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June 12, 2003

Ciaran's journey back
By Robert McMillen

It's not often a Hollywood star starts to undress in front of me while we are both in the trailer. Unfortunately, it wasn't Angelina Jolie changing into Lara Croft, nor Michelle Pfeiffer changing into Cat Woman before my very eyes, but Ciaran Hinds, the Belfast actor who has starred in so many varied films, TV programmes and also on the stage.

Ciaran is one of those actors whose face you would recognise but perhaps wouldn't be able to name. He isn't a seeker of celebrity and keeps his private life very quiet. He is married to a French/Vietnamese actress called Helen Patarot, they have one daughter and live in London, if you must know. And you will never find lewd stories about him in the tabloids. Ciaran prefers to let his work speak for itself.

Over the past year or so, the size of the films he has been in might have varied a lot, but the quality hasn't. Since 2002 he has been in The Sum of All the Fears with Ben Affleck; The Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks; Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, with the aforementioned Angelina Jolie, and in Calendar Girls with his close friend Helen Mirren.

He was most recently seen in Veronica Guerin, where he played the Dublin gangster John Traynor, a role which earned great plaudits for the 50-year-old north Belfast man.

Ciaran was back in his native Belfast last week to shoot some scenes from his latest movie, Jonjo Mickybo. It is a project which started out as Mojo Mickybo, an absolutely wonderful stage play by Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty, telling the story of two 10-year-old boys from the Ormeau Road in the 1970s and their obsession with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Does Ciaran remember himself as a 10-year-old growing up in the city?

"Oh I do," he says. "It's funny because this morning I passed by my old primary school, Holy Family on the Limestone Road, passed Eglinton Avenue where I used to do Irish dancing on and passed the barrier at Tiger's Bay where we used to go in the very early 60s and I remember that from about the age of eight onwards we had problems going to school. You'd run all the way down through the back entries, all the way down to Holy Family, cross at the lights at the Limestone Road and the Antrim Road, and you'd run up the back entries again for your lunch. The secret was to do it so that you could have your lunch and be back at school again for a game of football for 15 minutes after having your champ," he recalls.

The fictional Jonjo and Mickybo, are played by 11-year-old John Joe O'Neill and 12-year-old Niall Wright, and Ciaran is full of praise for the two budding stars. "I've seen the boys and they are absolutely brilliant. They really are scene-stealers. I'll have to watch out," he laughs.

Ciaran got the script about a year ago when the makers were looking out for funders to back the film. He remembers thinking that it was simply a great story. It was the naivete and the innocence of the kids living in two worlds.

"There is, of course, the reality of their everyday family lives which they escape from into this other fantasy world. The world gets very large, even though it's very tiny, because they don't get very far and I Just loved the whole idea, actually, that idea about kids' imaginations can drive them into situations where you think ˜what are they doing?"

Myself and Ciaran then enter that world ourselves as we talk about playing cowboys and indians in the street, riding our horses and hitting our bums to make them gallop along, shooting guns by making a verity of explosive noises, wearing sheriff's badges, shouting an indignant "you're dead" at injuns who refused to lie down, and talking about ˜heading them off at the creek™."

That role playing was probably Ciaran subconsciously preparing for his future career. He was the youngest of five children after his parents, a doctor and an amateur actress, had had a run of four daughters. The actor admits to being not very good at school but later went to the ˜College of Knowledge" and repeated his A-levels before going on to Queen's University to study law. However, he dropped out to do what he considered his calling.

"I was lucky in that there was a guy called Des Marrinan who was at St Malachy's a good few years before me, and he spoke to my mum, a very middle class thing to do, and he convinced her that I should do English and drama."

It probably helped that Ciaran's mother Moya was also an accomplished actress.

"She did amateur dramatics with St Malachy's Old Boys and the Drama Circle on the New Lodge Road," Ciaran recalls. "She considered becoming professional at one stage “ she was Italian and very glamourous but she would have had to move away from her fiance, my dad, and she wanted kids, but she still did a lot of acting.... "...She sent us to elocution lessons, but I was never very confident at speaking in public. I never had that ability. I was never a debater. But you had to get up and recite these poems in front of people, so I suppose that was the start of it," he says.

Ciaran also did school plays, took part in Cor na nOg and joined the Patricia Mulholland School of Irish Dancing.

Then it was off to auditions in England, Scotland and Ireland. He lived in Dublin and Galway for a number of years before he landed at the Glasgow Citizens Company, where he stayed for almost a decade.

Ciaran's start was inauspicious, though. His first role was playing half of Albert the Horse in Cinderella in Glasgow, a fact which was announced by director Joel Schumacher to the assembled actors, opera singers and crew during filming of his latest film, Phantom of the Opera.

"I want to know if you were the front or the back, because that's a major statement," said Schumacher, laughing.

But Albert the Horse has been added to by a succession of parts with a greater amount of street (and business) cred.

In 1987 he received one of his first big breaks, at the hands of esteemed director Peter Brook, who selected him as a member of his Paris-based theatrical company and the actor was soon performing all over the globe.

Hinds' first film role was in Excalibur, along with every other Irish actor who had a pulse back in 1981. But while he has done the blockbuster thing, he is happy as well to do low budget films as well.

Another early success of his was the Sam Hanna Bell story December Bride, set in Co Down, but, a testament to his versatility, Ciaran was never confined to playing Irish characters. He was in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and Le Mahabharata, an Indian epic made into a mini-series for French television.

Does he find it easy to play such a wide range of characters?

"When you're an actor, although you're not yourself," says Ciaran, "you might use bits of yourself, but for the emotional stuff that comes up, you can't suddenly use someone else's emotions, it has to come from somewhere inside you. When I began acting, it was almost like hiding, but the more you develop as an actor, the more of yourself you reveal and put away the mask and let whatever humanity is in you come out, despite the clever accents and the strange disguises, make-up, faces and try to strip it down to the soul of some living, breathing human form, that is what we aspire to in the end, but it's a hit and miss affair."

For the third time the production assistant comes to the door and tells Ciaran he really has to leave to shoot his scene, but we continue the conversation on the Irish language, Gearoid MacLochlainn, fiddler Zoe Seaton whom we'd seen a few weeks previously in the John Hewitt while Ciaran got changed into his persona of Mickybo's (or was it John Joe's) da. White vest, blue boxers, if you must know.

When the interview was over, I realised that Ciaran had interviewed me as much as I had interviewed him and that he is one of the nicest film stars you could ever meet.