Cork-trained actor celebrates film's Oscar nod

A movie with strong Cork links made it to the Oscars long-list, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN who talks to one of the film’s main actors, Cora Fenton, about her life in Cork and recent work
Cork-trained actor celebrates film's Oscar nod

Cora Fenton in 'A White Horse'.

ACTOR Cora Fenton, who came to Cork to study acting for one year and ended up staying for 16, stars in a short film A White Horse that made this year’s Oscar Awards’ long list.

The film, about a scared and confused young woman in 1970s Ireland, also stars newcomer, Amber Deasy, from Drimoleague in West Cork.

The film is by Kerry writer and director Shaun O’Connor, who is a UCC graduate. His film won the award for Best Irish Short at the Foyle Film Festival in 2019, which led to its coveted place on the Academy Awards’ long list.

Amber Deasy, from Drimoleague, staring in A White Horse.
Amber Deasy, from Drimoleague, staring in A White Horse.

While it’s disappointing that the film didn’t make it to the short-list for the Oscars, Cora says it was an achievement alone to be among 170 short films from around the world in contention for a place at the Academy Awards.

“The film is getting wonderful traction as a result of being on the long list. And it’s very timely,” she said.

The film deals with conversion therapy, which was practised in this country up until the 1970s for so-called mental illnesses. It was used on gay people to try and ‘cure’ them.

“At the moment, there’s a bill going through the Seanad to prohibit conversion therapies as harmful acts,” the actor explained.

In the film, Cora stars as the mother of Brigid (who is played by Amber Deasy). Brigid, who is dressed in a white gown, has run away from an institution. She makes a phone call from a public telephone box to her mother.

“At the start of the film, you think Brigid is missing. Her mum is delighted to hear from her.”

However, it becomes clear that Brigid has a girlfriend with whom she is romantically involved.

“My character decided that gay conversion therapy would ‘fix’ her daughter,” said Cora.

“She is coming from a place of love. She is resolute and definite about what she is doing, maybe because of the way Ireland was at that time. 

"She believes that in sectioning her daughter, she is doing the right thing,” said Cora.

Cora who now lives in Limerick, studied acting at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa.
Cora who now lives in Limerick, studied acting at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa.

The actress, who has moved back to her native Kilmallock in County Limerick where she lives with her professional and romantic partner, John Sheehy, at the foot of the Ballyhoura Mountains, started her acting career in Cork. Both she and John studied drama at Colaiste Stiofáin Naofa. They formed a theatre company, Callback Theatre. While John initially acted, he discovered his talent as a writer and director.

“We ended up in the Cork Arts Theatre, doing our first play together, which was called Two. John directed it and was in it and I produced and also acted in it. We just took off from there. Now I act and produce and do work for other companies as well, whenever I can get the work.”

Cora and John were platonic friends for a while before establishing their relationship.

“It works great. We both know what we’re good at. We get on well and we have our solo projects also. It all happened quite organically.”

Cora changed career direction in the 1990s. When she left school, her original plan was to do either sports or drama.

“I ended up doing a sports science degree in Liverpool. It involved looking at the physiology of sports athletes and seeing how you can help them, training and testing their fitness,” she said.

Always interested in theatre, Cora was involved in amateur drama in Ardpatrick, Kilmallock.

“It was the usual community drama where you’re a celebrity for two weekends! It was fabulous. John started there as well. We both caught the bug. I was working at UL (University of Limerick) as an exercise physiologist, sometimes dealing with top athletes such as GAA players, runners, rowers, canoeists and wheelchair athletes.

A White Horse made the Oscar long list.
A White Horse made the Oscar long list.

“Then I decided to come to Cork to do drama and I never looked back. I’ve done a puppet show on healthy eating and exercise which I toured around schools for years. 

"I suppose that I was combining my background in sports science with acting when I did that.”

Given her sports background, is Cora fit?

“Where we’re living, our 5km is up and down a mountain. I don’t know whether I’m fit or exhausted.”

Why the move back to Limerick?

“It’s home. John comes from a place about five miles from me. The house we’re living in used to be where John’s mother lived. It became available. She had a little doggie so we came to the house to look after the dog and set up camp here. It just worked out.”

Cora and John haven’t allowed Covid-19 to defeat them professionally. They had been planning a further tour of their hit play Fred and Alice, starring Cora and Cork actor, Ciaran Bermingham, last year.

While the pandemic put paid to that, Cora says that she and John worked on converting one of John’s plays so that it can be broadcast on radio. The one-woman show, Janey Dillis: Queen of the Wild Interior, stars Cora. It has been aired on Ocean FM in Sligo and may be broadcast elsewhere.

“It’s timely because it’s about a woman in isolation living in a house. She hasn’t let anyone into the house or gone outside it for 25 years. 

"She chose to live like that. But as the play goes on, you discover that a number of incidents in her life caused her to self-isolate. She just feels safer in the house. She’s happy out with her routine of online shopping and her exercise routine. She has what is probably her inner voice, voiced by a puppet dog. It’s her more rebellious side.”

Cora says she misses Cork.
Cora says she misses Cork.

Cora is exploring her creative side as she arms herself to cope with Covid, as well as future proofing her employment opportunities.

“I am re-skilling. I’ve taken up upholstery. I thought it would be a good thing to work at in conjunction with acting. We have nothing on at the moment so I decided to do a course in upholstering. I hope to put up a shed at the end of the garden. Hopefully, when theatre comes back, I can do both. When theatre is quiet, I can do the upholstery.”

Cora’s interest in upholstery was sparked by a chaise longue that her mother kept in a cow shed — Cora is from a farming background.

“It was being used for calf nuts. But I loved the look of it and the shape of it. I remember asking my mum if I could upholster it at some stage. I had learned that that was the word to use. Years later, I’m between acting jobs, looking at courses. There was an upholstery course. I went in with a pen and paper on the first day thinking we’d be writing down things. But straightaway, I was told to strip down a stool.

“The next week, I put the chaise longue in the back of the car and started working on it. I love doing upholstery. The rest of the world doesn’t matter. You just focus on it and it’s quite therapeutic.”

John has taken up Spanish and is also doing an online course in animation. Nobody could accuse this theatre couple of letting the grass grow under their feet. Cora says that while she was able to get some financial support from the department of social protection, she wanted to use her ‘resting’ period productively. She feels that a universal basic income for artists “would be wonderful. It’s very hard to be creative while you’re worrying how to pay the next ESB bill.”

While Cora and John had a fantastic time living in Cork, “we are country people at heart. 

"We miss people in Cork and the buzz there.”

Ideally, Cora would like to be “able to pop into the theatre or cinema or go for a coffee in Cork. To get milk here is a big drama. You have to get in a car and drive for five miles. But we like it down here. Our neighbours are lovely. We have the best of both worlds.”

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