Conleth Hill

Northern Irish actor Conleth Hill is beloved by millions of Game of Thrones fans as spymaster Varys, but he's also a respected theatre actor, with work ranging from The Cherry Orchard and Stones in His Pockets to the 2013 revival of Quartermaine's Terms. He's about to embark on Edward Albee's masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring opposite Imelda Staunton; the production begins previews at the Harold Pinter Theatre on 22 February.

Did you know the play well beforehand?

No, I didn't at all. I knew of the film, but I can't remember watching it - I think I was too young when it came out. But as soon as I read it, I was blown away.

How did approach the character of George?

Honestly it's all there in the script. That sounds like I'm being evasive about my methods, but really it's true - when a script's good enough, you just learn it and say it, and it's all there for you. This play is so well written and so well structured. Albee is very specific with his punctuation and direction, so it's like doing a really good musical score. All the clues are there, every note and rest.

Can you understand George's disillusionment?

Yes, it's a great example of how idealism can be swallowed up by day-to-day politics. You go somewhere, as an actual politician or in George's case a teacher, with great ideals, but you have to play the game, work within that hierarchy, all that stuff, so those ideals get set aside, which is frustrating.

There's also a kind of reticence to take advice from someone older. That's the arrogance of youth that they know better, but you can't do much about that - it's the way the world is.

Did you do much research into the period?

There are things you need to put into historical context, like a couple not having children wouldn't be as huge nowadays - it's more of a respected choice. The same with someone not going to war - that's judged very differently. Plus things like attitudes to smoking and drinking.

But again we're lucky with this that it's on the page. We've talked a little about what was going on politically and music wise, but you don't need to overstate it. The setting and the design will help a lot with putting it in that context.

Conleth Hill and Imelda Staunton in rehearsal
for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Do you have to build up stamina to manage a run of a play like this?

That happens naturally as part of the rehearsal process. You don't ever run it from start to finish until you're ready, and by then you have a better gauge of where you take your rests and where the journey is, so you know how to pace it. It's such a strong piece, the movement in it is very obvious, and James MacDonald is brilliant. Every note of his is a good one, and he's been going through it a bit at a time with a great deal of care.

What's it like acting opposite Imelda Staunton?

She's lovely to work with. I call her the governor, because she's so good and generous, such an example. We worked together on The Day We Sang, but I've been a fan of hers for years and years and years. She's just so brilliant. We're not competitive or combative at all - it's more encouraging. We all want the same thing, so it's really been helpful and kind in the rehearsal room.

Tonally, the play is quite a mix. Does your diverse theatre experience help you navigate that?

Yes, though I find it very hard to keep my face straight when Imogen [Poots] and Imelda and Luke [Treadaway] are doing their various pieces! I suppose I'm quite calm about it all, but that comes from who I'm working with too. You have to have great trust, especially with a play like this that's really an ensemble piece.

Have you found the accent easy to do?

Yes, I've done a lot of accents in my career. Most kids in Western Europe play easily with American accents, because we've grown up with their TV and films and so on. Albee's rhythm is interesting to play - he's a great Absurdist too, he loved Beckett, so some sections are slightly heightened, but it's not too stylised. You have to keep it all very real.

Do you hope your Game of Thrones profile might bring new audiences to theatre?

If that happens, great. And it's not a play you need to know much about it. It's better not to read it - come and experience it. I just love telling different people's tales. I'm Northern Irish, and through the worst of times the Lyric Theatre never closed - people of all walks of life were in there together and never had a problem. You've got to be open to other people's stories.

The last thing I did in the West End was Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms - I seem to specialise in teachers! That subject matter is about people you might not give a second thought to - academia maybe isn't the most exciting area of life - but a great writer, an empathetic writer, gives you a connection to those people. That's very powerful.

Conleth Hill in Who's Afraid
of Virginia Woolf?

Is it important to you to keep taking stage roles alongside your screen commitments?

Theatre is more time-consuming and less well paid, but I've always loved it and will continue to do it until I don't love it anymore. I love the team, working with other people. It's also more self-editing. On screen, a lot of the work's done for you with camerawork and editing, so you're making fewer of those choices.

The most important thing to me is a good script. Sometimes you don't get a script at all, if it's someone like Peter Kay or Woody Allen, but it's safe to trust them! Otherwise I'm pretty discerning now about choosing scripts, and I've worked with some wonderful writers. My parents were worried like all parents when I went into acting, because it's precarious, but I've been so lucky to have never been out work in 30 years, and really proud of what I'm doing.

Is it particularly special working at the Lyric in Belfast?

I still live in Ballycastle, where I grew up, so that's a great experience. It's not always my decision - I'm always glad to be asked, sometimes it's difficult with scheduling - but it's a great place to work.

Do you have any future work planned? Maybe more directing?

I've never had a plan in my life! I just wait for the next script to come along. I really enjoy directing, so I'd like to do more of that, but it's not really a question of me going "I'm going to direct that" - not at this stage anyway. Directing for me isn't about more control or more power - it's almost like you're changing positions. You're going from goalie to striker, but you're still on the same team.

Anyone you'd love to work with?

I've honestly never had aspirations like that. I let other people do comparisons or retrospectives - I keep busy working on what's in front of me. If you do good work, then the next opportunity will come along.

Any advice for budding performers?

For your first years, if you're lucky enough to be in a position to get work, there'll be good and bad - good and bad directors, experiences, everything. Just learn from it. After that, hopefully you can pick and choose a bit more with that knowledge in mind.

Finally, what can audiences expect from this production?

I hope they feel they get their money's worth! It's a really good ensemble play, and it's just us four and the audience for a few hours, so fingers crossed that should be special.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre 22 February-27 May

Picture credit: Charlie Gray, Johan Persson

Related Articles

From This Author Marianka Swain