Irish actress defines versatility

To theater fans, Irish actress Fiona Shaw embodies the magic of the stage. But to most Americans, Shaw’s role as Aunt Petunia in the “Harry Potter” films embodies the dreary, nonmagical Muggles of that franchise.

Nevertheless, Shaw, who is being honored at this year’s U.S.-Ireland Alliance Oscar Wilde event, doesn’t mind.

“It’s a fantastic privilege being a part of something that’s so seminal for so many children,” Shaw says. “But I know in New York that’s not what I’m known for entirely.”

After graduating from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the early ’80s, Shaw quickly won critical acclaim onstage.

“I think I’ve had the best, the most enjoyable theater career of anyone I know. I’ve played everyone from Hedda Gabler to Electra to ‘Happy Days’ to Richard II,” Shaw says of her 25-year career.

At the same time, as an Irish actress in London, Shaw admits that she has remained a sort of “outsider.”

“Irishness has always given me a viewpoint on the English,” she says. “As a young actress, I was often cast as the young English heroine, because I could play the moral center of the role yet also have a strange, slightly eccentric take on it.”

Because of that, this year’s Oscar Wilde Award, honoring Shaw’s contribution to the Irish in film, holds a special meaning.

“I’m delighted to be honored and to be included with that particular, extraordinary generation that has flourished from Ireland,” Shaw says.

She started her film career with Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” and has appeared in Neil Jordan’s “The Butcher Boy” as well as the “Potter” films. Now, she is about to start filming Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.”

“I wouldn’t want to say more (about the movie) than Terry would want me to say about it,” Shaw says. “It’s an amazing lineup with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. But I would scrub Terry Malick’s floors, so it doesn’t really matter what the film is about. I knew the experience of making it would be exciting.”

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