Eve Hewson: “I went right in the deep end and survived”

Brooke Theis
·10-min read
Photo credit: Richard Phibbs
Photo credit: Richard Phibbs

From Town & Country

Eve Hewson’s family has a motto: “Work like a dog, live like a shih tzu.” This work hard, play hard philosophy permeates every story the actress tells me, each instance of effort balanced with an enthusiastic enjoyment of life’s pleasures. It’s very Irish – as is she, proudly so, though she has spent much of her life travelling the world. When she was small, the whole family would follow her father, the U2 frontman Bono, on tour. Then, when Hewson applied to the prestigious Tisch School to study acting, she moved to New York, which has been her base ever since.

Playing Marian alongside Taron Egerton in the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced Robin Hood took her to Dubrovnik; for the romantic comedy Paper Year, she worked with Andie MacDowell in Toronto; and she spent six months in New Zealand filming the television adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries. But when lockdown loomed in March last year and film sets began to shut down, she was drawn back to her family home in Dublin.

Photo credit: Richard Phibbs
Photo credit: Richard Phibbs

Unsurprisingly, she took to the indulgent shih tzu way of lockdown living, choosing to cherish the time with her parents, sister Jordan, and two younger brothers, Elijah and John. “We complain about each other all day long, but we’re genuinely kind of madly in love,” she says. “We have a studio den at the end of the garden, and my siblings and I would hang out all night writing stupid songs together and making music videos.” Otherwise, she spends her downtime cosying up to her beloved cat Luna, “the best companion I could ask for” – as currently there is no significant other in her life. “It’s hopeless out there. It’s really a disappointment,” she confesses with charming frankness. “I’ve heard they’re creating these girlfriend robots and hopefully soon they’ll do boyfriend robots, so I think I’m just going to wait for those. You could just unplug them when they bother you.”

Hewson is sitting across from me at the American-style Electric Diner on Portobello Road (at a time when this was still allowed), just around the corner from where she has been living in an Airbnb. It’s a fittingly transatlantic choice for Hewson, who arrives right on time, dressed casually in an oversize pinstripe trouser suit, complete with mask, strikingly beautiful, with her alabaster skin, sky-blue eyes and tousled dark hair. She speaks to me with the familiar ease of an old friend, and I’m pleased to discover that she’s not a whit like the character she plays in her latest thriller series Behind Her Eyes – Adele, a devious and volatile housewife with a very dark secret. “It’s kind of sick to say, but I feel I was born to play this part,” Hewson says, laughing. “There are some people I’ve met in my life who this character reminded me of, and I just knew exactly what to do.”

The past year has marked a shift in Hewson’s career from supporting actress to starring lead, despite the halt the pandemic has put on her plans. She gave a compellingly nuanced performance in The Luminaries as Anna Wetherell, an adventurer in search of fortune during the 1860s gold rush, which was met with critical acclaim, as was her portrayal of Anne Morgan in the fictionalised biopic Tesla. Behind Her Eyes continues the succession of substantial roles. Produced by the same team that created The Crown, it is framed around a classic love triangle between Adele, her husband and his secretary, but what unfurls is a sinister psychological tale full of suspense and drama. I am loath to reveal much more – the ending’s twist is so satisfying that I’ve been desperate to discuss it ever since. Hewson knows the feeling but she has resolved not to tell any of her family or friends the details of her character or the plot. “I just want them to watch and experience it themselves,” she says. The story stays with you long after it ends, and I wonder whether inhabiting a character like Adele might be difficult to shake, too. But Hewson says that it was actually much harder to get into character than out of it. “She goes from zero to one hundred, and I was concerned I wasn’t going to be able to switch that on immediately,” she says. “I thought I would need something to get me into those emotions. So I asked the props team to get me a baseball bat and a pillow, and I would just beat that thing whenever I needed to get really riled up. Before a take, I’d be like, ‘I need the bat! I need the bat!’ and they’d be running around trying to find it. It ended up being really therapeutic.”

Photo credit: Richard Phibbs
Photo credit: Richard Phibbs

It’s clear Hewson adores her job from the way she lights up when she talks. But there was a time when she considered following in her father’s footsteps. She grew up learning an orchestra of instruments, from the piano and the drums to the bass guitar and the viola (“My sister played violin, so I wanted something a bit different”). “I thought I was going to go into music, but I was terrible at practising. When I started acting, I realised I could spend all day long going over lines, reading scripts, doing different exercises, and it didn’t feel like work at all. Practising music did.” Hewson was first introduced to her craft by the film-maker Erica Dunton, who tutored her and her siblings when they were on tour with U2, and it was also Dunton who cast Hewson in her first film, The 27 Club, at the age of 15 – an experience that confirmed her calling.

