Bernard Hill: Titan of acting discusses his career and the world today

I’m sitting on a sofa in UEA Sportspark overlooking a mass of students celebrating graduation. Opposite me is the world-famous actor Bernard Hill. The contrast is stark and it takes me a moment to adjust. Hill is known for roles such as Théoden in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Captain Edward Smith in Titanic, the Warden in the Clint Eastwood film True Crime and more recently as the Duke of Norfolk in the BBC version of Wolf Hall. He seems happy, confident and eager to chat. 

UEA has given awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from UEA. Hill tells me it’s “just a wonderful thing” to receive. 

“It’s a surprise that’s now faded a bit because I got offered to pick it up about four years ago. The time went by and [UEA Prof] Chris Bigsby said, ‘You better pick this up soon, because they might forget it!’ It was a great surprise at the beginning and it was just lovely to do.”

In September this year Concrete launched its Mental Health Crisis campaign. Hill believes “Looking after people with mental health problems is one of our great responsibilities”.

He says, “Every institution, a university, school, drama group, tennis club they should all have access, if not permanent lock-in residence, they should all have access to people who can give people mental help, because there’s a lot of struggling people that don’t get any help because he can’t find the first little tentacles to follow and to finally get to the head of the flower.”

“People who say that they need help should get help immediately,” he adds.

I ask Hill if he always wanted to be an actor. 

He laughs and says, “I came out of my mother’s womb, looked around and thought ‘oh I’m going to have to busk this’. The whole life’s experiences, it’s an improvisation. 

“So no, I didn’t. There’s no one in my family with anything in any way connected even remotely with art, and acting, and performances and all that stuff. So for me to take it up was a big shock. A big shock for me. I quite enjoyed it.”

He adds, “I wish I’d stayed doing theatre instead of moving off into TV which is where the money was, and moving off into films which is where even more money was. But if you can get it… I should’ve just stayed because that’s really I’d like to see myself now, just doing stage work, getting involved in the local theatre or theatres anywhere and just staying with it. But I didn’t. I ran off into the wilds of money.”

Even so, for Hill one of the proudest moments of his career was filming True Crimewith Clint Eastwood. “[It] was a good moment. I thought, ‘Ah this is great’.” But Hill says there’s never a point when you can think you’ve made it as an actor. “You can’t do that. You’re a fool if you do,” he tells me.

Similarly, Hill doesn’t think students should go into acting straight away. “Get a proper job.  Get something else. Float around you for a while and you’ll find where you really are. If you keep doing that and you still want to be an actor then that’s probably what you should do. But don’t make that decision early on.”

Hill doesn’t see himself as a role model either. “I wouldn’t dream of taking that assuming that position.” He says people who view him as one should “get a life.”

He thinks graduates are heading out into a tough world. “It isn’t a good world. Not a good Europe, not a good world. I mean look at our political set up.”

He adds, “Somebody should go and ask us Trump to leave.”

And Boris Johnson? “No, no, no. The guy’s an idiot, a complete idiot. He’s not doing anything for us, he’s doing it all for himself… He’s got no respect for people. Certainly for people that are not identical to him. And there’s not that many in that category.”

He adds Johnson is “a far more dangerous man [than Tony Blair] because he’s got connections later like Farage has, with Trump and all that crowd. [Robert] Mercer, who’s a multibillionaire who backs Trump, who backed Brexit. Sticking their noses in because they want to split Europe up. Europe’s in their way.”

Hill believes their aim is “Getting through to the oil and attacking Russia, or whatever they’re going to do.”

“There are some dangerous people out there,” he says.

And he doesn’t even have high hopes for the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn. “He’s not the guy, he’s just not the guy,” Hill tells me.

You can read Concrete’s interviews with more of this year’s honorary graduates here: Dame Jayne-Anne GadhiaDr Ben Santer, Madhu Sarin.

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Chris Matthews

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July 2022
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