Two years ago they were hardly known, now Séan Campion and Conleth Hill are the toast of Broadway.
In a departure from the world of big-budget films and special effects, Conleth Hill, 37, and Séan Campion, 41, create a world of characters and situations on a nearly bare stage with no props, as they bring to life the story of a Hollywood film-crew’s effect on a small village in Co. Kerry in Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets.
It’s a tour-de-force that has critics raving.
Hitherto unknown on this side of the Atlantic, the two have mainly worked as character actors in Ireland, England and Scotland.
Hill is from Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, and it’s no coincidence that his primary character, “Charlie,” is also from there. Marie Jones wrote the character for him. Campion, whom Hill recommended for the role of “Jake,” Charlie’s buddy, is from Kilkenny.
The two met when they performed together in a revival of Northern Irish playwright Stewart Parker’s Northern Star in 1998, and it’s obvious that they work well together on stage.
Each is highly-tuned to every nuance of change in the other, every facial expression, inflection of tone, and every slight movement that could signify a shift to another of the 15 characters that they play. Hill switches to the role of Caroline, the spoilt American star, with such apparent ease that you would think he changed gender. Campion, in one of his many roles, plays the director’s wishy assistant Ashley, who keeps the extras on their toes.
“The play is an uncut gem and they hone it to a beautiful one,” offers Nick Kent of the Tricycle Theater, where the play had its’ London run. The hit of the theater season there, it gathered a celebrity following of stars such as Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman.
Hill received an Olivier Award (over Michael Gambon) for his performance. Playwright Jones received The Evening Standard Comedy Award, and with the reviews coming in as we go to press it looks as if the New York run is going to be equally successful. Yet, when I met the two actors at The Golden Theater (they had just come from taping a television interview with Charlie Rose) they behaved as if nothing has changed at all.
Interview with Séan Campion:
How do you handle the success?
Campion: You can’t let it go to your head. There are times you’ve got to pinch yourself and go, “Jesus Christ, I’m playing on Broadway.” But you still have to go and do your job. It doesn’t really change the way you perceive any of it.
If you want to keep your feet on the ground bring your family, bring your friends, and they’ll bring you back down to earth.
Like for the opening on Broadway there was a bunch of guys that came over from Freshford, which is a little village north of Kilkenny, where I come from, and in the midst of all the success and everything that’s going on, they still had the ability to take the piss out of me big-time.
What do you consider your big break?
Campion: The fact that I’ve gotten away with it for 20 years is a big break. The idea of being able to survive as an actor for 20 years. To know that I’ve got my own house in Dublin that I bought. I’ve been very lucky.
What’s your interpretation of the play? Do you see it as a comedy?
Campion: I never saw it as being a comedy. When we started rehearsing it, it was a straightforward play. The whole idea of it being a comedy kind of surprised us and it certainly surprised Marie, particularly when we started winning awards for comedy in London. I don’t think she realized herself that it was as funny as it is. And it’s grown an awful lot in performance. I know from the audience reaction they just find it so funny at times. There is a darker side to the play as well.
Do you think it’s Irish, that tragic humor?
Campion: Very much so. You see it in O’Casey – The Plough and the Stars and Juno – there’s elements that are just hysterically funny, and then in the next breath, it’s back into a serious theme again. It’s not always laughing at other people, it’s laughing at yourself. I think the ability to laugh at yourself is really important…and certainly there are a few Irish playwrights that have that [ability].
Where does this come from?
Campion: I haven’t analyzed it too much, but even as I think into when I was growing up, the whole idea of storytelling was such a big factor. The way that people talked about their neighbors and the community, there’s always that ability [to have a laugh].
Caroline [the movie-star character played by Hill] says of the Irish, “You people are so simple, uncomplicated and contented.” Can you comment on that?
Campion: That’s a lot of bollocks, really. Is there any civilization anywhere in the world that’s simple and uncomplicated? Of course not. I mean, individuals by their very nature are complicated. They have to be, otherwise we’d be a boring lot. We’d all be the bloody same. And we don’t all skip around the crossroads every Sunday afternoon and kick our heels up, you know.
After two years how do you keep the play fresh?
Campion: We keep working on it all the time. We keep an eye on it all the time and make sure that it’s where it should be – that it’s not falling low. You know what the level of energy should be from doing it and what the level of concentration should be. It’s organic with an audience. You can feel whether they’re with you or not. If they’re not with you, then you must be doing something wrong.
