Last week, UEA had the pleasure of welcoming Bernard Hill, best known for his roles in Lord of the Rings and Titanic, into Lecture Theatre One as part of the UEA Literary Festival.
The interview began with a glimpse into Hill’s early life. He was born into a strict Catholic family in Manchester; initially, only a ‘Catholic family’, but when questioned further Hill told us he believed ‘strict’ and ‘catholic’ to be synonymous. His mother was a dinner lady, and his father a miner who had caught pneumonia twice. It had taken Hill some time to discover his acting talent, with his first taste of the theatre being pantomime. ‘My parents would have not taken us to plays’, he told us ‘they would have thought it a waste of money’.
During his young life, when Hill was not ‘suffering with the illusion I would become a Priest’ he dabbled in quantity surveying, a job he felt might suit him as a person with five O-levels and no desire to be sat in an office. Later in life, Hill went onto study at Manchester Poly to pursue his acting ambitions. This received a bad reaction from his parents, ‘but then of course, everything did’. Hill implied his success as an actor was largely down to luck; ‘I had a breeze’ he told us. As the evening went on, however, and we were invited to view a selection of his work, both his talent and his modesty became very apparent.
We were shown a clip of The Black Stuff, a British Television Drama in which Hill featured. Written at a time when unemployment and discontent were rife, the clip made for serious viewing. It was the first of three videos, and for me was the one that truly highlighted his talent and ability as an actor. During the clip, Hill’s character experienced a very public breakdown; when asked about the emotional implications of playing such a role, Hill told us it did not make him feel good. ‘You can’t do it without letting it get through to you’. For Hill, it is not possible to be both inside and out the scene, operating on two levels of consciousness: ‘I can only manage one!’ he joked.
The next clip was perhaps one of Hill’s most recognisable scenes in Titanic in which Captain Smith (played by Hill) is engulfed by a huge and forceful body of water. I was intrigued to hear what this scene involved and if it was particularly traumatic: ‘I don’t know’, declared Bernard ‘I wasn’t there! It was a Norwegian stunt man.’ The same could not be said for Lord of the Rings, where Hill sustained an injury on set. ‘I was hit by friendly fire at the Gate of Helms deep which split my ear open!’
Initially Hill had been asked to read for Gandalf, a role that obviously did not work out for him. He ‘wasn’t that bothered.’ Even on getting the role of Theodon, he still could not decide if he wanted to commit so much time to a project taking place so far away. He has a very different attitude today, and spends a lot of time in New Zealand. ‘I have good friends in there, and great memories from Lord of the Rings.’
Hill was both grounded and a captivating story teller. When the evening drew to a close an hour later I felt as though I had had the smallest of glimpses into his fascinating life, and I felt I still wanted to hear more. He is clearly a man who has lived a lot and has learned a lot, and I look forward to whatever project he chooses to embark on next.