It’s initially a little disorienting to see Ciaran Hinds in Irish playwright and director Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse, which opens this week. We’ve gotten so used to seeing the actor play domineering figures — whether it’s Julius Caesar in the HBO series Rome, King Herod in The Nativity Story, or a pissed-off FBI honcho in Miami Vice — that the idea of him playing a mopey woodworking teacher and literary-festival volunteer feels like a bit of a stretch. But damned if this offbeat bit of casting doesn’t work: There’s something quietly riveting about Michael Farr, a downbeat widower and father struggling with the recent death of his wife, as he goes about his day. There’s more to Farr than just submerged guilt and quiet desperation, of course: He’s also convinced he’s seeing ghosts, and this is driving him into the arms of a visiting writer (Iben Hjelje), who has written a book about them. So is The Eclipse, which was a hit at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, a thriller? Not quite. As Hinds himself explained to us, it’s more of a psychological drama with the occasional terrifying jolt. The actor talked to us recently about the difficulties of playing an ordinary guy, his long collaboration with McPherson, and the challenges of taking on a role in the new Todd Solondz film.
We always hear about how characters in films have to be active and not passive, but your character in The Eclipse certainly has some passive qualities. How do you play such an internalized role?
It can be deceptively difficult, of course, because you have to make a character interesting, but in some senses I had more to draw on for a character like this. Because in reality I am much more like Michael Farr than I am like, say, Julius Caesar. There is a temptation to give a character like this a lot of quirks and things to make him lovable. But we wanted him to feel very truthful, and the best way to do that was to just go through these emotions as myself. When I first read the script, it was very delicate and short and mysterious. But because Conor and I had worked together before, I knew there was so much more there, that he would really help me bring a psychological detail and depth to this part.
Similarly, the supernatural, thrillerlike qualities of the film also present an ambiguous and unorthodox situation. We never quite know if they are real or just psychological apparitions.
You never really know, do you? Conor’s work often has these supernatural qualities to it, but I suppose this one really is quite a mixture. They’re not so much about shock, but rather manifestations of the anxiety and desperation that we all feel sometimes. It’s like a panic attack, this sudden jolt of fear. In that sense, the film is really about these characters, and about the pain and guilt that they’re suffering. If you don’t believe their pain, then those thriller elements will not work. So I think that even though there’s something open-ended about those elements, there’s an honesty there, too. It’s all about the emotional turmoil that the character is feeling. It’s really about the fragile state that we all find ourselves in sometimes.
You’ve spent so much of your career playing these commanding figures — Julius Caesar, Herod, the President of Russia, the famous writer, etc. But here you’re a guy who is basically the opposite of those things.
I suppose it’s strange. It’s hard to say sometimes why you’re cast, isn’t it? Because these are other people’s choices. Sometimes a casting director likes the cut of your jib, or likes the way you wear a costume, and before you know it you’re playing the Emperor of Rome and the President of Russia. Personally, the disorientation goes the other way for me: I’m wondering how the heck I ended up playing those roles. It would be great to be that at home, but it doesn’t work that way. Like I said, I’m more like Michael Farr. I suppose in a way I’m more skittish, really. But basically, my job is to try to honestly go somewhere, and to do that I have to open a lot of myself in those situations.
It works, though. Because you’re an actor who is often deemed to have “presence” — and as a result, even though Michael is an everyman figure, we can’t quite take our eyes off him.
That’s right. He’s doing the dishes now; he’s driving a car now; he’s watching someone give a speech now. In film, it’s usually the camera that detects what you watch. But I like Conor’s style of filmmaking — he allows the audience to watch people in full-length, in a landscape that opens up as well. He lets his characters do what they’re going to do, and he watches them, without having all these close-ups or jump cuts or whatever. You’re watching the whole human being — how their bodies react, how embarrassed they are, how comfortable they’ll feel. I love that way of working. There’s something very magnanimous about it
So much so that the landscape in this film sometimes feels like a character as well.
Yes. Having looked around at a lot of locations, Conor was very fortunate to find Cobh, in County Cork, there at the bottom of the Ireland, in this inlet. It was one of the Titanic’s last stops, so it has a bit of history. And because the story had a lot of religious connotations and guilt, he felt it was possible that we are surrounded these things that we don’t even know sometimes.
You’re also in the new Todd Solondz film, Life During Wartime, which is a sequel of sorts to 1998’s Happiness. And you’re playing the role of the pedophile made famous by Dylan Baker in the original film.
I am indeed. Ten years down the line. It was a very lonely part — apart from meeting Charlotte Rampling briefly in a bar, and the last scene I have with my son, where I ask him for forgiveness. I was playing a walking shadow of a man, a man who has gotten out of prison. He’s served his time, but really, he’ll be serving that time forever. Working with Todd was lovely, though, and I just saw it for the first time the other week in Dublin, and it was a really brave piece of filmmaking.