It was not the first time I had to die before the cameras, but the sheer savagery of the scene I had to shoot this day appalled me. Since the beginning, I knew that Rome would be a shock for the actors as well as for the spectators. Sex, violence, and gory details would be lavishly displayed on the TV screens, too bad for the sensitive souls! The day before, coming back after a cigarette, I'd collided with a props man carrying a bucket of fake blood, and couldn't suppress a sudden startle when I saw the red puddle at my feet. The man was furious. If he hadn't recognized me, I believe he'd have poured the rest of the bucket all over my head. I can't bear the sight of blood and that true-to-life mixture disgusted me. This morning, I felt like fainting at the prospect of being almost entirely covered with it, and an unexpected apprehension added itself to my illness.
I had doubtless drunk too much wine the night before, so that my stomach was rebellious and my mind somewhat blurred. I didn't remember having been in the hands of the wardrobe master or the makeup woman, but I was clad in the senatorial toga lined with purple, a laurel wreath set on my head, and wearing strangely comfortable bootees of soft leather, the perfect Roman dictator, as dark and surly as Caesar was on the coins I'd admired in the Capitol Museum.
I was holding in my right hand a papyrus roll that an extra had slid between my fingers, while I was getting ready to extract myself from a litter carried by eight dark-skinned slaves. "Read this paper, Caesar," he shouted, "alone and quickly. It contains important things!" I hadn't heard the fatal "cut!" so I went on without taking time to read as I'd been invited to, pushed around by men in red-striped togas like mine. I was used to the madness of the crowd scenes, and I knew that some extras sometimes went too far, but I didn't expect this intensity, this rough realism, the smells of dust, urine, and sweat which made me almost choke.
Raising my eyes to the crushing mass of Pompey's theatre, I was amazed at the talent of the decorators who had managed to restore the atmosphere of ancient Rome. After several weeks of shooting, I thought I knew perfectly the huge complex the Italians named Cinecittà, but I did not remember having seen this impressive portico, its white marble columns, and the four small temples which stood on the crammed esplanade. There had never been so many extras, even when we had filmed the battle of Pharsalus, during which Caesar had crushed his rival and virtually brought down the Republic. Never before had I had this feeling of being completely immersed in an epoch other than mine. If my thoughts had been clearer, I'd have fully enjoyed the colourful scene which was set before me, but I was racked by an increasing unease.
A jostling erupted as I climbed the stairs leading to the Senate, but it must have been planned because nobody interfered. I wondered briefly where the cameras were placed. Wherever I looked, I could only see Romans, in toga, in tunic, in uniform, soldiers, slaves, some women with their hair chastely veiled, a few children, one or two suspicious looking men I identified, without knowing how, as gladiators... A man who looked like an Etruscan soothsayer tried to clear a passage through the fray. "Beware!" he cried as soon as he was within earshot. "Beware the Ides of March!"
I wavered. It wasn't in the script, but from a Shakespeare play I'd learned at school (I'd been Caesar already) and I replied almost automatically: "The Ides of March are come and nothing has happened!"
"Yes, they are come, but they are not past," he said gloomily.
How could I know he really was an Etruscan soothsayer?
Ahead of me, Mark Antony was speaking to a fairly agitated and rather pale individual. I didn't recognize my friend James Purefoy who was cast for the role, but I had nevertheless no doubt about the identity of the sturdy man who assured my safety. I also knew that his interlocutor was named Trebonius and I felt an ice-cold shiver creeping under my skin when I saw them together in such good terms. Behind them, silent and pallid, lost in his thoughts, stood Gaïus Cassius. I'd never loved that one, I'd always distrusted pale, thin men who looked like starving wolves. Wasted with ambition, they were the most dangerous of all. A little farther, the Casca brothers stayed in the background. Gaïus the eldest, seemed as sick as I. Eventually, the crowd opened and let me go by. Trebonius had dragged Marc Antony into the shadow of the portico and I lost sight of them as I passed the double door, bitterly sorry that I'd dismissed my lictors.
In these days, the Senate met in Pompey's theatre, the old Curia having been burnt down by a angry mob when I was in Gaul. As soon as I was appointed dictator for the fourth time, I'd ordered the statues of Pompey the Great to be restored everywhere in Rome including this very place, and I couldn't help shivering in front of his marble likeness, which seemed to gaze at me with irate eyes.
Somebody took my arm as to support me: Decimus Brutus, a faithful companion, who had served me so well in Gaul. Without Decimus and his brilliant ideas, would I have subdued the Veneti, these powerful sailors who lived on the coast of distant Armorique? He was a better soldier than his cousin Marcus, the weak-willed and tormented son-in-law of Cato, my worst enemy.
