Sorcha Cusack makes acting look effortless. She’s perfect as interfering busybody Mrs McCarthy in the TV series Father Brown and she did a wonderful job of playing dedicated nurse Kate Wilson in the long-running series Casualty.
One reviewer said she gave a “chillingly nuanced performance” as a hardened matriarch in the British TV series River. When she played Ma Joad in a stage production of The Grapes of Wrath, she won praise for her gritty portrayal – and her flawless Oklahoma accent.
So it is a surprise to hear the Irish actress admit she finds acting difficult.
“I have always had to work hard; it doesn’t come naturally,” says Sorcha (68), who has been acting professionally since she was in her early 20s.
“Especially theatre – that’s hardest of all. My daughter Beth has gone into acting and she’s a natural on stage. She’s like a fish in water. But me… theatre feels like you are walking a tightrope without a safety net every time.”
Acting seemed like a foregone career choice when she was growing up. Her parents Cyril and Maureen Cusack were both actors, and her sisters Sinéad, Niamh and half-sister Catherine all followed in their parents’ footsteps. Her grandparents on her father’s side were also in the theatre, and Sorcha grew up thinking a life that revolved around acting was normal.
“My father did a film with James Cagney once and invited him over for dinner. People would say later, ‘Oh, you had James Cagney for dinner’ but I didn’t think it was that important.”
Initially, Sorcha resisted going into the family business, instead doing a degree in English and French, and then training as a teacher.
“I thought there were far too many actors in the family and I would do something else. I did work as a teacher for a year and a half, but I quickly realised teaching is a lot of hard work and I would most likely be burned out by the age of 35 if I did it.
“I kept getting offered acting work, so I decided to try it and see what happened. And here I am, still doing it.”
She says it is lovely to be offered regular work, “especially in my twilight years, so to speak. There isn’t always a lot of work around for actresses once you get to my age so I am lucky that I get to be in shows like Father Brown.”
Filming the mystery series, which is based on the G.K. Chesterton stories and set in a picturesque English village in the 1950s, only takes around four months a year, so that frees her up to take on other projects for the rest of the time.
“I would love to do a new play with a really good cast and director. It would be nice to do something that nobody has seen before and has preconceptions about.”
Past theatrical roles include Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 1990, in which her sisters in the play were played by her real-life siblings Sinéad and Niamh, and their father Cyril was cast as their dad.
“That’s the only time we all worked together,” recalls Sorcha. “It was a funny situation to be in. It did put a bit of a strain on family relations. But we survived it and I’m glad I did it. I have worked with Niamh a couple of times since, but not Sinéad. You never know, it could happen – we are all still acting.”Ironically, all three sisters married actors (Sinéad’s husband is Brideshead Revisited star Jeremy Irons). Sorcha is married to The Crown actor Nigel Cooke, who has appeared in an episode of Father Brown.
“We had great fun working together. He’d love to have a recurring role as a weird gardener who pops up from behind a hedge from time to time so we can spend more time together, but that hasn’t come to pass, unfortunately.”
The couple have two children. Son Liam (33) has completely eschewed the family profession and is a furniture maker.
“He did some acting at school and he was good at it, but he probably thought he should do something more sensible. I think he’s made a good choice.”
Although daughter Beth (31) has chosen to be the fourth generation of her family to tread the boards, she’s never had career advice from her mum.“I think people need to find their own way,” she says. “My parents never gave me advice – other than my mother telling me not to wrinkle my forehead so much, which I can’t help because I have a very mobile face. I think Beth needs to experience things for herself.”
Sorcha would be happy to do more film work – one of her most notable roles was as Brad Pitt’s mother in Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch.
“That was great fun, it was like making a home movie. Brad was delightful and it was so good working with Guy because if something wasn’t quite working out, he’d just say, ‘Do whatever you want, I am sure it will be fine.’”
She’s still recognised from her role in Casualty, even though it was back in the 1990s, and some keen Coronation Street fans remember her as the first actress to play Helen Connor, mum of Michelle, Paul and Liam and wife of Barry (played by Frank Grimes).
“I would just turn up whenever one of my children had a trauma. But Helen didn’t have legs of her own as a character so when they asked me back a third time, I decided to pass.”
Sorcha, who considers herself to be a “jobbing actor”, says one of the benefits of being older is being able to say no to certain jobs.
“I’m able to pick and choose, which is good. But I still seem to be as busy as ever – I don’t know how I have managed that, but it is a good position to be in.”
Watch Father Brown on UKTV, Sky Channel 7, Tuesdays at 9.30pm.