Changes: Denise Gough
The audio version of this episode is available here.
Denise [00:00:00] I used to beg for money and pick up fag butts on Shaftesbury Avenue and I'd be in bits crying outside theatres, right. I'd think, I just want to be in there, how do we get in there? And when I was one year sober, I walked up Shaftesbury Avenue and I looked up and there was a poster of me outside a theatre, and I was like oh my God, are you fucking kidding? How the hell did I get away with that? And I have so many of those moments, the things that come back to me to say, look, look at what you've managed to do.
[00:00:28] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:00:35] Hello. Welcome to Changes. My name is Annie Macmanus. How are yous? I hope you are well. I hope you're enjoying this hot, hot heat and you're getting a chance to sprawl out in it like a lazy cat. Sometimes that's all you can do on the days that have been this hot recently. I'm sitting here in my rave shed and it's great to be able to bring you this week's episode of Changes. My guest is Irish actress, Denise Gough. Denise Gough already has total respect within the acting community. She has won two Olivier awards for her theatre performances in the plays, People, Places and Things, and Angels in America. You may have seen her in the film Collette, starring alongside Keira Knightley or more recently her performance that was BAFTA nominated in the psychological crime drama, Too Close, with Emily Watson on ITV. The series starts with Denise's character in the midst of a mental health crisis. She's got two kids in the back of her car, and you see her go to drive her car off a bridge. That is the level of intensity of this series. You will not want to stop watching it. It's kind of totally cliff-hangers every time an episode ends and her performance is genuinely one of the best performances I've ever seen on television. I'm not exaggerating here, and a lot of the critics agree with me. So yeah, if you haven't checked that out, do. And also this summer, Denise is going to become known by many more people when she stars in the new Star Wars series, Andor on Disney Plus. For this interview, Denise and I met in town in London. We went to a studio and I listened to her story, which was remarkable in many ways, but in the context of change it was just non-stop. She grew up in a huge family in County Clare in Ireland and so much happened between that and her becoming the actress she is today. Unfortunately, not all of that was nice. Some real trauma happened in between and Denise's story is as much about how she processed that trauma and how that shaped her, as about all the other bits. It's a shocking story, it's sometimes sad, but it's also really, really inspiring. If you need to know exactly what the content of this conversation is before you hear it, then go check out the show notes. But right now I am delighted to welcome to Changes, Denise Gough. *Short musical interlude*. So, I watched you on Too Close recently, which I presume for you probably feels like forever ago when you film these things. But I was so, so moved and bowled over by your performance on that show. How are you feeling in retrospect, having put that out into the world?
Denise [00:03:19] Yeah, you see, um, I was reading this article last night, two actors talking to each other about like how they, when they play really difficult parts and- and I thought, I've had a life before my career that was so difficult and so painful in many ways that when I play parts like this, like that, Too Close or any part really, I just don't find it that difficult. I find there were things around that job that were quite tricky, but performing and playing women like that, I just I'm so- it's pretend, you know. I mean, it's deep pretend, but it's not- yeah, I don't find it hard, I'm afraid. I'm not ever going to be an actress who sits and talks about, you know.
Annie [00:04:10] The trauma of having to live this character.
Denise [00:04:13] Yeah, because people live that character in real life and, you know, I go home at the end of the day. And also when I'm doing that, the amount of people that surround you to make sure that you're okay. And I think we could do with kind of affording that luxury to every single number on the call sheet. You know, because I have noticed the further up I go in TV, like how the people who are doing like the intense performances are all looked after in a way that is kind of, you know, somebody who's coming in for a day might not be looked after as well as some. So yeah, the answer to the question is, putting it out into the world I was glad that it went out and yeah, I was proud of it because I thought women like that and mental health and all of that stuff is so often, especially if you're a woman who behaves badly, who does something terrible. I do like that what seems to be happening in my career is I'm chosen to play those women and show you that, you know, there but for the grace of whatever you believe in, go I, you know? Yeah, so I was, I was really happy when it went out.
Annie [00:05:28] What has acting done for you, Denise?
Denise [00:05:29] Saved my life. Absolutely saved my life. My God. It was the thing that I knew I was good at and people told me I was good at. And when you have- like we'll talk about why that was really important, but as a child, things happened that kind of destroyed my sense of self and my self-esteem. And so you need to feel good at something when you're a kid, you need someone cheerleading you. And that is what happened for me. And it was never about being on telly either or being famous. It was about being on stage. The stage is what saved my life, the sense of community and the people clapping at the end. It was the thing that I thought, If I can just get to that, I'll be okay. If I can be an actress, I'll be okay. And then of course, when I became an actress it was like, why am I still not okay? *Both laugh*. And then you realise, oh you have a bit more work to do. But it allowed me also because of the women I was playing, it was my education into what work I did need to do on myself. So it's saved my life. It continues to save my life. It's my education, it's my everything. It's my everything.
Annie [00:06:44] Is there a feeling that you get when you are inhabiting a character? You know, when you're in the zone of acting?