If Marcus hadn't been the son of my dear Servilia, I'd have sent him into exile on the borders of the Empire even before he had entered into an alliance with the optimates, this bunch of aristocrats who clung to their privileges and their wealth like limpets on their piece of rock. They were there, almost all of them, the losers I'd spared and upon whom I'd so lavishly showered favours in spite of their treasons. I read in their eyes neither gratitude nor loyalty, but envy and bitterness, as if they blamed me for being forgiving when I hold their lives in my hands...
Definitely, nothing happened as I expected. We had rehearsed the day before in a circular room, and now I found myself in a much more impressive rectangular hall, at the end of which a podium supported a kind of gold-coloured throne that I assumed was intended for me. None of the men hanging around was familiar to me, and yet I knew them all by their names: the two Brutuses, Gaïus Cassius, Gaïus Trebonius, Publius and Gaïus Casca, Tillius Cimber, Minutius Basilus, Rubrius Rufus, that idiot Pontius Aquila whom I never forgot to humiliate when I crossed his path, and Marcus Lepidus, with whom I'd spent the evening drinking, talking and ...
Suddenly, my blood ran cold, and I froze at the foot of the podium. Nothing of that kind was in the script! Everything became confused in my head, I was thinking and feeling like Caesar, I was Caesar, and nevertheless, I remembered having been someone else, in another time, in another place, and I knew what some of these people intended to do.
It seemed to me that time had stopped. With a growing dismay, I realized that I was not playing anymore. The memory of my former self was quickly becoming blurred, I had no more than a name which I hung on like a safety line but that also was torn away from me, like a disguise become useless.
My name was Ciarán Hinds, and in the world where I came from, I was an actor: I entered the skin of my characters and I pretended to love, to cry, to die with them, then I left, safe and sound. My talent was praised, I was sometimes mistaken for the naughty boys whose appearance I borrowed briefly but nothing was true, it was only acting.
And now, I was Caesar, passed to the other side of the mirror and it was not a dream. From my raid in another universe, I kept the memory of events which had not yet happened. I didn't know how I'd been able to make such a leap through space and time, but I had to admit that all I saw around me was real and that I was watching myself walking towards my own death, followed by the pitiful procession of my murderers.
Already, they were surrounding me, gathering like starving dogs, drawing their strength from their number. When the senators got up to greet me, I saw, with a kind of tired fatalism, Tillius Cimber coming nearer to submit his petition. I should have granted his request, and the course of fate would have been disrupted, but I was rooted, unable to move. Horrified, I acted as if in a dream, aware that my rebuff would trigger the slaughter but unable to control my own destiny.
Gaïus Casca moved on me, not really threatening, simply pressing, and I felt in my back his brother's presence, quite close. That one was going to strike the first blow and my body shrank in anticipation of the unavoidable suffering. Out of the corner of my eye, I perceived Marcus Brutus, whom I'd loved and protected like my own son, without ever realizing how much he hated me.
His sick look was more eloquent than the gesticulations of the unbearable Cicero, who, fortunately, was conspicuous by his absence. I wouldn't have liked him to witness my last moments in this world. I knew that Marcus would only strike when I'd been knocked down, because bravery was not his strong point. This ultimate treason hurt me so cruelly that I hardly felt Casca's blade gnawing into my flesh... I heard him calling his brother to the rescue, I smelt the scent of his fear and suddenly the world dissolved into chaos and blinding pain. I fought like a wildcat, but my limbs were entangled in the folds of my toga. There were too many of them and they were too intent to torment me. They ripped my body with their blades, they even injured each other in their demented rage, and all I could do was stare at Pompey's statue whose feet were splattered with my blood. How can a human body contain so much blood?
In a few minutes, it was all over. I couldn't move anymore, my eyes were closed, the pain had subsided, I didn't doubt that I was dying, but I still could hear and think with a surprising acuity. After the tumult of the terrified senators who fled the Senate had come a deathly silence. Then I heard a loud, insistent voice. Was it one of my faithful slaves or a friend who had stayed there in spite of the danger? Maybe Mark Antony...at last. I tried desperately to move but I did not succeed. I was paralyzed, doubtless already dead, even if my senses still worked.
A hand grasped my shoulder and shook me so tremendously that I woke up with a start, greeted with a roar of laughter.
"Mr. Hinds," said an angry voice, "I know very well that it's not very exciting to play the dead, but if you can't help sleeping during the shots, at least don't snore!"
I'd always been afraid of heights. The first time I was confronted with the set of The Seafarer and the narrow gallery by which I was going to make my entrance, more than ten feet above the stage, I repressed a shudder of horror and thought that I'd never manage to surmount my dizziness. I had the impression that the whole structure was on the verge of collapse every time I took a step, and when I reached the foot of the stairs that returned me to terra firma, I looked quite like a drowned cat.
