Denise Mulholland: 'Best advice I've ever received? You make your own sandwiches'

Actor Denise Mulholland tells all in our Q&A

Photo by Elisa Von Brockdorff
Photo by Elisa Von Brockdorff

Denise was born and raised in Scotland. At first, she was torn between becoming a vet and becoming an actor. On graduating she worked in and around Glasgow, then had a change of heart and went to London to study opera instead. She worked as an opera singer for around 10 years singing as company principal for all the major opera houses in the UK. Seven years ago, she made another move into teaching drama and music and has focused on work with young people. In September 2006 she moved to Valletta, which is where she is now based. She works as a freelance actor, singer, teacher and director. Over the years she has taught thousands of children and young adults and has helped many of them achieve their dream of winning a place at full-time theatre and musical theatre schools.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I wake up early, but it takes a lot of coffee to get moving. I take a moment to think through my schedule for the day and mentally calculate how long before I can get back into my pyjamas again.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

‘You make your own sandwiches’. This is a Scottish turn of phrase, firmly rooted in my home country’s pragmatic sensibility. In a nutshell it means that you are responsible for your choices. If you don’t like tuna and you moan about it every time you have it, then stop putting it in your sandwiches. If you don’t enjoy those aspects of your life that you are actively pursuing, then stop pursuing them.

What do you never leave the house without?

Keys, phone, clothes.

Pick three words that describe yourself.

Direct. Funny. Thrawn (Scots word that means stubborn)

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

I’ve been an educator for more than 40 years and without doubt my greatest achievements are the successes of my students. Those successes come in many different guises – personal and professional – but it’s the most rewarding part of my life, no question.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Oh, I have lots of those. But the guiltiest is probably re-watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer ad nauseum.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Make sure you hold your happiness in your own hands.

Property and cars aside what are the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought?

My baby pink Smeg fridge which cost a bomb but remains one of the most beautiful things on the planet.

What is the one thing you wish you’d known when you were younger?

The bottom you have when you’re 20 years old is sensational. Your bottom will never look that good again, so make the most of it and give it due respect.

Who is your inspiration?

My friends. Some have been in my life for almost 40 years, some are relatively new but each one of them is an inspiration.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Losing people, I love.

If you weren’t a theatre maker, what would you be doing?

I would run boarding kennels for dogs and cats. I say ‘boarding kennels’ but in reality, I would like to own a giant house and just fill it with pets who need a place to stay while their owners are on holiday.

Do you believe in God?


If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

Robert Burns. He is arguably Scotland’s most famous poet. I would invite him to a Burns’ supper which I think is nicely surreal.

What’s your worst habit?

Procrastination. Once I get started, I’m fine, but I am extremely good at finding other things to do before actually settling down to the task at hand. The urgent need to organize my sock drawer is in direct relation to my work deadline.

What are you like when you’re drunk?

I’m pretty rubbish to be honest. I tend to appear sober(ish) for quite a long time but then it’s like a switch flip and I need to sleep. Immediately. Which can be awkward when you’re at a dinner party.

Who would you have play you in a film?

Bette Davis. God, I love her.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?


What music would you have played at your funeral?

Highland Cathedral played on the bagpipes.

What is your most treasured material possession?

I tend to value things for sentimental reasons. So, I have a few things that I would rescue in a fire – my parent’s wedding photo, a toy owl from my childhood and a silver locket given to me by the students of TMYT back when we performed The Three Sunsets.

What is your earliest memory?

I was three years old. I had fallen over in the garden and grazed my knee and was bawling my eyes out. My Mum took me through to her bedroom and there in the middle of her 70’s orange flowery bedspread was a tiny black puppy. Her name was Mitzi and she lived until she was 21 years old. The maddest dog who ever took a breath on this planet – she used to hide behind bushes and ambush the postman.

When did you last cry and why?

This morning. I was sitting in the garden at my family home in the Scottish Highlands. It was a beautifully sunny August morning, and a baby deer came out of the forest and stood about 2m away from me, staring at me. I got tearful at the thought of leaving home and my family to return to Malta.

Who would you most like to meet?

Harold Pinter.

What’s your favourite food?

Hot and sour soup.

Who’s your favourite person on social media right now?

I’m a recent convert to Instagram and I do find it helps me indulge in my bad habit of procrastination – it’s so easy to fall down any number of rabbit holes as I search ‘funny cat videos’. I find Christopher Hall very funny. He has a lovely sense of the absurd and his comedy is wonderfully silly.

If you could travel in time, where would you go?

Paris, 1863. I would go to the exhibition at the Salon de Refuses. This was when the artists of the time (Cezanne, Gaugin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh etc) joined together to exhibit their artwork. All pieces which had been refused by the official Salon. Can you imagine being in Paris at that time? With the composers and poets and artists who would become so influential? Just to sit in the corner of the Café des Beaux Arts and listen to them all arguing with each other.

What book are you reading right now?

Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

I would wish for the power of patience. Not as exciting as the power of invisibility perhaps, but ultimately more practical!

What’s the one thing you want to do before you die?

I don’t have a bucket list, really. If there is something I am really burning to do, then I will try to do it.

What music are you listening to at the moment?

The playlist for the upcoming Shrinking Violets show. I’m lucky enough to be part of an amazing theatre collective with four great friends and we have a cabaret-style show in November called MISCAST.

In the shower or when you’re working out, what do you sing/listen to?

Somewhat ironically, I don’t listen to music very much. For me it’s work. I’m surrounded by music for most of the day, so I try to find moments of silence.