Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

Actor tackles role of tragic hero in `The Mayor of Casterbridge'

Byline: Jean Prescott
BILOXI, Miss. _ Ciaran Hinds puffs breathlessly as he answers the phone. He has just dashed across his London flat, he says, to reach a machine "that isn't flashing a flat battery."

The voice is softer than that of most of his film and TV personae, and the accent is distinctly Irish _ lilting, almost musical _ and in extreme contrast to the thick Dorset bluster of Michael Henchard, central character of "The Mayor of Casterbridge," Hinds' latest costume drama for the A&E Network.

He's been the Knight Templar Sir Brian Du Bois-Gilbert in A&E's "Ivanhoe" and Edward Rochester in the network's version of "Jane Eyre." Now he tackles Thomas Hardy's take on the tragic hero.

"He does behave like a stinker," Hinds says, mightily understating Henchard's misdemeanors, "but he also seems to realize that he keeps putting his foot in it in a big way, (and) he seems to want to make amends.

"He's trapped by his pride, (but) he genuinely does repent," says the actor showing remarkable empathy for a man, albeit a fictional man, who auctions away his young bride and baby daughter in the first chapter of Hardy's book and the corresponding first five minutes of this new teleplay.

"The idea when he meets his wife again," some 20 years later, "is that he doesn't pretend to love her. It's too late for that, but he promises to do everything to make it up to them (estranged wife, Susan, and daughter Elizabeth-Jane), and it's probably the idea of having a daughter to be responsible for that makes him do it."

Best intentions, like best-laid plans, have a way of falling by the wayside, which, after all, is the point of Hardy's story. Whether by fate or extreme self-destructive tendencies, Henchard drives away every person who might have loved him and dies a broken man who requests in a scribbled will that no one remember his name.

Anyone who managed to avoid Hardy altogether in their school years may be unfamiliar with the story, but it echoes the pathos of "Far From the Madding Crowd" and "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," sad, disturbing tales of fatalism and misogyny.

Where he finds the passion for such portrayals Hinds can't say, but nine weeks of it left him exhausted.

"Maybe whatever it is, that's why they cast me in these things. Men at that time, they behaved in a certain way, but I believe she (Susan) _ she must have felt something for him, she must have seen something in him," and so the actor looks for that bit of humanity to make even the "bad guy" believable, he says.

Twelve-hour days and his presence in virtually every scene made Hinds a candidate for "a bottle of wine _ and a half, maybe two" at the end of filming, and he laughs at the thought of it. "The effect is cumulative, too, and when you come down after one of those things ... I was running nearly on empty. "I remember, I think I was offered a play which was to start the Monday after this ended on Friday," he says, "but I just couldn't do it."

For his part, Hinds keeps Henchard true to Hardy's characterization while dredging for a bit of redemption among the weaknesses and character flaws. "Enjoyable work," the actor says, "but not too many one-liners in this one."

Indeed, with age comes wisdom, and at 50, Hinds says he knows something he wishes he'd known when he was younger, which is "that it's all right to make a fool of yourself sometimes, if you're doing your best work to get something done."

One last thing, about the money, the 5 guineas his character is paid for his wife and child at the start of "The Mayor of Casterbridge." How much is that, anyway? "In dollars? Pounds? Yen? What?" Hinds quips. "Yes, yes, it's 5 pounds, 5 schillings," he says, "and if he hadn't drunk it up in one night, he could have lived on it for _ what? _ a month?"