Denise [00:06:50] Yeah, it's like, oh it's magic. Especially like, you know, now I've started leading companies, which is the ultimate privilege, now it's like 20 years of graft, of finally becoming, you know, the title, the title role. When I'm on stage, but particularly I did a play called People, Places and Things, about addiction, and I was on stage for the entire time. And it's the feeling of you're conducting the whole thing. So you have a huge responsibility because if I get into making it about me, I'm not looking after the audience in some pretty heavy material. It's my responsibility to make sure they feel safe, to feel whatever they're feeling. And, you know, I went the other night to see Jodie Comer in Prima Facie... I mean, I could cry talking about it because she was so wonderful. And that's a woman who has come from screen mostly. I've never seen someone do what she did the other night in her first leading role. I mean, it is absolutely incredible. It's like she understood completely what her role was. It's a one woman show, and yet she made it all about the audience, all about specifically the women in the audience. She held us all. It was so moving. And I thought that's what I feel when I'm on stage. I saw her feel what I feel.
Annie [00:08:20] What have you learnt about human emotion and being an actor?
Denise [00:08:24] Well, I know the importance for me to take care of myself, to know myself inside and out so that I'm not using. Like I don't believe in acting as therapy. I think you can have that separately but as an actor, I don't want to be puking my stuff all over an audience or specifically on the other people I'm working with. Like, I only operate from a place of joy in making a play. I don't want to make anything heavy and dark, especially if the material is heavy and dark. It will do that for itself. Parallel to all the women I play, I have to be doing the work on myself constantly. And I'm sure you agree, the work never stops on you oneself.
Annie [00:09:19] You're so hyper aware as a person of everyone else around you, and that must be something to do with how you were brought up in a big, big family, right?
Denise [00:09:28] Yeah, maybe and like, there's no- I don't think a psychologist would have a difficulty to, you know, unpicking the fact that my job now is to stand in front of crowds of people when they all have to shut up and then clap when I'm finished, preferably like standing up, clapping.
Annie [00:09:42] So give us a context then, of your of your childhood.
Denise [00:09:45] So I have ten brothers and sisters. I'm the middle.
Annie [00:09:48] Can you bring us through them?
Denise [00:09:49] Shane, Niall, Zita, Darragh, Angie, Jurd, me, John, Aydeen, Kelly and Kieran.
Annie [00:09:56] Wow.
Denise [00:09:57] So we used to say, you know, the prayers before bed and you say, God bless Mum, *mumbles the full list of her siblings* *Both laugh*.
Annie [00:10:08] You didn't have any sort of like, acronym where you just did the first, the first letters or anything?
Denise [00:10:12] No, and even now I have to say it in that order because when I mix it up, I get confused. Erm, so yeah.
Annie [00:10:17] So what was life like? What was your house like? Where did you grow up in Ireland?
Denise [00:10:21] I mean my mother was amazing when I think of it because, my sister and I were talking about it the other day, like the house was immaculate. It really was. But I think we had a system so we all had jobs to do. So I also learned really early that you work. I was born in Wexford and then moved to Clare when I was five and-
Annie [00:10:41] Do you remember that move?
Denise [00:10:43] Yes I do, and I remember that day stealing Fancy Pages. Do you remember fancy pages?
Annie [00:10:49] No.
Denise [00:10:49] Oh my God, we used to collect Fancy Pages.
Annie [00:10:51] Were they the ones that kind of smelled?
Denise [00:10:52] They smelled, exactly! And we were all obsessed with them in our teens. Well before our teens.
Annie [00:10:58] Preteens.
Denise [00:10:58] Yeah, I was obsessed with smoking and boys in my teens. So, I remember going to a supermarket and stealing a pad of fancy pages and putting it down my knickers.
Annie [00:11:08] Yeah.
Denise [00:11:08] And then feeling so guilty that I told my sister, who then told my parents, who then took the Fancy Pages from me, saying they were bringing them back to the shop. But I found them years later on the top of a cupboard, a press as we say in Ireland, and thought, oh my God. So, when I needed the Fancy Pages, I got them back. But I had a therapist who told me that when a child steals, it's because they're feeling emotionally insecure. And so I guess I was emotionally insecure at that move. And I did make friends, my mum told me I made friends very easily as a kid. But when I imagine that little girl stealing those pages, I think I was scared and I sort of grew up there until I left when I was, I was just turned 16 when I got to London.
Annie [00:11:57] I'm just trying to like, get a picture of what being in a family that size, which you know, a lot of people listening will not even be able to compute, what it must be like. It's not that uncommon in Ireland, obviously, but what was it like being such a part of a big family?
Denise [00:12:11] I mean, there's a whole romantic thing when I tell people, especially Americans, when I tell Americans that I have this huge Irish family and they're like, oh my God, that's amazing. And I think, no man, it wasn't for me. I mean, I wish I could say that it was but I felt very alone and very like I didn't fit in. I mean, think about it. Like there's 11 children and everyone's prime objective is to get to the Holy Grail, which is the parents. But there are all these other kids in the way. And so I don't remember- my little brother and I were close for a period of time, but I don't remember feeling like I had a lot of friends in my family.
Annie [00:12:52] Did you share your bedroom with lots of people?
