Ciarán Hinds is lovely. Now, perhaps I shouldn’t admit that because part of Hinds’ attraction is that he remains somewhat of an unknown. In fact, one fan found it so hard to find information on Hinds that she started a website www.Ciaranitis.com, for those “smitten with Ciarán Hinds.”
Hinds has appeared in a wealth of movies and plays over the years, yet he remains on the periphery of Hollywood stardom – it would seem by choice. I met Ciarán at the Irish Arts Center dinner in New York City in November. It was a night full of Irish stars, including Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Gabriel Byrne, and Hinds, who seemed to stand just outside the picture. In rehearsals for the Broadway debut of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, he reluctantly agreed to an interview. Then the stagehands strike happened, and the play, which had had a week of previews, was put on hold, and so was the interview.
When he finally agreed to meet me at Kit DeFever’s studio for an early morning photo shoot and interview, he and the four other actors in The Seafarer were in the unenviable position of keeping the play “warm,” ready to go at a moment’s notice of the strike’s end. Yet, Hinds seemed unflustered.
I had offered to send a car to pick him up – he opted to take the “metro.” He arrived on time, dressed in the blue shirt I had requested, but was happy to change into an Irish fisherman’s sweater provided by Kit. During our conversation I found him open and available, and relaxed (after watching me spend a couple of frustrating minutes trying to solve the mysteries of my tape recorder, he calmly took over and solved the problem without making me feel the dumb blonde).
Hinds, who turns 55 on February 9, was born in Belfast, the youngest of five children and the only son. His father was a doctor, and his mother, Moya, had been involved in amateur dramatics “before she had us.” As a boy he performed with the Patricia Mulholland Irish Dance troupe and appeared in productions at St. Malachy’s College, an all-boys’ high school. He attended Queens University, ostensibly to study law, but soon left to attend the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He began his stage career at the Glasgow Citizens’ Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and since his first film appearance, in 1981, as one of the medieval knights in Excalibur, he has gone on to amass a large number of credits both on film and stage, including Munich, Margot at the Wedding, and the much touted There Will Be Blood which also stars Daniel Day-Lewis. He also appeared as Julius Caesar in the HBO series Rome, for which he received the 2007 Irish Film & Television Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role.
I’ve had a grá for Hinds since I first saw him in December Bride, a tale of two brothers in love with the same woman – Hinds plays off Donal McCann’s earthiness with sullen brooding. Set in Northern Ireland at the turn of the 20th century, it’s a classic film with haunting cinematography.
Can you tell me about December Bride, which I saw again recently and enjoyed as much the second time round?
It was filmed in 1989. There hadn’t been a film made in the North of Ireland for about forty years, sometime in the 50’s. It was made and directed by a Kerry man, Thaddeus O’Sullivan, a great cinematographer who was interested in the dichotomy of the North. He found this story by Sam Hanna Bell and stayed with it for a long time to get it made. There was something very pure about the film itself, at the root of it. It was very honest. They didn’t try to modernize it or give it an aggressive glamour that passes for truth. It was a simple story of two brothers, very closed off. And they get awakened, their hearts get awakened, by the same woman.
It also brought in much about the North, and what was happening on the periphery.
Presbyterianism and the landscape featured heavily in the film. Thaddeus being a photographer himself got this fantastic French cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer because he loved the way Bruno treated people’s faces and landscape.
Was there a specific moment when you knew acting was what you wanted to do? I know that you studied law.
(Laughs) Well, I hardly studied law. I was supposed to be studying law —
I never thought, “I want to be an actor, I want to be on stage, I want to be in film.” For a long time I was just involved. I did a lot of Irish dancing. I worked with Patricia Mulholland who was one of the few in the North who did work that was different from the rigid Irish dancing. Her work was very fluid. She was a huge influence in terms of showing us how to move. How you balance and make patterns with your feet or body, which is also the physical thing in theater. She was also a brilliant classical violinist and she created this troupe of Irish dancers, and through dance and mime she told stories of the legends of Ireland – Chuculainn and Finn McCool. I was with her from the age of seven or eight until I left at nineteen. My training in dance helped me to present classical work years later when I was asked to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. The troupe used to tour the schools and on Saturdays you could find yourself in Tyrone or Fermanagh or Derry. And once a year the company would perform at a theater in Belfast. It was all amateur but there were proper costumes. And it was a big influence in my life.
