Then little known outside of his native Ireland, Conleth Hill was named Best Actor in the inaugural Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards in 2001 (covering the 2000 theatre year). That was for his role in Marie Jones’ two-hander Stones in His Pockets, for which he also won the Olivier and the Irish Times Best Actor prizes and was nominated for a Tony Award (See Features, 2 Apr 2001).
Jones wrote the comedy with Hill in mind – she and her Stones' director husband, Ian McElhinney, having worked with the actor on previous productions. The comedy premiered in Belfast in 1996 before conquering the West End and Broadway, with Hill and his co-star Sean Campion, and with productions now running around the world.
Hill cemented his position in the minds of British theatregoers with his role as East German spy Gunter Guillaume to Roger Allam’s Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn’s Democracy, earning him a second Whatsonstage.com Best Actor nomination and now, making his West End musical debut, in The Producers. His performance as flamboyant cross-dressing director Roger DeBris in the Mel Brooks’ hit has put him in the running for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical in this year’s Whatsonstage.com Awards (click here to vote now).
Hill’s many other stage credits include: in the UK, Shoot the Crow, A Christmas Carol, The Government Inspector, The Playboy of the Western World, The Suicide and Shining Souls; and in his native Ireland, After Darwin, Conversations on a Homecoming, Waiting for Godot, Whistle in the Dark, Little Shop of Horrors, The Iceman Cometh, The Importance of Being Earnest, Christmas Eve Can Kill You, The Picture of Dorian Gray, School for Wives and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
On screen, Hill has been seen in, amongst others, Trust Me, A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day, Out of the Deep Pan, Cycle of Violence, Meaningful Sex, Goodbye Mr Chips, Medics, Young Indiana Jones and Casualty.
Date & place of birth
Born 24 November 1964 in Ballycastle, County Antrim in Ireland.
Lives now in…
I live in Ireland still, in Ballycastle. I just stay here in London when I’m working. I stay near Smithfields Market when I’m here.
I trained at Guildhall from 1985 to 1988. I left there in July 1988 and I’d already got my first TV job before I left. I got my first theatre job that August.
First big break
I guess in terms of going into auditions and meeting casting directors and being recognised, Stones in His Pockets would have been the one that changed things for me. You know, I got Democracy because of it and I got this because of it. They knew who I was because of it, because they had seen the play – Michael Blakemore and Michael Frayn, Mel Brooks and Susan Stroman. I still have to audition for some things now, though not as much as I used to. An audition is a two-way street. You’re seeing if you want to work with them as much as they’re seeing if they want to work with you. Which is really helpful if you don’t get it because you can say, “well, I didn’t want it anyway”.
Career highlights to date
I’ve loved nearly ever job I’ve done. I love the sense of team. I love everybody singing from the same hymn sheet, going for the same thing. So there’s nothing that particularly stands out. You know, they’ve all been great for different reasons. Some of the plays have been very humble in terms of reception and exposure, but they’ve been good artistically or fulfilling for me to do. The actors I admire always go on about how you are continually learning. Anyway, how do you judge your “arrival”? What does that mean? That you get into clubs? Or you get stuff sent to you free by companies? Or that you don’t have to audition? I think I’m still doing the same job I was doing 20 years ago. Or 14 years ago, whatever.
What do awards mean to you?
It’s very easy when you’ve won a few to say they don’t really matter but that wouldn’t be true. I like the fact that your hard work is acknowledged, that being at the nomination stage. Your Whatsonstage.com Awards are different because they are judged by punters. You know, the three West End shows I’ve done so far have all been nominated for your awards, which means a lot to me. That’s especially nice if the audiences recognise your work. They are always overlooked and forgotten about in thank-you speeches I think, but if you didn’t have people buying tickets, you’d have no show, you know.
Sean Campion from Stones in His Pockets. You interviewed him earlier this year? Don’t believe anything he says - did he ask you for money? Sean and I, when we did Stones, it was only a three-week rehearsal period. The director would leave about 4.00pm or 4.30pm and we’d keep working till midnight every night just to make sure we could get it. Also, Roger Allam and Paddy O’Kane, who I worked with up in Manchester on Shoot the Crow, and everyone I’m working with now. It’s all about the same hymn sheet.
