On Game of Thrones, Conleth Hill plays the scheming "spider" and Master of Whisperers, Lord Varys, a character whose appeal owes everything to the North Irish actor's nuanced, stage-trained performance. The eunuch is neither a bloodthirsty warrior nor a highborn noble. Instead, he is the Game's canniest player. His mercurial presence, insinuating line delivery, and often inscrutable and debated loyalty to "the realm" has, over the course of six seasons with a seventh due in the summer (perhaps June?), resulted in many of the show's best moments. Unquestionably, Hill's is one of the best characterizations. A memorable bit of season two banter has Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister musing, "You're an intelligent man. I wish we could converse as two honest intelligent men." Hill's priceless expression and the swivel of his shaved head as he replies ("I wish we could, too.") accomplishes more than most actors can get across in a whole speech. The scene is also typical in that it pairs Hill with an equally charismatic actor (his other regular sparring partner is Aiden Gillen's mewling Petyr Baelish) and allows the fond interplay between them to power a scene that might otherwise slip into rote exposition.
A lot of these character beats figure into Conleth Hill's new film, A Patch of Fog. There's the pairing of dishonesty with earnestness, the disarming candor mixed with secrecy, and an irresistible traction with co-star Stephen Graham (another HBO alum, familiar to audiences as Boardwalk Empire's Al Capone). In Patch of Fog, the 52-year-old Hill stars as Sandy Duffy, a successful author whose sole novel has propelled him to a comfortable life that is endangered by the appearance of Robert (Graham), a friendless security guard with boundary issues who becomes obsessed with Duffy after catching him shoplifting from a furniture store. What follows is an edgy and original noir indie that plays like The Cable Guy spliced with Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Both actors appear to be having a ball, with Hill oscillating between teaching writing classes ("Today we're going to imagine life inside… a ping-pong ball!") and vandalizing Robert's crummy apartment. I spoke to Hill over the phone as the actor was in London wrapping up rehearsals for a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
VICE: In A Patch of Fog, you play a celebrity hounded by an overfamiliar acquaintance who slowly comes to dominate and disrupt his life and privacy. Is this what it's like to be a Game of Thrones actor?
Conleth Hill: No, thank God, I'm not so conspicuous when I'm not on set, since I look so different year round. My hair grows back fairly fast after shooting, so I'm not hounded at home.
You can maintain your disguise in plain sight.
Well, you say "disguise," I say back to normal.
Must be a strange ritual shaving your head every year. Who's your barber?
Oh, my barber's wonderful. And I've known him since I was born—it's me! The first season, I shaved my head and thought, Oh God, what I've done. But I've been reconciled to it for years now.
Both you and Stephen Graham are actors who are frequently the best thing about the projects you're in, even if you're not the stars. What's the dynamic like in a situation like this where you both have so much room to maneuver?
He's an amazing actor. Those first couple of days I was working on my own, and it wasn't until we started working together on set that I really started to enjoy it. A role like Robert depends enormously on who plays it for that something extra. Because when you read the script—which I only got a week before principal photography began—it's very well-written, but he brings it to life. Even though everything you see was technically in the script, you're seeing us playing the moment, finding our chemistry.
And what about crafting a writer-character like Sandy Duffy?
It's an interesting case because he appears to be a man who has everything. The biggest home, the nicest car, and the author of a novel so successful he's never had to write anything else. But you also see a man who is not happy, who shoplifts a pair of cufflinks in the first scene, so the audience is asking, "What's missing here?" as well as why he hasn't written anything else.
You seem to gravitate toward roles where you possess a great deal more knowledge than the audience, at least initially. How does that affect the choices you make on-screen?
It doesn't. You play the moment, and you're not thinking about the audience so much as the characters you're with. But it is a different experience from doing a play. When you're doing TV or a film, you're at the mercy of the editing, the cameraman setting up the shots, the director—with stage work, you and your fellow actors are exclusively responsible for letting the audience know how they should feel. But both are about focus, about concentration.
Still, there must be a sense of inventing these characters from the ground up. Your Varys, for example, is the most modern character on the show: always up-to-date, absurdly well-informed, passively active behind-the-scenes…
This sounds like a cop-out, but I promise it isn't! Those scripts come with a lot of information, so I knew how Varys went from being a slave to the Small Council. [Showrunners and creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff] gave me all the information I needed and that's all I ever tried to do, be in the moment with that backstory. But he's a lovely part to play: He's never been in a battle, and so while people are filming battle scenes, I get to do these character bits with Peter or Aiden. But again, it's all on the page, you know? I never panicked and thought, My God, what's going on? I never asked them, What's the story?. Nor did I ever read George's novels, because I wouldn't want that vision to influence how I played the part. You know what I mean?
One thing that maybe I brought to the part: When I didn't have lines, they were always gracious enough to give me a cut-away or a reaction, and I was always aware that I'd get a couple of seconds, even if the scene was focusing on someone else. They're very egalitarian that way. When I do scenes with Aiden, my reactions are often intended to betray a kind of idea of how the audience should feel about what he's up to. So maybe that kind of thing, but everything else is there on the page.
I'll let you in on a secret: When you're a young actor, you go, [despairingly], "Oh my God, I've no lines." When you're older, you go [elated], "Oh my God, I've no lines!"
Any moments from the last season that especially stick out for you?
I loved the interrogation scene. That's when you see him working. Over the last six years, we've heard a lot of talk about "his little birds" this and that, but to actually see what that consists of—and I think wasn't quite what we'd expect really! Other than that, anything with Peter. And in past seasons, Aiden, or in the first season, Roger Allam, with whom I've worked with onstage. It's also always a pleasure to collaborate with Michael McElhatton [Roose Bolton] or Ian McElhinney [Barristan Selmy], with whom I have appeared onstage many, many times.
Last season also saw you appearing in Spain—standing in for the Kingdom of Dorne—to say, "Fire and blood!"
I think I was already shooting in Spain, but if they want to fly me anywhere, I'll do it. I'll let you in on a secret: When you're a young actor, you go, [despairingly], "Oh my God, I've no lines." When you're older, you go [elated], "Oh my God, I've no lines!"
Will we see Varys sporting any new robes this season?
You never know.
Oh, come on!
But about those robes—they're nice and warm, but they mix them up a lot in general, so I'm not limited to one look. But I would never spoil anything for the viewer, because I'm genuinely eager for people to see it all. I know that doesn't make things any easier for you guys though!
Game of Thrones returns summer 2017. A Patch of Fog is currently available on VOD and iTunes.
Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, the New York Times, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.