He's played Julius Caesar and worked with Spielberg, but this Belfast actor still has his feet on the floor
On screen, Ciaran Hinds has been a dictator, a gangster and, in a 1996 animated biblical series, the voice of Lucifer himself. In person, he is, thankfully, slightly more congenial.
Invited back to Northern Ireland for the Queen Film Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebrations, Hinds talks about his Belfast roots, his long journey towards the Spielbergs and Paul Thomas Andersons of this world, and the people that have been involved along the way.
The first thing you notice about Hinds is that face. On film it can resemble stone, a ghoulish resolution that explains any villainous voice work. Casting agents see it and baddy flashbulbs go off above their heads - Hinds play the generic moody villain role in The Sum of all Fears, as the Soviet President, and, bizarrely, a Tomb Raider sequel.
Declaring that he ‘likes things with complexity’, Hinds is suitably embarrassed but self-effacing about his turn in the videogame adaptation, admitting that it is ‘severely devoid of humour'.
Not that Hinds ever imagined for a minute that he would become a movie star. As a performer of school plays in St Malachy’s College, Belfast, the idea of acting as a career did not exist.
Hinds has been working for over 25 years, propelled apparently by a curious mix of serendipity and hard graft. You can picture him muddling along through reams of stage plays and radio productions before becoming the Hollywood turn that has appeared in films alongside the likes of Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks and Nicole Kidman.
That’s not to do a disservice to Hinds’ clear abilities as an actor, a fact established by Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but merely to acknowledge his grace and humility throughout a long and winding career.
The actor is routinely self-effacing. For his role as Julius Ceaser in HBO’s Rome he ‘went off my head, started screaming, and they offered me a job'. For Spielberg’s Munich, in which he played Carl, an Isreali ‘cleaner’, he ‘snuck in’. A short-lived role as a priest in Martin McDonagh's In Bruge found him on the wrong end of Colin Farrell's fist, ‘and that was it', he jokes.
In the age of the celebrity glossy, it’s always refreshing to see an actor who more than simply refuses to play the game, but seems unaware that any game exists in the first place. Hinds’ career has oscillated wildly between formats and types, and he stresses repeatedly the luck and the talent that have helped him along the way.
Always glad to put his ‘faith in other people’, Hinds reserves the greatest of the talk’s adjectives for the writers and directors with whom he has worked. Munich’s script was ‘extraordinary'. So are Anderson and Day-Lewis. Spielberg is a ‘wonderful conductor of film’, he tells us. Rome’s real star is the cinematographer. And so on.
With other actors, such lines can come off as a sort of performed humility, but the singular impression Hinds gives is one of overwhelming seriousness. He entertains the audience with anecdotes and ego-deflating punchlines - unsurprising from someone who sees his professional enthusiasm as part of a larger love of story-telling - but when pressed on his attitude to his profession, talks with intelligent seriousness about his craft.
The word ‘responsibility’ is used a lot. ‘I get hired to do a job. I try to commit to it,’ he states in simple terms, as if he was a plasterer advertised in the Yellow Pages.
Hinds admits there is ‘something ephemeral about acting’, but stresses its unpretentious quality. He considers it a ‘labouring job’, with rules and methods like any other. You have to show up and you have to perform on the day. When one of the audience members asks about tips for aspiring actors, his advice is direct: do as much as you can, and to the best of your ability, every time.
Presumably, this is what Hinds has done. Perennially a solid background character on screen, he has the kind of face that you instantly recognise, even if you’re not quite sure where from.
There’s little sense of ingratitude from him, though. Hinds slogs it out, and occupies a curious non-place alongside NI’s other board-treading exports, James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson. Neeson’s the patron. Nesbitt the pub favourite. Hinds? Well, ‘a bit of this, bit of that'.
At the moment he’s working with Conor McPherson, who directed him on Broadway in last year’s The Seafarer, and on another stage play, The Eclipse. A couple of low-buzz films are penned in for the coming months too.
He admits that an acting career is a case of ‘still struggling’, and, at only 55, that he’s ‘nearly dead'. But from where this critic is sitting there certainly seems to be plenty of life left in this old dog.