And of course I went to elocution lessons and did monologues, and bits of Shakespeare. And then at St. Malachy’s College we had a couple of good drama teachers and put on big productions once or twice a year. I was twelve or thirteen when I played Lady Macbeth – they always got the younger boys to play the women back in the Shakespeare days. My mother still believes that’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s hard to keep on pushing on into your fifties thinking, “Wow, I’ll never beat that [laughs].”
Didn’t you do some recordings of Shakespeare plays?
I was involved with two of them. [Hinds is a 2004 Audie Award Winner, for best audio drama performance on
The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare]. I played Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, thinking they wouldn’t ask me back, but they did, and in The Winter’s Tale I played Leontes, the one who turns out to be very jealous.
Was there a big concentration on Shakespeare at school?
Shakespeare prevailed quite strongly in St. Malachy’s school. It was a great grounding in literature, and it also taught you about life. The thing about Shakespeare is that while a lot of his plays have to do with the attributes of kings, he also had the voice of the common man, not spoken in iambic pentameter but the blank verse of the citizens of the world. When it came to speaking the truth it was always there as seen through the eyes of ordinary mortals. And he seemed to cover the entire range of emotion – the emotional sense of people always rang though, and also lessons of nature. In Romeo and Juliet for instance, the friar who is the advisor to Romeo gives this long aria on nature and plants that assist in healing. There are also reference to nature in Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale. Also, of course, you have the huge emotional and political stuff he wrote and the dreams he wove as well — the man just wrote so much.
You were in Munich (the film, set in the aftermath of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics). Did growing up in the north give you some understanding of the Palestinian question?
The year I was at Queens University, supposedly doing law, a group from the National Film School in London came over. They were making a short film for their finals about the North, the dichotomy and the problems in the different communities. There were four of them, a Palestinian, an Iranian, an Israeli and a Canadian Jewish guy who wrote the piece. And because they were out of their home territorites they could meet, and converse, and argue. They were in the North because they identified what was happening there with what was happening back in their homelands. This was 1972, and people did sort of equate the Israeli/Palestinian problems with the Protestant/Catholic problems of the North, because they were both flaring up at that time. But you realize when you grow up a little, that the [Palestinian] problem is a thousand times more difficult and conflicted than ours. I mean, the refugees and the poverty, and the scale of it all. It’s much heavier, much deeper. Of course, the problems of the North are serious because the people have been cemented there for generations now. If the false state hadn’t been set up – and even once it was, if there was an equalizing force at work, it’s a natural human condition to say that there is an equality, even if it is false. But if it’s set up wrong, and continues to be wrong . . . .
Well, Shakespeare, he knew [what happens in that case].
You also worked on the movie about the Hunger Strike, Some Mother’s Son WITH HELEN MIRREN.
It’s a very strong film.
It [the Hunger Strike] was a hell of a time. Terrible.
I remember that Helen Mirren was given a bad time by the British press for accepting the role.
Helen, being the divine artist that she is, has an intelligence and an emotional reasoning that’s far beyond these people that are reviewing her. She’s fantastic.
Do you go back to Belfast a lot?
I nip in and go visit my mom in Cushindall, in the Glens of Antrim. She’s been living there 20 years now. My father died 15 years ago and they had moved there right after he retired. She’s 87 now. She can’t move as once she did, but she’s still very much in the game. She was involved in amateur dramatics when she was younger, before we children were born. I saw her perform once, when I was ten or eleven, with an amateur group based on The New Lodge Road in Belfast. She was playing an old woman reminiscing over her life. It was fun to watch, very exciting.
She must be thrilled at your success.