Denise [00:12:53] Yes. Yeah, yeah of course. There were two bunk beds initially, two sets of bunk beds and then I did get my own bedroom when I was maybe 14.
Annie [00:13:05] Wow, that's amazing. In a family of 11.
Denise [00:13:07] Isn't that amazing, yeah, but I guess because there were six above me and they had all left, so there wasn't like 11 kids in the house at the same time.
Annie [00:13:15] Got you, yeah.
Denise [00:13:15] And I do remember I would love when my brother Shane would come back because I never lived with Shane, but he was like super cool and he smoked and he would put us in the back of his car and like, do zigzags. So, there was always somebody coming home from somewhere. Like my sister Zita would come home from Paris. I remember just thinking, she's studying business, in Paris, and she was super cool. And then Niall was a dentist and he'd come back and so we weren't all in the house at the same time, but there were a lot of us. Lots of them have kids now, but my sister who I'm very close to, Angie, she's got three kids and I see the different- And you've got kids, right?
Annie [00:13:54] Yeah, I have two kids, yeah.
Denise [00:13:55] So they're very different.
Annie [00:13:59] They are completely different personalities. From birth.
Denise [00:14:00] Yeah, and so they need individual stuff. And how could my parents do that? Like just how, it's not, it's not possible.
Annie [00:14:11] They don't physically have the time.
Denise [00:14:12] Exactly. Their job sort of was to just keep us alive, get us all fed, clean, like we were immaculate, like I said. And I remember things like my mum, she was- the older I get, the more I think, wow, God, what my mother did!
Annie [00:14:27] What was she like, your mam? Or is she still around your mam?
Denise [00:14:29] Yeah, yeah. Both of them are still around, they're still together. I remember when I was old enough to know, like there was no Santa and stuff, sorry kids close your ears *Annie laughs*, but I remember my mother going to my friend's house to look at- my friend's mum was selling on her Barbies because she'd grown out of them. So my mum went- she would go to neighbours and different people's houses and buy the Barbies for my little sisters and then make the clothes for the Barbies. My mum made all the curtains. Like she made her own clothes, like amazing. Also the way she fed us, we never had like processed food or- and I mean, how did she do that?! And also when I was about 13 or maybe a bit younger, she trained to be a marriage counsellor, so it wasn't like she was just a mother at a certain point, once she was able to she did other things, you know. But yeah, I think we were provided for in the best way, but emotionally, it's impossible to provide.
Annie [00:15:36] Of course.
Denise [00:15:37] Yeah, and so what I learned really young was that I was too much, I needed too much. And that's a really difficult thing for a kid.
Annie [00:15:44] And how did you learn that? Were you told that or were you given the impression?
Denise [00:15:46] I was told! Yeah. 'Stop looking for attention'. And again, this brilliant therapist, she's like, but of course you were looking for attention, you're a kid. But I learnt I was a bad kind of kid for needing that. Yeah, that's taken a whole, I mean it's taken a lot of unpicking and then of course I end up as an actress *both laugh*. And also I was too sensitive. That was another thing. Like I cried a lot and I was obsessed with things like- the war in Kuwait was happening and Saddam Hussein was kicking off and I would write to him and ask him to meet me so that we could have a conversation about what was going to happen because they were going to use Shannon as an arms base for the American-
Annie [00:16:32] Shannon Airport, yeah.
Denise [00:16:33] Shannon Airport which is near my house and I was like obsessed! Up at night time writing these letters, practising the speech I would make to him. I was obsessed with the Holocaust, like I wasn't allowed to watch Home and Away, but I was allowed to watch documentaries of the holocaust.
Annie [00:16:48] Oh my God.
Denise [00:16:48] So I became very obsessed with, you know, bad things happening to people and feeling like I could do something about it. But for a little kid, that's a lot to feel like you- you know, I'm sure if Saddam Hussein met me, I would be able to convince him not to. Yeah, so as a kid I was really obsessed with fixing the world. And that's a lot for a little kid to take on. And also, my mum's dad lived with us too, until he died. So she nursed him until he died. It was just the Irish way. And like, look at what they did. Everyone in my family is really quite successful.
Annie [00:17:26] That's remarkable.
Denise [00:17:27] Yeah, and it's not like we had loads of money and it- they worked. So they instilled in me a work ethic that is- like has stood me in such good stead. I know how to work. And I'm really grateful for that. But emotionally, I had to do all that work myself later. And I did seek my emotional needs to be met outside the home in quite dangerous ways.
[00:17:53] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:18:02] So you're a little kid with this huge imagination and this kind of, gut instinctual thing to escape. To get out.
Denise [00:18:10] Yeah.
Annie [00:18:11] At 15 where were you at? What happened?