Susan Stroman, Michael Blakemore, Jerry Mulgrew, who was with this company in Scotland called Communicado that I worked with a lot, and Jackie Doyle, who runs Prime Cut in Ireland. Those are the four I’d say. Jackie and Jerry I’ve worked with most, and Blakemore and Stroman don’t need any validation from me. I think their body of work speaks for itself.
Tom Murphy is a fantastically underrated Irish playwright. I think his study of human beings is second to none. And Michael Frayn, Shakespeare, Owen McCafferty. I’ve worked with Owen quite a lot and he’s a brilliant writer. They’re all favourites for the same reason really, for their observation of man.
Favourite after-show haunts
When I was doing Democracy, it was definitely Café Koha. Here, I suppose it’s the pub right across the road from the theatre and PJ’s Bar & Grill. We always used to go to an Irish bar called the Harp when we were doing Stones in His Pockets, but that’s the other side of Covent Garden from me now.
What roles would you most like to play still?
When I came out of drama school, I said I wanted to do Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, Christie in The Playboy of the Weston World and Semyon Semyonovich in The Suicide, and within two years, I’d played them all. I was very lucky so no not really. I like the fact that I’ve never had a career plan or anything like that because this is the most illogical, irrational, in some ways stupid, business in the world. I’m kind of fatalistic about work. I see what comes along and usually I pick a play because of the play not because of the individual part. The whole thing has to be good and the people that you are working with have to be good. Sometimes you don’t know, sometimes you take risks, but my main criteria for choosing work is always the script.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
When we did Democracy, we had cast outings to quite a lot of things. We saw The History Boys, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Pillowman at the National and the Pirandello Henry IV at the Donmar. I also saw Michael Gambon in Endgame. That production was fantastic and, in particular, Gambon’s performance was consummate, it hit the nail on the head completely. I loved it.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern society?
It’s important for people to hear other people’s stories, and theatre is one of the most vibrant ways of telling other people’s stories. There are all different kinds of theatre. You know, at the moment, I’m in a big commercial show, but it’s no more valid than a studio play or a subsidised theatre workshop. They’ve all got their place, and at the heart of them, they are all telling someone else’s story.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Do you know, I have no idea. I’ve never been asked that before. I never had a real job. I mean, I worked in bars. Apologises to all barmen, I don’t mean that’s not a proper job, but I’ve never had an office job or a shop job or anything like that. So, I’ve no idea. I should think of something in case it all goes wrong, eh?
Why did you want to accept the part of Roger DeBris in The Producers?
I wanted to play Roger the first time I ever saw The Producers, which was when I was in New York doing Stones in His Pockets. Even though I was in a Broadway show myself at the time, I came out of it going, “now this is a real Broadway show!”. The Producers is your whole idea of Broadway, you know, the lights, the tippy-tappy dancing, all that. I liked Roger because of the way he sneaks up on you, the way it seems he’s one of the odd peripheral characters and then suddenly he’s … well, without spoiling the plot, let’s say he has to take over an important responsibility at the last minute. That was at the beginning of our time in New York with Stones (in 2001). I assumed by the time we got home, The Producers would already be opened here. Then, while I was doing Democracy, I heard they were auditioning. I said to my agent, “is there any chance of getting me seen?”. I knew that Lee Evans and, at that time, Richard Dreyfuss were the two main parts. They told my agent they’d like to see me for Roger. So I met them twice and then they offered it to me. That was great.
How did you feel when Nathan Lane replaced Dreyfuss at such short notice?
It was hard to have that change so late in the day. What was weird about was that we all love Richard, but Nathan is the guy who originated the role so there wasn’t a worry about the show suffering. It’s not that we forgot Richard very quickly, but we still had the show to do, we’d very little time to put it on and we couldn’t have had anybody better to step in. I’ve seen Richard since we finished, and he was getting on with his life, too.
Your name has been mentioned as a possible future Max. Would you be interested?
I didn’t do Roger De Bris with the idea of taking over Max Bialystock. If I do Roger for the year I’m contracted to do, I’m quite happy. Of course, yeah, I’d enjoy playing Max, it’s a great part. And I like the fact that it’s being talked about, I’m flattered that people would think of me. Wouldn’t it be great if I could just say, “yeah, I haven’t told the producers yet, but I’m doing it”? But it’s not in my hands, and it’s not something I lose sleep over or worry about or am concerned about. As it is, I’m really happy doing Roger. I certainly haven’t been throwing banana skins out.
How difficult was it making the transition from a drama like Democracy to a musical comedy like The Producers?