I suppose, yeah, but all parents are nervous for their children, “Will they get through?” “Will they get by?” That was the reason, I think, that even though they knew I wanted to be involved in theater, they wanted me to have a degree to fall back on. So my parents were probably quite nervous for a while. I mean, in the end the work is about survival, it’s not about getting up to the top rung. It’s about the adventure of doing different work and working with different people. You just keep going on. And suddenly I was elevated for something that was none of my doing, it just had to do with circumstance, timing, and somebody’s choice –
But you have a consistent body of good work even from your early days with Field Day.
I was with Field Day [established by playwright Brian Friel] in the mid-80’s, about ’85. And I was with Druid [based in Galway] in ’86. I was like a vagrant with a lot of bags. I worked a lot in Glasgow, not so much in London, just going around wherever I was offered work.
I worked without an agent for years. I just went wherever I got a job. And when I finally went with an agent – the only agent I’ve ever had – I’d go off and do a job and he couldn’t find me. If I went down to Druid and spent eight months in Galway I was involved in that, and the idea that some people wanted to meet me in London was no part of the psyche. [Laughs]. You go for the work, and sometimes it doesn’t matter where you do it. I had always worked through subsidized theater, in fringe groups and Irish companies, before I was asked to join the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Looking at your body of work as a whole it’s really interesting, whether it’s dealing with the slave trade in Amazing Grace, or playing Julius Caesar in Rome, it seems like a fascinating journey.
That’s where I’ve been dead lucky.
Or traveling around the world in The Mahabharata [In 1987, hinds was cast by Peter Brook in the six-hour theater piece that toured the world, and he also appeared in the 1989 film version].
See, that’s an extraordinary thing because you think, how do you go from working in fringe theater in Britain and Ireland, I was working in Glasgow at the time, to a meeting with this famous man of theater Peter Brook?
I just knew that there was a story that was being translated from French into English, and that he needed people who could speak English, and it turns out to be this extraordinary project. So you don’t know how you’re chosen, you never know. They choose you for your nature sometimes, or how you look, or what you’ve done that they liked, it can be a mixture of things.
I remember Peter read with lots of people in London, and I was invited to do a one-on-one with him in this extraordinary theater in Paris, the Bouffes du Nord. And I remember walking in, and I thought that his assistant said, “Peter wants you to be in the company,” but I couldn’t be sure. So I went back to Glasgow and my friends said “How’d it go?” and I said, “I don’t know, I’m not sure.” I thought I’d gotten in but I couldn’t trust my instincts because you have doubts all the time, real doubts. So two months later, when I was summoned for a costume fitting, I understood that she had definitely said, “Peter would like you to be in the company.”
And suddenly I’m in Paris working in a company of twenty-three, twenty-four people with fifteen different nationalities, and that’s a mind-blower. Because what you think, morally, or politically, or reasonably, emotionally – it’s not the same because everybody’s come from different sides of the world. They’re all formed in different ways, their brain works in different ways, their emotions. It was really enlightening, and you got lost and then you got opened. And it was great because sometimes there were flare-ups, but it was always discussed. And then you think “What a jammy job.”
I met my partner of twenty years there [the actress Hélène Patarot with whom Hinds has a daughter Aoife, 16, who is studying classical violin]. She was working in the play too.
Since you didn’t set out with any sort of strategy in mind, do you believe in the idea of a universal plan?
I do honestly. I mean, I still think life is random. It just seems to me that there are too many possibilities. Say you have to make a choice between two things. The choice can be for material reasons, practical reasons, emotional reasons, amorous reasons; and they don’t all work in tandem. I mean, I made a decision to do this play [The Seafarer] because I just love it and it was a great honor to be asked. But I needed to think about it; because it’s a long commitment and it meant leaving the family. So I took two weeks to think about it, and they called and I asked for another week. And the moment came, and I was actually boarding a plane and the agent calls and says, “They need a decision from you” – “Oh, just say yes!” But I sort of knew I was always going to do it. I just had to convince myself.