Annie [00:18:14] Well it started before that, you know, so at school I went to a convent school. I had one nun called Sister de Montford when I was about, I think I was about nine when I was in her class. And she was amazing. Like, she thought I was really funny. She used to say to me, you have such spirit, don't forget that you have this spirit. And my boldness, my bratty thing that people would say was being a brat, she thought was mischief. And so I thrived in her class. But then straight after that I went into, I'm not even going to mention her name, but I went into another nuns class who told me things about myself that if that was to happen now.. it wouldn't happen now. 'You're dirty'. 'Men are going to come for you'. She would say prayers for me at the beginning of the class in front of all the other little girls. 'Don't hang around with Denise Gough, she's dirty'. Now thankfully, I was the kind of kid, like I look back on myself as a child and I think, oh, you brilliant little thing. So she would say 'Denise Gough is evil'. And then I would go, *devil voice* 'I'm gonna get you!' *Annie laughs*. Because I thought, okay, well-.
Annie [00:19:30] Here's evil love!
Denise [00:19:30] Yeah, because I thought- I don't think I was consciously thinking it back then, but it was a self-protecting thing. So then my behaviour-.
Annie [00:19:38] But it was a self-perpetuating thing as well.
Denise [00:19:43] Absolutely.
Annie [00:19:43] It was like, I'm going to be this thing!
Denise [00:19:45] Totally. The most damaging thing that she did was talk about my appearance as being- what Sister de Montford would have said about how beautiful I was and how shiny and everything, this other woman and the woman after her would say, 'filthy, look at you, filthy, showing off your legs, you're filthy'. And she did say the words, 'and when you're older, they'll come for you. The men will come for you. Boys and-', something along those lines. So when they came for me, I thought she was right. So I protected myself in school as much as I could by being a brat. First of all, you're not believed or you're told you must be doing something wrong. Children were not listened to, right, when we were growing up. So I got old. That was what happened. Suddenly I wasn't so good in school. Like I was a clever little girl but I just stopped working. Hated it. Hated school. I started getting tough, I started smoking, all things that, you know, I know kids do those things but I was doing them with an edge of confusion about, maybe I am these things that these two women had said. And years later, I went back. I would visit Sister de Montford in the convent. We became good friends and she told me once- so we were walking through the corridors. Sister de Montfort is dead now, God rest you, you beautiful woman. We saw the other nun walking towards us in the corridor and Sister de Montford for pulled me into a bedroom, she closed the door and she said, I don't want you to have to see her. And I said, what do you mean?
Annie [00:21:31] So she knew?
Denise [00:21:31] She knew. I said, did you know that was happening? And she said, Denise, I tried so hard. I tried so hard. I'm so sorry. I tried so hard to stop her. To stop them from doing that. But I was told there was nothing to be done. So, she got in trouble with the nuns for daring to speak up on my behalf. But I had no idea. But the validation and the affirmation that gave me when she told me, because I always thought it was all my fault. Because what happened then, and this is I guess, the thing that I'm most nervous about talking about because I haven't spoken about this publicly before, but it's not my shame. And so I'm not going to be ashamed anymore. So when I was 14, a guy, he was 21 and I became quite obsessed with losing my virginity. Why? Like at that young age, why? Anyway, this guy, he would walk me home from school. He would tell me I was beautiful. He told me I was lovely. But I was too young for him. Essentially Annie, I was groomed. I didn't know that that's what happened, because I always thought I had asked him to take my virginity. I didn't realise until I got a lot of help, what happens in order to make a child ask that, and that's called grooming. So that happened when I was 14. So the first time that it happened, I remember afterwards I thought, oh no, I don't like that. I don't like what happened there. I don't like it. I want to go back. And of course, you can't go back. And then the second time that he did it, it was, I think he, I mean, there was a lot of alcohol in a cup and I drank it. But I remember really vividly that night, sitting in front of- I was eating a cake, this cake called a romantica. I have all these weird, like very vivid fucking memories. And I was watching cartoons when he came into the room and he basically took me upstairs and he put my favourite song on. I'll never- that really bothers me that he played my favourite song on a loop.
Annie [00:23:55] Tainted your favourite song.
Denise [00:23:55] Yeah, my T'Pau! I fucking love T'Pau. Now I can't listen to it. Well actually, I can listen to it now. It's just I remember that little girl. And so the second time there was no doubt, like, he had done something. He had done something and I hadn't wanted him to. But the next morning, because after I passed out, and the next morning I said sorry to him. I said sorry to him. And it's like-
Annie [00:24:21] Why did you feel the need to do that do you think, at the time?
Denise [00:24:22] Because that night I had sneaked out of home. I had started doing that. And I realised, oh shit, my parents are going to be up in half an hour. So I had to run from one side of the town to the other. But I felt like I had gotten up and I'd been so shaken that I said, oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I have to go. I have to go. And I think, oh my God, you poor little darling. Like the panic that I was in because I was already- so the shame was compounded with more shame and more shame and more shame because I had to get home before my parents woke up. So of course I didn't get to process any of that stuff. But then what happened. I was 14, then I got into a very adult relationship with a-.
Annie [00:25:04] With a different person?
Denise [00:25:04] With a different boy, yeah. But it was problematic. I mean, I took my first ecstasy tablet when I was 14 at a teenage disco.
Annie [00:25:13] Wow.
Denise [00:25:13] Yeah. And I thought, why don't we all just take an ecstasy tablet every morning? Because we all are so nice to each other. I realise now that addiction, it's a craving for love. Craving, softness, gentleness, kindness. That's what I was looking for.