After a few days, I got used to it, especially since I had other worries with the stagehands' strike, which, if it went on, risked putting us all out of work. I was far from my family as I would be for months, and believe me, being accustomed to it doesn't make it any more pleasant even after so many years, in spite of the telephone, the SMSs and all the communication media that progress gives to wandering people like me (except email: I'm completely illiterate with computers). The coming of fall, with its winds and ice-cold rains, did not settle my moods; my right knee bothered me occasionally but I didn't know exactly what caused it. Old age probably... Fortunately, the good companionship that reigned among the team allowed us to hold out. We met every day to rehearse, unofficially of course, and discreetly, like the early Christians in the catacombs. We spoke to the members of the labour union, we spent hours on the phone with our loved ones, and sometimes we got drunk like true Irishmen in a pub on 8th Avenue.
When the strike ended, we were as ready as ever, we couldn't wait to get back on stage and perform, nervous as cats. We hadn't become discouraged, I had prevailed over my vertigo, and I remember that first evening, we were as overexcited as the audience. During the next few days, my mood improved considerably; the show went well, even though the audience was sometimes not as responsive as we wished. It was especially so on Saturday evenings. It was as if all the local pensioners met in Broadway theatres, more to exchange gossip, to see and be seen, and to spend the evening in a warm place than to attend a good spectacle. They were affable, applauded at suitable moments, and sometimes let a polite chuckle escape, but for an actor this type of audience is... awful! Other times, the interaction developed spontaneously, a spectator exclaimed in a loud voice, we picked up on his words, and the retorts mingled with bursts of laughter. During these evenings, we had the feeling that everything was new, we entered untested waters, we relied on the response of the public and I almost felt up to it.
When I'm asked, I usually depict myself more as a craftsman than an artist, an honourable and unpretentious man who does his job as honestly as possible. I've never claimed to be a genius. I never will. I lead my life as it comes, I try to stay as busy as I can, without special ambitions or grandiose dreams, simply trying not to screw everything up when I'm lucky enough to be involved in a big project. Sometimes I know that something is happening, when I'm overwhelmed by a strong feeling of completion, but it is rather infrequent and I don't believe that I could live for a long time at such a level of intensity. Most of the time, I settle for regular, if not brilliant performances, reasonably happy when I don't get into a mess, vaguely flattered when a bunch of lusting women waits for me at the stage door to ask me for an autograph or a photo. They're charming but none of them changed my life ... I didn't expect that it would be different with The Seafarer until this very evening, a few days after a screening of Persuasion at Brooklyn College... It was my birthday, I remember it because a fan had wished it to me some hours in advance. "The jet lag," she had explained with a discreet laugh. Amused, I had kissed her and we had exchanged some pleasant words before parting with the promise to meet again the next day for a drink after the Saturday matinée.
I'm not a romantic, even if I'm seen as one since Persuasion. I've worked with the sexiest women without being particularly moved and I've fallen for none of them, even though I've found it very enjoyable... I'm not made of stone! I don't believe in love at first sight. When it comes to strong feelings, I'm rather cynical-doubtless a protection against heartache. Maybe it is this reserve that prevents me from reaching the pinnacle of my art, a need to keep intact a part of normality in this hectic life of mine.
So there I was, about to go on stage in this chilly beginning of February, absently thinking of the short-lived friend who had impressed me with her computer skills and her scholarship. I'd felt vaguely embarrassed with her obvious admiration and amused a lot by her admitting that she had gotten lost while looking for the Empire State Building. As if one could get lost in New York! A face among others, a pleasant moment that would be quickly forgotten...
It was almost dark now. I heard Jim's muffled voice singing more out of tune than ever, "Oh the weather outside is frightening, it's dark and there's thunder and lightning" and followed Sean who went down before me, my stomach tied up by a familiar apprehension. I knew that it would disappear with the first few lines of dialogue and hardly paid it any attention. Stage fright is a normal part of any public performance, a good reminder to those who think they know everything. Yet this time, something sorta strange happened: not only did the tight knot in my belly not pass, but I had the unpleasant sensation of being spied upon.
Usually actors don't see the audience, they barely perceive a tide of anonymous faces bathed in shadow, and even though I happened to gaze at one of those faces while I recited my great monologue of the second act, all I could see was a blurred pale orb. Never had I tried to recognize familiar features, not even when I was very young and my girlfriends came to see me on stage, but that evening, feeling a little bit worried, I kept trying to find the origin of the glance that stabbed me like a sharp edge between my shoulder blades.
