When Eve Hewson started thinking about Flora, the young single mother she plays in John Carney’s “Flora and Son,” it didn’t take her long to come to a realization. “I thought, she’s an ostrich!” Hewson said, sitting on a couch in Los Angeles not long after the end of the SAG-AFTRA strike made it safe for actors to talk about their movies again. “And then I knew how to play her.”
But what, exactly, is an ostrich, apart from an eight-foot-tall flightless bird? “An ostrich is beautiful,” she said. “They look great, they move gracefully.” She grins, just a little. “And they will f— you up. You don’t mess with them because they mean business.”
So, you might say, does Memphis Eve Sunny Day Iris Hewson. (Yes, that’s her birth name, because you’re not going to get a normal moniker when your dad is a guy who ditched his real name of Paul David Hewson to go by Bono Vox of O’Connell Street, which was shortened to Bono long before he became an international rock star.)
She means business not in the sense that she’s looking to eff you up, but because if she finds a role that touches something in her, that character will come raging out of her and she’ll grab it with the tenacity of a giant scary bird, assuming ostriches also had Irish accents and wicked senses of humor.
None of this was entirely evident when Hewson, 32, came out of NYU and landed roles in projects like the dark indie film “This Must Be the Place” and the Steven Soderbergh series “The Knick” (which she described as “like getting my master’s degree”). But it appeared with unmistakable force in Sharon Horgan’s television series “Bad Sisters,” in which Hewson played the youngest sister of a close-knit clan being nudged in the direction of a little murder.
And it’s just as evident in “Flora and Son,” the Sundance movie about a stubborn Dublin mom who buys a guitar in an attempt to reach out to her sullen teenage son (Orén Kinlan). She winds up taking virtual lessons herself from a California-based songwriter and guitar teacher played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“I read it and I knew her,” Hewson said. “I grew up in Dublin. I know Dublin girls, I am a Dublin girl. It was an instant feeling of, I have to play her.”
She’d met Carney, an Irish musician-turned-director whose previous films include the Oscar-winning Once, through her father when she was a teenager, and the two got together on a Zoom call in which Hewson made a case for her vision of Flora.
“I told him what I thought of the character, and he told me what he thought, and we didn’t always agree,” she said, laughing. “I would say, ‘This scene is really funny,’ and he’d say, ‘No, that scene is sad.’ We argued about where the humor was in the story, and then the next day I got the part.”
Carney, who initially didn’t think Hewson would be right because she was too “poised and elegant” for the earthy role, remembered the call similarly. “She was immediately really funny,” he said. “She was like, ‘You’ve written a comedy.’ And I said, ‘No I haven’t,’ because I consider myself a great highbrow filmmaker.
“She was like, ‘No, no no! It’s funny and wrong and cheeky and salty, and I want to lean into all of that and not pull back and do a polite version of her. I will make a fool of myself, I don’t care who you think I am or who the world thinks I am. I want to get laughs and I want to identify with the character and I don’t care how I do it.’ There was something rockstar about that, in a way.”
“Flora and Son” also allowed her to be a rock star of sorts — or at least a rocker, if not quite a star. Music had been a big part of her childhood, and she’d even formed her own band at the age of 10. But in her early teen years, she became more interested in acting — which, she joked, made her something of a “black sheep” in the Hewson clan.
“Everybody else in the family played music and sang and wrote songs, and I was off studying my lines and reading monologues,” she said. “They didn’t understand me at all.” And did her reluctance to go further in music after the demise of her band have anything to do with that big shadow cast by her father and his group? “Absolutely.”
But in “Flora and Son,” she not only sang and played guitar on screen, she also cowrote a couple of songs. While shooting was going on, Carney asked her and Gordon-Levitt to collaborate with him and composer Gary Clark on songs for their characters; after some Saturday writing sessions, she ended up with writing credits on the acoustic duet “Meet in the Middle” and the defiant, rousing “High Life.”
And while she’d been reluctant to share any of her musical ventures in the film with her parents, she did send a copy of “Meet in the Middle” to her mom after recording it. “I said, ‘We wrote and recorded this in six hours!’” she said. “And a few minutes later I got a message from her saying, ‘It’s really good, honey, but I wish you didn’t use the word f—.’”
While playing the troubled Becca on “Bad Sisters” had weighed on Hewson during that lengthy shoot, she said that it was never difficult to slip into Flora’s skin, even when the character was under heavy financial and familial pressure. “With Becca, it took an emotional toll because it was hard to feel like a failure for so long,” she said. “But Flora is always fighting. She’s a badass, and that was fun.”
With those two roles under her belt, Hewson said she’s been delighted that the industry has seen what she can do. “For a long time, people saw me in one way,” she said. “People who knew me would say, ‘You’re so funny, you should be in comedies!’ But I never got to read for them, because nobody saw me that way until ‘Bad Sisters’ and ‘Flora.’” A grin. “Until I got to play Irish characters.
“Now that things are going well, I have these moments when I remember walking into audition rooms and feeling completely invisible. And now I feel seen for the first time.”
And if she’s seen as a thoroughly Irish actress who even has a toe in the family business, that’s fine, too. “I’ve had lots of conversations with my girlfriends lately where I’ve said, ‘Can you believe I’m in this movie singing and playing guitar and writing songs?’” She laughed. “Can you believe I ended up here?”