How do you keep yourself in the play? I mean, what do you do if you’re having a bad day?
You have to learn to put it away, because that’s what you’re here for, this is your profession. There are actors who are so brilliant they can play around. I’m not. There’s like a third eye always looking around that allows you to take risks and to break what you thought were strictures at the time. And it allows you to really connect and take those risks. But you have to be engaged and committed to what you’re doing. And to listen – one of the hardest things in acting is to listen, because you’re always thinking of where you might come from next. But if you’re really listening, you trust that it will all work out.
It must be frustrating waiting for the outcome of the strike?
The thought that came to mind is that this must be like Limbo – always standing and waiting. I mean we could be in Hell so this is a step up. It’s a question of being patient and believing that it will come, and being ready. But we’ve done eight or nine previews and it grows and builds with the audience. And suddenly you lose your steam, but you have to be ready when they say “Okay, we’re going.” That decision will be made quickly, and vocally you have to get your voice ready for 800 seats in a Broadway theater. You don’t want to start acting in a room that you’re not connecting to, and you don’t want to get into bad habits. The Seafarer is a fantastic piece of writing. There were a couple of performances where the magic really happened . . . you recognize it from when you work closely with people, you just think, “Wow, you guys are amazing.”
I think a lot of theater is missing the whole ensemble – working together as a group.
Well, that’s Broadway: Bring on the Stars! I had a friend who was at theater school with me who came to a preview, and even he said that you rarely see ensemble acting like this with people moving and people connecting. I mean we all have the responsibility as actors to take the moment when it’s yours but not get in the way of anyone else’s moment. Because it sure as hell ain’t all about you.
There are not many actors who can go from movie to stage, back and forth like that.
In Ireland there are.
Do you have a preference?
Not really. I usually say that the one that I’m doing at the time is the one I prefer, and that is certainly true in the case of The Seafarer. There’s work to do along the journey. But it’s just everything around the play, from being around Conor McPherson and his writing, and working with Conleth Hill, David Morse, and being in on Sean Mahon’s first time on Broadway, and he’s great, really wonderful. Then there’s the god we call Jim Norton. So just to be in the company of these people and to work together is quietly thrilling.
When did you meet Conor?
We met at the Gate Theatre in 2001. Michael Colgan presented a night of three short plays. There was one written by Conor McPherson, an Irish writer in his 30s, one by Neil Jordan, an Irish writer in his 50s, and one by the master, Brian Friel who is in his 70s. I was in this Brian Friel piece that was based on a Chekhov short story called The Yalta Game and Conor just loved it. He used to come in and watch, and he recognized a master in Brian Friel working with language and
theater, and that’s where we met.
How is it to work with Conor as director and writer?
He’s had two plays on Broadway and this is his third, and for a man in his mid-30’s that is just extraordinary. But this is the first time he’s directing on Broadway. And he is – all directors are different – but he works in the most human, untheatrical way. It’s about connecting, and about truth, and having a laugh like real life. Except he structured this piece brilliantly, and just lets you go off on your own, and maybe two days later he’ll come up to you and say a little thing. So the connection is very fluid and very free, sometimes you wonder where the hell we are at, but as he is a highly intelligent young man, who doesn’t show off about it, you trust him, and he trusts that you will do whatever he leaves you to do. And then he’ll say when it needs to be shaped. It’s been great for me.
END NOTE: The stagehands strike lasted for three weeks but the producers stood by The Seafarer and when the play opened the critics raved. Ben Brantley in the New York Times wrote “one of the finest ensembles to grace a Broadway stage in years uncovers the soul-defining clarity within the drunkard’s haze. Alcohol may be a great leveler, but as these men confirm with spectacular style, it is also a great individualizer.” Brantley went on to say: “As the central adversaries, Mr. Morse and Mr. Hinds give the show a diamond-hard dramatic center it lacked in London. . . Mr. Hinds is uncanny in balancing the mortal failings of Mr. Lockhart’s borrowed body and the immortal rage and agony of the demon within.”