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Irish On

Irish On
Photo Source: Larry Busacca
How does someone show range while keeping each character truthful and believable? Of course that's the ultimate acting question. But to see powerful examples, watch Irish actor Ciarán Hinds in his vast variety of roles.

From romantic leads (Captain Wentworth in 1995's "Persuasion" and Mr. Rochester in 1997's "Jane Eyre") to empire-builders (Gaius Julius Caesar in BBC/HBO's series "Rome"), from murderers (Jim Browner in "The Cardboard Box") to cartoon character (Botticelli the rat in "The Tale of Despereaux"), from working with Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") to an upcoming "Harry Potter" film—there's no doubt he can do it all, while remaining true to each character's nature and each project's style.

And that's just screen projects. He was cast by Peter Brook in the six-hour theatre piece "The Mahabharata," then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, performing the title role in Sam Mendes' "Richard III." Hinds also played Larry in the London and Broadway productions of "Closer," winning the Theatre World Award for best debut in NYC, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award. Most recently, he appeared in the Broadway production of Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer."

Currently, Hinds stars in McPherson's new film, "The Eclipse," playing Michael Farr, a widower who volunteers to chauffeur the lovely Lena (Iben Hjejle), a writer visiting his town's literary festival. She writes about ghosts and the supernatural; he may be seeing ghosts.

Speaking with Back Stage by phone, Hinds discusses developing his character in "The Eclipse," working with McPherson, and being flexible on a set.

Back Stage: Did you win this role from having worked on Conor McPherson's "The Seafarer?"

Ciarán Hinds: That's right. We had just started previews at the time, and Conor placed this rather thin and meager draft of a screenplay my way and said, "I wonder, might you be interested in this? Would you look at it and think does it do anything for you?" We had met eight or nine years before, but we had never worked together. As we worked together in "The Seafarer," we got to know each other as people, as well. He asked me what I thought of it. At the time, the screenplay was so thin, it was quite mysterious. But I knew, having worked with Conor, that he has so much inside him and his thinking, that it will be made clear, the journey we go on—rather than writing it down in black-and-white. It was a very easy job for me put my faith in him. And I was thrilled to be asked.

Back Stage: How much room did he leave you in the script for developing your character?

Hinds: Left entirely. He said the reason why he chose me, because I have something in myself that would come out if I played it honestly—that he thought would be very useful for people to follow Michael Farr's journey. When you work with Conor, he puts his trust in you and then leaves you to express yourself in the way that you feel is right. If he feels it's not sufficient, he will mention it, but mostly he would just guide you and trust what you're doing, because that's why he chose you. It's a great freedom to be able to do that, but at the same time, because I had enough respect for him as a director, at any moment when he suggested something different, there was no problem to adapt or change the way I was thinking.

Back Stage: Are you comfortable telling me what it was he saw in you that he wanted you to put in the character?

Hinds: Just some kind of natural warmth, as opposed to a natural froideur. He just used a word, a natural warmth. And a lot of the parts I've been asked to play, that sort of has to be hidden. He wanted me to put that warmth into a situation that has to be unsettled and unbalanced and challenged.

Back Stage
: Did you create secrets for Michael—back story or subtext that you can talk about now?

Hinds: To be honest with you, I didn't. I think there's a moment we get to in our lives when, because of our life experience, we do understand grief in its various forms, and especially bereavement, and how hugely that can stir one's natural equilibrium, and also how febrile and heightened the emotions become. And also, it was important to me that we could very quickly make in this story three people—[actors] little Hannah Lynch and Eanna Hardwicke—that we could be a real family, behave as a family, and it wouldn't be just like, "Oh, they're acting a family." People would get a sense from us that we're a father with two kids, but we're in a difficult situation. That was very important to me, and I think to Conor. This was real, honest emotion, and when the extraordinary ghosts or supernatural things happened, that the audience suddenly understands that it's not just melodrama, this guy is certainly in an awful place.

Back Stage: What choices did you offer Conor, and what did he select and what did he dismiss?
Hinds: I suppose like any film there's a fair bit in the bin. But I think, through Conor, because of the time constraint and the budget constraint, we didn't have much time to retake. And so, Conor would often shoot what he would call the rehearsal, just go through it with the camera, but we'd film it in case we could use something. More than once, in fact a fair few times, because of the immediacy of it, he believed what he saw and was happy to use that.

Back Stage: Can you point us to a particular scene when that was done?

Hinds: Well, the dramatic one would be the one at the end, where [Michael's] wife finally presents herself to him. [Conor] said, "Well we're going to go through this because we need movement and we need to know where the cameras go. We're going to shoot it. Feel free to whatever, but don't bust a gut." And then you don't know what the right timing is, and you think, "If I open up now, at least I'm here in this state." I did expect Conor to say, "Wait a minute and we go again." For whatever reason, he said he was happy to leave it at that, which is a very brave choice for a director—to trust that he has what he needs and not just say, "Maybe something different." Maybe he didn't want to put me through something. But in fact sometimes that's the work we have to do.

Back Stage: It's very brave of the actor to let the director film the rehearsal.

Hinds: I suppose, but that's where I think the element of trust comes in—a real trust. It's Conor who has written and adapted the story, and through his eyes where he wants to put the camera. It's his story we serve.

Back Stage: Michael lies to Lena at several points. How do you play a lie?

Hinds: The major lie is when she asks him, "I'm wondering if your wife is buried there," and he thinks about it and says no. And then, wonderfully, Conor just takes the camera with them, goes past them, and leaves it on the fact that he just lied. Is it a deliberate lie or is it a sense-of-shame lie? A sense of shame that he's starting to become attracted to this women, which was not his initial intention. It was to drive her around and to connect with her about her experiences. He starts to find himself drawn to her. He feels awkward and probably doesn't want at that moment to face the truth that he's talking to this woman and his wife is buried just there.

Back Stage: What would you tell actors appearing in a Conor McPherson project for the first time?

Hinds: Be brave, be open, because in rehearsal Conor is thrilled when he writes words and has things in his head, but when he sees it take shape and form, he's so gracious and so grateful. The thing is just to be open and offer as much as you've got, really.

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