Ciaran Hinds was amazed to be offered the iconic role of Big Daddy in the latest Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s masterpiece, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Scarlett Johansson. Cahir O'Doherty talks to the Belfast-born actor about acting alongside Johansson, and co-star Benjamin Walker’s startling resemblance to his oldest friend Liam Neeson.
Like a lot of successful actors Ciaran Hinds, currently electrifying Broadway audiences in the iconic role of multimillion Southern plantation owner Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, can live a pretty weird life.
Finding himself in London, New York or even Reykjavik at a moment’s notice, the challenge Hinds, 59, faces with each new role never changes -- sink or swim.
Belfast-born and raised Hinds confesses to the Irish Voice that he had to skip out of rehearsals for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for an entire week last year to film his new starring role in the forthcoming third season of worldwide Belfast-made HBO hit Game of Thrones.
Playing Mance Rayder, the legendary King Beyond the Wall, was a role Hinds knew little about, but his agent insisted he take a look at it.
“I was aware of the popularity of the show but I’ve got to catch up on the whole series,” he says.
“My English agent told me that it was based in Belfast and that they then go off for a couple of weeks to do location work. He knew a lot of people in it. He knew it was really good.”
Fans of the international hit know that Rayder is a pivotal role in the sword and sorcery epic, but Hinds initially thought it would be a small commitment.
“They said it would literally be three or four days work in Belfast. I thought, ‘That’s great I can spend time with my sisters and return to work.’ He told me I wouldn’t have to do a follow up until November.”
But the follow up turned out to be in the middle of a blizzard in northeast Iceland. As commitments go, it was starting to mushroom.
“They only give you the script you’re in. They don’t give you the full storyline. So I did it but I had no idea how it went,” he says.
“Then I put it out of my mind. I saw my mum for the rest of the week.”
Meanwhile, Hinds had been surprised to be offered the iconic role of Big Daddy Pollitt, the rough around the edges Southern millionaire in Tennessee Williams’s greatest play. He couldn’t think why they had thought of him.
“’That’s mad,’ I said, when my agent mentioned the offer. He agreed with me but said it would be interesting,” Hinds recalls.
“The dates conflicted with Game of Thrones though. So I flew into New York, started work for eight days, then flew over to north east Iceland for six days in a blizzard.
“I had just been working in a Mississippi accent, then I had to go over there and work in a Yorkshire one. Mississippi kept sneaking in,” he laughs.
“It was kind of scary but kind of exciting to be in a mad blizzard in Iceland. To go from the Mississippi Delta to north Iceland in the same week was magic. This is my life, weird as it may sound.”
Rayder’s part defines the Game of Thrones series, which Hinds only realized as he began to play the role.
“If I’d known that I would have practiced a bit more,” he laughs. “Maybe they’ll put me right. I’m waiting to catch up on what they have planned.
“I saw the first series and I found some of the sexuality and violence a little gratuitous and it annoyed me but then it calmed down a bit, but the storytelling and the juggling of the storylines are fantastic. It draws you in and takes you elsewhere.”
Hinds mentions the work of fellow Belfast actor Conleth Hill in the series, which fans of the show will be delighted to hear.
“I have seen his work in the third series and it is absolutely brilliant,” he says with admiration.
As for his role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hinds praises the show director, Tony Award winner and eight-time nominee Rob Ashford.
“It was more than just about making it sexy. He wanted to make it earthy and real. The play was based on real people. We want to get to their complexity rather than play them as icons,” says Hinds.
Burl Ives and Laurence Olivier have played, and some would argue defined, the role of Big Daddy. Hinds was determined to make the role work on his terms.
“When I read the script I found his treatment of his wife shocking. We learn that he has sat around quietly for the past few years in fear of his own mortality,” offers Hinds.
“When he hears he doesn’t have cancer, when he hears he’s going to survive, wrongly as it turns out, it sort of clears away any doubts he’s had about his life.
“He decides he wants to get through his birthday party and take the opportunity to talk to the only person that he really loves [his son Brick, played by Benjamin Walker].”
The trick with this play is to keep an eye on the real, he says.
“If you’re venturing into territory that is slightly operatic it all has to be done so carefully,” he says.
Another conspicuous aspect of this production is the strength of the women characters, who clearly surpass the men.
“The women in this play are driving the car, except they’re driving it from the passenger’s seat,” Hinds says.
“They’re having to keep the car on the road and the man is supposed to lead, but they’re having to lean over and correct him.”
The theatrics on stage can be a little draining when they reach such a fever pitch night after night.
“As soon as that second act is finished I feel a profound relief,” Hinds says. “You have to come right on, on the front foot, throughout the second act.
“Sometimes I have to ask myself, ‘Can my aging old bones stand up to this?’ I mean, just the amount of verbiage and the amount of commitment!”
Onstage, Hinds’s scenes with Walker, 30, the actor who plays his son (and who is engaged to Meryl Streep’s daughter, actress Mamie Gummer) are electrifying, providing the emotional center of the play. Irish audiences will be particularly surprised to see how strong Walker resembles Hinds’s closest friend Liam Neeson.
“You wouldn’t be the fourth, fifth or eighth person to say that!” Hinds laughs.
“My English agent came to see me in my dressing room yesterday and he said, ‘God, Ben Walker is very like Liam Neeson.’ I replied, ‘Yeah, well I wasn’t going to have f***ing Liam as my son, was I?’ But I noticed the resemblance myself and mentioned it to my daughter.”
Hinds and his family spend every Christmas with the Neesons. When Hinds’ daughter Aoife saw Walker she blurted, “He looks like young Liam.”
Hinds discreetly told her not to mention it to Neeson as it might make him feel old.
“Then, after all this, I asked Liam if he knew Ben Walker. Before I said anything more he said, ‘He played the young me in the film Kinsey.’ That sort of seals the deal on that way.”
Hinds knows a lot of the people will be coming to the theater see Scarlett Johansson.
“She’s so good and so on the money in her role,” he says, supportively. “She’s plays a real breathing hurt southern lady.”
But clued in audiences will also come to see an iconic play by Williams and what Hinds makes of it.
“We’ve been hearing back from people who came to see a play they thought they knew, but the evening was full of revelations they didn’t anticipate as they watched it,” he says.
“That’s what Rob was aiming for. He knew Williams’s work inside out. He let us follow our instincts.”