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Denise Gough: From feral brilliance in 'People, Places & Things' to a Broadway debut in 'Angels in America'

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

NEW YORK -- At the start of Duncan Macmillan's "People, Places & Things," which concluded its triumphant run at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn on Sunday, Emma, an actress with a serious substance abuse problem, is flailing about in Chekhov's "The Seagull." She's practically teetering as she delivers Nina's famous speech, "I'm a seagull. No, that's not right. I'm an actress."

As portrayed by Denise Gough, the Irish-born, London-based powerhouse who won an Olivier Award for her performance, Emma might be more truthfully wondering whether she's an actress or an addict. At the moment, the high she's getting from pills and booze seems to have overtaken the intoxication of performing onstage.

No performance this year has affected me as viscerally. If I were to pick a runner-up, it might be Gough's anguished portrayal of Harper in the National Theatre production of "Angels in America," which I saw in the summer and am eager to see again once it opens on Broadway in March.

Wanting to meet the woman capable of this brilliant double act, I arranged to have coffee with Gough in Brooklyn Heights on Thanksgiving morning. Sneaking in some errands beforehand, I felt self-conscious, in an Emma-like way, about carrying shopping bags that contained a giant pumpkin pie and several bottles of red wine, which I did my best not to rattle as I greeted this stunningly attractive actress whose vegan diet and strict self-care regimen have preserved the radiance her character trashed long ago.

The stars have aligned for Gough, and she's not at all superstitious about acknowledging her moment. She's grateful success has come to her when it did, in her mid-30s, and not sooner.

"It was tough for a long time," she admitted. "When I was out of work, I'd look up Julianne Moore and Frances McDormand, actresses whose big, juicy stuff came later, and think maybe I'll be like them. Having this big break happen when it did is glorious because you know what life is about. I don't know that I could have handled it at 23. At least now I can have a sense of humor about it."

 

Two things became supremely evident during my conversation with Gough: She has a good deal in common with the assertively intelligent, fiercely independent and casually profane Emma -- and she's a good deal saner. As playful as she is candidly introspective, she's still somewhat agog that acting heroes like John Lithgow are saying hello after the show, "Angels in America" costar Nathan Lane is inviting her to lunch in TriBeCa and that she's getting to shoot a movie back in England ("The Kid Who Would Be King") in the interval between her first two New York gigs. (A prestige showcase film, about the French writer Colette starring Keira Knightley, is also in the works.)

From a large Irish family in Ennis, County Clare, Gough learned to fend for herself early on. A self-described wild child, she was living with a boyfriend in London at 16 and had to improvise her survival. ("I kept shaving my head, so I didn't look like a victim so much as a little mad person.") She found mentors at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, where she won a scholarship, but she also confronted detractors. One faculty member said she'd never have a stage career with her voice, but that only spurred her to develop it into a majestic instrument.

She attributes a good portion of her success to sheer stubbornness. Yet it was only a few years ago that she was contemplating giving up the profession.

"I hadn't worked for 13 months," Gough recalled. "I was living on 30 pounds a week. I was working with kids, meditating all the time, going to yoga. I finally said, 'If I have to give up, I've done good. I've worked with some brilliant people. Maybe that was my time.' It was a very painful process to surrender, but surrender is everything. And then this play came along."

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