YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Secret of Their Success? Embodying the Pluck of the Irish

Theater * Two actors hit it big with 'Stones in His Pockets,' which looks at Hollywood's use of Ireland.


LONDON — A play about a Hollywood film crew's invasion of small-town Ireland has become a Hollywood-style success for the two Irish actors starring in the surprise hit "Stones in His Pockets."

Conleth Hill and Sean Campion, who play down-on-their-luck film extras and 11 other characters in "Stones," can hardly believe their own luck. They've taken the show from Belfast to Dublin and from one West End theater to another, where a parade of Hollywood stars has made its way from the audience backstage.

"One of the biggest thrills has been meeting all of these people," Hill said in obvious awe. "I mean Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tom Hanks . . ."

"Kevin Spacey, Roger Moore, the Spice Girls," Campion added. "That's been great."

And next year, it's on to Broadway for the pair, who say they've "never been to America" and, remarkably, can't claim any of the millions of Irish Americans as family. ("Yeah, I always felt bad when I was a kid and all the packages came from America on our street and we didn't get any," Hill said.)

Belfast playwright Marie Jones wrote the script for Hill and another actor in 1996. The script is something of an uncut stone that shines brightly in the hands of Jones' husband, director Ian McElhinney; Hill; and Campion.

The story centers on Charlie and Jake, two locals who have been hired for 40 Irish pounds a day (plus meals) as extras on "The Quiet Valley," a costume drama with a sultry Hollywood superstar called Caroline Giovanni.

Hill plays Charlie and the starlet, as well as the insensitive English director and a junkie named Sean who, spurned by the Hollywood invaders in his own town, drowns himself in a pond.

Campion is Jake, who has returned home after failing to make his fortune in the United States. Giovanni picks him up in the local pub and takes him back to her trailer to help her perfect an Irish accent. As expected, things don't go well between them. Later, when Giovanni tells the cast how sorry she is about the tragic death of their friend, Jake responds bitterly to Charlie.

"I'll tell you what's a terrible tragedy, filling young Sean's head with dreams," Jake says.

The beauty of "Stones," according to Hill, is that it shows how Ireland has been used as the backdrop to Hollywood films without becoming the subject of the films. "Stones," meanwhile, is about Ireland. The play illustrates how the rural Irish towns in many films are being destroyed, in part by the filmmakers who descend on them.

"This is our own story in our own way. The only politics in it are with a small P for people," Hill said.

Ireland has become the "Celtic tiger," with a booming economy and the new rich buying second homes in some of these rural towns. But many of the problems depicted in "Stones" remain.

"There are still problems with the 'tiger' economy," Campion said. "In rural areas, farmers and fishermen don't get the funding they used to get. There is not enough land for everyone. So what do sons like Sean do; where do they go?"


Despite the failed-dreams theme, the play is more humor than pathos. Hill and Campion move seamlessly among their very funny characters--Jake also plays the ambitious female film assistant, Aisling, and the drunken Mickey, whose claim to fame is that he is the last surviving extra from "The Quiet Man."

"What are we supposed to do?" Charlie asks Jake before a scene they are to appear in with the American star.

"Look at her lookin' at us looking dispossessed," Jake explains.

They are on stage for nearly 2 1/2 hours with one backdrop, a trunk, a stool and a row of shoes for a set. Costume changes are done onstage--Hill transforms from lovely starlet to Clem the director simply by hiking up his pants and hunching his shoulders.

"That just proves that two planks and a passion is all you need to make theater work," Hill said backstage, where he has pictures of Madonna and Walter Matthau taped to the wall of his dressing room.

"What 'Stones' is trying to do is to convince the audience there is a crowd of people onstage, and Jake and Charlie are in the middle with their story to tell," Hill said.

"It is a great challenge for an audience to make that leap with you," Campion said.

Not too great. Watching Hill and Campion, it's easy to forget there isn't a whole cast onstage. In large part, that is because the two genuinely seem to love the play and to be having fun.

Hill, 35, is a native of Northern Ireland who, like his Charlie, speaks with an Irish accent that manages to make two syllables out of the word "fil-em." Campion, 40, is from the Irish Republic. Both are London-trained and have considerable experience on the Belfast, Dublin and London stages, although this is their West End debut. And they are almost apologetic about their success.

"Hollywood, Broadway, the West End, they are part of a vocabulary that comes with the profession. We weren't dreaming, 'Oh please, God, let me get there.' But in the back of your mind, you do have the aspiration," Campion said.

"What you really want is for as many people to see you as possible. This is one of the venues," Hill added.

They struggle to define what makes "Stones" work so well and finally give up.

"If we knew, we'd do it every time," Hill said with a laugh.

In "Stones," Charlie and Jake take their own film idea to the director, who dismisses it as too realistic and suggests they "take it to the Irish Film Board."

There is a difference between a "little film and a big movie," Hill explained in his dressing room. "There is something honest about a film and something moneymaking about a big movie."

But now "Stones" is headed for the screen, although in England, not Hollywood. The text is being rewritten by Englishman Ben Hopkins, according to the Times of London, and the project is to be co-produced by London-based Tiger Lily Films and Kismet Films, with development money from the BBC.

"It's a wonderful irony," Hill said. "The question is, 'Will they make a film or make a movie?' "

Los Angeles Times Articles