By R. Kurt Osenlund
Iben Hjejle and Hinds in a scene from The Eclipse
Conor McPherson and Ciarán Hinds have the easy, informal rapport of old friends. Sitting across from the prolific Irish playwright/filmmaker and the ubiquitous Irish character actor, both of whom breezed through Philadelphia in February to promote their new film, The Eclipse, it's as easy to envision them clanging together pints at some folksy pub as it is to picture them running through the scenes of their latest project. A low-key, romantic character study with a supernatural spin, The Eclipse, which recently won the Irish Film & Television Award for Best Film, marks the third collaboration between the writer/director and performer, who previously joined forces for the 2007 Broadway run of McPherson's widely acclaimed play The Seafarer, and his 2009 London production of The Birds. As McPherson tells it, the pair's stage work established the obvious comfort level, which made for a smooth working environment on set.
“When you're rehearsing a play and working on the same things every day, over and over, you develop a deep understanding of an actor's work and how you can communicate” says the red-headed, Dublin-born 38-year-old, who doesn't exhibit a hint of the egotism that might develop in someone else after being dubbed “the finest dramatist of his generation” by both the London Telegraph and The New York Times. “When Ciarán and I were making [The Eclipse], we had already covered a lot of ground together, which made it quite easy."
“If you have a choice to say yes or no to a project, it's usually about the people you might do it with and whether there's something inherent in the writing that you believe in,” adds Hinds, the stern-looking, but surprisingly mild-mannered thesp whom film audiences know from his solid supporting turns in such titles as Road to Perdition, Munich and There Will Be Blood. “After reading a thin outline of Conor's script, I really had no hesitation and was just thrilled that he wanted to work with me again. I wasn't quite sure what the film would be, but there was an air and an atmosphere emanating from it, and I knew Conor's writing would fill in the gaps.”
Surely Hinds was also attracted to his part in The Eclipse, which McPherson adapted and expanded from the short story Table Manners by friend and fellow playwright Billy Roche. The movie gives viewers the rare opportunity to see Hinds, 57, in a leading role, casting him as Michael Farr, a teacher and father of two quietly mourning his wife, who's been dead for two years. A resident of Cobh, a seaport town in the County Cork region of Ireland, Michael is also an aspiring writer who volunteers at Cobh's annual international literary festival, which in the film draws in authors like the pompous Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn) and the lovely Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle). Serving as the driver for both authors, Michael finds himself inadvertently fighting for the affections of Lena, a writer of books on ghosts and hauntings who ends up being the only person Michael can confide in about what's really bugging him – terrifying visits from spirits.
Aside from Hinds's finely understated performance (which earned him the Best Actor prize at last year's Tribeca Film Festival), what's so deceptively impressive about The Eclipse is how one could essentially remove all of the supernatural elements and still be left with a rather air-tight drama – an intimate little chronicle of a simple man with complex feelings who comes to terms with his grief while making a new connection. That said, the bumps in the night, which are expertly, sparingly distributed for maximum effect, do serve the film considerably well, widening not just the appeal, but the emotional resonance.
“It was a challenge,” McPherson says of introducing the horror component, which didn't appear in Roche's original text. “I really wanted the audience to be frightened so they could share that feeling with Michael. He's genuinely freaked out by what's happening, and we realize what he's going through, but he still has to have normal conversations and keep his life together. I think it takes the audience deep into his character – they go on this private journey with him because of the shocks.”
Hinds in a scene from The Eclipse
McPherson and Hinds share similar views on both the character of Michael and supernatural phenomena. McPherson sees his protagonist as “an everyman” and “a picture of the human condition,” while Hinds, who clearly put great consideration into the role, thinks of him as “a practical man” most at ease when doing “simple, practical things like washing the dishes.” As for ghosts, McPherson says, “I think I do believe in them. I definitely believe people see things. If someone claimed to have seen something, I'd want to know what it was like – I'd be intrigued rather than dismissive.” Adds Hinds, “I don't disbelieve in [ghosts] at all. I think we have certain senses that aren't fully developed, and can detect certain energies that manifest themselves from time to time.”
Throughout a roughly 30-minute interview, there's really nothing about which McPherson and Hinds aren't on the same page, and McPherson, who even speaks in the same low, tranquil voice as his leading man, doesn't take the pair's symbiosis lightly. “Bringing something to life and to fruition is such a hard thing to do,” McPherson says. “So, when you find collaborators who understand and trust what you're doing, and who you enjoy working with, it just feels very natural to want to continue to do that.”
“Natural” is also the word McPherson uses to describe his transition from stage to screen, a graceful, seemingly effortless swap of mediums if ever there was one. When asked why he first felt compelled to try his hand at movies, McPherson replies, “Well, why does anyone want to do anything, really? Something in me just –”
“You had an outrageous thought,” Hinds playfully interjects, finishing his director's sentence. Here's hoping there are plenty more outrageous thoughts where that came from.
The Eclipse is now playing in theaters and is also available via OnDemand, Amazon and Xbox Live.
This article was originally published in the May 2010 issue of ICON magazine and has been reprinted with permission.