Denise Gough
Photo by Dillon Sachs

Denise Gough: “It feels like I need to hold back”

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Short Profile

Name: Denise Gough
DOB: 1980
Place of birth: Ennis, County Clare, Ireland
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Gough, do you think about the audience when you’re acting on stage?

Sometimes, you know, for People, Places & Things, which is about addiction, we made sure that there were a lot of recovery people that we worked with, and that those people would also come and see it. They’re our critics. When we ran that play at the National, one of the recovery people who had been helping us was in the audience. When I did the scene where my character picks up the phone to go to a meeting, he shouted, “Good girl!” And I just burst into tears on stage! I had to take a moment because I thought, “It doesn't matter what anyone says about this play. That person feels represented. And that’s all that mattered.” So there is a part of my ego and my fear that comes out but I try to think to myself, “I have to keep it really simple.”

In what ways are you keeping it simple?

Well, I'm not on social media anymore. I was for a while and I realized when I started becoming well known, it felt like overkill to also be on social media. I feel like a lot of the people that I respect and admire don't do it. If I'm getting a part because I've got followers then that might not be the best thing for me, do you know what I mean? All the work I've ever done, I've never done any of this work in order to get famous. I always just wanted to do great work on stage. When you put your work out publicly you are getting a lot of “likes” because there’s 900 people that are clapping for you every night… So it just seems like an overdose to then go, “How many likes did I get on my Instagram photo?” So, I have to try and give that affirmation to myself instead, even though I do get a lot of affirmation in my work. I mean it leaves you open to a lot of crazy people.

“I've seen too many people get put on that pedestal. I for myself have to be very careful of it.”

Public exposure usually has its downsides…

I had a young girl bow to me at the stage door and tell me that she follows me everywhere. I was like, “Oh God, I don't want young women bowing at me. That's really frightening, you must never do that!” I've seen too many people get put on that pedestal and then get really into the idea of being on the pedestal. I for myself have to be very careful of it. It just feels like I need to hold a little bit back.

Because you give so much of yourself on stage?

Yeah, I just don't feel like I need to be in the middle of that at the same time as being in the middle of throwing myself out there every night on stage… I did a one woman show, The Nassim plays at the Bush, have you heard about them? I loved it! I loved being up there on my own. And I thought, “This is all because I was raised with 10 brothers and sisters.” There’s no doubt! I now do a job where everybody has to shut up and listen to me and then clap when I'm finished even if they don't like what I'm doing and everybody tells me how great I am! I love it! (Laughs) And I thank my family for all of it.

Was your family always supportive of your dream to be an actor?

They are very supportive now but for a long time being an actress was never an option in my family. I did a lot of this on my own and I left home very young. I was 15 when I first left home, and then at 16 I came to London.

What did you think of London as a 16-year-old?

As a 16-year-old Irish Catholic girl, it was sensational! Parties went on until nine o'clock in the morning on a Tuesday, I mean, it was amazing! And it was really difficult too, but it was completely the making of me. It kicked the shit out of me for a long time but then when it opens its arms, it's fantastic. When I think now of all this immigration talk and people coming here… I'm an immigrant! It's just, I'm a white English-speaking one, so I'm allowed to be in magazines and stuff. But this country gave me everything! I was on the dole, I have the NHS, I had council tax paid, I had housing and benefits, I had a scholarship to drama school… I am a product of pouring stuff into an immigrant and seeing that kind of pay off.

Were you ever worried that your acting career wouldn’t work out?

I didn't really have an option to fall back on, so the acting thing had to work. I had a lot of had teachers along the way that believed in me. At drama school, it felt like exactly the right place for me. I must have been a pain in the arse for people because I was so into theater. I think I was probably quite frightening! They cast me as Irina in Three Sisters, and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me! I'm not playing her, I don't care, I want to be Natasha!” And then I shaved all my hair off. And then they were like, “Okay, you can play Natasha.” “Brilliant!” Okay, so that’s all I had to do is…

Be rebellious?

(Laughs) I was going to say, just be really frightening! I was talking about it with my agent the other day and she said that the hardest bit was about halfway through our time together, when she just thought, “Denise is going to give up, it's over,” because I was in such a bad way. But she talked me off the window ledge so many times when I thought, “I can't do it, I can't do it anymore.” Financially it was the toughest when you can't even afford to feed yourself… That's really disempowering. You can be doing some great work but because I was working a lot in theater, I didn't earn anything.

And now you’ve won a Laurence Olivier Award and you’re debuting on Broadway.

Right, you can imagine how much fun I'm having now! (Laughs) I've never visited New York because I swore I would only go there with a job. So now to go there and do a lead in People, Places and Things in a really cool theater in Brooklyn and then to go and be doing Angels in America on Broadway… If it ends after that, then I did it! I mean, it doesn’t get better. It's an amazing thing that is happening. Actually, my friend said to me last night, he said, “Denise, it's an Irish thing that you do where everything that has happened over the past couple of years you’ve never really celebrated your success.” I think I’m built to keep it all in, to play it down.

“It’s so boring listening to false modesty. I think you should know your worth!”

Why is that?

I think it's like an Irish thing. I come from a culture of, “It might all fall apart now tomorrow.” Where I come from, we are just conditioned to worry about when it's all going to fall apart, but actually I think, well, maybe because it was quite a struggle for a long time, maybe I've done that bit. There is something about Americans that when people are successful they’re like, “Go get more success! Get bigger!” So I'm looking forward to just allowing that. I mean, people might come and see the play and think, “Well that was a let down.”

I don’t think that will be the case.

But even if they do, it's not in my control. So, I'm slowly, slowly starting to go, “Fuck yes! This is amazing!” I don't have to worry about deserving or any of that shit anymore.

That’s a good mindset to have — actors are so often expected to self-effacing about their success even if they’ve worked very hard to get there.

Actors for some reason have to do this whole, you know, “I don't know, I just don't know how it happened,” you know? Or “I don't even think I'm that good…” It's like this story someone said to me, you know, if a plumber came around to your house, fixed your toilet and came out then you said, “Great job, that’s a really great job,” and the plumber said to you, “No, it's kind of shit, actually the one that I did last week was way better.” You'd be like, “Well, fix my fucking toilet,” right? It's just so boring, it’s so boring listening to false modesty. I've worked for many, many years so I'm really enjoying that my hard work has paid off… I think you should know your worth!