Ciarán Hinds: ‘A lot of my friends have the same talent as me, but never got the breaks’

Set to appear in new RTÉ drama, The Dry, the Belfast actor talks about that night at the Oscars, and his lifetime of non-stop working. Main photograph: Rory Lewis

There is, perhaps, a danger of us taking Ciarán Hinds for granted. Now in his late 60s, the Belfast man has been working like a maniac since the first time flares went out of fashion. As far back as 1977, he was appearing in Macbeth and The Importance of Being Earnest at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. He spent time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. He has graced stages at Project Arts Centre, the Abbey and Druid. (“I’ve never worked in Wales,” he says with apparently sincere regret when I suggest he’s been everywhere.)

Like Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, he made an early movie appearance in Excalibur for John Boorman in 1981 and went on to confirm his big screen credentials in December Bride, Some Mother’s Son and as Captain Wentworth in the definitive adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Somewhere in the mid-noughts Hollywood properly caught on and he became an essential supporting player for the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson. He is in the DC universe. Earlier this year, he scored an Oscar nomination for Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast.

“I was always working,” he says in his characteristic gabble. “My nature is being a day-to-day person. I am always in the present. I didn’t have any career plans or mission statements. The other thing is I was pretty cheap. Ha, ha!”

All of which is a way of saying we should prize Hinds more highly. From the beginning, he had a granite presence that leant itself both to villainy and simmering heroics. Working with the sort of long, wintry face that sits outside time, he has modestly staked a claim to be the best we have. Hinds and I speak as he lends his presence to a fine new TV series called The Dry. Written by Nancy Harris and directed by Paddy Breathnach, the show stars Róisín Gallagher as a recovering alcoholic dealing with a dysfunctional family in contemporary Dublin. Hinds exercises his comic chops as the protagonist’s eccentric dad. The series gave him a chance to act opposite his wife, the French-Vietnamese actor Hélène Patarot.


“We worked together first for Peter Brook 35 years ago in The Mahabharata,” he recalls. “It was quite interesting. She was in touch with me when I was in Dublin and said ‘I’ve just got a call from a man called Paddy Breathnach. He wants me to do something. Is that what you’re doing?’ I said: ‘It probably is. But don’t say yes yet, because they need to give you more to do.’ She phoned back later and told me she said yes. It was kind of sweet for me.”

At the risk of revealing mild spoilers, we cannot avoid discussing a key comic scene between Hinds and Patarot. In an early episode, the two actors, playing occasional, illicit lovers, get to act out daylight, al fresco copulation behind a notably unglamorous Dublin bin. Gallagher’s character is so appalled by the vision that she vomits on the street.

“It was interesting. I had said to Paddy: ‘I find this kind of extreme.’ I didn’t believe in it. I could imagine young ones frolicking. We chatted and chatted about it. And he explained it’s really about the effect on the daughter. It is so out of this world. I explained that it wasn’t because I was a prude. But I think he was happy enough to accept what we offered him. Ha, ha! It’s quite funny as well because nowadays, as I’m sure you know, you have to have ... What are they called?”

Intimacy co-ordinators? Sue Mythen helped the actors handle the sex scenes comfortably in The Dry. She also, along with Ita O’Brien, dean of that new profession, did some work on Normal People. Hinds is giggling merrily now.

“She had to talk to us about what we were happy with. We also found that she had worked with our daughter Aoife on Normal People. By the end of it, she may have sexed up the whole family.”

At the age of 15 I was going to play for the Gaelic football team or go to Irish dancing. I had to make a choice — between the beautiful girls or kicking a ball

He mentions Aoife Hinds. The young actor has had good roles on such TV series as Anne Boleyn and The Long Call. She will soon be seen in the reboot of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and alongside dad in Patrick Dickinson’s Cottontail. Not every actor is delighted about their children going into the profession. Veterans know how tough it can be.

“I was on the wary side,” he agrees. “It’s tricky. There are a lot of my friends who have the same talent as me, but never got the breaks. It’s a complicated existence. Sometimes, the kids think: oh, but it’s fun. The reality is it’s very tough. You don’t necessarily want to send your kids on that road. You want them to be happy in whatever they do.”

I imagine his eminently respectable parents had the same worries. He was born and raised in north Belfast — his father a doctor, his mother a schoolteacher and occasional actor. It sounds like a happy enough sort of childhood.

“We were basically middle-class Catholics,” he says. “We were fortunate. I didn’t get sent to music; I was sent to Irish dancing, which was a great influence on me. At St Malachy’s College, where I was at school, we did a Shakespeare play every year. It was always part of my life. At the age of 15 I was going to play for the Gaelic football team or go to Irish dancing. I had to make a choice — between the beautiful girls or kicking a ball. Ha, ha!”

Unsurprisingly, when interviewed for Branagh’s Belfast, Hinds talked a lot about his memories of how the Troubles began. He would have been 16 in 1969, not yet an adult, but easily old enough to grasp the seriousness of the shift. One thing he mentioned at least once in those interviews was the suddenness of it all. He told the Guardian he came back from his holidays to find the world changed.