The fact that you never leave the stage for two and half hours, means that that connection stays there all the time. This sounds really pretentious and I don’t mean to, but there’s an energy that’s going on between you and the audience, and once that clicks in you’re flying for the evening and they’re coming with you. That keeps it fresh, because if you fall below that mark, then the audience is just going to lose interest. They’re not going to be there, and you’re going to know it.
How do you like New York?
Campion: I’m reveling in it. I’ve never been here before. I’ve heard so much about the city from everybody over the years and it’s this, it’s this, it’s this…I’m reveling in it. There’s a lovely double thing going on here at the moment [where] a lot of it is very familiar through the movies and TV and all of that, and sometimes you really do feel like you’re on a film set when you’re walking around. At times it’s overwhelming. You’re getting reviewed in the New York Times, you’re going on Charlie Rose’s TV show. Yet you still have to go and do your job and you still have to do interviews, and you still have to meet people and you kind of have to be responsible about yourself.
So how did you plan on being an actor? Obviously it was the right decision, but was it a tough one to make?
Campion: No, it wasn’t. Myself and a mate of mine had done a couple of shows at school, and somewhere in the back of my head, I kind of thought that’s what I wanted to do after I finished school. But I ended up being a barman.
I was a head barman at the Clubhouse Hotel in Kilkenny and after two-and-a-half years, it was like I can’t hack this anymore, it’s doing my head in. I want to be an actor. The notion came back so strong that I packed in my job and went to Dublin, where I ended up working as a barman again until eventually, somebody told me about the Focus Theatre. I went along and met Deirdre O’Connell, who was running this small little theatre. I thought at the time she was the most eccentric person that ever entered my life. She was here down to here in black, and the hair up in the head and all that, and I sat and interviewed with her. And she said to me, “Why do you want to be an actor?” And I said, “I have no idea.” And I didn’t have an idea. I didn’t know; I couldn’t articulate why I wanted to be an actor. And she was brilliant. She said, “That’s OK. I never knew either.”
I was really lucky. Deirdre is an extraordinary woman in the history of Irish theater, and I hope it will be acknowledged sometime.
Which of the characters is your favorite?
Campion: I enjoy them all. I mean, I think I probably enjoy Jake the most because just in acting terms he’s the one who’s got the journey to make through the course of the play. He starts off being very bitter and cynical, he goes to the States and he comes back and it didn’t work for him. The whole fucking world is at fault because it didn’t work for him, and this Hollywood crew come in and there’s all these people younger than him, really confident, and they’re bossing him around the place and the resentment that’s building up in him is just…[sighs], and I can understand it. I can empathize with it. In acting terms, to have to start with that and take him through that and come out the other end as somebody who’s very positive and who’s found something that he’s never found before in his life. There’s that wonderful line he has that Marie [Jones] gave him, “They can only knock us if we don’t believe in ourselves.” And if you don’t believe in yourself, then everybody’s entitled to knock you. So in acting terms, I love that journey he makes through the play.
I enjoy the other characters as well. I love playing Ashley. I think Mickey’s great fun. I mean the old codger who’d been an extra on The Quiet Man and is dining out on it ever since. They’re all good fun. But I like that journey of Jake’s.
What’s it like working with Hill?
Campion: It’s what you hope for every time you walk into a rehearsal room. It doesn’t always happen, but when Stones came and I was brought in to do it with Conleth, we automatically knew where we were. We just bounce off each other really, really easily, and seem to bring the best out of each other.
In the play Charlie says “Talent is talent, it wins through in the end.” Do you believe that?
Campion: [LAUGHS]: Oh, God. I don’t know. I know a lot of extremely talented people, actors who are far more talented than I am, who haven’t gotten breaks that I have gotten. I really do like to think that if you believe in it strong enough and if you don’t let go of it, it can win out in the end. Maybe it’s too simple but I do think everybody has their day. It’s a bit like Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame.
I guess what you make of it is important as well. I don’t know about that, because you see I never planned anything in my career at all. I’ve just been really lucky. It’s like things happen, they come along and you make choices when they come and you go with it, then it kicks into something else, and then that kicks into something else, and I’m here now because that’s all I’ve ever done is answer the phone and say, “OK, I’m interested in that. Lets have a go.”
Interview with Conleth Hill:
How do you handle the success?