Annie [00:25:30] And ecstasy gave this exaggerated, kind of extravagant version of that.
Denise [00:25:33] Oh my God, it was amazing. But it's never the same after the first one. So that's when my addiction started and er-
Annie [00:25:41] Had your parents any idea how this was unravelling? Do you think they were recognising it at all?
Denise [00:25:47] Yeah, I think my behaviour was really appalling. But I couldn't articulate any of the stuff that had happened because-.
Annie [00:25:55] Course not, you're a teenager.
Denise [00:25:56] Exactly. So what happens in a family like mine is I'm seeking too much attention. My therapist is amazing, she said when a child is showing this behaviour, it's a symptom of something else. And so when you're just responding to the behaviour, you're missing the point. But I feel like how could they? I mean, they're so busy with everything else. My father went back to college. He's trying to get a degree, like everyone was doing their best. It's just I didn't really know what had happened apart from, I was a bad girl and I had been told that the men were going to come, so they were here. So, I mean, isn't that just- it's like a horror film when I think about it, mentally, what was going on. So, drugs and alcohol. My God. Thank God I found them because they were soothing. They didn't make me happy. They just meant I didn't care. I just didn't care anymore. It was like- and I started I remember changing my hair, making myself sort of, maybe unattractive. I was trying to- like when I fell in love with the boy after the guy, I did love him so much but he got caught dealing drugs and he was sent to England. And I was supposed to run away to England to be with him but I met someone else because all I was doing was attaching, attaching, attaching to anyone and everyone. And really I was attaching to where the drugs were. It didn't matter who you were.
Annie [00:27:33] And were you still in school at this point, you're still going to school?
Denise [00:27:36] Yeah, but I remember I started like just not paying any attention in school and leaving school. But then I remember a friend of mine who was 13 told me she had been raped at a party and I became obsessed with this girl. And I remember asking someone, what happens if this happens to your friend? And the person said, well, if she was drinking, that's kind of what happens to girls when they drink, right? So it's only years later that I realised it was in that moment that I was like, oh my God, it was my fault too. So that's just what happens. And again, everyone was doing their best. This is all regurgitation of years of Irish Catholic thinking, right? But I remember leaving school because I went to the police station and I sat there all day and I wrote statement after statement begging the police to help my friend. Now I see that what I was really doing was begging someone to help me, but nothing was done. Years later, I was told that they had tried to do something, but the girl wouldn't speak up. And I thought, now as a woman, I'm like, but she was 13, she shouldn't have had to speak up you just- because I gave them the name of the guy who did it and everything. You don't ask the child. You get the guy into custody or whatever. So that was when I ran away from home.
[00:29:06] *Short musical interlude*
Denise [00:29:16] You cite this as your childhood change, the big childhood change. This move to London at 15.
Denise [00:29:23] Well I was 16 when I got to London, I was 15 when I left home. So the guy that I was in love with, he went to England and then I just hooked up with somebody else and I ran away with him. And I, oh God. The night before we left- we broke into a restaurant the night before we left Ireland and it was the restaurant that I worked at as a waitress. And this man named Kevin and his wife, they had given me a job even though nobody was supposed to give me a job in the town because everybody knew my family and they wanted me to just go back home, you know? But he gave me a job and I repaid him by breaking into his restaurant that night. And years later, I went back to apologise. And my God, the kindness. I can't remember exactly what he said, but I think he said something like he knew someone who had never shown any remorse for something terrible that they had done and the fact that I had come back and said sorry meant that I was going to be okay. And what I'm saying- when I tell those stories I'm saying them because the little kindnesses that people showed me-.
Annie [00:30:36] They stretched so far.
Denise [00:30:36] Oh my God, you can stay alive on those because it's like all the way through the darkness. I would think, but Sister De Montford thought that I was okay. She thought I was beautiful.
Annie [00:30:48] And all you need is one person.
Denise [00:30:50] One person. And I had another person, my Aunty Shelley, who worked in the Bank of Ireland in Piccadilly, like the fanciest bank. And I would show up at the bank, like with dreadlocks and, you know, trying to steal money from her essentially. You know, telling her I was going to do an acting class and she'd be like, do you think I've come down in the last shower? I know you're not doing an acting class. But she believed in me, even though she'd never seen me on stage or anything. But she used to say to me, you're going to be a succ- you're going to be brilliant. I think-
Annie [00:31:20] So many Auntie Shelley's. I know auntie Shelley. I know auntie Shelley.
Denise [00:31:23] So many Auntie Shelley's right. So now in my success, like being able to-.
Annie [00:31:28] She's vindicated.
