TORONTO — To Game of Thrones fans, Conleth Hill is Lord Varys, the master of whispers, the spider, the eunuch — and one of the show's best characters. He plays the role with a raised eyebrow, a resonant voice, and intelligence. Lovers of George R.R. Martin's books had high expectations for Varys, a fan favorite on the page as well, but the show's creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, cast the part in such a way that no one is complaining.
With his head shaved to play Varys, Hill is unmistakeable looking, but with his full head of hair, he has had a career varied enough that you may have seen him without realizing. Before Game of Thrones, Hill — who is from Northern Ireland — had a prolific career on U.K. television and on stage. (He has been nominated for two Tony Awards.) At the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, Hill is adding to his CV with A Patch of Fog, in which he plays Sandy, a rich, lauded novelist with a self-destructive pathology: He steals. When Robert (Stephen Graham of Snatch and Boardwalk Empire), a security guard, catches him, Sandy finds himself indebted to Robert — who, unfortunately, is an obsessive, friendless stalker.
Set in Belfast, A Patch of Fog, directed by Michael Lennox, is a stylish, tense showcase for both actors, as their characters vie for power over each other. BuzzFeed News met Hill for an interview to discuss the movie, and, of course, playing Lord Varys. By the end of the interview, we were looking at Tumblr gifs of Varys, causing Hill to exclaim, "It makes me feel like Lady Diana!"
When you first read this screenplay, what did you think of Sandy?
Conleth Hill: Well, to be brutally honest, when I first read it, it was in connection with a different part, which I rejected because it was only one day. Then a week before principle photography started, the original Sandy dropped out. So it was very fortuitous — luck comes into it. But I just thought he was a fascinating character. I knew that there was so much enigma there, which you don't really have to do much to portray, you just play it. What is so clever about it is I think he's equally as lonely and desperate as Robert; he's just in better surroundings and is more affluent, but equally lost. The shoplifting is a major factor, and the fact that his relationship is semi-secret. There was something kind of covert about him, and mysterious about him.
You came in at the last minute, but I'm curious about the kinds of conversations you had with Stephen Graham about the dynamic between your two characters, which constantly shifts throughout.
CH: He's tremendously intelligent about things, and succinct and economical, and that appealed to me as well. All the kind of lack of awareness of space, he brought that all to it — that wasn't scripted per se. And I had no idea how close he would get, or what he would be doing, and then you have to react and still play the scene. It was very exciting, and very educational, I have to say — he taught me so much.
As an American moviegoer, I'm not sure I've seen fancy Belfast in a movie before. Sandy has a nice life he's trying to protect! You're from Northern Ireland — tell me about that aspect of this movie for you.
CH: You know, one of the many disadvantages of making movies in Northern Ireland is that for so long people weren't interested in financing them unless there was a sexy war conflict aspect to it. So yeah, the fact that The Troubles, religion, anything like that aren't mentioned in this movie is basically how most people in Northern Ireland live anyway. That's never been a huge factor for all of us from day to day. That again was an appeal. We know now it's a great location spot for movie-makers because you have an urban center, and then within 15-20 minutes, you can be in the wilds of the country. Anything that shows off where I come from, I'm very proud of.
There were some little things in the screenplay I really liked — a moment when Sandy is pleading with Robert, and he's about to say the "sword of Damocles" is over his head, and then realizes he's talking to someone less educated, and changes it to a "big sword." It's very detailed and layered.
CH: Part of his irritation was Robert's ignorance or misuse of words. He would get quite impatient with that, kind of biting on tinfoil when he used the wrong word — he calls him a "paganist" rather than a "plagiarist" at one stage. Stephen was determined not to make him the caricature-y, stereotypical sort of stalker psycho. There's so much pathos in what he does, and I think that's the strength of it as well. Sometimes you're rooting for Robert; sometimes you feel so much for what he's going through in his loneliness.
I never trust Wikipedia, but —
CH: No, don't. When I did Conan O'Brien, the researcher said, "So, I believe your first wife made you go into acting." And I was, like, "First wife?" That implies more than one. I have never been married. But I think someone went in there and had a laugh. But I don't mind.
Is that the bit on your page about how you were once a fisherman and then went into acting?
CH: Yes. I have never been a fisherman.
There's just a full lie on your Wikipedia page.
CH: Yes. I'd love to know who did it. Not for revenge or anything, but to say it's quite funny.
Have you always been an actor, then?
CH: I went to art college for a year, then went to drama school, then started working. I've been working for about 30 years now.
Did you feel you could have a career that would be contained within the U.K.?
CH: I made the decision quite early on to live where I wanted to live, and then go where the work was if I could afford to, because I love where I'm from and I've always lived there. It's worked out very fortuitously. I remember being on Broadway for the first time, and somebody gave me the box set of the first series of The Sopranos. And that white noise over the HBO logo at the beginning, and how brilliant the show was, I went, I'd love to do something like that. I loved the ensemble of it as well. But I'd have to leave home, and make all these changes to my life. I think the lesson is if you wait long enough, they'll come to you. So the fact that I can wrap in Belfast and be in my garden in the afternoon is a bonus.
Game of Thrones literally did come to you, geographically.
CH: I did resist it for so long, I have to say. Because I didn't know anything about the novels. And how it was described to me by my agent at the time, I was like, "I don't want to do that." She persevered, thankfully, and said, "Look, they're in Belfast, go meet them." OK. Then David and Dan were just so brilliant. It's been a nice ride. I don't know how long it will go on — none of us know. Because we're past the books now, so everything is new ground for all of us.
You've said you haven't read the books.
CH: I can't wait to read them when I'm finished. I think he's a genius. And without him, we wouldn't be here. But the reason I didn't is because I wasn't doing the books. I didn't want to read a brilliant scene in the books that wasn't in the TV series and worry about it. Or vice versa.
You've talked before about people not recognizing you when you have hair. You sit before me bald right now. Are you being recognized as you're here and in your life right now?
CH: I get recognized more as the series go by. But Game of Thrones fans are by and large well-mannered and courteous, so I have no problem with it. But we would do the first series, and then we would go to an opening or whatever, and because I had hair, people were going, "Why is that security man so close to the actors?"
Last season, Varys' arc veered blessedly from where it is in the books. People are obsessed with the Varys/Tyrion dynamic. Do we have more to look forward to there?
CH: I think people are aware that HBO has snipers — Michael McElhatton, who plays Roose Bolton, always talks about them having snipers everywhere, so you really can't give anything away. The reality was that Dave and Dan wanted to keep Varys going in the show. And George is going, "But he is, he's hiding." And they're going, "Well, we can't really film him hiding. That's not a good storyline." So they adapted it so I went off with Tyrion, which I was very happy about.
The best buddy road movie since Thelma and Louise.
CH: He's fantastic. We work hard, but we have good fun. And my brother does sound on it, did you know that? Ronan, he just won his second Emmy last night.
Wow, I had no idea. Is it a coincidence that you're both on Game of Thrones?
CH: No, he's been a sound man for years and years. There's a few siblings — like Rory McCann, who plays the Hound, he has a sister, Sally, who works on it as well. You know, you've got 900 people employed. So the chances of having a few brothers or sisters is upped with those numbers.
You play a very quotable character, and the internet loves Varys. Is that something that you're aware of in your life?
CH: No, not really. No, no. No, I don't Google — I think it would be too upsetting.
I actually don't think so in your case?
Do you know what an animated gif is?
I was just looking at some of the ones of Varys, let me show you.
CH: Oh my goodness. Wow. It makes me feel like Lady Diana!
Oh no, I hope not!
CH: The most photographed eunuch in the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.