Paula actress Denise Gough wants to play more unapologetic women

Denise Gough stars in the TVNZ 1 drama Paula.
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Denise Gough stars in the TVNZ 1 drama Paula.

Denise Gough, an acclaimed theatre actress in the UK and Ireland, was immediately drawn to the potent new drama Paula, in which she makes her debut in a leading TV role.

"First of all, no woman was tied up, raped and left in a car – because you read so much of that stuff nowadays that you become kind of immune to it," Gough says.

"It also felt like a story about a human woman, as opposed to a story about a woman who is connected only to the men."

Denise Gough and Tom Hughes in Paula.
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Denise Gough and Tom Hughes in Paula.

The character of Paula certainly dominates proceedings in this three-part drama by the esteemed playwright Conor McPherson.

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She is a dissatisfied chemistry teacher conducting an affair with a married colleague.

When she finally splits from him, she finds herself having a one-night stand out of the blue with James (Tom Hughes, Victoria's Albert), an attractive yet mysterious local handyman. But it soon emerges that James is not at all what he seems and, after her night with him, Paula's life rapidly spirals out of control. Soon, she is in mortal peril.

The actress, who has also appeared in Stella, Guerilla and Apple Tree Yard, confesses that in the past she has been somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of her father watching her more intimate scenes – but not any more.

"In the next thing I do, I'm mauling a woman, so he's going to have to get used to it," she says.

"I'm now 38 – I can't keep going, 'Oh, I wonder what my dad's thinking'. He'll get over it. He can fast-forward."

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Paula is not a conventional or likeable character – but, in Gough's eyes, that just makes her all the more plausible.

The Irish actress asserts that, "I like playing women who aren't apologetic for the things they do in their lives. They're just living like everyone else and making a load of screw-ups along the way."

Gough, who won an Olivier Award for her incendiary performance in People, Places And Things, the much-lauded London West End play about addiction, continues that, "I've been in TV shows where women are getting mutilated and the guy who's doing the killing, although unlikeable, is hot.

"I wanted to be part of a similar type of thing, but with a woman in that position. The first reaction is always, 'She's not very likeable'. Isn't that funny?"

Gough also found Paula's attitude to sex refreshingly honest.

"I am tired of seeing women seduced on screen. Paula seduces James in quite a bold way. We don't see that very often. There is something really truthful about that scene. She decides she wants something for the moment and then she can't get rid of him."

The seventh of 11 children, Gough came to London from County Clare at the age of 16. But she found success relatively late in life.

"What people have latched on to with me is this old-school story of graft," she says. "I left drama school at 22 and it hasn't been easy. As my agent will attest, there have been times when I've called her and said, 'I can't do this any more'.

"The amount it takes to keep your self-esteem up when you are constantly being rejected and you have no money is pretty rubbish.

"But I kept working and so this is my pay-off. I'm enjoying that. There's a raft of very young people coming out of drama school, or who have millions of followers on Twitter, who are suddenly movie stars. There has to be somebody who is flying the flag for just hard graft."

Gough says that after such a long wait she is delighted to be starring in such a complex and challenging drama.

"I am not going to try to sell it to you. If you watch the first episode and think, 'What is this?', then you should keep watching because that continues.

"For me, it is a really interesting thing for a TV audience to be made to think instead of being spoon-fed.

"It is a classy piece of work and I am proud to be a part of it."

Paula, TVNZ 1, starts Friday September 15.

 - TV Guide

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