Monogamy is a bizarre concept, don't you think?
He insists on lunch at a modest restaurant rather than one of the actorish havens in central London. "I want to feel relaxed. I don't like places where they fuss around." He arrives unshaven, wearing a sweater and trousers, talks softly - almost lyrically at times in his Belfast accent - and doesn't take himself seriously. " I don't concern myself with publicity. Why should anyone want to know about me? The cult of celebrity is completely false and if you believe in it you end up smashing photographers in the face. My career hasn't been very commercial, but this is a good laugh, so go ahead. I'm not careful what I say." He orders champagne, sushi and brill and says he doesn't have to leave until its time to collect his five year old daughter Aoife (pronounced Effa) - whose actress mother, Helene, is working today - from school. This is unassuming New Man, now cast in yet another breeches, whiskers and swoon adaptation.
Ciaran Hinds, a classical actor without lofty pretensions, discovered television celebrity as Captain Wentworth in 1995's production of Jane Austen's Persuasion, and has now swapped the full beard of ruthless Sir Brian de Bois-Gilbert in Ivanhoe for the exotic sideburns of the equally ruthless but heart-warmingly human, of course) Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. Let's look on the bright side. "At least half the facial make-up was there. They just chopped bits off the beard willy-nilly."
There are also those other immutable ingredients of the costume drama: horse-riding, swaggering, the anguished love of a virginal young girl (Rebecca in Ivanhoe and Jane in Jane Eyre) to re-awaken dormant sensitivity and cultivate a sigh in the collective breast of British womanhood, or at least the part of it that watches television. Why, I ask, are these centuries-old tales so popular? "Which cliché answer would you like trotted out?" he replies amiably. "The received notion is they are an antidote to programmes which reflect real urban life - shootings, drugs, blah,blah,blah - but you have to ask yourself whether the audience is really crying out for "classic" drama or that is all they're being offered. There's a difference."
He was chosen for Rochester after the director, Robert Young, heard him play the part on radio. "He told me there was passion in my voice. I couldn't evaluate whether I was right or wrong. I haven't seen any film versions, or read the book. I don't want to because I'd worry about the impossibility of translating it to the screen. I'd wonder why particular scenes are left out, and that would cause frustration as well as getting in the way of the screen writer, who has worked very hard for a long time and knows more about it than me. Sam (his co-star Samantha Morton) has read the book several times, so I developed the character through her. She's only 19 and has an amazing talent. She treated me like her grandfather," he jokes. "The danger is that Rochester has been played so many times I risk being shot down by the critics. But a good story is a good story, whatever, and this is still about two hearts. I hope I can communicate real emotions. I hope against hope sometimes, but there's an extraordinary feeling when you get it right."
Rochester is, he believes, selfish, arrogant, chauvinistic, bullying, sexist. "You could say he's a man of his time, a rich landowner, with power which he abuses. I wouldn't fancy him, and I wonder why women find him attractive. It's the power, I think. My job is to try and make viewers have sympathy. I hope we show how his heart was hit badly by his first wife. She'd been a bit of a sex siren when younger. How was he to know she was barking mad? Jane is employed as a governess and responds to him like a genuine person. It's not 'Yes, sir, no, sir.' She looks him in the eye and speaks her mind, which is a new experience for him. He finds her fascinating. In the end he says 'We are one soul,' but he can't trust himself to open up completely and admit, 'I love you'. He is callous, too, in the way he flirts with Blanche in order to make Jane jealous".
It is alleged that some women find such behaviour attractive. "I can't speak for them, but in the end it's passion, I think, which makes them fall. Women may go for shits to see how bad they really are, but they can't live with them. In all relationships there comes a point when people try to change their partner. Then you wonder what's the point of trying to make someone into what they're not. Usually life ends up with domestic ennui of some kind. You try to break it up with excitement now and again - peaks and troughs".
At 44, he is in a state of domestic contentment with Helene, who was born in Haiphong, Vietnam, and brought out to live in France when she was four. "We've been together nine years. She is my partner. What else can I call her? My mate? I quite like 'my future widow'. I suppose everyone has their different views about marriage. You hear it's an important day for women, but as a male I don't recognise that. I'm not cynical - my parents had a wonderful marriage - and theoretically I'd love to marry, but I'm not sure in my mind that I could keep the vows - for better or worse and all that. Experience tells me they are often broken, so why make them? There is some moral confusion in my mind, because I also believe in divorce."
