It seems odd that a man who has been seen on screen by hundreds of millions of cinemagoers should be affected by the chance to address a few students, but Bernard Hill is on a mission, trying work out how a working class Mancunian became a Hollywood actor.
Hill is probably best known for his roles as Theoden in Lord of the Rings and Captain Smith in Titanic, but he claims the role that changed his life was in Boys from the Blackstuff, a 1982 TV series following five unemployed Liverpudlians “everyone saw [Boys from the Blackstuff] on TV, the whole nation saw that. People from the upper classes… were attributing that as some kind of reference point for social behaviour.”
Yet for someone who counts James Cameron and Daniel Day-Lewis as friends “[Daniel] is as mad as a snake”, Hill remains remarkably grounded, even complaining that Liam Neeson has “gone a bit Hollywood.” Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise given his roots, a strict Catholic mining family in Manchester with neither academic nor acting pedigree. In fact, given the lack of any acting background in his family, Hill still seems flummoxed by the fact that he got into acting “from my social life, my peers, my family, there was no indication that this is where I should go.”
Whilst at drama college, Hill was inspired by the performance of David Warner in Hamlet “I just wanted to do what he was doing”. In fact he is clearly moved when he retells the story of his chance meeting with his idol at a football match “it was quite a meeting.”
Hill actually had the chance to work with Warner a number of years later on set with Titanic, where he was one of few people to get on really well with James Cameron “if you’re not trying to achieve your full potential…he’ll crucify you”. But even by comparison with Titanic, he admits that Lord of the Rings was made on a completely different scale “Titanic was essentially one unit, because Jim [Cameron] didn’t want to lose control. On Lord of the Rings, by the end we had 5 or 6 units, 3 or 4 main units and splinter units all over the place.” Yet despite the size of the film and the responsibility on Peter Jackson of holding it all together, Hill describes him as “a giggler. We used to do spoofs on set together.”
Unhappy at first with the writing of King Theodeon, Hill spent a good amount of time attempting to improve his script, and concedes that the slightly incestuous relationship between himself and Eowyn, played by Miranda Otto, was their idea. “In the film she’s my niece, but we decided to play it like lovers.” He describes the time filming there as his most enjoyable film to make so far, and admits he’s jealous of all the cast back filming the Hobbit “terribly so, I’m just trying to avoid all that”.
But despite his success and a recent talk with James Cameron suggesting that another big movie could be around the corner “he said ‘I’ll come and find you’”, Bernard Hill could be on the verge of leaving acting altogether. First infatuated as a teen, quitting his job as a quantity surveyor for drama school, Hill no longer has the desire “like a horse at a water trough, you’re drinking the enjoyment of all that stuff. I think I’ve lifted my head out of the water”. We may not see too much more of him on our screens.