I’ve done The Little Shop of Horrors before but, if you remember, in that musical, Seymour doesn’t dance! In this, I dance, which is new for me. Musicals are a different challenge for me, but then every piece of work you do is a different challenge. Even if you do the same piece more than once, it’s not the same. I’ve done Little Shop twice and I’ve done Playboy four times, but it’s always a different cast, a different director. It’s not like the old days where you gave your Christie, and that was it, everyone else fitted around you. Again, it’s about the team, you have to work with a new team all the time. I kind of like that, it’s like starting a new class every time. What was most difficult about starting on The Producers is I was still doing Democracy eight times a week and rehearsing this during the day so it was a struggle energy–wise. But the team here are the best, like Warren Carlisle, our associate choreographer, and Susan Stroman. They were just fantastic and patient and helpful. So it was tricky, difficult, yes, but ultimately rewarding.
Had you seen the original film of The Producers?
I’d seen the film, yes. I think the thing about the film is, as brilliant as it was, it’s a bit dated now. Certain aspects of it, particularly, like Ulla’s character being much more stupid, and the beatnik stuff, which doesn’t have relevance to an audience of today. Mel Brooks is one of the finest pastiche men in the world. His High Anxiety, which was a pastiche of the Hitchcock drama, is one of my favourite movies, I just loved it.
Much of the material in The Producers is politically incorrect & yet most people are entertained rather than offended. How do you think it manages that?
That’s because it’s uniformly and unashamedly offensive. There’s not one kind of group or type who doesn’t get a going over, and that’s what makes it okay and funny. When you consider that Mel Brooks is 78 and he’s got a whole routine about Zimmer frames … not that Mel’s on a Zimmer frame or anywhere near it, he’s a very vibrant man. But, you know, everybody has got to have a sense of humour. This show is not trying to give across any great political message. It’s a fun night, that’s what it is. I’m not easily offended myself. I’d more likely be offended by something cheaply done.
What’s your favourite number from The Producers? And your favourite line?
I love all the numbers. It’s a great, slick story. We were lucky because, by the time it got to us in London, they knew what worked and what didn’t. I’ve always felt it’s been the best of everything on this production, the best sound, best lighting, everything. They weren’t skimping on anything going into this show so I do think people in the audience really get their money’s worth. My favourite line? I like: “Can I take your hat, your coat and your swastika?” That just cracks me up. And my favourite moment is when Kate Graham, who plays the old lady, pops up between Lee (Evans) and Leigh (Zimmerman) from behind the couch in the middle of “That Face”. That’s a real Mel Brooks moment.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals?
Susan Stroman says she’s now made me into a song and dance man. Her notes to me always were “smile, smile” because I’d be so busy concentrating on my steps I’d have a furrowed brow. She’d go, “you look like you’re dying, I want you to enjoy yourself”, and I would say, “I am dying”. I’m not a natural twirler.
What’s it feel like being in such a blockbuster show?
It’s pretty shit hot. It’s great seeing “house full” signs out and that’s for Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays as well as the weekends. Our stage door keeper said she tried to get in on a Wednesday matinee and there were no tickets. It’s amazing. At the end of the show, we kind of leave them hungry for more, which is great too. It’s not a big indulgent curtain call. Somebody who was writing about it said they were struck when they left the theatre thinking, “ah my god, they have to do that eight times a week!”. Keeping the energy up is not too hard for me. “Springtime for Hitler” is a bit of a killer, but the first act is a breeze for me, and I do get a rest towards the end of the second act.
Funnily enough, this is the least I’ve had to do in a play in terms of time on stage. It’s very little compared to Stones and Democracy. I’ve been really lucky in the West End because the three things I’ve done here have all been so different. You know, from two guys and a passion for acting, to ten guys in suits, to a guy in a dress now – you couldn’t be much more different. I do love working here, but I would like to get home to Ireland more often. Basically, you only get Sunday off when you’re working in the West End. I’m contracted till August 2005, which would actually be the shortest run of the three plays I’ve done in the West End. We’ll see what happens then.
What are your plans for the future? Anything else you’d like to add?
No plans, although I would love to have a break. If I do finish this next August, I’d love to have a few months off. Can I also just say thanks to all your readers for keeping coming to see me in the various things I’ve been doing? That’s great.
The Producers is running at the West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where it’s currently booking through October 2005. Voting in the 2005 Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards closes on 31 January 2005 - click here to vote now.