Northern Irish actor Conleth Hill, one of our most dependable performers, has found his second home at the National Theatre, he tells Caroline Bishop.
“I should have shares in the National,” says Conleth Hill with a wry smile. He has spent much of our chat extolling the virtues of his current place of work – the staff, the production standards, the front of house management – and now he is off again, enthusing about the venue’s Travelex £10 ticket season. He is a one-man promotional show the press department can be proud of.
“I love working here. I just think it’s the best place to ply your trade,” he says at one point. “When you work elsewhere you kind of have to remind yourself that it’s not the National and you shouldn’t judge it on those standards.”
The 45-year-old Northern Irish actor is back at his favourite venue for the fifth time to appear in an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard. He plays an opera-singing Ukrainian adjunct to the hetman leader who, like most of the men in Kiev, is in love with the beautiful Lena. Set at the tumultuous time of the Russian civil war, Hill says it presents “an amazing insight into the kind of war for control of Ukraine that was going on at the same time”.
Though it paints a picture of the chaos of wartime, the story does have lighter moments too. “I think it has dark elements, there’s no two ways about it, but I think the hetman’s palace is particularly funny, just because the hetman was an idiot and had no idea how to run a campaign. Anthony Calf plays the hetman and it’s very hard to keep my face straight when I’m working with him.”
“Occasionally someone comes along and you don’t have to read the script you just know you want to work with them”
As one of a 23-strong ensemble cast, the role of Leonid is not a star part; rather, it is the sort of meaty character role that earned Hill a Best Performance in a Supporting Role Laurence Olivier Award nomination in 2008 for his work on another historical epic, Philistines.
The White Guard sees him once again working with Philistines director Howard Davies and playwright Andrew Upton, and the pair have already recruited him for their production of The Cherry Orchard at the National next year. Hill is fast becoming to the National Theatre what Gregory Doran once told me actors like Ken Bones are to the Royal Shakespeare Company. “The group of actors who don’t want to be stars, who want to do good, good work… they are really what makes British theatre great,” said the RSC Associate Director. This strikes me as Hill all over.
“I’ve never been particularly ambitious or self-promoting, but I think the fact that I’m not very high on the fame radar allows me to play the variety of parts that I play,” he says. Indeed his career has encompassed such diverse parts as the cross-dressing Roger De Bris in The Producers, a Stasi spy in Democracy and numerous eclectic roles in the two-hander Stones In His Pockets, the play that put Hill on – if not the fame radar – the radar of theatre producers.
“I think Stones In His Pockets was the thing that opened doors for me. The first two or three jobs I got afterwards were a result of the director or the producer or whoever seeing me in Stones,” he says.
Marie Jones’s comedy involved Hill and Sean Campion portraying – without the help of costume changes – every character in the story of an American film crew coming to a small Irish town, whose opportunistic inhabitants attempt to earn a buck by being extras. The play won Best New Comedy at the Laurence Olivier Awards 2001, with Hill winning Best Actor for his multi-faceted performance, which included playing the glamorous American lead actress.
“All through rehearsals I kept thinking they can and will sack me any moment”
The pair took the play from its premiere in Belfast to Edinburgh, Kilburn’s Tricycle theatre, the West End and then Broadway. Before the success of the play, Hill had worked prolifically in Belfast and with theatre company Communicado in Scotland, but I wonder whether he was actively looking for a play to take his career up a notch when Stones came along. “The only reason that Stones started the journey that it started was because I’d said something along the lines of ‘I don’t mind doing it for three weeks but I want other people to see it and I have worked in Scotland so could we maybe take it there?’ So maybe I was getting a bit more ambitious then. But I would have certainly been happy enough to just keep working away.”
Three weeks turned into three years of success. Did he never get sick of doing it? “No. I think the secret is you just do it like it’s the first time, and possibly the last time, and that kind of gets you through a long run. But I don’t think I could do that if I got bored easily and lacked concentration.”
His eye-catching performance in Stones led to both his National Theatre debut in Michael Frayn’s Democracy and the role of camp theatre director Roger De Bris in the West End production of The Producers, which he played for a year. “There’s something about a musical, in a long run, for a year, that you’d come in, no matter how tired you were, as soon as that overture started that was you off. It was a very enjoyable year.”
Bar a stint in Little Shop Of Horrors in Belfast a decade previously, The Producers was his first musical and he took singing lessons to get up to scratch. “But I would still maintain I never learnt to dance,” he smiles. “The last number of the show, every single night for the entire year, the girls were counting me in before I went on.”
The Producers was perhaps the most attention-grabbing show of his career – it won Best New Musical at the 2005 Laurence Olivier Awards and garnered plenty of headlines due to the departure, in previews, of its star Richard Dreyfus – but Hill managed to maintain his customary low public profile. “I was very lucky because Nathan Lane and Lee Evans were the front, and then the beautiful Leigh Zimmerman, who any photographer quite rightly went straight for. So I didn’t feel any big glare or pressure at all. I have to say that for the first time, all through rehearsals I kept thinking they can and will sack me any moment. But I suppose that kept me on my toes.”
The Producers was followed by his second National Theatre role, in The Seafarer, which took him back to Broadway. NT productions of Philistines and All’s Well That Ends Well followed. “I still worry when it comes to the end of one job… not as much as I used to but I would still think ‘oh God maybe that’s it, maybe I won’t work again’. But I think life’s too short, you’ve got to just enjoy it and I do. I’m so grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had.”
Screen opportunities have been less forthcoming, though he doesn’t seem to mind. “I think theatre producers and directors are a lot more willing to suspend their disbelief than television and film producers. There’s so little television getting made nowadays anyway.” But he does name two screen jobs that he grabbed with both hands.
“The fact that I’m not very high on the fame radar allows me to play the variety of parts that I play”
One was playing the mum of Peter Kay’s alter-ego Geraldine in the comedian’s reality TV spoof Britain’s Got The Pop Factor, which came about after Kay took over Hill’s role in The Producers on tour. “I went to see it and I thought he was fantastic and he said afterwards, if I wrote you something will you do it? and I went yeah, thinking oh that was nice of him. And then he just rang me one day and said would you play me mum? So I said yeah. I didn’t read the script.”
Nor did he read the script when asked to appear in Woody Allen’s latest film Whatever Works last year. “Normally it would be script-led but occasionally someone comes along and you don’t have to read the script you just know you want to work with them.”
It isn’t a bad life, interspersing juicy roles on stage with the odd plum screen role and retreating back to his sanctuary in Northern Ireland whenever he gets the chance. Despite often working in London he still lives in his hometown, Ballycastle. “I trained over here [in London] but when I left drama school I was going all round the UK and Ireland to work and I thought well I may as well live where I want to live. I think it was a good decision, it seems to have worked out.” It also allows him to keep nicely under the radar, just as he likes it. “Nobody is going to come up to me and ask me was I up for such and such a job, in my home town, I hope. So it’s a nice escape.”
That is another reason he loves the National. Playing in repertory means whenever the show has a week’s break, he is straight on a plane. “For me it is absolutely the best of both worlds. I get to do really good work but I’m not away from home for six months or a year, which I would be in the West End or Broadway.” As relationships go, the love between the National and Hill couldn’t be stronger. The only downside is his mileage. “I wouldn’t like to think about my carbon footprint,” he says before adding, deadpan, “but I really couldn’t swim the whole way.”