Her next feature film came three years later, in Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, alongside Sean Penn and Frances McDormand. “It was probably one of the most terrifying experiences you can have as a young actor – I couldn’t believe that Frances was the first woman I was going to work with,” she says. “But she and Sean were good to me and very much took me under their wing. It was a perfect baptism of fire, because I went right in the deep end and survived. Anything I did after that wasn’t as scary.” Hewson has since worked alongside numerous industry stars, including Tom Hanks, Eva Green, Ethan Hawke and Jamie Foxx. “You do get intimidated, but they’re usually pretty good at making you feel comfortable. Once you get to know someone, you become so close, like a family.”

One might expect Hewson to be unfazed by working with such big names – after all, her father is godfather to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s twins. When she was 11, she and her sister would go through his address book and prank-call celebrities at random – including Justin Timberlake, who stayed on the line to answer the series of general-knowledge questions she put to him. “We were little troublemakers,” she says. “There got to a point in my teens when my dad couldn’t hire good-looking support bands any more. He was like, ‘No more boys in their twenties, please God!’”

Photo credit: Richard Phibbs
Photo credit: Richard Phibbs

Hewson was raised largely out of the limelight in Southside Dublin, surrounded by a close-knit group of friends. Her childhood sounds remarkably grounded: her father and mother, the activist Ali Hewson, met at school at the age of 12 and have been together since they were 15, which is not a story you often hear in the realms of rock ’n’ roll.

“I was lucky to have that anchor. I have grown up with a sense of security in a world that’s unstable and hectic, but wonderful and magical,” Hewson says. “The great thing about Irish people is they really don’t give a fuck about celebrities. They don’t care about someone’s fancy car or an expensive handbag – they just care about the banter, having a good sense of humour.”

Although people don’t always know about her starry connections – “I definitely don’t broadcast it” – the association has caused some uncomfortable moments. During her first weeks at college, students began to search for her online, looking to add her on Facebook. “When they Googled my name, they’d find some U2 fan page. That was difficult to navigate,” she reflects. When people do find out who her father is, Hewson says it can lead them to underestimate her talents. But she is quick to note that this has its positives. “When people don’t expect much of you, it’s more enjoyable when you prove them wrong,” she says. “The main thing that I care about is the work that I’m doing. Everything else, I really don’t mind – all of the noise and all the judgements, it’s really none of my business.”

Photo credit: Richard Phibbs
Photo credit: Richard Phibbs

Hewson’s parents were hesitant about her entering the movie business – partly, she says, because they wanted to make sure she would take the decision seriously. “There was the fear that I would go off to LA and become some celebrity kid running around on Rodeo Drive. I think any parent bringing up a kid in a certain lifestyle would have those fears.” Then, when Hewson was in her mid-twenties, she had what she describes as “a wonky few years” when she dyed her hair pink and “made some questionable personal-life decisions”. During this time, she started to have doubts as to whether acting was for her, and it was her mother who brought her focus back. “She told me, ‘You said this was what you wanted to do with your life. You can’t just jump ship. You’re in love with this thing and you have to work at it.’” And, as mothers tend to be, she was right.

But what emerged from that period was the realisation that Hewson wanted to build towards producing and directing, too. “Now I’m going to choose jobs if there’s one person on that set I can learn from, either a writer or a producer, a director or a cinematographer. I’m looking to find people who want to teach me.”

Photo credit: Richard Phibbs
Photo credit: Richard Phibbs

Although her career thus far has been shaped around blockbusting productions, Hewson is also keen to explore all genres of the business, big and small. “I would even do a soap like Days of Our Lives or Coronation Street,” she says. “The best actors I’ve worked with are the ones who’ve really lived a life: they’ve done commercials and plays, then they’ve gone to Broadway and they’ve done big franchises and small indies.”

With Luna the cat by her side, she has been making the most of her free time by reading; I ask if there are any books on her radar for future projects. “There are a few,” she says with a cautious smile. “I go to the bookstore around the corner, Lutyens & Rubinstein, and I ask whoever’s working on the desk what their favourites are. Everyone’s making books into movies now, so it’s really hard to find things that aren’t already bought. But, if you dive into novels written in the Sixties and the Seventies, you can find some gems.”

With her star still on the rise, it seems clear that it won’t be long before Hewson is celebrated exclusively on her own terms rather than as her father’s daughter. “Slowly, people will stop thinking about my dad so much and start thinking about the work, I hope,” she says. “The more work I do, the more people will see me as an individual.” And nothing – not even a global pandemic – is going to stand in her way.

Photo credit: Richard Phibbs
Photo credit: Richard Phibbs

‘Behind Her Eyes’ is available on Netflix now. This interview appears in Town & Country’s spring issue, on sale from 18 February.