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Ian McElhinney: I was just Joe Bloggs until Game of Thrones - it's strange having fans

Ahead of performing in a show paying homage to Seamus Heaney - one of his heroes - director and actor Ian McElhinney discusses finding fame late and discovering Tom Hanks was a neighbour

By Ivan Little

Published 17/11/2016

Actor Ian McElhinney at home with his writer wife, Marie Jones, in east Belfast
Actor Ian McElhinney at home with his writer wife, Marie Jones, in east Belfast
The couple at rehearsals for the play Stones in His Pockets
Ian as Barristan Selmy in Game of Thrones

He's graced every theatre stage in Northern Ireland, he's appeared in dozens of films alongside the likes of Liam Neeson and Jack Lemmon, and he's starred in hit TV shows like The Fall and Coronation Street. But fan worship has come late to Ian McElhinney.

The versatile, Belfast-based all-rounder has Game of Thrones to thank for his new-found fame in unexpected corners of the world, where he's an in-demand guest at the burgeoning number of fan and comic book conventions.

Even in his Greek holiday hideaway, where Ian had been an untroubled visitor for almost 20 years, the locals, who have also got Tom Hanks living in their midst, have of late been known to flourish pen and paper for an autograph from the Ulsterman.

"For years, I was just Joe Bloggs," says 68-year-old Ian, whose recorded interviews about Game of Thrones are available online.

"There was no excitement until Game of Thrones, and then people started recognising me.

"It's strange to be getting into your dotage and suddenly discovering that you have a fanbase."

Even though he's been a reluctant user of social media, Ian, who has also carved out an international reputation for directing plays by his wife, Marie Jones, has no fewer than 18,000 Twitter followers. However, he admits that his account was actually set up and 'ghosted' by his nephew.

But this week, the silver-haired actor with the golden voice has been tweeting all by himself to promote the fact that he'll be performing this weekend at one of Northern Ireland's newest artistic hubs to pay homage to one of his heroes, Seamus Heaney.

In the cosy, intimate surroundings of the Helicon space in the newly opened Seamus Heaney HomePlace in the late poet's home village of Bellaghy, Ian will be teaming up with another giant of the Ulster theatre, Stella McCusker, to bring some of the poet's works to the stage.

Ian's talented thespian son, Matthew, will also be taking part in the interpretation of Heaney's 1969 acclaimed collection of poems, A Door into the Dark, directed by Mick Gordon with audio-visuals by Jonathan Brennan.

Yet Ian candidly acknowledges that he was something of a latecomer to Heaney's work.

"I was living in Britain and then America, but it wasn't until I returned to live in Ireland in the late 70s that I really became aware of Seamus Heaney," he says.

And he was a ready convert: "I discovered quickly that his poems are very accessible. Yes, some of them are difficult, but there's something about his poems which makes the reader feel very much as ease and at home, and they can identify with what he is saying."

But Ian is also thankful that he had the chance to work with Heaney and get to know him.

He says: "I was lucky enough to be in his play The Cure at Troy at the Tricycle Theatre in London. A couple of us from the play accompanied him to Oxford for a lecture and we enjoyed a dinner with him afterwards.

"He was a lovely man to be around, someone who was very comfortable inside his own skin."

Ian was also honoured to take part in a welcome home literary event in Dublin after Heaney collected the 1995 Nobel prize for literature.

"It was a real thrill to be asked to provide some of the material on a memorable night," explains the actor, who has for weeks been looking many forward to visiting Heaney's HomePlace.

But he isn't exactly a stranger to Bellaghy. In his youth, his father, a Church of Ireland minister, used to spend part of the summer in the parish standing in for the local cleric during his breaks.

"Being in the rectory in the village for a couple of weeks in the Fifties was a real holiday for us," says Ian, whose role in Game of Thrones is that of Ser Barristan Selmy, who is one of the older characters in George RR Martin's books and serves as a knight and loyal adviser to Daenerys Targaryen, portrayed by Emilia Clarke.

Ian, who landed the role six years ago, knew the name of the Game from the very outset.

For unlike some actors who don't want to know what their storyline in a television or a movie drama holds in store, Ian had read Martin's books beforehand and thought the plot could hold few surprises for him. But he was wrong.

For while Ser Barristan may have known where the bodies were hidden, so to speak, Ian didn't quite see the end coming for his alter ego, who was still alive at the end of the fifth Martin book.

It meant that the actor was quite taken aback to learn that Ser Barristan was being written out of the series earlier than expected, in an episode called Sons of the Harpy.

Ian made national headlines last year when he told a news conference at a Comic Con event in London that he was "miffed" when series producers David Benioff and DB Weiss told him that his character was going to meet a premature death.

"But I think you have to accept - as I have accepted - that the demands of TV are different than the demand of book writing," he says. "With TV, there's a pressure to create a number of high points.

"One of the big things about this series - it's true in the books and even more true in the series - is the surprise element, the shocks. They've got to keep that up because people expect that now.

"You can't predict anything, but what you can predict is that there will be surprises."

Even though he has now left Game of Thrones, the fanaticism associated with the series across the world has yet to leave him.

He says Thrones took his acting career to a whole new level. "And for that I will always be grateful," adds Ian, who is a much sought-after voice-over artist for both advertisements and documentaries.

For the moment, though, he has no plans for any major theatre work - a world into which he was a comparatively late recruit.

Ian was born in Lisburn and undertook a theatre studies course in Boston before returning home in 1979 and joining the Lyric Theatre, where he was to appear in two hugely successful Martin Lynch plays, Dockers and The Interrogation of Ambrose Fogarty.

A number of small film roles followed alongside the likes of Albert Finney and Aidan Quinn, and Kenneth Branagh cast him as Bernardo in a movie adaptation of Hamlet, in which Jack Lemmon also starred. He additionally appeared as a detective in Michael Collins. But it was his wife's play, Stones in his Pockets, that turned his career on its head.

Ian had directed a number of his wife's plays, but it was Stones that brought him to worldwide attention after rave reviews from critics and standing ovations from audiences who thronged to see the production in the West End and on Broadway, where he was nominated for best director gong in the prestigious Tony Awards.

Stones has not stopped rolling ever since and Ian has jetted around the world, from Japan to Australia, to direct new productions in a variety of languages.

Along the way, the play has gathered a large number of celebrity fans, including Dustin Hoffman (top left), Calista Flockhart, Darryl Hannah (left) and… Tom Hanks.

But even though they're virtually neighbours on their Greek island, Ian has never actually met the Forrest Gump star.

"Our paths have never crossed - a lot of our friends know him and like him, but we always seem to be heading for home just before he arrives on the island for his holiday," says Ian who will be back on television early next year in what will be a high profile spin-off from the EastEnders stable.

Redwater is a six-part series set in a village in Ireland, and it follows Alfie and Kat Moon as they leave Albert Square to try and unravel dark secrets in their past.

Ian plays a character called Lance, but he has been sworn to secrecy about what actually happens in the series, which has already been filmed south of the border.

He's also done a pilot for another new TV series, but he can't say much about that either.

In the meantime, Ian is ready to let Seamus Heaney's poems do all the talking tomorrow night and Friday night in Bellaghy.

"They promise to be very special nights" he says.

Door Into The Dark, a dramatic reading with audio-visuals, will take place at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy tomorrow night 7.30pm and Saturday night 8pm. Tickets are £10. Book online at https://seamusheaneyhome.ticketsolve.com/#/shows/873562755. For more details, go to www.seamusheaneyhome.com

Belfast Telegraph

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