Ciarán talks about alien movies, high-brow theatre and taking Hollywood by storm

Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds is everywhere these days.

David MacKenzie's film version of Patrick McGrath's Asylum would never have reached the screen if the late Natasha Richardson - who'd committed to playing the role of the wife of a Broadmoor psychiatrist who has an affair with one of the inmates - hadn't stood by it through difficulties in raising finance.

"It was something she really believed in," says Ciaran Hinds, a friend of Richardson's husband Liam Neeson, who flew to New York three weeks ago to be a pall-bearer at her funeral following her tragic skiing accident. "I love that sense of loyalty and being honest enough to really mean it when you believe in something, even if it takes a long time."

Hinds was back on stage at the National Theatre in London that following Monday in Burnt By The Sun, playing a grizzled old Bolshevik general in a stunning re-imagining of Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning 1994 film.

Yet he gets almost as much of a kick out of being a baddie in the romp Race To Witch Mountain, where he heads a secret government agency that wants two alien kids dead. "Every role doesn't have to be high-brow," he says. "One gets involved in stuff that can be considered high-brow or middle-brow or just popular culture. To me, doing a 1936 Russian play where the Russian revolution meets Chekhov is story-telling. Its heart and soul, conflict and drama, and so is Race To Witch Mountain."

Its director, Andy Fickman, spotted him in Dublin playwright Conor McPherson's Tony Award-nominated The Seafarer. "So we met for lunch. He offered me the part. I didn't really understand what Witch Mountain was about, but I felt his passion for it. He knew what he wanted to do. He paid for the lunch, and I said yes."

Hinds recalls how Sam Mendes overcame studio objections to cast him in Road To Perdition as a mobster who challenges Paul Newman over his brother's death and gets killed himself. "I'd done a few things for Sam in theatre - Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, Troilus & Cressida and Richard III. However, this was the first time I'd actually worked on a film in the US. The pressure is always to have American actors in American films. Sam fought hard for me, even though it wasn't a huge role."

The son of a doctor, Hinds grew up in north Belfast. "My mother was an amateur actress. I saw her play Bessie Burgess - a Protestant character - in The Plough And The Stars, and I think she was the only Catholic in the show. She didn't like herself because she said she couldn't do a Dublin brogue." tutor Desmond Morahan suggested I quietly leave the law faculty - because snooker and poker wasn't much use to them.

As a schoolboy at St Malachy's in the 1960s, he did mime shows of old legends of the Fianna, and Oisin and C√ļchullain. "We'd do it in Irish dance form - not quite Riverdance - and something stirred in me, a realisation that drama wasn't just being clever or speaking funny." He enrolled as a law student at Queen's "but my tutor Desmond Morahan suggested I quietly leave the law faculty - because snooker and poker wasn't much use to them - and try to take acting seriously at theatre school in London. So I did."

He paid his way working for £20 a week in the packing department at Harrods. "I was handling gold leaf saucers that cost £68 each, over three times what I was earning. You can imagine what I wanted to do with them." After several years with Glasgow's innovative Citizen's Theatre, he ended up making his film debut in John Boorman's Excalibur, along with Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson. "I'd known Liam since we were 18 or 19. He'd been working in the Abbey, but I'd just arrived in Dublin. We go back a long way."

Both are tall, soft-spoken men. Hinds is the more sombre, with his black hair and distinctive high-cheeked face. He lives in France with actress wife Helene Patarot, and their teenage daughter Aoife. They met in 1987 when Peter Brook cast them in The Mahabharata, a ground-breaking six-hour piece of total theatre that toured the world. "Peter's still quietly working away in his 80s, and Helene is going back to do an African piece with him this summer."

He regularly commutes across the Atlantic for films, plays and television work, whether as Daniel Day-Lewis' henchman in There Will Be Blood, or putting his tongue in Nicole Kidman's ear in Margot at the Wedding, or riding to battle as Julius Caesar in the hit TV series Rome.

"You don't know where you may get a job from. It amazes me that I get away with it. I'd no idea how I came to be offered the role of an Israeli hit-man in Steven Spielberg's Munich, but when I met him and we talked, he explained, I really enjoyed Calendar Girls."

Cameo roles are a speciality. Blink and you'll miss him as a priest in In Bruges. He flew in and out of Miami three different nights to play an FBI agent who recruits Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann's Miami Vice. "Michael was shooting in high-definition that seemed never to switch off. It was a terrible scramble."

He's just finished a low-budget Conor McPherson film Eclipse, which is adapted from a Billy Roche short story and is set during a literary festival in Wexford, but was filmed around Cobh. Usually he's only briefly in Ireland, whether for John Boorman's prophetic satire The Tiger's Tail, or Mickeybo and Me. "My dream job would be a six-week film in Donegal. This was near enough to that."

He may be back in Dublin in autumn. "Conor has worked on an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's The Birds - the original short story, not the Hitchcock film. So we'll see." There's talk too of a role in the final Harry Potter film - "I hear it may be in two parts. The script is not completely finished, so they're not quite sure what exactly will be required."

Wizards and aliens aren't all that different, after all. "It's all story-telling," he says.

So what would he say if he met an alien?

"Hello darling."

Author: Ciar√°n Carty
Date: April 12, 2009


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