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Sunday Age

His mild Irish heart

Author: Helen Barlow
Date: 25/04/2010
Words: 1277
Source: SAG
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: M
Page: 24
Ciaran Hinds may play miserable but in person he is anything but, writes Helen Barlow.

Tall and with cheekbones etched into his face as if he were born to rule the world, Irish actor and stage veteran Ciaran Hinds towers imperiously over his adversaries in many of his screen roles - most notably as Julius Caesar in Rome - though he just as easily makes us fall in love with him. We empathised with his vulnerable, austere naval captain pining for the upper-class heroine in Jane Austen's Persuasion and we even felt sorry for his mean-minded mayor in The Mayor of Casterbridge, perhaps the best screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy's work.

"That was pretty miserable, you know," Hinds says of playing the dour Michael Henchard in the 2003 BBC production. "I like a laugh as much as the next man. But obviously the way my face hangs they think, 'Here's a man who looks depressed. Oh, he looks really depressed now! I think it's beyond depression. Why doesn't he just kill himself?' It's hard to know why they chose me."

The good-natured Belfast-born 57-year-old is actually rather Bohemian. For seven years he has lived in Paris in an enclave of artists and writers near Pere Lachaise Cemetery with his French-Vietnamese performer partner, Helene Patarot, whom he met on Peter Brook's theatre epic The Mahabharata in Paris in the mid-1980s.

An actor who has starred in landmark stage productions - most notably Patrick Marber's Closer and Sam Mendes's Richard III, in London, Dublin, Glasgow and New York - Hinds adds considerable heft to movies. He is instantly recognisable from blockbusters (Munich, The Sum of All Fears), kids' movies (Race to Witch Mountain, The Nativity Story as Herod) and Oscar-nominated dramas (There Will Be Blood, The Road to Perdition).

One of his strangest castings, though, is the portrayal of Sam Worthington's character as an older man in the upcoming Mossad spy thriller The Debt.

"I only have a couple of scenes but who put that together, and does it work?" he asks quizzically. "I have to say I probably have a couple of inches on Sam and that's not boasting! Obviously we weren't on the set at the same time - that would have been very odd - but when we were doing screen tests he was very quiet and personable."

Surprisingly, this indelibly Irish actor rarely appears in Irish movies, even if he did show up as a priest in In Bruges and in Veronica Guerin, alongside "the sublime Cate Blanchett". He is now the lead in Conor McPherson's The Eclipse and all we can say is, it's about time.

Hinds was in McPherson's The Seafarer on Broadway when the three-time Tony award-winning Irish playwright slipped the actor his screenplay, which he'd based on a story by his friend Billy Roche. Set in the gothic seaside port of Cobh in County Cork, and focusing on a man who is raising his two children after the death of his wife, the romantic drama (with supernatural thriller elements) offered the kind of heartfelt interior role at which Hinds excels. He won the best actor award at last year's Tribeca Film Festival for his performance, though he missed out in the recent Irish Film and Television Awards, where The Eclipse won three prizes, including best film.

"Michael Farr is closer to myself than other people I've played," Hinds says of his character who is transformed when a successful writer (Iben Hjejle) talks at the town's literary festival. "I like that the story's not neatly tied up with a bow but we know that these two people have made a real connection.

"My dream is to be offered these wonderful small Irish films. It's good for my Irish soul. And I like that in The Eclipse there are no priests, there are no men in balaclavas, there are no fiddles or flutes. It's distinctively Irish but it's also European."

Hinds originally came to Australia with The Mahabharata, Brook's nine-hour production that toured the world for four years and became the showpiece of the 1988 Adelaide Arts Festival. Yet the monumental play, also staged in Perth, did not make it to Melbourne. He has a dreamy vision of Australia that stems from his earlier life, when six of his classmates from Queen's University in Belfast migrated here. "The Troubles were still going on and it was pretty brutal, so they just buggered off to Australia. They said, 'How about Australia? Is that far enough away?'"

One of five children and the only son of a Catholic doctor who had hoped to have young Ciaran follow in his footsteps, Hinds started out studying law. Finally, though, he took after his amateur actress mother, dropping out of university and moving to London after being accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was in London that he heard of his friends migrating to Australia.

He becomes measured in his speech when recalling the turbulence in Belfast. "Of course everyone was made very politically aware but you had to decide whether you were going to join in, to contribute in some way, like my older sister, who became prominent in the women's movement, fighting for a sense of justice. Some people have been eager to judge, saying, 'Oh you walked away from it' and I suppose I did in a way. But it's not that it doesn't stay with you."

Hinds has become a patron of Youth Action Northern Ireland, an innovative arts project that his mother, now 90, has supported for many years. "It involves a bit of theatre but it's also about getting kids to do things, to give them some sort of hobby, direction, relief."

He has known Liam Neeson, who comes from Ballymena, half an hour from Belfast, since they were 17. "We both did amateur plays in Northern Ireland and met when we were both trying to make a living out of it. We went our different ways but we'd always see each other. We're still very close."

Hinds was a pallbearer at the funeral of Neeson's wife Natasha Richardson, who died last year after a head injury while skiing. The actress had played Hinds's wife in the original London and New York productions of Closer.

I wonder why, given that he and Neeson are so tall, the likes of Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the movie stars from the south, are, well, little squirts.

He laughs. "Yeah, well, we're descended from Vikings and they are descended from the little French people. We tend to be more ..." he hesitates, "I don't want to use the word dour but maybe more private, less outgoing."

For now "the wonderful and always underrated Ciaran Hinds", as one US critic put it, has his plate as full as always. Next he will be seen in two gargantuan productions: first as Albus Dumbledore's brother Aberforth in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Then he's appearing in John Carter of Mars, a mostly live-action adventure directed by Pixar's Andrew Stanton in which he's a Martian leader.

"The Martians sort of look like Roman emperors but the armour's different," he muses. "They've got tattoos and they're red, and it's fascinating because it's science fiction taken from a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote the Tarzan books. It's a bit like H.G. Wells and The War of the Worlds.

"Jimmy Purefoy and Polly Walker from Rome are in it, Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton."

All the weirdos are lined up, I suggest, jokingly. "Yes, a load of weirdos," he responds, "and they've put us on another planet!" M

The Eclipse is on general release

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