Denise [00:31:29] Oh, she's just so- anyway. So the move. Yeah, we literally went on the run, but I was 16 so when we got to England and the police stopped us I didn't have to go home because in England, you can leave home at 16. If they had stopped us in Dublin or in Ireland I would have had to go home. Yeah, so I got to London and Jesus, that was an eye opener. I arrived with this guy and that lasted about two months. I tried living with my beautiful brother, who I now think, he was 24! Because in my mind he was like an adult, you know? But he was 24 and he had to, like, have his little sister, who was bringing men home to his flat, like, you know, and like on drugs all the time. What? And so essentially, I couldn't live with a family member because I felt so ashamed of myself. All I wanted to do was just take drugs, just go to Strawberry Sunday and dance and stay out all night and stay as high as I possibly could. And I worked in bars. I lived in Camberwell. I wound up squatting anyway. The girl I was living with was actually paying rent. And I mean, man, we had rats in the kitchen, you know? But I was happy in a weird way. Like, I was far away from the thing that I felt ashamed of. And I was living with somebody who, she would say to me, you're going to be a brilliant actress and I'm going to be a journalist and it's all going to be- and we looked after each other. I saw her recently. We used to laugh about those, the way that we lived. We don't laugh anymore because it's really sad, actually. Drugs and alcohol were my solution to what was going on. So the second change, I mean, just insert all the crazy kind of stories.
Annie [00:33:28] Antics that will come with you in London. 16, 17, 18, 19. These really formative years.
Denise [00:33:35] Yeah. And then of course my family were raging at me. Why wouldn't they be? Because all they could see was the behaviour. Nobody knew what was really underneath that behaviour and also because I had gone so far down the behaviour, the kind of compassion for, oh God, is she okay, was gone. It was just, she's a nightmare. But now I look at my little niece Eidy and I think, I was her age when I started everything and she's a child. I didn't have the capacity to make adult decisions, and I was making them and then being treated like somebody who was an adult. But I wasn't. I was a child when all of this was happening. When I was 18 years old, I was finally able to get the dole. And thank God I was allowed access. Like, I mean, it's easier for me, isn't it? I'm a white, English speaking immigrant, but I'm telling you, immigrants, I am proof of what we will give back if we are supported to do so. So I signed on and I also bought a bag of weed and went and watched Titanic and cried *Annie laughs*. That was my 18th birthday, ladies and gentlemen. And I started because when you signed on back then, you could study for 16 hours a week. So I went to Lewisham College to study acting. I did a year.
Annie [00:34:59] And all this time you had felt like this was something for you.
Denise [00:35:03] Oh my God.
Annie [00:35:04] But you had never really had concentrated time learning it, right?
Denise [00:35:08] No, not yet. And also, I'm going to tell you this story because it blows my mind, right. I used to beg for money on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Annie [00:35:15] Right. This is early, like 16?
Denise [00:35:17] This is early, this is 16. And in Camberwell too. We would go out and ask for money. And I never sat down to do it because I thought, if I sit down, then I'm definitely homeless. I spoke to my therapist about this because I was like, I wasn't really homeless. Like, I just slept on people's sofas. And she said, Denise, strangers- strangers took me into their homes and let me sleep there. I would go to a club and then stay for three days. I was homeless. Yes, my family will say and they should say, like she could have come home at any time. I couldn't. It was impossible. I was broken. I was so full of shame. There's no way I could go back, you know. I went from being a kid who wanted to go to Trinity College to study acting, to living in a tent in a field at the back of my boyfriend's house because I didn't want to go home. How the hell did that happen? And now I know. Anyway, I used to beg for money and pick up fagg butts on Shaftesbury Avenue and I'd be in bits crying outside theatres, right. I'd think, I just want to be in there, how do I get in there? And when I was one year sober, I walked up Shaftesbury Avenue and I looked up and there was a poster of me outside the theatre. I collapsed. Like I, I, I fell down because I had- it was like a weird flashback that happened. I saw the girl on Shaftesbury Avenue, and then I saw this poster and I was like, oh my God, are you fucking kidding? How the hell did I get away with that? And I have so many of those moments, the things that come back to me to say, look, look at what you've managed to do, because I was ravaged with addiction for my early career. I didn't get sober till I was 27.
[00:37:01] *Short musical interlude*
Annie [00:37:10] So how did you do it? And what was the catalyst for doing it?
Denise [00:37:14] So I was working in bars in Camberwell. I had left Lewisham College and then I started going to this class every Saturday. No matter what state I was in, I would show up at this class at a place called Imperial Gardens, which was a nightclub that had been shut down, that I had also worked on the door of at one point. And so I started going to this class and the teacher of the class said, you need to go to drama school. And I said, well *snuffs* I don't know what that means.
Annie [00:37:45] Sort me out *laughs*. Show me the way, give me the cash.
Denise [00:37:47] But he was a teacher at Alra, this school. So I went to this class, and so I asked my mum for the money for it. I said, I'm going to go to drama school. And it was 35 quid an audition. And of course I had no money because it was all going on drugs. And my mother sent me, my parents sent me enough for three auditions. So I spent two auditions of money and I had one fee left and I auditioned for Alra, this school that he was at. Did my audition and everything, and then I didn't forget about it, but I sort of- I was busy being like a drug addict. And then I went home to Ireland for one of my sister's wedding, and we were all sat around a table and they were asking me what I was going to do with my life and I said, I'm going to go to drama school. And they said, well how are you going to go to drama school? It's nine grand a year, even if you get in how are you going to pay for it? Apart from Shelley who was going, 'she's going to go to drama school'.