Hill: It seems to be suddenly happening, but not really to me, if that makes sense. The thing is that we are still doing what we did two years ago in the Lyric [Theatre in Belfast]. It’s in a different venue, and it’s for more people, but in essence we haven’t had a break from it. Each time the play goes somewhere new it seems a new departure or a new venture for us, but we’re still doing what we did.
Do you consider this your big break?
Hill: Yes, definitely. It’s hard to be objective about it because we’re in the middle of it. We’re still trying to keep [a perspective on it]. We’re still trying to do what we always did…but certainly the awards and everything have been mind-blowing and unexpected.
What’s your interpretation of the play?
Hill: It’s Charlie and Jake. It’s their story…I think it’s about self-determination. These two guys actually get to say, well, I can’t blame everybody else around me and I can’t be envious of others because that’s all a waste of energy and I’ve got to do something about it myself. I can do this, or at least I can forgo doing it.
After two years how do you keep it fresh?
Hill: Because you don’t know what’s going to come out of your mouth when you go on. It’s very hard to explain but it’s like, if we preempt or anticipate what the other person is going to say onstage or who they’re going to be or how you feel about it, it’s not as fresh, and it’s just this state that I always go for where when I go on, I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I trust enough in my rehearsal, in the person I’m working with, to let it all happen. It is just that exercise of hearing things for the first time and listening.
Do you want to comment on Caroline’s romantic notion of Ireland?
Hill: I think it’s there. I think there is something indefinable. But I think it’s best to leave it indefinable, [rather than] start to try and define what it is that makes the Irish as spirited and as lyrical as they are. They’re great storytellers. There’s always a sense of history and story in the Irish. You know, maybe we have more storytellers than any other country in the world, and that’s why we have had so many playwrights.
There’s a darkness there too.
Hill: It is Irish, but it’s human. I think emotions are the one thing that aren’t specific to race. Emotions are the one thing that don’t change in literature. If you hear a Shakespeare play, all the words are different from the words we use now, and all the costumes are different, but what we learn is that emotions don’t change over centuries. People still hate and love and get angry and all those things.
One of the initial reasons we did the play was that darkness. The play travels because it’s universal. It has been done in so many different countries, and sometimes they keep it Irish, and sometimes they adapt it so that it’s more personal than that.
Hill: Yes. It’s more universal. But I think also that the dilemma in the play is more personal. It’s about one person’s assumptions about another person. That you know Charlie’s from the North, and you automatically think that he’d have to have something to do with the boys [the IRA] and the Troubles, and how that’s kind of played off in the beginning.
Have you found that in your own personal life?
Hill: No. I found stupid things. Like when I first went to London, everybody assumed that I drank Guinness and whiskey, or that I hated Protestants.
Where did your desire to be an actor come from?
Hill: It was always there. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the circus came to the field beside our house when I was a very small kid, and for whatever reason, I was first there waiting for a ride. And I loved the circus. I loved the lights, and smells and noise and reaction from the audience.
What’s it like working with Campion?
Hill: He’s a really easy guy to get on with socially, but he works in a very similar way to me – the discipline and approach – [and knowing] that it’s about telling somebody else’s story, not putting his attitude to it. And he works hard. You know, when we rehearsed for three weeks, Ian [director Ian McElhinney] would leave at five and we’d work on till twelve just to try and get it as clean as we could. And because we had already worked together, we didn’t have to spend time getting to know each other and we could get straight into the work. He’s a fine actor.
Who are your influences?
Hill: A lot of Americans like Steve Martin, and Mel Brooks. We’re going to see The Producers [the Mel Brooks play] next week and I’m thrilled. I’m a character actor, so I like all the characters, like Spencer Tracy, but you know, diverse people as well. Gene Wilder and Rob Steiger – there’s just so many great actors over here and great comedians.
What do you want to do while in New York?
Hill: I definitely want to go to the museums and galleries. If I can get to see some other shows that would be great as well, but most of them seem to be on the same time as us. And that’s it, really. Your job is doing the play, and your days gear around it so much so that from four o’clock on, that’s it; you’re just getting ready to do the play. It’s not like we can go off to the country or do anything extravagant. So we have a pint or two and that will do us. `Cause the thing we don’t try and do is the play when we’re hung over.
Hill: I have no idea, and I don’t really care, to be honest. I’ve been lucky enough to work solidly from when I started working. I’ve never had a career plan, `cause I think that’s ridiculous in the most illogical, stupid business in the world to make any plans. One thing is, I have no qualms about saying no if I think something might look like a bad career move. You can only go with your gut instinct, because it’s all you have. ♦