Michelle Fairley rode a career as an accomplished journeyman actor to that rarest of show business phenomena, a signature breakthrough role for an actress in her mid-40s, with her turn as an intrepid...
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Fairley was born in 1964 in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, U.K., and grew up in nearby Ballycastle, where her parents Theresa and Brian Fairley operated a local pub. She attended a Catholic grammar school, and as a teenager, took up an extracurricular involvement with the Ulster Youth Theatre, where she discovered her love of the stage. Upon graduation, she moved to Belfast where she honed her skills with the repertory company Fringe Benefits, alongside up-and-coming actor and UYT veteran, Conleth Hill. In the mid-1980s, she moved to Manchester, where she studied at Manchester Polytechnic (later Manchester Metropolitan University). Her tutor there recommended her for a part in a play by Irish playwright Christina Reid called "Joyriders," which Fairley won, moving to London for a 1986 off-West End run at the Tricycle Theatre. In 1988, Fairley garnered positive notices for her star-turn in Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea" for the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. She supplemented her theatrical fare with periodic screen work, starting with a bit part in her first feature film, the indie thriller "Hidden City" (1987), then with periodic television series guest-shots, most-notably on long-running BBC series "Lovejoy" (1986-94) and ITV's "Inspector Morse" (1987-2000). She also participated in one-off projects such as the crime drama "Comics" (Channel 4, 1996) and "The Precious Blood" (BBC, 1996).
In 1994, she made a splash back in Ulster in the Irish premiere of Ariel Dorfman's taut drama "Death and the Maiden" at Belfast's Old Museum Arts Centre, taking on the role of a vengeful former political prisoner who turns tables on her onetime torturer. In 1996, she took on her first sitcom, the BBC's "Safe and Sound." Set in Belfast, the show put a comic filter on Northern Ireland's long history of sectarian strife, centering on longtime friends Dougie and Tommy, protestant and Catholic, respectively, who run a garage together, with Fairley playing Tommy's boozy, free-spirited sister and Dougie's romantic interest, Eleanor. Though it only lasted one season, it proved the start of more intensive TV work for Fairley. She took the featured role of the randy, scheming Mrs. Fitzpatrick in the BBC's 1997 prestige miniseries adaptation of Henry Fielding's comic novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, and recurring roles in the BBC's "The Broker's Man" (1997) and the bleak Ray Winstone-starring comic drama "Births, Marriages and Deaths" (1999), which went on to win a BAFTA nomination. In 1997, Fairley won the female lead in playwright Conor McPherson's spooky drama "The Weir," a pub-set tale of men swapping dark stories with eerie, if not supernatural, twists, Fairley played Valerie, a mysterious local denizen whose story out-spooks all the rest. The play, debuting at the Royal Court Theatre, became an unqualified hit, and in 1999, Fairley journeyed to New York to reprise her part on Broadway; the play ran at the Walter Kerr Theatre for 277 performances.
She peppered her CV with occasional, if not marquee roles in some auspicious films, such as the Kate Winslet drama "Hideous Kinky" (1998), the James Ivory-helmed "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" (1998) and the Nicole Kidman-anchored ghost story "The Others" (2001). She found more featured screen roles supporting Julie Walters in two based-on-true-story telefilms, playing a teacher in a troubled London school in "Ahead of the Class" (ITV, 2005) and the supportive housekeeper of Walters' disease-stricken doctor in the Frank McGuinness-penned "A Short Stay in Switzerland" (BBC, 2009). Fairley's theatrical fortunes rose with a string of critically heralded performances; in 2003 she starred in Owen McCafferty's "Scenes from the Big Picture" at the National Theater and Gary Mitchell's Irish-set domestic drama "Loyal Women" at the Royal Court," and in 2004, the McCafferty-directed production of Harold Pinter's "Ashes To Ashes" for both its English premiere at the Royal Court and Irish premiere at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. In 2007, Michael Grandage, artistic director of London's cutting-edge Donmar Warehouse, cast Fairley as Emilia in his new production of "Othello" alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role and Ewan MacGregor as Iago; her performance drew a nomination for the U.K. theater's most prestigious laurel, the Olivier Award.
Still in Bard mode, Fairley put her stamp on the villainous Lady MacBeth that year to critical raves in a staging of the Scottish play by the West York Playhouse in Leeds. Her rising élan garnered her a flurry of television guest shots in the U.K., among them recurring parts on the sci-fi show "Misfits" (2009- ) and the cop procedural "Silent Witness" (1996- ). She won a rare TV lead as the working-class Irish mother of Manchester United soccer star George Best in the BBC biopic "Best: His Mother's Son" (2009), chronicling her tragic mirroring of her son's own infamous battle with the bottle. Back on the stage in Gaelic fare, she again wowed critics and audiences in "Greta Garbo Came to Donegal," stealing the show as Paulie, a lifeworn maid of household who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a houseguest, the reclusive film great. She picked up some indie film work, including the heartfelt comedy "Cup Cake" (2010) and, apropos of her stage bona fides, a Croatian production of "Anton Chekhov's The Duel" (2010), plus a small role in the teen-centric psychological thriller "Chatroom" (2010). In 2010, she appeared in her biggest-ticket project then to date, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I," albeit with only a few minutes of screen time as the mother of Harry's school chum Hermione.
In spring 2010, with innovative HBO prepping one of its most ambitious projects ever, "Game of Thrones," producers decided to recast a pivotal character, the headstrong, protective and courageous wife of the heroic noble Ned Stark (Sean Bean), and Fairley won the part. The epic fantasy adventure, based on George R.R. Martin's best-selling series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, chronicled the power struggle for the eponymous Iron Throne, the seat of power on the mythical continent of Westeros. Comprised of various fiefdoms and family dynasties, the players in the multi-sided gambit of violence and political intrigue were the usurping Baratheons, the wealthy Lannisters, the island-dwelling Greyjoys, and the noble Starks, a clan from the rugged northern region of Westeros. Fairley's Lady Catelyn Stark would be the stalwart backbone of the latter family as it found itself caught up in the courtly subterfuge. Her old Ulster compatriot, Conleth Hill, would also be cast as the duplicitous court counselor. The show debuted in spring 2011 to rave reviews, developing a tsunami of pop cultural buzz and seeing ratings climbing throughout the season to reach the impressive-for-cable three million-plus viewers. The show earned 13 Emmy nominations in summer 2011 and made Fairley and her many fellow cast members much-in-demand for interviews in fanatical sci-fi/fantasy circles. The season two premiere's initial airing drew nearly four million viewers.
By Matthew Grimm
From classic movie palaces to the state-of-the-art IMAX screens.