Irish actress Maria Doyle Kennedy loves how her new “Titanic” miniseries shines a spotlight on the second-class passengers of the doomed luxury liner.
“The second class is never told in Titanic [movies or TV shows.] It’s interesting in itself as a story and storyline, where they were, but also it’s interesting how that reflects on the other classes. It makes the English class system even more complex and nuanced,” the 47-year-old Clontarf-born star told the Irish Echo in a recent phone interview.
Written by “Downton Abbey” and “Gosford Park” scribe Julian Fellowes, “Titanic” is a four-part television event headlined by Kennedy, Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, Peter McDonald and Perdita Weeks. It is set to air on ABC April 14-15 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous ship’s sinking. More than 1,500 people died after the Belfast-built passenger liner struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York. Each of the first three episodes of the miniseries follows a mixture of real and imagined characters in the first-class, second-class and steerage sections of the ship in the time leading up to the crash. The finale pulls together all of the characters as they struggle to survive the historic maritime disaster.
“It is a very strong ensemble piece,” Kennedy said of the small-screen re-telling of the well-known tale. “There are several storylines in a way that Robert Altman did ‘Short Cuts’ and P.T. Anderson did ‘Magnolia.’ It’s all of these stories that overlap and weave together and that was a really interesting thing for me as an actor. It’s a proper ensemble and in some instances your story would be in the forefront and in others your story would be running through the side or the back of somebody else’s and it just seemed like a very interesting way to work for me.”
Best known for her roles on TV’s “The Tudors” and “Dexter,” as well as in the films “The General,” “The Commitments” and “The MatchMaker,” Kennedy plays fictional character Muriel Batley, an Irish woman whose husband John is a London lawyer, in the “Titanic” miniseries.
“The fact that she was fictional and not a real person just had that extra little bit of liberation about it,” explained the Trinity College Dublin graduate. “Toby [Jones, who plays John,] and I could really decide ourselves about our story and our connection and how we really felt about how the relationship had come about and what kind of state it was in. The other thing that was interesting to me is we’re second class so were kind of perfectly positioned in the middle of the boat and in the middle of the English class system, so that was an interesting thing to explore.”
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
The actress said she felt Muriel was a complicated, well-drawn character because she was highly intelligent and well-spoken, but, because of the time in which she lived, had no real outlet for her talents.
“I think, had she chosen to, she could have been well capable of being a lawyer herself as her husband was,” she reasoned. “But, of course, at the time, women weren’t able to do that. She wasn’t able to be part of the profession. She was mature and married and also, because of her class, she couldn’t accept a job that would have been considered menial or below her — she couldn’t take in washing or look after children. So she had nothing to do with her great intellect and they were unable to have children, so she had nowhere to pour her love. So the idea of having nothing to do with your life, I just can’t imagine how frustrated a clever woman like that would have become.”
Kennedy said her recurring role as the scheming Vera Bates on “Downton Abbey” actually didn’t help her as much as one would think in booking her passage on “Titanic.”
“That almost meant that I didn’t get the part,” she revealed. “They didn’t want to have any more cross-over. They thought that Julian himself was enough of a connection between the two things.”
Kennedy said she met with the project’s producers, who wanted to cast her, but then backed off when they realized she was already working on “Downton Abbey,” a TV drama which begins with a wealthy family’s reaction to the off-screen sinking of Titanic.
However, “Titanic” miniseries director Jon Jones, who was in Budapest scouting locations at the time of Kennedy’s first meeting with the producers, saw an audition tape Kennedy made and knew she was the perfect actress to play Muriel.
“He really liked what I had done, what I had read, so he fought for me. So I was very lucky, but it nearly didn’t work out,” she recalled.
Asked how physically demanding the job was, Kennedy was careful not to give too much away about her plotline.
“I do get pitched into the water, so I did spend quite a lot of days in the water and also, obviously, in sort of full Victorian costume, but it was only a few days. I knew it was coming. We expected it. It’s not like I was working down a mine. I think it would be ungracious for me to complain about that. I hate hearing actors moan,” she laughed.
So, how does the mother of four children, who not only acts, but sings and runs her own record label, balance all of her passions?
“It’s a bit of juggle sometimes,” Kennedy confessed. “But I think anyone who works and has children finds it can be a very tricky juggle. When we go away touring, we try to just do very short bursts, about a maximum of 10 days… as opposed to heading off for two or three months without them. That just wouldn’t work for us at all. So it just means you change it around and do it a little differently maybe than other people do it, and prioritize. Obviously, you think about the kids first and what they need and then after that we see if we can fit the work in around them. But, so far, we’ve managed to keep it all moving along.”
Kennedy, her musician husband Kieran Kennedy and their band are planning a series of concert dates in the United States later this year. A schedule of shows will be posted on http://www.mariadk.com