‘I’ve never once behaved in a nepotistic way’: Ciarán Hinds on sex scenes at 70, intimacy coordinators, and working with his wife on The Dry
Behind some bins – big wheelie ones down an alley on Dublin’s Northside – a man and a woman, both oldish, are coupling frantically. Their al fresco pleasure is interrupted when they are spotted by the man’s daughter, who’s just come out of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“It’s not what it looks like, Shiv,” explains her flustered father, as he makes himself decent while the woman, short and of Asian heritage, with cropped silver hair, yanks up her tights.
“It looks like an old Irish man f***in’ a woman behind some bins,” she says.
This delicious scene is from The Dry, a daffy eight-part tragicomedy previously on Britbox, now coming to ITVX. The old man is played, with all his baffled hangdog charm, by Ciarán Hinds, who is 70. The woman behind the bins with him – and here’s the complicated surprise – is played by none other than Hinds’s French-Vietnamese wife, Hélène Patarot.
You’d guess such roles would have been offered to them both together, but no. “I was already working on it in Dublin,” says Hinds, “and then Hélène phoned and said, ‘Somebody’s just got in touch with me about something. It might be what you’re doing but I don’t know. It’s to play a character called Mina.’ I said, ‘Hold on a second. I know what that is now. Nobody’s mentioned it to me!’”
Thus a couple who have been together since 1987 found themselves in the weird position of working with an intimacy coordinator. “I don’t know whether it made her job easier or worse, frankly,” says Hinds. “We were thinking ‘We know what to do’, and Hélène is so much fun and just gets it, she could hardly do the scene for laughing anyway. Whether that was me attempting to be intimate in public, certainly we had to pull her together during the cavorting.”
It’s only the second time that the husband and wife have worked together. The first was when they met as members of a multinational cast for Peter Brook’s nine-hour production of The Mahabharata, premiered in French in 1985 and then performed in English two years later. What would the great eminence have made of their most recent antics? “He’d have said, ‘Couldn’t you have managed that a little more subtly?’ Peter was a very witty man.”
In The Dry, Hinds plays Tom Sheridan, a big old bear of a man whose long marriage has been slowly corroded by time and disappointment – and, specifically, by the death of a son. Hence the affair. The three remaining children all have their anxieties, none more than Shiv (Roisin Gallagher), a failed painter and an alcoholic, who returns from London for her grandmother’s funeral determined to dry out. Her commitment to honesty ricochets outwards, not least on her father as he philanders with his acupuncturist.
“You’re my dad,” she tells him. “You’re supposed to be my rock.”
“I’m a human being!” he says. “I’ve had a hard time too. It just makes things more bearable, that’s all.”
“For God’s sake,” says Shiv. “She’s not the Dalai Lama.”
Nancy Harris’s script is as ribald as it is wise, but what finally lured Hinds was the knowledge that Paddy Breathnach was to direct. His CV covers the boardwalk from I Went Down (1997), a roustabout caper about Dublin lowlifes by Conor McPherson, to the grim social realism of Rosie (2018), written by Roddy Doyle. The Dry falls somewhere in between, especially that scene by the bins.
“I didn’t believe in it at first,” says Hinds. “Younger people, fit and randy, OK. But people of a certain age, they would get a room. I thought Paddy would get a handle on the tone of it. Nancy Harris is addressing a lot of issues. Addiction, and grief, and abandonment, and all that. But meanwhile, the mess we are as human beings makes a lot of it quite dry, funny, odd, quirky. It’s double-jointed.”
I was rather put off by the amount of sexuality that was going on in [Game of Thrones] because it was taking away from the actual political storytelling
You could say the same of Hinds. With those breeze-block cheekbones, an aura of heft, and eyes that can turn reptilian, he has always had it in him to play the conscienceless bruiser. His most recent turns in TV drama are as a corrupt head of MI6 in the Netflix thriller Treason, and a dastardly hotelier in the BBC’s “revisionist” western The English. When our Zoom call freezes a couple of times – “These intimate questions aren’t going down very well with the gods,” Hinds suggests – there’s a chance to study those charismatic features at leisure.
Yet there’s always been a wry softness that comes through, above all when he works in his own accent. The main flavour that comes out in conversation with him is just right for The Dry, as it was for his portrayal of the grandfather in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast – the Oscar nomination for which gave him a ringside seat at last year’s Smith-Rock bout: “To me it was just like, ‘Ach, lads, come on, no need for that.’”
