Ciarán Hinds' teenage obsessions: 'Van Morrison took music into a different dimension'

Our series in which stars recall cultural highlights of their youth continues with the Belfast-born actor remembering Van the Man, Midnight Cowboy and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

Van Morrison

I grew up in the 60s. Music starts to get into your head when you’re about 10. We’d had the Beatles and the Stones being raunchy and the Kinks and the Who. Suddenly from my home town came this extraordinarily creative force of Van Morrison. It was his second solo album, Astral Weeks, that really smashed into my consciousness; there was just something about the way he sang. It was mournful, the lyrics were beautiful, but he was also making references to locations and places that were in my orbit. These songs became part of a Belfast psyche, I think. He followed that up with Moondance, which was a bouncier LP, and Tupelo Honey. These great songs, Madame George, Cyprus Avenue, Moondance, encapsulated the whole world, yet he just came from the other side of the town. Van Morrison really took music into a different dimension for me.

Son of Man (1969)

I was 16 in 1969. On Wednesdays, they used to put on a play and make it work for television. Not like you would see in the theatre. I always remember this remarkable piece by Dennis Potter, the most extraordinary interpretation of Jesus Christ I’ve ever seen and probably ever will. Christ was played by this brilliant Northern Irish actor, Colin Blakely. Instead of playing Christ as a beatific, holy, gentle person, he played him as a raging, furious, sweaty human being with doubts and fears. He really believed that he was just a carpenter and a man of the earth. I remember thinking that it felt so dangerous. We had been brought up to believe that Christ had evolved from God and that he was the son of God. Potter alluding to him as a human being meant suddenly there were all these new ideas to believe in. It was really wonderful and exhilarating.

Irish dancing

I was baptised into dancing when I was about six or seven, but it became hugely important in my teenage years. I had this extraordinary Irish dance teacher called Patricia Mulholland. She was also a classically trained violinist. Most dance teachers would use a tape to play in the music while they taught the steps for the jigs, reels and the hornpipes. We were fortunate enough to have a teacher who could pick up the fiddle and play right in front of us. In my teenage years she had a company called the Irish Ballet Company, where she choreographed these hour-long programmes that would tell the story of ancient Irish legends through mime and dance, which was kind of heaven to me. Dancing has helped to put some kind of sense of balance in my life, especially when we used to get a quick whack around the ankles.

Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy.
Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

This brings back such enormous memories. There was this huge energy coming from the US, but I’m from Belfast and we didn’t get out much. I had seen American films, but not with this kind of edge and reality. It gave me my first real feeling of what New York might be like. It’s witty and warm but tough and rough at the same time – and really moving. Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight give extraordinary performances. The descent of Hoffman’s character, Ratso, is so brilliantly charted. Everybody talks about Robert De Niro’s line in Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me?” The equivalent in Midnight Cowboy wasn’t even scripted. The pair of them were just walking across the road and nearly got hit by a car; Hoffman smacked the bonnet of the car and went: “I’m walkin’ here!” It looks so dangerous and feels so real. Plus the John Barry score is great. This was the first time I really enjoyed a proper grownup film and it has stuck with me ever since.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association lead a march in Derry on 31 January 1972, a day after Bloody Sunday.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association lead a march in Derry on 31 January 1972, a day after Bloody Sunday. Photograph: Getty Images

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

In the late 60s, things started getting hot in Northern Ireland. The world really opened to me when I was 10 and I heard of the death of John F Kennedy. Then we started getting news about civil rights marches in the US, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy getting shot. But there had been huge inequality and discrimination on our own front door for 45 years. A civil rights movement started in 1967. It was non-sectarian, all-inclusive and peaceful. Their protest marches were attacked by the police force at the time, the Royal Ulster Constabulary – the RUC – who were very violent against peaceful marches. Then a group called People’s Democracy took over and we descended into violence for the next 30 years. My older sister was heavily involved in the movement at the time, but I was sort of watching it from the sidelines. But that moment when people were able to peacefully demonstrate for a progressive way forward into some kind of equality has always remained with me.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

I had seen cowboy films on television before, but this blew my mind. It was so strange and mysterious. It was classy. It was stylish. It was almost existential. It had a script that was really witty and pretty risque for the time. It has these wonderful actors: Jason Robards as a maverick gunslinger, Henry Fonda – for once – as the villain, and Charles Bronson adding real danger as a character called Harmonica. The first seven or eight minutes of the film are like nothing else. There’s no dialogue, just natural sounds, dripping water, a fly buzzing, the wind in a squeaky weather vane or the sound of a train, which build tension. The train arrives, nobody seems to get off, the train disappears, there’s a man with a harmonica, and within about 30 seconds, three men are dead.

• Ciarán Hinds stars in The Man in the Hat, in cinemas from 18 September and digital from 19 October


Interview by Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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