“It was a hot summer in ‘69,” he tells me. “We knew that something was coming because the civil rights movement had started and we knew how badly they’d been treated on those demonstrations. There was something in the air. There was also something driven by [Ian] Paisley’s wrathful spite. So divisive. What a terrible thing people were let away with that for so many years. It was a difficult time. We wondered if we could get through this.”

The Hinds family had an interesting perspective on the developing chaos.

“My dad was a doctor and his practice was on the Springfield Road, between the Falls and the Shankill, basically,” he says. “His patients came from both communities. And he’d come back and sometimes he’d be disgusted about the way either side had spoken to him for treating people from the other side. It was often a despairing and despondent time. There were buses being burned. But it was the horror of the killings and the bombing that was the worst.”

By the time the violence reached its (first?) apex, Hinds was studying law at Queen’s University. He doesn’t remember thinking drama school an option at that early stage.

“No, it was that middle-class thing that if you are even thinking about something like that you have to get something else under your belt,” he says. “Then I was advised by a law tutor that, due to my lack of interest, I should be somewhere else. He helped get me down the road towards being a professional actor.”

He eventually ended up in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and, as we have already noted, after graduation in 1975, he has barely looked back. After his first professional gig with Glasgow Citizens theatre company in 1976, the Abbey, the Project and Druid in Galway opened up to him. His rise has been so steady and so consistent that it is hard to identify anything as a big “break”. But his collaboration with Peter Brook on The Mahabharata — a massive adaptation of the Sanskrit epic — in the mid-1980s feels like a formative experience. It was then that he met his wife. A world tour followed. Brook, who died earlier this year, was among the most influential theatre directors of the last century.

“We’d always be in touch,” he says. “Hélène used to appear in workshops that he was doing. A really remarkable man. I remember Helen Mirren, who worked with him back on The Conference of The Birds, saying that it was about opening the mind. When we finished that long commitment of 20 months touring with 15 or 16 different ethnicities, I didn’t know what to do.”

Happily, the Glasgow Citizens popped up to offer him the lead in a production of Richard III and he was off again. He and Hélène ended up settling in Paris and London, as he embarked on life as a fully-fledged internationalist.

“We live between the two,” he says. “We have to juggle between the two. I have only worked once in French. I am normally working out of London. So we’d be dead if it wasn’t for that Eurostar train.”

What about his recent career in Hollywood movies? He is in the corner of There Will be Blood. You can see him in DC’s Justice League. He did top-notch work for Spielberg in Munich and Scorsese in Silence. He is even a prominent voice in Disney’s world-conquering Frozen. Hinds has worked in features for 40 years, but it feels as if new possibilities in commercial cinema opened up in the millennial years. He is almost Brian-Cox busy (as they probably say in the business).

“People say: how did that happen? It wasn’t something I was particularly looking for,” he says. “I think it was playing Julius Caesar in Rome — a big HBO series — that opened avenues for me in America. It was well received there.”

Does he enjoy the big movies that followed?

“Well, you get to work with these great, gifted, intelligent people. You realise you are there to service the story, not to get done what you think should be done. That work opened up into other things. Sam Mendes might also have been responsible. He had to fight to get me into Road to Perdition. That also helped me into the American system.”

The Oscar nomination for playing a version of the director’s dad in Belfast was much celebrated in these parts. Hinds has no enemies and is respected as a professional of the old school who has worked hard for his success. Yet he seems admirably relaxed about the honour. On the morning of February 8th, when the nominations were announced, the industry was huddled tensely over the YouTube stream. Meanwhile, Hinds was muddling his way through security on the channel tunnel. It feels as if I was paying more attention than he was.

As you get older your doubts increase. And that makes the work more complicated, but it also makes it more interesting.

“That’s not really my world. I was at the Eurostar. I was going from London to Paris. I had just put my stuff in the security rack and the phone went ‘ping’. It was my agent, a lovely man called Simon Beresford. I thought: that’s him thanking me for getting him a couple of bottles of wine for his birthday. And then it began pinging and pinging and pinging. To be honest, I was unaware of it.”

Now, he is not going to get away without being asked about the thing that happened on the night of the Oscars. He and Judi Dench, his fellow nominee for Belfast, were sitting right beneath the stage when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. What a place to be. What did he think? Like those of us watching at home, did he wonder if it was a gag?

“No, you could tell immediately,” he says. “You could tell immediately just by looking at Chris Rock’s eyes. I happened to be very close, with Judi. You saw the reaction immediately in the eyes — more than physically. Everything froze. You know how time seems to slow down when something out of the ordinary happens? The air turns a bit cold. Everyone is humming and hawing. I can’t judge what’s going on in Will Smith’s head.”

He makes diplomatic noises.

“I have known people, technicians, who have worked with him recently — just a year before — and they said he was a lovely man to everybody. Genuinely warm and friendly.”

At any rate, Hinds’s nomination further buttressed an already monumental career. He starred in the first series of RTÉ’s crime drama Kin. He will soon be seen opposite Emily Blunt in The English, a big western series for the BBC. Two or three films are in post-production. Maybe he has reached the stage where he can plan his future.

“I’ve always been a doubter,” he says. “As you get older your doubts increase. And that makes the work more complicated, but it also makes it more interesting.

“It is too late for logic. It is too late for any of that. I just bend with the wind.”

The Dry will air on RTÉ One later in the autumn

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist