‘I need to stop playing women in despair’

In the butch weepie The Iron Claw, Maura Tierney plays Dottie Von Erich, matriarch of a family of doomed wrestler sons. The ER star plays out unimaginable levels of grief. She loved it. Found it challenging and creatively satisfying. She’s also not going to do it any more. “I’ve just decided,” she laughs, drily. “I need to start saying no to playing women in despair. It’s time.”

It is true that people keep asking Tierney to cry. Or, if not cry, at least to embody a kind of haunted, battleworn intensity. On ER, the medical drama phenomenon that made her one of television’s most recognisable faces, her character at least had a little balance: her sunny disposition tempered with just the occasional relapse into alcoholism. Lately, though, she’s played wives to philanderers and stepmothers to meth addicts. It had got a bit much. So last year on the set of her small-town crime series American Rust, another stop on the Maura Tierney Misery Express, she made a choice: even if the script didn’t call for it, she’d play all her scenes as if she was starring in a comedy.

“I don’t wear a clown nose or anything,” the 59-year-old tells me, “but I made a choice to find the funny in every scene. I tried to make it kind of arch because I needed to create a challenge for myself.” Did she tell anyone she was doing this? “Um… no. Maybe the hair and make-up department? I’m not sure if I was successful at all. But it made it more fun for me, that’s for sure.”

Less fun is the irrigation issue in her back garden that’s derailed her for the last few weeks. An apologetic Tierney is calling from Los Angeles, and keen to explain how a malfunctioning sprinkler system in her rental home meant our interview kept being pushed back. Trying to speak to Tierney may have briefly become my own personal Waiting for Godot but there was also something apt about it. TV has been very good to her – the seminal Nineties sitcom NewsRadio begat ER, which begat the aforementioned philander-fest The Affair – but in film she is impossible to pin down, a mercurial supporting player from whom you always want more.

She makes the absolute most out of the “ticked-off ex-wife” part in Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar (1997). Excavates pure love and worry in the Timothée Chalamet addiction drama Beautiful Boy (2018). In Christopher Nolan’s early thriller Insomnia (2002), she pops up as a woman on the run from parts unknown, working at a tiny Alaskan hotel. It’s sort of nothingy as a role but Tierney mines it for every shred of pathos and intrigue. She does this a lot, for better and for worse.

“I think I’m often requested because of what I’ll ‘bring to the role’,” she says, somewhat cynically. “That’s very flattering! But sometimes they want you to bring something to a script instead of just making the character better written. And maybe if it was better on the page, you wouldn’t need an actress to do that work for you. I’m thinking out loud here… but just take one more pass at the script! Just enrich certain female characters.”

I don’t think the audience would have been able to take more tragedy. Even though it’s true, I think it would have been very difficult to watch

True to form, Tierney doesn’t feature in much of The Iron Claw. But she proves to be one of its most fascinating elements. The film dramatises the real-life tale of the Von Erich siblings, swole showmen who turned the wrestling ring into their own private concert stage and became pseudo-celebrities in Eighties America. Dottie takes a hands-off and arguably cruel approach to parenting her boys – delicate meat slabs played by Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson and Stanley Simons. She’s a bit of a void, too, her private dreams and desires swapped out for grief and Jesus. Dottie once loved to paint, it’s revealed at one point, but suddenly stopped, then stopped ever talking about it. “I had my reasons,” she says. “Just don’t remember ’em any more.”

The Von Erichs were blighted by tragedy – so much, in fact, that The Iron Claw omits an entire Von Erich sibling who also met a horrid end. “I just don’t think the audience would have been able to take it,” Tierney says. “How many children did Dottie lose?” She counts them up to five. “That really is just beyond the scope of comprehension. How do you get through that? And even though it’s true, I think it would have been very difficult to watch.”

Grief and Jesus: Tierney alongside her onscreen son Stanley Simons in ‘The Iron Claw’ (Brian Roedel)

Grief and Jesus: Tierney alongside her onscreen son Stanley Simons in ‘The Iron Claw’ (Brian Roedel)

Tierney came to fame in TV shows that embodied the total opposite – ER, in which she starred from 1999 to 2009, was a warm hug of a show, comforting in its soapy, life-or-death melodrama. Before that, she spent five seasons on NewsRadio, about the inner workings of a radio station. It’s a jarring watch today, though, primarily because one of Tierney’s co-stars was none other than Joe Rogan – then a comedian and actor, today the king of provocative, almost chronically misinformative podcasts.

“It’s crazy!” she says. “Isn’t he the most listened-to person in the universe or something like that? I admit I’m not surprised by it – he was always a balls-out type of guy, and someone suspicious of absolute authority. His character on NewsRadio was kind of a conspiracy theorist, too, because they’d take our personalities as people and just put them in the show. So it’s not new – that side of him was there then.”

Ironically, considering how mired in drama she’s become, ER came about from her early desire to shift out of comedy. When her time on the show reached its end – following nine seasons of love affairs, surgical smocks and being tormented by Sally Field as her erratic mother – she wanted to dive into something even wilder. So she pitched herself to the Wooster Group, an avant-garde theatre troupe co-founded by Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray.

“I think it saved my life,” she says. “I am slightly exaggerating, but…” She takes a pause. “I’m only telling you these things because I feel bad about the irrigation,” she laughs. “But it was a very difficult time. I had finished treatment for cancer. My father passed away. And then in 2010, the Wooster Group called and said they wanted to work with me.”

Scrubbing in: Tierney as Dr Abby Lockhart in the long-running medical drama ‘ER’ (Shutterstock)

Scrubbing in: Tierney as Dr Abby Lockhart in the long-running medical drama ‘ER’ (Shutterstock)

“Now remember, I’m as bald as a cue ball at this point,” she continues. “Like bald bald. But I went into rehearsals with them, and it just didn’t matter. My hair grew in during the rehearsal process, and I just remember feeling so galvanised and focused. It was exhilarating to me.” Her line deliveries had to be hyper-stylised. Her physicality exaggerated. She had to, more or less, un-Maura Tierney herself. “I didn’t have to emote. I didn’t have to be sad. I didn’t have to despair! And to go from this very hard time personally to having my mind focused on this one thing, where it didn’t matter what I looked like, was revelatory.”

She has worked with the Wooster Group twice now, performing in countries as far-ranging as Japan and Germany. She wants to work with them again. And do more comedy. Or at least not have to sneak it into the most serious of serious things, as she’s been doing lately. This summer she’s in Twisters, the belated sequel to the 1996 disaster movie that starred Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt and a flying cow. “But I’m just the mom on the farm in that one,” she sighs. “I didn’t get to do any of the stunty stuff. That would have been fun.”

You get the impression that, if Hollywood let her, she’d loved to have played the tornado.

‘The Iron Claw’ is in cinemas

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