The double Olivier Award winner and Game Of Thrones star talks to Matthew Amer about Atkinson, Eyre and life-changing roles as he returns to London in Quartermaine's Terms.
For many a year, the supreme talent of actor Conleth Hill has been well-known to knowledgeable London stage audiences. The chameleonic performer has twice lifted the prestigious Olivier Award before an audience of his peers. His name on a cast list sits proudly like a trusted stamp of authority. Yet beyond those in the theatrical know, Hill's name and face has not garnered the interest or acclaim it deserves... until now maybe.
For Hill, who heads back to the capital this week, to take on the supporting, ensemble role that is classically his native habitat, in Quartermaine's Terms, now has a TV hit on his hands on both sides of the Atlantic. The former Stones In His Pockets performer has starred in two series of the dragon-sized hit fantasy drama Game Of Thrones, based on George RR Martin's novels, as eunuch and Spymaster-in-Chief Lord Varys, and is set to appear in a third.
But before the ins and outs, political power games and sword swinging of the seven kingdoms of Winterfell returns to screens, Hill is swapping whispers of court for staff room chat, starring opposite Rowan Atkinson in Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms.
"Gray's like the English Chekhov," Hill explains from a hotel room in Brighton, where the show played before making its way to London. "He takes a group of people you wouldn't think too much about and makes you care about them."
In Quartermaine's Terms, those unloved people are teachers at a foreign language school, each with their own problems and each bending the ear of the lonely St John Quartermaine, played by Blackadder and Mr Bean star Atkinson in his first return to straight theatre in 25 years. As Hill describes it, the play is about "this man called Quartermaine and how he's affected by what's going on around him." That, he says, is "why I act and don't do blurbs"!
"It's hard not to gush, but I've managed not to embarrass myself"
It is true that as far as selling the production goes, Hill, surprisingly for him, wouldn't be winning any awards. Yet the quiet truth that "I miss watching it now that I'm in it," speaks volumes, the freedom of taking in other performances during rehearsals now replaced by the stricter structure of performance.
Watching the malleably faced Atkinson in particular, he says, has been a rare treat. "I've been a fan of his since I was a kid in the 70s, so it's hard not to gush, but I've managed not to embarrass myself," he gushes. "I just love watching what he does. If you can see the same thing for weeks and weeks and still laugh every day in spite of yourself, I think that's a great testament to his talent."
He says the same about working with former National Theatre head Richard Eyre, who is directing the tragicomedy. The whole production is, he says, "A bit like Alex Ferguson asking you to play for Manchester United and Ryan Giggs being on the team as well," which, if you're a Man Utd fan - and he is - is a pretty big deal.
If you're not a Man U fan or even vaguely interested in short-wearing types chasing a ball around a field, as not all of us are, it might be worth mentioning Hill ranks Eyre higher than another of his heroes, Annie Hall director Woody Allen, who he worked with on the American's 2009 movie Whatever Works. "Well, it's not about competition," he clarifies. "I just think Richard Eyre is singularly brilliant."
The same has often been said of Hill, whether it be for taking on multiple roles in breakthrough production Stones In His Pockets, playing cross-dressing director Roger De Bris in The Producers, portraying Stasi agent Gunter Guillaume in Democracy or as Chekhov's own Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard.
Yet for all his stage acclaim, TV work has been harder to come by... until HBO drama Game Of Thrones, which Hill describes as "a life-changing job". But the drama of swords, snow and sauciness too almost slipped through Hill's fingers like a greasy dagger. He was not originally seen for the part of the bald informer Lord Varys, known as the King's Spider, but for another role entirely. Exactly which role, I don't know, as Hill, like all good spymasters, keeps this information close to his chest.
"I just think Richard Eyre is singularly brilliant"
The production looks expensive and uses, says Hill, "about 800 people aside cast" to create. We've all seen British performers heading stateside recently - Damian Lewis and David Harewood in Homeland, Anna Friel in Pushing Daisies - but Game Of Thrones almost rises to Les Misérables The Movie proportions in its use of British theatre stars. Iain Glen, Mark Addy, Michelle Fairley, Kit Harrington, Julian Glover, Charles Dance, Ciaran Hinds, Harry Lloyd, Owen Teale, Ian Gelder and Roger Allam have all turned up in the fantastical world of Winterfell, some lasting longer than others but all adding the gravitas and quality of the British stage to a story that Hill was initially worried would be "a bit swords and sorcery for me".
How life-changing the role will be we still have to wait and see, though from a purely practical point of view, it does mean that Hill knows exactly what he is doing work-wise until the end of 2013, and he has already picked up another US series, the New York law drama Suits.
It's unlikely, though, that the glamour of US TV will draw Hill away permanently. Despite his regular appearances on the London stage he still lives in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, staying in digs and hotels wherever he works. "I made a decision quite early on," he says, "even before Stones In His Pockets, that I may as well live where I want to live and go where the work is. I like the fact that everybody knows my business. Some people hate small towns and can't wait to get out of them, but I find it quite reassuring."
No-one, he says, asks him about castings or auditions. It is a world away from the theatrical life. "I was never very ambitious," he says, and I get the feeling that though he enjoys his work, he doesn't quite realise just how good he is, that he likes to be known to his friends as Conleth, but not to the world as the actor Conleth Hill. What's great about playing Varys in Game Of Thrones, he says, is his head was shaved for the part, so it is rare for him to be recognised.
It seems to me that that is the case for many of his stage performances. Even without such drastic physical changes. Hill is one of those performers who, when he is on stage, is only ever the character to me. I don't see an actor playing a role, just the role. Maybe that is because, as yet, Hill's star has not risen quite high enough to loom over every performance, but I suspect it is more the fact that, in his words, "I like telling other people's stories. I think I have a responsibility to tell their story, not my story through it."
May that ever be the case.