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Q & A: McPherson and Hinds Get Ghostly in The Eclipse

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The Irish dramatist Conor McPherson has enjoyed considerable support in New York City; three plays he's written were produced here to much success; the last two -- which he also directed -- garnered various Tony nominations.

The playwright turned to filmmaking and has done several movies either as the director, writer or both. With the recently released The Eclipse, McPherson draws on his own experience with literary festival travel to inspire this film set in County Cork seaside town of Cobh. The story of a man suffering both the death of his wife and the loss of confidence in himself, it also has supernatural undertones. Though not really a ghost story, hints of the ghostly slip through enough to add an eerie tinge to this meditation on love and redemption or maybe reclamation.

Supernatural occurrences have been a part of Ireland's rich cultural history, especially given its pre-Christian past with its Celtic traditions and Druidic mythos. Into this mix comes the fine actor Ciarn Hinds who lends the right sense of uneasy and disquiet to his performance of would-be writer Michael Farr to balance out successful authors Aidan Quinn's bellicose character, Nick Holden and Iben Hjejle's anguished Lena Morelle.

It's no wonder then that this Dublin native's The Eclipse should have had its World Premiere at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, or that veteran thespian Hinds should win an award as well.

From high-powered tentpole pictures (Road to Perdition, Munich, Race to Witch Mountain) to critically acclaimed indies (There Will Be Blood, In Bruges), as well as a memorable TV casting (Rome) Hinds has made his strong characterizations a benchmark. But this time, the Belfast, Northern Ireland native plays his first cinematic lead. After this, he will be seen as a Dumbledore in the next two Harry Potter blockbusters.

Q: You don't usually do this kind of movie, yet you won the Best Actor prize at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival for it. So what was the most challenging aspect of playing this role?

CH: The job description as an actor is to do what's required for the story, whatever that entails. Because I'd worked with Conor while we were doing the play The Seafarer, we got to know each other not just about work but personally.

There was something when I read the outline of the story that I just thought there was something beautiful and touching and serious and rather profound about this, but then there are some crazy bits in it that how the fuck do you get to there? In the end I think I tended to be just as open as possible and not to prepare.

Obviously you need to know the dialog to be able to bounce off somebody, but to be as open as possible to every moment that you're on camera. And what's so wonderful about Iben when you work with her is just the purity of her truth. When you work absolutely direct with someone it's sort of beyond acting, it's about real communication, and there may not even be a camera there.

There are moments where you put yourself in the situation, and you believe in the situation; therefore you are that situation. And the way Conor uses the camera, he picks up the truth of it.

Q: So this one of your most vulnerable roles?

CH: For sure. I'm not always playing emperors or presidents or strong men, because of the way my face looks, it looks quite tough. It's not particularly my nature, it's the way your face hangs, but this is probably one of the most vulnerable roles I've had to play.

Q: You wanted to get that side of him out there a little more?

CM: I know that Ciarán is a very warm guy, and I thought, "Yeah, he probably sometimes gets cast as guys that are tough and cold in a way." But I knew that Ciarán has a very warm heart and knew that the camera would pick that up. The character he plays is a kind of everyman who gets to be everything -- a father, a son...

CH: He's not quite a holy ghost.

CM: He's a lover, he's a fighter...

Q: He's a writer.

CM: He's a writer. Ciarán just has a wonderful presence as an actor which can allow all of those things to be, and the world can be revolving around him and yet he's not ever having to be explicit about any of those things, we just get it, we understand. It's a mark of his great talent.

Q: This movie deals with characters facing their fears; what scares you as an actor or you as a director? How do you overcome such fears?

CM: I don't think any of us overcomes the thing that scares us, we just sort of learn to accept that they scare us and we're going to have to just get on with it. If you're asking me what in my professional life scares me, as a writer or director, it's all scary, it's all crazy. When you're writing something you wonder, "Is anyone going to understand this, what am I doing, is this a real job?"

All of that stuff is pretty heavy. When you go to direct it's like we've got to get all these people to work on this thing; they've all got to want to do it; they've all got to get on with each other. Then we're going to let an audience in and are they going to even get this, or are they going to hate it? It's all scary.

You don't overcome it, you just bite your lip and cross your fingers and hope to god it's going to work. But actors, I mean I don't know how an actor steps out on stage; that's crazy to me.

CH: With most of us, I think, there's fear wherever you go and it's a daily battle. But usually you fight that battle because somewhere deep down you believe in the craft and the work that somebody has started and that you owe it to them. And once you get a real sense of trust and a debt to the writer who's going to share these stories, you've got to conquer those fears somehow. I mean it is scary, taking that deep breath and going, "Shit, here we go."

Ego gets in the way, it's always all about me, people are watching me, and no it's not about you, it's about you playing a creative role in something that they want to see. And sometimes you have to fool yourself that you can do that.

Q: This movie was loosely based on your friend Billy Roche's short story?