In recent years, opportunities to work in Ireland have bloomed. Obviously, there was Game of Thrones, which Hinds was in two minds about joining to play the “King Beyond the Wall” Mance Rayder from the third season to the fifth. “I was rather put off by the amount of sexuality that was going on in it, because it was taking away from the actual political storytelling,” he says. “But that’s business, I guess, from their perspective.”
Does he have a theory about the growth of the Irish industry, reflected in so many nominations at this year’s Academy Awards? “It’s about support over a period of time. The back-up wasn’t there in the 1980s, Ireland was still very poor, but since the late Nineties something started happening, and bit by bit they started getting organised. Then a generation of younger artists realised they want to offer something back to the culture they come from.”
That includes Hinds. He left Belfast in the early 1970s, encouraged by one of his professors at Queen’s University – where he was supposed to be studying for a degree in law – to follow his gift and get some drama training. At the time, fetching up at Rada felt like a huge leap. “We didn’t know the way the world worked. We saw it a bit through black-and-white television. To get on a plane, to leave a small place, was kind of enormous. You look at it now and you think, don’t be ridiculous.” When Branagh sent him the script of Belfast, “I knew within 10 pages there was something that went deep into my Northern Irish psyche, that I understood the people he was writing about.”
What does he make of the current mental health of Northern Ireland, as the UK and the EU strive for mutual accommodation after Brexit? Without pausing he berates “a party there that is so stranded in medieval times and we can’t move forward – it’s such a negative, pointless view of how we should progress. I don’t know what the way out is. I know that certainly it can be resolved. But not if people are held to ransom.” He’s presumably referring to the DUP? “I may or may not be!” he chuckles. And what of the other side? The New IRA is suspected of the attempted murder of DCI John Caldwell in Omagh in February. “That other extreme is abhorrent, and pointless, and savage. There’s nothing political about that. It’s just another act of barbarism, basically, and doesn’t serve our next generation.”
He goes back to visit family, and London is where he works in theatre – though he’s not sure when he’ll do it next. “The old grey matter is receding,” he says. “I’m just not as competent at learning as I used to be.” But home is Paris. Their home, “very close to a place called Père Lachaise,” he explains, “which is a cemetery where I often go and commune with Oscar Wilde, who is buried there.” You can only assume that having done his share of big Hollywood films (Munich, Road to Perdition), Hinds has endured enough showbiz interviews to feel impelled to map out these details.
Commuting for work, he reckons, helps to explain the durability of his relationship (he and Patarot actually married only five years ago). “We’ve always behaved like travelling people. We’ve had this constant of turnover, and movement, and meeting, and nobody saying you can’t. So we operate it that way.”
Much to Hinds’s surprise, their only child, Aoife, born in 1991, has followed them into the trade. “It was a well-kept secret from me; perhaps not from her mother. She went to LSE, and she dabbled, but she never really expressed a desire. She went travelling, and came back saying she wanted to be an actor. I was like, ‘Whoa, you’re a bit late.’ But you’re never too late.” For her biggest role, as Connell’s college girlfriend in Normal People, she and Paul Mescal worked with the very same intimacy coordinator who went on to perform the role for her parents. Hinds went so far as to consult her about what to expect, which isn’t the sort of thing most fathers and daughters talk about.
“I was asking her because it seems to me strange. I didn’t come from that generation. Anything we had to create together, in scenes of a sexual nature, we just talked about it. It’s about how we tell the story together, so I didn’t understand why intimacy coordinators were suddenly everywhere. As actors, you let your own spirits inform what you’re doing. Aoife said, ‘No, it was fantastic because your own emotional context was put on hold, and it became not quite balletic, but not your libido.”
She’s not, he insists, any sort of nepo baby. “I’ve never once behaved in a nepotistic way,” he says. “It’s not in me.” Hence his surprise that his wife was in The Dry. The same happened with Aoife when she was cast as his daughter in a film, as yet unreleased, called Cottontail. “It’s a very sweet story about a Japanese man coming to scatter the ashes of his wife in the Lake District, and he gets lost and comes across this Irish-Vietnamese-French father-daughter. If we’d acted the way we normally do, they wouldn’t have believed it. You have to get rid of who you are and then be something else.”
Hinds has now spent half a century being something else. Have the results of his decision to get on a plane all those years ago exceeded his expectations? “I’m by nature a day-to-day person,” he says. “I do feel very blessed, way beyond what I imagined. But then I don’t know what I imagined at the time.”
‘The Dry’ is on ITVX now