Irish actor Conleth Hill, 44, who hails from Ballycastle, County Antrim, is quietly enjoying the kind of worldwide career making success that most actors can only dream of.
Since his teenage years in the 1980s acting in summer musicals in Coleraine’s Riverside Theatre alongside other Northern Irish notables like Jim Nesbitt, the low-key Hill has gone on to graduate from London’s Guildhall School of acting and has been working non-stop ever since.
Being in constant demand is a rarity for an actor, but that’s how Hill’s career has progressed since the day he started.
He was first introduced to New York audiences back in April, 2001 when he did the Broadway run of Irish playwright Marie Jones’ “Stones In His Pocket,” and that exposure took his career to the next level.
Now, in “Whatever Works,” the new film by Woody Allen that opens on Friday, Hill is cast as one of a group of disparate New Yorkers who learn that there really are no rules when it comes to love. No matter how out of the ordinary a relationship may be, Allen’s new film reminds us, it’s whatever works to get you through life that really counts.
Happily, the new film is unlike Allen’s recent spate of gloomy character studies featuring other well-known Irish actors like Colin Farrell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. When it comes to dark and disturbing, there’s nothing like a moody Irish heartthrob to fit the bill, so it’s nice to see Allen thinking of Irish actors for his lighter fare too.
For Hill, just being on the same set with legendary directors and actors like Allen and Larry David (from HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is a reward in itself. He had to daily resist the urge to tell them how delighted he was to work with them.
Hill tells the Irish Voice and IrishCentral, “I got this phone call saying that Woody Allen would like to meet me and stupidly I said to myself, ‘Ah, that’d be cool.’ I didn’t think he meant to work on a film.
“I just thought he’d seen me in Conor McPherson’s ‘The Seafarer’ on Broadway and he just wanted to give me a few pointers or something.”
Hill went along to the meeting, and it was all very quick and efficient. Allen hadn’t seen the play at all, it turned out, and instead he just said, “I’m shooting a movie in Manhattan in the spring. My casting director seems to think you’d be suitable for one of the parts. Can you do an American accent?”
Hill said yes, and read for Allen right there. The director liked what he heard.
“I think I must have sounded like a comedy American. ‘High there, how arrrre yooooo!’ But it’s hard for an Irish actor to do a bad American accent because we all have their television shows,” Hill says.
On Hill’s first day on the set of “Whatever Works” he had to film a scene with David and Michael McKean (Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson also star). It was, he says, a little overwhelming.
“You’re always tempted to scream I love you all and I love all your work, all three of you. But you just kind of have to do the job, not that you’re blasé about it, but when it comes down to it you’re just getting on with the job,” Hill says.
“If you think too much about it you’d just stand with your tongue out. The reassuring thing was that every other actor was equally nervous in a good way, working with Woody.”
Hill admits it was fantastic working with Allen, but even now he doesn’t know all that much about the film.
“I can’t really tell you about the movie. Woody gives you the scenes you’re working in, but not the full scripts, so you don’t really know anything about the whole movie,” he says.
“It’s the way some director’s work. There’s really no need for you to know everything. You trust him to know what he’s doing and you assume if you need to know anything he’ll tell you. “
In “Whatever Works” Hill plays a friend of David’s character called Leo Brockman, who’s a lecturer in philosopher at Columbia University. His romantic affair with Marietta (played by Clarkson) is the thing that Hill remembers most, but like the audience, he’ll have to wait to see how it all turns out.
Alongside Hill’s film work is his theater work which he is equally proud of.
Says Hill, “I’ve been very lucky working with Irish writers like Brian Friel, Sebastian Barry and Conor McPherson. They’re all brilliant.
“For Friel I was recently in ‘The Home Place,’ which was a weird play to do, because I’ve never been in any other play in my life where people felt they had responsibility to come up and tell you what the play’s about. It was very interesting.”
Hill was last seen on Broadway in McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” which won his co-star Jim Norton a Tony for Best Featured Actor.
“Jim Norton and myself first appeared in it in London, and then when we brought it to Broadway we had the stagehand’s strike. We had the Blitz spirit, as we couldn’t rehearse because of the strike we used to meet and work on other plays until it ended.”
The legendary Mel Brooks also cast Hill in the London production of his hit musical “The Producers,” where Hill played Rodger Debris, the camp as a row of tents director described by Brooks as the worst one who ever lived.
“‘The Producers’ was brilliant, working on it was one of the best years of my life,” says Hill.
“I used to go and watch Mel Brooks and Woody Allen double bills and I dreamed -- but I never would have imagined -- I would end up working with both of them. When I saw the original show on Broadway I was blown away by how good it was. And Rodger Debris was the part I wanted, so it was very fortuitous.”
But how does a boy from Ballycastle scale such heights? Let’s face it, it’s not the center of the acting universe.
“I did youth theater in my late teens and a lot of brilliant actors were involved in it like Jim Nesbitt and Lloyd Hutchinson, people who are still working and in the profession, so we must have done something right,” says Hill.
“We all did summer musicals usually, and then when I came out of drama school I started work right away.”
Does he feel lucky? “Absolutely, which is why I don’t lift my head above the parapet as much. If it was all taken away at least I’ve had a brilliant time, you know?
“I love the work and I love the company. I’ve been very lucky with writers and directors. “
Are there roles he wants to play? “I can’t wait till I get a bit older because I want to play those Arthur Miller roles, like Willy Loman, you know? I love all the American writers.
“My next film is Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe’s ‘Perrier’s Bounty’ with Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent and Jodi Whittaker. That comes out later this year.
“I had to act with two great big bloody Rottweilers in that, in almost every scene I’m in. That was an experience, but the film will be incredible.”