CM: He was writing a book of short stories and as he finished each one he emailed them to me. One was set against the background of a literary festival; it's about a teacher who's a volunteer at the festival and is driving around this lady who's a writer and he becomes obsessed with her. He's married and has kids so it's how his life unravels because of his obsession with her.

We thought it might be fun to work on a screenplay of that story; my wife read an early draft and said, "In a story we can get inside the character's head -- we can understand what's happening to him. But in a film, if we're just watching some guy stalking this woman, women are not going to like him. It would be better if you got rid of his wife."

So I thought, if he was a widower, we'd sympathize with him better. Also, he could be haunted, and suddenly this whole thing took on a supernatural hue. About 20 drafts later we ended up with this love story and ghost story -- a hybrid of genres. That's the journey it took.

Q: Have either of you had any experiences with ghosts?

CH: I believe I had one in my teens. In the North of Ireland, where I'm from, in a graveyard there are stones there from the 17th century. Disused now, it's on a little cliff, and in my teens I was up there messing around with some friends the way you do. Suddenly I looked over in one direction and there was this shape that formed that was very recognizable as old and human, but not complete, not exactly delineated. There was movement to it and also some sort of face. I didn't know what to do because I wasn't sure if it was a trick of the light or my own sensibilities as a teenager going, "Wow, this is crazy."

But a movement came from this image and I thought it was very weird. I looked around to the others to see if they could see what I see and they were messing around. I looked back, and at that stage, whatever it was, it was almost like free of gravity because it moved but it didn't sidle or walk, it just went to a place and then whatever energy, it just dissipated. I don't know to this day whether it was a trick of light or it wasn't, but all I remember is the gesture of it was sort of spooky and scary and I wasn't going to go over there because I knew there was a [quite a] drop after it.

CM: One time, I was driving along -- we had just done a film which I wrote, I Went Down -- with its director [Paddy Breathnach] and producer [Rob Walpole]. We were doing a tour of local radio stations in Ireland.

We were in a hurry, driving across this very desolate area, and as we drove along this very long, straight road -- it was a very flat landscape where we were -- I saw a figure standing on the side of the road. It was a woman and there was something about her clothes that she looked like she was from the 1970s; she had a leather coat with a belt, boots, and just the way her hair was, was very 1970s. She was standing in the middle of nowhere and as we drove by she seemed to be looking right at us; I remember her eyes and this half quizzical smile on her face as we drove by. Myself and Rob, we both went, "Whoa, that woman was spooky," and Paddy, who was driving, said, "What woman?"

We looked behind and there was nothing there. Maybe she was someone who was standing there and walked away, I don't know, but I don't know what it was or why or whatever. That's the only time I remember.

Q: Aidan Quinn plays the famous author Nicholas Holden -- who has his own set of issues.

CM: In the short story, he is the writer who has persuaded Lena to come to the festival so he can reignite this affair with her. What Aidan really understood about it was he thought this is a guy who's obviously successful, he's a writer who all his novels would be on the stand at the airport bookshop, and his books are made into movies.

What's great about Aidan in that role is that while he is very good looking, he's gotten a bit older, so perhaps the character is feeling the hand of mortality on his shoulder, and he's sort of worried about his prowess and attractiveness; this is causing him great panic and pain.

It was Aidan who actually said to me, "This guy is in great pain," and I realized that he understood something about that as an actor because Aidan says, "I've always been cast as this good-looking leading guy. I never get a chance to express this kind of stuff, this panicky, freaking out, I'm losing it, I'm a jerk, kind of stuff." He really embraced it enthusiastically and developed the character and took it to a place that I actually didn't quite expect.

CH: He's obnoxious, arrogant, a jerk, and he's suffering something inside. That often produces the humor in the story because of the extremity of his confusion.

Q: The fight scene was very convincing.

CH: The way he comes in and says, "I'm not drunk." You know he's gone somewhere else.

CM: When you have to say that you're probably not sober.

Q: In your last few films you get abused in one way or another. If nothing else, you're mentally tortured in the upcoming Life During Wartime. But you were really beaten up in that scene with Aidan. Did you like having him abuse you...?

CM: Absolutely. He has to go through pain and suffering to be redeemed. They were very committed during their fight scene, that's for sure.

Q: How was it shooting that scene when you fight over Lena (Hjejle)?

CM: We shot it in one day. Iben broke her toe at about half nine in the morning and continued through the whole day doing the fight. I have to say in my own defense, I didn't realize her toe was broken until after.

CH: She didn't tell anyone. She just felt the pain and taped it up.

CM: It was pretty hairy.

CH: I know Aidan once warned me I getting a bit too close.

CM: Except that he was really hitting you and then said, "Hey, you're getting a bit close."

Q: So who was more the boxer?

CH: He is. He's American, Irish-American, so there's bit of the jock in him. Me, I'm a dancer.

For an extended version of this interview and other Brad Balfour interviews go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com