It seems paradoxical that the better a character actor does the job, the less they are known and appreciated. A performer who, minutes before, has been acclaimed at the curtain call can slip out of the stage door, virtually unnoticed by the ranks of autograph hunters. Irish actor Conleth Hill is a case in point, a past master in the art of concealment. His is a protean talent that has a chameleon’s power to adapt to whatever camouflage is available. No wonder that he fitted so beautifully into the role of Gunther Guillaume, the East German master spy unmasked in the 1970s, in Michael Frayn’s 2003 play Democracy.
“That everyman quality that Guillaume possessed really appeals to me,” reveals Hill. “I enjoy playing characters who have the ability, like Guillaume, to fade into the background. To an extent acting is about listening to somebody else’s story. You have to surrender a bit of yourself and remember that your job is to tell the other man’s story – not yours.”
Round-faced and smooth-skinned, Hill looks younger than his 52 years. After a shaven head for his role as Lord Varys in Game of Thrones, Hill has now reverted to a full barnet in preparation for another taxing assignment, playing opposite Imelda Staunton in a revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre.
Premiered on Broadway in 1962, the play is a three-hour attritional marathon in which the unhappily married George and Martha renew verbal hostilities. And, as their youthful guests discover to their cost, a good deal of alcohol is consumed during the course of the play and Martha’s tongue grows increasingly venomous, mainly at the hapless George’s expense.
“It’s like having dinner at the Macbeths’,” jokes Hill. “It cannot be denied that they are both real drinkers and Martha is an alcoholic. Yet there’s no doubt in my mind that they truly love each other, although it is amazing what he puts up with from her.”
Hill is generous in his praise of the actors with whom he has worked, but he marvels in particular over his current co-star Staunton.
“We worked together on Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang and we got on like the proverbial house on fire,” says Hill. “So, as you do, we talked about looking for a play for the two of us. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about it when out of the blue, the offer came to play George opposite Imelda as Martha. I agreed immediately. As I say, I didn’t know the play at all so I sat down to read it and I was instantly hooked. I’d say it was more a dark comedy than a tragedy, since there is hope at the end.
“It is a great piece of writing and it’s a great ensemble piece as well. It’s also about how young people, like Nick and Honey in the play, never listen to the warnings of their elders. Albee reminds me of Chekhov or Simon Gray. His are people you wouldn’t give a second glance if you were to meet them in the street but who have a quality that actors want to delve into.”
As Martha never ceases to remind her husband, his once dazzling academic career has fallen into the doldrums.
“There’s a great deal in the play about hierarchy in the academic world but I think that this relationship could apply to any human organisation – to any society. With this play, it’s all on the page and it’s such brilliant writing that your job has mostly been done for you.”
Q&A: Conleth Hill
What was your first non-theatre job? I’ve never had a real job.
What was your first professional theatre job? The Adventures of a Bear Called Paddington – it was a Christmas show.
What’s your next job? Possibly the final series of Game of Thrones.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t take things too seriously.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Jimmy Ellis – a Northern Irish writer, actor and director who appeared on television in Z-Cars.
Do you have any advice for aspiring actors? If you come out of drama school and you haven’t got a film or a television series lined up, do everything you can to develop some kind of taste or discernment. You need to serve an apprenticeship where you can learn.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A gardener.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No
Hill was born in 1964 and grew up in County Antrim, where he still lives. “I can leave the set of Game of Thrones and an hour later I’ll be relaxing in my garden.” His father’s job as a news cameraman brought the Troubles into the home, although this particular corner of Northern Ireland seems to have escaped the worst of the conflict. But Hill remembers: “We had our fair share of trouble where I grew up.”
He scoffs at suggestions on the internet that the whole family had gone into various branches of showbusiness.
“According to one report, I was a keen fisherman and it was my first wife who encouraged me to take up acting. Yet I don’t fish and I’ve never been married!”
Whoever was responsible for pointing young Hill towards the stage, however, knew what they were doing. Certainly he does not seem to have suffered many of the usual insecurities or regular periods of unemployment in the profession; his malleable features and self-effacing personality have ensured that he has been in work. After training at Guildhall, he landed his first professional job “playing all the minor parts in The Adventures of a Bear Called Paddington over the Christmas holiday”. Then he was up and running.
His breakthrough came courtesy of the extraordinarily successful Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones, a two-hander in which Hill and his fellow actor played all 15 roles. The piece tells of a film crew’s visit to remote rural Ireland and the impact such an event has upon the lives of the locals. The play built up a slow but steady momentum, moving from a tour of Ireland to a Broadway production via a lengthy stint at the Duke of York’s in London and winning Hill an Olivier for best actor in 2001. His skilled versatility later brought him to the attention of writer Michael Frayn and director Michael Blakemore who cast him as Guillaume in Democracy.
“I like playing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances,” explains Hill. “And it was as if there were two versions of this man in the play. If I remember correctly, I was able to transform myself from one version to the other.”
Hill downplays his own talents in favour of his colleagues’. He seems to have especially enjoyed working with Rowan Atkinson in a West End revival of Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms – “he made me laugh every night”. So did Nathan Lane in The Producers: “He’s a male version of Ethel Merman.”
Hill’s everyman characteristics mean that he is eligible for a wide range of parts and material – from period fantasy Game of Thrones to the Broadway pzazz of The Producers. As the camper than camp Roger de Bris, the demented director of Springtime for Hitler, Hill was required to play most of his scenes in full drag, a performance that won him a second Olivier.
However, his cavortings in musicals did not discourage straight theatre from asking him back. At the National, his roles included Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well and more Russians in Philistines, plus an Uncle Vanya in Belfast. He is also in the fortunate position of being able to choose from several generations of acclaimed Irish dramatists, including Brian Friel, Conor McPherson and Sebastian Barry.
Hill takes some satisfaction that the worldwide hit Game of Thrones is produced practically on his doorstep: “It’s very convenient, of course, but the writing is very strong and there are brilliant production values from every department. You are looked after so well.”
No wonder Hill gives the impression of being contented and fulfilled. But you feel that he would be equally contented without the acclaim, the awards or the attention, provided he was still working with the very best in acting, writing and direction. He says: “I’ve been very lucky with directors like Richard Eyre, who is just brilliant and has the ability to nudge you in the right direction and nudge you away from the wrong one.”
The success his work has brought him has strengthened his self-confidence and enabled him, perhaps, to take a more relaxed approach to the job of acting.
“I left drama school with only two ambitions,” Hill explains. “These were to play Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World and to appear in a production of The Little Shop of Horrors. I managed to do both very early in my career and so I’ve been happy simply to keep going.
“The day I stop enjoying it will be the day I stop doing it. Financially I’m not insecure, which means that I can pick and choose what I do. I don’t particularly welcome outside attention but at least when I get it I can handle it better.”
CV: Conleth Hill
Born: 1964, Ballycastle, Northern Ireland
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Landmark productions: Stones in His Pockets, Democracy, National Theatre, London (2003), The Producers, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London (2004), Philistines, National (2007), Uncle Vanya, Lyric Theatre, Belfast (2012), Quartermaine’s Terms, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (2013)
Awards: Olivier award for best actor for Stones in His Pockets (2001), Olivier award for best supporting actor in a musical for The Producers (2005)
Agents: Michael Ruff and Sarah Stephenson at Troika