Annie [00:38:42] *Laughing* go on Shelley!
Denise [00:38:42] Go on Shelley, she was amazing. And quite right, the rest of the family were like, It's never going to happen. So I went to the beach, I rolled a joint, I rang the school and said, yeah I did an audition recently, and they said yes, we've been trying to contact you, you've got a place. And I said, well I can't go because I've no money. And they said, no, no, we're going to pay for everything *Annie gasps*. They gave me a full scholarship and they gave me an extra bursary so that I could pay my rent. I will never forget going back to the house and saying I got in. And I still think to this day that they didn't believe me. I think they thought I was lying or at least-
Annie [00:39:23] That you'd gone and smoked a joint and made it up and been like, right I'm just gonna tell them this.
Denise [00:39:25] Yeah. So then I- so my second change that I said to you was, you know, I went to drama school and-
Annie [00:39:33] How old were you then?
Denise [00:39:34] I was 20. I was still working in bars because I couldn't afford to not work. I got there and there were just enough people that were like, you're really good at this. You know, you had to do this like, get yourself into character and then like be really angry or sad or whatever. And I was like, really? Are you sure? Like, I can just go for it? And they were like, just do whatever you need, listen to music. Basically kind of doing the method and I was like, I don't need any of that shit. Just let me at it.
Annie [00:40:06] It's all there. It's all there already.
Denise [00:40:07] It was all in there, right. So it became really obvious that I could really do it. And I had a counsellor in drama school. I was doing a play and in the play I was doing Mother Courage and Her Children, and I was playing Catrin, who we had decided in the making of it that Catrin had been abused and then lost her voice. She doesn't speak through the whole thing. So this triggered- basically, that's me, right? So I realised what had happened to me. So I went straight home to my family, to my parents.
Annie [00:40:40] At 20?
Denise [00:40:41] Mmhmm. To say, it's all okay. It was nobody's fault. This guy did this thing to me and that's why I went nuts! Because I thought-.
Annie [00:40:50] How did that go?
Denise [00:40:52] They were I mean, I think my parents just felt awful. I mean, how like-
Annie [00:40:56] Devastated, course.
Denise [00:40:57] They felt like they failed. So then of course, I feel guilty that they feel that they failed. You know, nobody knew about the stuff that we know about now. Like, I just know that it was really painful to hear that. But then that same therapist at school said to me, I can't continue working with you if you're using. And I said, oh okay, well thanks very much for the therapy, I'm off. Because there was no way I was ready to get clean. No way. I didn't even know I had a problem. Not really. I just thought it was normal to wake up in the morning and smoke a joint and then just do whatever you needed to through the day. And also remember, I was achieving a lot, so it seemed like this was just-.
Annie [00:41:35] Yeah, you're acting, you're working, doing your dream.
Denise [00:41:37] Yeah, this is just who I am. I'm just somebody who's always stoned. But I'm so normal with it, it's fine. So I had a nervous breakdown and I had to be given- I was given, God bless them, like at the time they gave me that time off. And then when I came back, I was nominated to apply for a Laurence Olivier bursary which would get me through my final year. I got it. So these things kept happening that were like, oh my God.
Annie [00:42:02] Motivating.
Denise [00:42:03] The universe is telling me, yes, this is your thing. This is your thing. So yeah. So then I got through drama school and then my third year I met my incredible agent, Samira, who is still my agent now. And then my career started and for the first, you know, I was 23 when I left drama school and it kicked off pretty quickly theatre wise for me. But my drinking and using was- I remember like taking coke before going on stage and thinking, what am I doing? Like, I thought this was going to be enough. So I was like, but I have everything I said that I would need for me to feel okay and I don't feel okay. Why don't I feel okay? And so, I sort of barrelled through those early years of, of being an actress. Feeling amazing on stage, but also missing parts of it because of, you know, drugs and erm. And then when I was 27, I got sober and like, I can't believe I'm alive. I know that sounds really dramatic. No, actually, I have to be careful of saying that because that's old stuff. Saying it sounds dramatic. It's not dramatic. My life is dramatic. It's hugely dramatic. Thank God it was because if it wasn't, maybe I'd never know what I needed to do to get myself well enough to live the life that I live now, which is so full of joy. You know, when I got clean and sober, it was really rough. Like, I never kind of had people call it a pink cloud. I never had any of that. I was grief stricken when I had to stop drinking and using. Literally like somebody had ripped away the thing that worked, and now what the fuck was I going to do?
Annie [00:43:48] Like a plaster?
Denise [00:43:49] Yeah.
Annie [00:43:50] And it's all just a fresh wound.
Denise [00:43:51] A seeping fucking wound and you think, oh my God, what now? And then I just did everything I was told, I did everything I was told to stay sober because I thought-.
Annie [00:44:06] For the first time in your life.
Denise [00:44:08] First time in my life, yeah, and I thought I can't- but it's weird because I remember somebody saying- I said to somebody, I'm too young for this fucking-
Annie [00:44:18] Yeah.
Denise [00:44:19] That kind of thing. I'm too young for this. I'm going to wait til I'm 40. And she said, okay well, we'll see you when you're 40 then. 13 more years damage. And if she had said to me, oh please don't leave, I'd have left. She did exactly the thing.
