Conleth Hill is sporting a long, full beard, utterly unlike the clean-shaven face of Varys, the Game of Thrones character the actor is best known for. I ask Hill if he’s grown the beard to avoid the show’s fans recognising him on the street.


“No, it's always been hard for them [to recognise me], because as soon as I finished shooting, I grew hair again. Thank goodness, no, I'm not really bothered that much, thankfully. And if I am, it's not a bother. It’s 10 seconds of your time to say, ‘Thanks very much’,” Hill says, speaking to via Zoom.

While some actors might resent being forever associated with a single TV show that ended almost three years ago, Hill says it’s a “small price to pay” for being part of such a phenomenon.

“I'm used to ‘Conleth Hill the Game of Thrones [star]’, it's a double-barrelled name,” he jokes. “But that's a small price to pay for being associated with something so brilliant. And I'm not gonna deny it or say, ‘Well, no, I'm onto something else now’. I'll always be associated with it until they do a remake. And then it'll be somebody else. And that's the way it goes. But I'm grateful for all the work.”

I mention that the series has already spawned its prequel spin-off series, House of the Dragon, starring Matt Smith. “Oh, yeah. But no, that's their own thing,” Hill says, “and I hope they have half as good a time on it as me. But I have no envy. Nothing but support and admiration for them. I hope they have had as good a time as we did.”

The puppet-master and eunuch Varys - a schemer who could always be relied upon to deliver dry comebacks - was among a number of fan-favourite characters. But for Hill, his favourite role is one that viewers haven’t yet seen: his upcoming turn in Holding, the ITV adaptation of Graham Norton’s novel of the same name, and filmed in West Cork.

Conleth Hill as Varys in Game of Thrones

Hill plays the lead role, local police officer Sergeant PJ Collins, who lives in a sleepy town and relies on comfort food to get him through his half-hearted police work. However, his life changes following the mysterious death of a long-lost local legend.

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“I just thought he was a really multifaceted character, but [with] none of the kind of cliches that you'd expect from a leading detective,” Hill says of PJ Collins. “So it was just a gift, and the best part I've ever been offered.”

A better part than Varys? “Fundamentally, Varys was one of many, many different characters in a huge epic, and this was my first number one on the call sheet in my life. So that's why it's different; as brilliant as Varys was, and as much as I enjoyed it, he wasn't the lead. He was the supporting character. Whereas I'm not unaware of the parallels between PJ getting his first murder case in his mid-50s, and me getting my first number one in my mid-50s.”

Frequently described as “chameleon-like” in the press, Hill says he’s never been pigeon-holed into certain roles following Game of Thrones, despite its ubiquity: during its broadcast, it was “the most popular show in the world”, as Hill says.

Outside of Thrones, he’s best known for disappearing into other character roles, like the moustachioed Mendel Liebermann in Vienna Blood. What’s “amazing” about his role in Holding, however, is “it's a character lead as well. It's not a ‘leading mean’ lead.”

Hill first came across Holding in its original book form, after his mother bought Graham Norton’s novel for him for Christmas when it first came out. The “anti-hero” quality of the unassuming PJ immediately appealed to Hill “as a reader, not even as an actor”. He adds: “I just love the ordinariness of [him], the mundanity of the non achievement - the outsider aspect of him… He’ll always be an outsider.”

I ask Hill if he thinks viewers unaware of Graham Norton’s books might be surprised by the show’s quiet tone, quite unlike Norton’s public persona. “It didn't surprise me, and his humour is still there. It’s very funny and arch sometimes, but he does deal with dark subjects or multi-layered characters. It's amazing how talented he is,” he says. Norton proved to be a very hands-off executive producer. “I didn't get any personal notes from him; it's a nice testament to how much they trust me,” Hill remarks.

The series, which also co-stars Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker, is helmed by director Kathy Burke, who recently told press during a panel Q&A that it’s unusual for character actors like Hill and his co-star Siobhan McSweeney (Sister Michael in Derry Girls) to be given leading roles.

“I think it is [unusual],” Hill agrees, after I mention Burke’s comment. “It's not unknown - occasionally [a] character actor will get a great lead in something, but normally leads are leading men or leading ladies, and they're not me and Siobhan. But they [their on-screen characters] weren't in the book. So it would have been a terrible kind of betrayal to suddenly have these real people represented by fantastically surreal people. So again, you know, that was Kathy's insistence, [and I’m] grateful for it.”

In a similar vein to detective dramas like Broadchurch, the landscape plays a key part in Holding, providing a beautiful green backdrop and contrast to the murderous goings-on.

“The landscape is definitely another character in it,” Hill says. “The weird thing about West Cork is you've got this cosmopolitan element, but you've also this still very rural element. And so you have all these… contradictions within that place. The way they talk about it within the script, you know - [PJ] says that people looked at a map and decided this was the safest place to live in the world from the fallout from nuclear war. So there's an argument that it's a place that people go to hide as well.”

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Beyond Holding, Hill will also be starring in Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, directed by Hugh Laurie. I ask Hill what his experience was like on set with the Jeeves and Wooster star.

“Brilliant. He’s a genius,” he says. “The last couple of years - to work with Brenda Fricker and Kathy Burke and him, you know. It's the kind of people I wanted to work with when I was younger, and here I am doing so… And you know, I'm a Welsh doctor in that; I was a Dublin detective in Dublin Murders; I was a Viennese patriarch in Vienna Blood. It's not like I've played Varys my whole life,” he adds. “There are just lovely parts that I get offered. And they're so different.”

Conleth Hill has spent most of his career on the screen's periphery, albeit often playing the most interesting characters. But just like his character in Holding, he’s finally set to take centre stage.

Holding will begin airing on ITV on Monday 14th March at 9pm. Check out our Drama hub for more news, interviews and features or find something to watch with our TV Guide.


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