August 16, 2003

Ciaran Hinds is "Mayor of Casterbridge"

LONDON, England (AP) -- Ciaran Hinds is used to supporting roles. So imagine his surprise at landing the title role of the doomed Michael Henchard in the latest adaptation of "The Mayor of Casterbridge."

At last, he's playing a lead.

"You wonder why you get picked sometimes," Hinds says, laughing. "But somebody's got to do it."

The Belfast-born 50-year-old actor has the glowering intensity to play a reformed drunk whose life is taken over by the youthful misdeed of having sold his wife and child for five guineas.

But Hinds also has the refinement needed to stir empathy toward one of those 19th-century literary characters defined by an inescapable destiny. Based on Thomas Hardy's 1886 novel, "The Mayor of Casterbridge" inhabits a merciless Dorset landscape where doom is only a plot twist away.

The three-hour film, directed by David Thacker, premieres at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday on A&E (with repeat showings later in the month).

Juliet Aubrey and Jodhi May co-star as the wife and child who return to Henchard after nearly two decades, and James Purefoy plays Donald Farfrae, Henchard's assistant-turned-rival for the affections of the Casterbridge townsfolk.

Hinds knew his performance would have to anchor the film, saying: "It is a responsibility."

The challenge, Hinds says, is that Henchard is "a man who, although not touched by evil, has done terrible things and always had a sense of doing wrong that he couldn't put right. ... Everything for Henchard seems to be difficult; every scene, every confrontation is blinkered."

And although he has acted in period dramas before -- in screen versions of Jane Austen's "Persuasion" and Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" -- Henchard is a breed apart.

"Bronte and Austen write a different class of people; they're not from the earth," Hinds says.

As for the mayor? "He's very earthbound; there's nothing effete about him. When you play him, you carry thoughts in your head of being disgruntled, bitter, confused, arrogant and yet somehow aware. He has an extraordinary sense of pride, male pride, while still regretting what he has done."

"In Hardy's world, fate is the master of everything. It is vain to fight against it, so I suppose you go, 'Whatever will be, will be.' "

Hinds, whose film career began with "Excalibur" in 1981, played the Russian president in last year's "The Sum of All Fears" and can be seen in "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life" as a man who competes with Angelina Jolie's Lara in a frantic search for Pandora's box.

And come fall, he'll be in "Veronica Guerin," starring Cate Blanchett as the real-life Irish journalist who was murdered by a Dublin drug gang in 1996.

Still awaiting release is Norman Jewison's "The Statement," starring Michael Caine.

It was shot in Paris, where Hinds will be spending more and more time: His partner of 15 years is the French-Vietnamese actress Helen Patarot, whom Hinds met when they were both in Peter Brook's epic stage version of "The Mahabharata."

But after a vacation in Portugal along with 11-year-old daughter Aoife, it's off to Pinewood Studios, west of London. There, Hinds will undertake yet another supporting turn as a co-owner of the Paris Opera House in the $80 million screen version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "The Phantom of the Opera."

"I got roped into that because of my great singing voice," he says, smiling. "I don't think."