’Casey, who enter a competition hoping to win a trip to Lourdes. When their old friend, played by Laura Linney, returns home from America after 40 years, old issues resurface in this heartwarming tale of friendship. We spoke with director Thaddeus O’Sullivan to find out more.
The original script for the film was written years ago; why did you decide to make it now?
HBO first approached me 10 or 12 years ago and asked me to direct it. They had some legal issues that they still needed to resolve, so it went into the long grass, and I only heard about it again two or three years ago. One of the original producers, Joshua D. Maurer, is also a writer and rang me to say he was doing a rewrite; he asked me to come on board. People joke about how long development takes, but I couldn’t believe it was still around. A bunch of women who go to Lourdes looking for a miracle would always have legs.
You have had a lengthy career. Do you still get that wow feeling when you direct iconic actors, in this case, Dame Maggie Smith, Laura Linney, and Kathy Bates?
Yeah, I absolutely did, no question, and it was daunting. To have one was extraordinary, and three was unimaginable, given the scale of the film. Years ago, Maggie and Kathy had been approached for the original script; Laura’s character was written much later. They had a clear idea of their character because they had been attached for so long. There were no big debates when I first had a phone call with them. They really liked the characters. Whenever I would suggest trying things differently or taking the characters another way, I would get a rap on the knuckles if it wasn’t a good suggestion. I liked it because they had a clear idea of who their characters were, which is why the performances are so readable.
I loved watching their work. Maggie is very particular about the props she uses, where they are, how they are used, and that they are in the right places. She is a very tactile actor. Kathy would come into a room, go around feeling everything, ask questions about the wallpaper and other props, and get to know the set. Laura brought with her another world, which was a mystery. So much of her preparation was all in her head because her character was in pain; she was carrying so much of the past, and she didn’t want to give it away too early.
Am I correct to assume you don’t have much time to shoot when you have such prominent actors in a small production?
That is correct, we only had 25 days. Before that, they were in the country for a week for costumes and all that. Before they went here, we had a lot of Zoom calls, and various drafts had gone backwards and forwards, so there’s been lots of conversation. They have specific questions about the culture which wasn’t familiar to them. Maggie said we needed an advisor on the set, and I said that was me; ask whatever you want. Maggie has played Irish characters before, so it wasn’t a million miles from her, and she knows a lot of Irish people. Still, she wanted to know about things like rosary beads and decades of the rosary.
I wouldn’t say they stepped into it fully formed, but they had thought deeply about the characters. They had made decisions about resolving certain background issues that the characters carried with them and when and how to play them. It meant we could shoot quickly. Sometimes, we would rework certain sections with the actor during the shoot, and again, that was something we could do quickly. The sheer professionalism of these actors made all that possible and manageable. We could make it quickly because they came on set, and all they wanted to do was work. Laura has a line: I won’t get it right, but it was something like when you come to an independent production like this, you’ve just got to put on your laugh suit and get on with it.
You have three great and experienced actors, but you needed a fourth younger actor to complete the quartet. How did you know that Agnes O’Casey would be up to the task?
Agnes was very clear about her character, and the other actors were very anxious to help. They admired her greatly because she thinks in the way that actors think. I can’t quite understand how they do what they do, how an actor can perceive a character, and how they resolve some of the knotty things in the character. I’ve worked with a lot of actors over the years. I love actors and what they do, but I don’t understand it. Talented actors know how to play one thing, absorb the unsaid, and express it. Agnes had that capacity instinctively, and the other three were supportive. They got on very well, and it was a very funny set, particularly Kathy, she is hilarious.
Speaking of funny, Stephen Rea puts in a hilarious performance as Kathy Bates’s hapless husband. We are not used to seeing him play comedy. How did that come about?
I have known him for forty years. He’s one of my closest friends. We have great fun together. It always comes as a surprise to me that people identify him as an overly serious actor. I suppose it comes from some of the parts he has played over the years, but I find it hilarious. There is a scene where he’s cooking for the kids with just a few lines of dialogue, but he makes it into something special. That has to do with his relationship with the kids. They found him intriguing and charming and reacted directly to that. It makes me laugh to think about them together because he’s so much fun. And he’s wise, as an actor and as a person.
The 1960s is an era you are familiar with; what was it like bringing it to life on screen?
I felt comfortable. Early versions of the script were set in different periods; it was obvious to me that the 1960s were the right period. I left Ireland in 1966 when I was 18. I visited and worked in Ireland, but I’ve never lived there since. It was a transition period; it was the beginning of things changing. It was interesting to go back to it and remember things like the colour of the wallpaper, what it was like on the streets, and what it felt like. The older women remind me of my mother; like her they’re older, wiser, and more sceptical. They feel the change that is coming. They were deeply religious, and they performed all the duties, but there was a scepticism that was starting to set in. Aggie is also interesting. She dresses like a kid who would look at home walking down King’s Road in 1967; she carries the past and the future; she is the first of the new generation in a sense.
Lourdes was a big part of Irish society until the 1990s; it is still important for some. Did your family go when you were a child?
My mother and father went when I was young. Going abroad in those days was quite something, but many people did it to get to Lourdes. They brought back souvenirs like bottles of holy water. It was something that people wanted to do for different reasons. Some had a very spiritual connection with Our Lady and wanted to visit the shrine. Some people wanted to rekindle their spirituality; to others, it was a family holiday, and some went for a miracle. I’ve met people who go every year, and they have a disabled child or a sick partner or something. They live in hope of a miracle.
Interview by Cara O’Doherty
THE MIRACLE CLUB is at Irish cinemas from October 13th