"Monogamy is a bizarre concept, don't you think? We are on earth for a very short time and the idea we should share our life with one person out of 50 billion is very odd. Life is about education and illumination. OK, 50 billion may be a bit too many to take on. I've been faithful to Helene. Bar once, I think, and we've dealt with that. You should be open about these things. There doesn't have to be hypocrisy. Ultimately, though, I suppose couples stay together for the children, but if they fight it's better to be open and say that, although we still love each other, we can't live together. I was amazed, when I came to London from Northern Ireland in the mid-seventies, at the number of kids of my age who saw several different sets of parents at weekends. They coped, and I found it quite enviable". What about the effect on a child, though, of having parents who are not married? Times have changed, he suggests. "I'm astonished, and sometimes horrified, at what five-year-olds come out with. At four my daughter sang, 'Ooh, ah, Cantona. I left my knickers in my boyfriend's car'. Obviously she didn't know what it meant, but they are much more grown-up and aware than I was at that age. Then its sex at a much younger age and you think, 'What's the hurry? Life is a longish road and where will you go from here?'" He lightens the conversation. "I suppose if you have a great desire to cover the 50 billion you should start young. Or try reincarnation."
He was brought up in Belfast, the fifth child and only son of a doctor. "My mum was an excellent amateur actress. At one stage she was very glamorous and, as she keeps reminding me, 'You might never had been here if I'd gone to the Abbey Theatre rather then marry your dad'. She must have loved him too much, I guess. A great heart, my mother. I suppose my ambition must have come from her." One of his sisters, Caitriona, is also an actress and lives near him in south London. "Dad (who is now dead) wanted me to follow him into medicine but I couldn't stand blood and was hopeless at science. I went to dancing classes on a Saturday afternoon where they told Irish myths and legends through dancing and mime. It was drama, all body and emotion, and I think that got me into it."
First, though, he spent a year at Queen's University, Belfast, studying law. "The sixties had happened in England and, as usual, everything hit Ireland three or four years later and we became old hippies kind of thing. I wasn't chasing anything in particular, but found Belfast a bit stagnant. I was fortunate because my law tutor had been at my old school when I first arrived at 12 and saw me having a bash at Lady Macbeth.
He knew my instinct was towards acting. I wasn't man enough to speak of it, or even perhaps to know it, but he suggested I transfer to English and drama. I still had the middle-class idea I should have a career to fall back on if acting didn't work, but in the end I went the whole hog and was accepted into Rada.
"I came to London with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I blamed what was happening in Northern Ireland on British politics. Then I realised that many of us have screwed up the situation, and who can understand it? So long as there are hard rocks and stubborn people who refuse to bend, it will be impossible. I don't want anyone to die, or to be nationalistic just because we are Irish. Who gives us the right to say, 'This is our birthright?' It's just land, and I feel we should get on with living. The more people travel and see the world, the better they'll be. Politics is so degraded you can never believe anyone. Why is it that none of them admit, 'We were at fault?' There was a time when they resigned if they made a mistake. Now nobody does. I suppose that's the game of life."
It took a while for the good Catholic boy to adapt to London, he recalls. "There was a modern, progressive sexual life and it was, like, Helllooo!' I hated it of course," he lied through his teeth. "I didn't go wild, but I had a wonderful relationship at drama school, my first, which continued for two years." After the almost ritual unemployment - in his case for nine months - he was employed by the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. "I was very nervous. It was full of brilliant actors, but a bit like the SAS with make-up." His first professional job was as the back end of the horse in Cinderella. "From the back end of a horse to Mr Rochester. You could say there's not much difference. The horse was probably a lot more interesting." He jests, of course, but however much fun it may be, he doesn't want to become stuck with breeches and lust although, he adds, "At the moment it would appear I don't have any option because it's all I seem to do or all that people think I do. At the same time it's very nice to be considered for these parts because an Irishman is not the obvious choice for dramatic, emotionally involved roles that are specifically stiff-upper-lip Englishmen. It's a far cry from the lie of the land where I come from, and it's quite interesting to see what sort of image comes with the breeches. The audience has misconceptions about you, as indeed you have about yourself."
He rolls his own cigarette, and discusses his two latest films - Some Mother's Son, with Helen Mirren, about the Irish hunger strikers who starved to death ("It didn't have the grandeur I hoped, but I started to choke during the last half-hour because of the memories"),and Mary Reilly with Julia Roberts. "I breezed in for a couple of days, did a scene with her and Glenn Close, and was then clubbed to death. The film bombed, which is very sad. Sometimes the work is worth while, sometimes not. The joy of doing something you believe has the possibility of being good with people you like is, I suppose, as good a way as any of passing the time. It doesn't happen much, though."