At first, I didn't see anything. During the brief moments when I could watch the public without being noticed, I methodically went through the first few rows, embarrassed by the steady attention of which I was the object since the beginning of the show. My uneasiness subsided slowly: the woman who gazed at me-for I didn't doubt it was a woman-was not hostile or even critical. On the contrary, she supported me, accompanied me, drew me out of my shell. At first I wanted to show off, then to be myself eventually, myself entirely, caught in a knot of conflicting feelings, shaken by a kind of internal turmoil that I wasn't used to. Every time I tried to escape, to take refuge behind my know-how, the merciless gaze scourged me, tore me up, obliged me to expose myself heart and soul. And suddenly, I saw her ...
It was a woman as I had expected, a short, dark woman seated in the third row, she was neither young nor pretty, but the keen black eyes she kept fixed on me were as bright as stars. When I managed to establish eye contact, she tilted slightly her head, as if she acknowledged it. I had enough time to perceive high cheekbones like mine, ruffled short brown hair, a straight nose and a slightly sulky mouth. Nothing remarkable except those dark, melancholic eyes riveted to mine. And unexpectedly, I felt overrun by all the pain of the world, engulfed in such a sensation of loneliness that tears welled up in my eyes, to my greatest shame.
"Who are you?"
David's voice aroused in me a wave of uncontrollable anger; I didn't play any more, I was becoming this locked-heart foreigner, possessed of rage and shame and contempt, burning to bring one of those obnoxious yet enviable human beings, through "the hole in the wall," in a hell of despair and bitterness.
"I want your soul, Sharky!"
The words sprang with an unexpected strength, my breath caught slightly in my throat and David looked at me briefly, surprised by the intensity of my reply.
"What?" His astonishment was not feigned.
"I want your soul!"
I was not myself anymore, but the vibrating instrument through which the most primitive feelings expressed themselves: anger, envy, fear. I didn't know if the words I spat with an unknown spite came from a dark and repressed part of my own unconscious, or if they were dictated by this strange woman whose stare wrapped me, drove me, propelled me, inspired me ...
"I'm the son of the morning, Sharky. I'm the snake in the garden..."
David followed suit with a slight hesitation; maybe I had really frightened him as my whole body shivered with a kind of sacred fury as I described all the agonies that waited for his misled and miserable self, in the Hell I promised him. And suddenly I lived it fully, I was this wandering soul, bewildered by his loneliness, contemplating the happiness of others through the floodlit windows, this too human devil, who still knew how to cry but could not do it anymore, enswathed in his crust of ice. And turning toward the public who had become abruptly silent, I understood that I'd reached the state of grace every actor dreamed of, thanks to this woman who had opened her soul to me and taken me "right through the old hole in the wall."
That evening, I did not go out to smoke as I usually did before the end of the show, but I locked myself into my dressing room, knocked out by the revelation. As I stepped back onto the stage, the audience stood up, clapping and cheering, and I knew it was for me. Somebody shouted my name, Jim pushed me forward and the cheers doubled. I looked for the stranger in the third row, but she had disappeared. I had seen so little of her that I wouldn't have been able to recognize her had I met her accidentally in the street, and it saddened me. I would have liked to thank her.
The miracle recurred for the next three days. I felt bewitched, taken to a world where rationality had no place and I saw her again, without ever distinguishing her clearly enough to engrave her features in my mind, nor identify her with one of the few fans who defied the cold to speak to me and thrust out their Playbills for an autograph. She didn't try to approach me, or, if she did, I never knew...
On Sunday, when I felt more than ever carried along by my character, both devilish and torn by an ageless pain, I decided to take the initiative and, at the end of the show, I sent somebody to the auditorium with a message scrawled on a calling card. In vain...the woman of the third row was already gone. Vaguely annoyed, frozen by the sharp wind which swept the city, I found that a couple of friends had come quite specially to see me and I tried to forget my disappointment. My French "friend" was there too, a small lonely silhouette on the corner of the alley, and I stopped to greet her. I went away immediately, but as she disappeared around the corner of 45th Street, I was still feeling the heat of her hand lingering on my arm like a soft and melancholic farewell, a warning too...
I spent my day off in a state of complete euphoria and, the next day, I came onto the stage with a renewed heat, aware that I'd exceeded, for the first time, the limits that I'd set for myself since my first steps as an actor. I was eager to feel again the mysterious power that I was invested with and find the audience in a trance, swept away by emotions I did not suppress any more. But when I looked for her, ready to surrender to her will, the woman of the third row had disappeared.
Time flies fast and the sun of California has replaced the blizzards of New York, but I'm still wondering if I'd not dreamed. Anyway, I never knew who was the one who, on a bitter winter evening, showed me the road to the stars...
Copyright © 2008 Ciarán Hinds! All rights reserved.