Recently seen on RTÉ One in 'The Eclipse', Ciarán Hinds is back on Irish cinema screens in Todd Solondz's 'Life During Wartime'. It's the follow-up to Solondz's controversial 'Happiness', with different actors playing the characters from the 1998 film - the idea being that people can become different people over time. Hinds play Bill, a paedophile who has just been released from prison and is trying to find his adult son. The actor talks to Harry Guerin about the film and his other upcoming projects.

Harry Guerin: When you heard that Todd Solondz was making a follow-up to 'Happiness', but with different actors playing the characters from the first film, did you think, 'What a great idea' or 'Eh, ok...'?
Ciarán Hinds: I heard that he was trying to get this project ['Life During Wartime'] off the ground for quite a while and he was having difficulty getting financing for it. But I think they also went through a fair few different ideas of what casting would be like before they finally got 'round to the settled one. And I think I might have been one of the last to be [get] involved. I don't know how that happened, but I was very glad that he asked me to join in. I honestly don't know if people turned it [the role of Bill] down or whether he had difficulty casting it and settled upon a European. What I know is that I loved the film 'Happiness'. I thought he was a great writer and director and I'd like to get involved.

HG: You've described Bill as "a person without a future". When I watched certain parts of the film it's almost as if he's the last man on earth - walking down empty streets, lying in silent hotel rooms.
I think Todd was saying that when people have gone this far in their lives and have done something that's morally so reprehensible, whatever their conscience comes to terms with or what they pay by paying their debts to society, if they're released they're sort of doomed to walk the earth empty, unforgiven [and] with no hope of redemption.

HG: The best scene in the film, for me, is the one where Bill is in a bar with Charlotte Rampling's character. Someone described it to me as like a mini-movie in itself.
Yeah, like a short story - two strangers meet, both of them want something but you're not quite sure who's fooling who. They're both very hard-bitten people, I suppose - certainly Charlotte Rampling's character doesn't pull any punches when it comes to saying what she wants. And at that stage the character Bill I'm playing is just trying to find a way to get a few bob to get somewhere - he needs some kind of resolution with his son. He knows he won't get forgiveness; he knows he won't get understanding but he's sort of almost driven by the winds to make this journey to see him.

HG: If you watched the scene in isolation from the rest of the film you couldn't tell what type of film it is - a thriller, a film noir, a drama.
He [Todd] paints wonderful pictures. And he and Ed Lachlan the director of photography... It was very important to them how they shot it and sometimes there are big, weird close-ups and you'll see the pores of people's skin and other times it's very clear the structure of the framing. And at the same time he's sort of got some kind of strange heart or pulse beating through the film, which seems to me is all about humanity, our own needs, desires, confusions, desperations just all kicking into one another.

HG: It's warts and all.
It is, but it being Todd he doesn't moralise and he doesn't patronise. He presents things in a way, a little heightened, but he presents them and we can look at them. And then suddenly you feel, 'That's really embarrassing' or 'That's really sad' or 'That's really funny, but it's dark'. It's a mixture of stuff he proposes, I think.

HG: The film side of your career has really taken off in the past few years - you've worked with Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson, among others. I remember seeing you as the Russian President in 'The Sum of All Fears', the murder victim in 'The Road to Perdition' and John Traynor in 'Veronica Guerin' in a relatively short space of time in 2002-03 and I thought, 'It'd be great to see this guy in more films'. Was there one film that opened a lot of doors for you?
It's hard to know. You look back - your agent puts you up for parts or [if it's] when people see you [in other films]. I know for sure when I did the television series 'Rome' [it helped] because that was a big noise in America.

I think both 'The Sum of All Fears' and 'The Road to Perdition' [also helped]. It was only a small role in 'The Road to Perdition' but it was such a classy film. I'd worked with Sam [Mendes, director] three times in the theatre so it was very generous of him to be loyal because he really fought to get me into it.

HG: And 'The Sum of All Fears'?
'The Sum of All Fears' was a strange shot to call because… There was a message on my answerphone, addressed to my daughter who was then about 10, from a friend saying: 'Aoife, do you not think the people of Russia have suffered enough without having your father as a President?' Which was quite mean, but quite right!

It was a role that was important in the story and somebody told me that people didn't really know who I was and then they saw that film and said 'Who's that?' Simple as that - some Irish guy trying to pretend he's Russian. From that, I suppose, I just got a little bit [better known]. Not hugely, but word just went round. Of course they couldn't pronounce my name, but that didn't matter much.

HG: You've a lot of stuff coming up, including two blockbusters. One is 'John Carter of Mars'.
The bit I had to do in it was shot in London in the studio and they did two months there and now they're off to Utah to the desert which is going to be the exterior location for the planet Mars. Myself and James Purefoy and Dominic West and Mark Strong have to turn up for one day's shooting at the very last day of the shoot. It's a long way to go to do a scene! We just get there, do it and get back again! That's in the middle of June. It's directed by this wonderful man, Andrew Stanton. He wrote and directed 'WALL-E' and 'Finding Nemo'.

HG: And who's your character in it?
I'm called a Jeddak, who's one of the tribal leaders on Mars. We're sort of the red men of Mars - almost like antique Roman-y costumes - but we've got tattooed faces and tattooed bodies and we're a darkish, reddish hue. And then there's nine-foot Tharks with four arms and they're all green. That's Willem Defoe and Samantha Morton and they kind of eat people for a living. I thought [when I heard about the film] 'Are they kidding'? And then it read like such a dream, such a fantasy adventure, [a] funny, thrilling ride. And then I realised who was directing it and I just very humbled and thrilled to be asked.

HG: And your other blockbuster is the new Harry Potter film, 'The Deathly Hallows'.
They're still going at it [filming]! God knows if they'll ever finish - I don't think they want to finish, frankly! Why would you if you're making lovely yarns like that?

I did one scene last April, just me and the three, I can't call them kids, the three young wizards - Hermione, Harry and Ron. And they were lovely to work with. I was just playing Aberforth Dumbledore - Mickey Gambon's [who plays Albus Dumbledore] brother. I was honoured to be Michael Gambon's brother; I'm not sure if he felt the same way about me being in the family! [Laughs]

'Life During Wartime' is now on release. Read the review.