Annie [00:44:35] She did the perfect thing.
Denise [00:44:36] She was so smart. And then when I had my 40th birthday, two nights before the first lockdown, we went to the restaurant that I had last worked at as a waitress and another weird thing that happened that night was Duncan Macmillan who wrote People, Places and things, the play that changed my career.
Annie [00:44:53] Yeah, that won you the Olivier and-
Denise [00:44:55] Ah fucking hell. Changed my, like, the only reason I was able to do that part, I really think, like, the way that I was able to do it was because I had done so much work.
Annie [00:45:06] Because it's about an addict.
Denise [00:45:08] It's about an addict but it wasn't that I had- I don't think you have to necessarily have the- but it meant that the part was safe with me because if I was still drinking or using, I'd have ruined that role by making it all about me. And instead I was like, able to separate and not make it about my own experience of addiction. All I knew was how much I loved the woman I was playing. But yeah Duncan that night, he said to me, did I ever tell you about- because people thought he had written that play for me and he didn't. I had never met him before doing that play. But he said to me, the last time I was in this restaurant Denise, you were my waitress. How fucking mad is that? And I was like, hang on, how did you never tell me this? And he said, I'm sure I did. But on that gratitude birthday, he told me that the last time he was in that restaurant, Bistrotheque in East London, I had been his waitress and he had seen me on stage a month before. I was also three weeks sober when I worked in that place, and he said, I had seen you on stage and I couldn't understand why you were then my waitress. So when he was writing the play, he said, I may not have written it for you, but I wrote it for you.
Annie [00:46:21] But you were in my head. Yeah.
Denise [00:46:21] And it was like, fuck. And he said, so when you came in to the audition and you did the audition, it was only in rehearsals that he was like, oh my God, it's the fucking waitress from Bistrotheque that I thought.
Annie [00:46:31] Wow.
Denise [00:46:32] So, whatever you- I'm not a religious woman, but I am absolutely of the thinking, because I have to be. You don't live a life like mine and not see the ways in which the universe like winks. And when I was in the pandemic two years ago, I was 13 years sober and I couldn't get my chip, my medal. And I was really, I was like, oh damn, that's a shame. But then I went out for a walk one day and I looked on the ground and there was a beer bottle lid with a 13 on it. And I was like, are you fucking kidding me? This is ridiculous *Annie laughs*. I mean, there are so many stories like that that I have in my life of people, like things happening that I just think, yeah, okay, I get it. And then the fact that my sort of, my big break in my career came from a play, it didn't come from doing a part in a movie, or- it came from the thing that saved my life. The night before we opened that play, I was on stage and there's a piece in it where she, she has a choice. She's going to drink or she's going to go to a meeting. And she makes a phone call and asks someone for help. And there was a person in the audience, we had this group of people from the Freedom Recovery Centre in Catford. I do the scene where I make the phone call and one of them shouted, 'good girl' from the audience. And I had to take a minute.
Annie [00:48:00] Oh my God, Denise.
Denise [00:48:00] And I thought that night- I sat there afterwards and I thought, it doesn't matter. I didn't care what critics said. I didn't care what the response was commercially. We had done it. Because somebody believed our stories so much. They believed what our little company did that night on stage, that they couldn't help themselves but shout, good girl. That person had never been to the theatre before. They were in early recovery, like there was only truth coming. And so the next night I realised, oh my God, people kept standing up at the end of every show and I was like, okay, this feels different, this feels different. And yeah, my life changed. My career changed, my life had already changed. That's why I was able to do it, because I had changed my life.
Annie [00:48:47] Denise, what a life.
Denise [00:48:49] Thanks so much, Annie.
Annie [00:48:55] Thank you so much to Denise for that conversation. I don't know about you, but after I listened back to it, actually, I felt like I had to just have a sit down and take a breath. It's so compelling, the story, but also the way Denise tells it. It just makes it so engrossing. And yeah, I'm so grateful to her for sharing those really personal details with us on Changes. And I really hope that if you have been affected, or you know someone who's been affected by the topics raised in this episode, that you find comfort in what Denise had to say. And if you need help after listening, you can call the Samaritans. You can reach them on 116 123. Check the show notes for the details outside the UK and Ireland, and also look out for Denise. If you haven't watched what she is capable of as an actress, go check out Too Close on ITV Hub, go watch Collette and look out for Denise in the Star Wars series on Disney Plus coming out in August, it's called Andor. Right, share this episode around, spread the word, tell us what you think as always, and next week we are going to be doing a deep dive into how human minds can change. This is one of my favourite episodes next week, that we've recorded yet on Changes. It's an interview with one of Britain's leading forensic psychiatrists, a woman who spends her life in psychiatric institutions and prisons giving therapy to the most violent offenders that we have in this country. Her name is Dr. Gwen Adshead, and she is incredible. So you can hear our conversation next week. In the meantime, leave a rating, follow, subscribe. All of that is so appreciated. Changes is produced by Louise Mason through DIN Productions. Thanks and see you later.