Scott Brown
January 09, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Uneasy lies the head of Bernard Hill. The 59-year-old British actor — best known to American audiences as Theoden, king of Rohan, in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and, currently, The Return of the King — is certainly thrilled to ride into film history alongside director Peter Jackson. There’s just one small problem: ”It’s the fame bit. It doesn’t sit very happily with me.”

Maybe he should have considered that before joining the cast of perhaps the grandest cinematic spectacle ever to grace the globe…and we’re not talking about Titanic, though it did give Hill his first major role in an American film, as doomed Capt. Edward J. Smith. The look on Hill’s face as he waited for that wall of water to crush him — terror, guilt, and acceptance vying for dominance — haunted audiences around the world.

Not that anyone knew who he was. Hill was a name actor only in his native England, where he is renowned for his stage and television roles. BBC viewers still remember his searing turn as Yosser Hughes, a desperate Liverpudlian dead-ender, in the 1982 miniseries The Boys From the Blackstuff. ”It was kind of unwelcome,” he says of the role that established him. Playing Hughes ”was a bit too severe; it left me quite scarred, emotionally scarred.” He doesn’t seem to enjoy discussing the role, but Rings costar and fellow Manchester native Dominic Monaghan gladly fills in the details: ”He played a lunatic character from a very poor rung of society in northern England. I think Bernard can really trace his notoriety as a fantastic actor in England to that part.”

All that bravura turmoil caught the eye of Jackson, who initially eyed Hill for another role in his Middle-earth epic. ”He wanted me to put myself on tape for Gandalf,” recalls Hill. ”But at the time, it just didn’t appeal, to go over there for 20, 22 months. So I did [the tape, but] with such a lack of enthusiasm. I was not very interested in it. I was very relieved when, quite rightly, they looked at my tape and thought, ‘This guy’s pretty hopeless.”’

Jackson, however, was undeterred. ”Pete was pretty insistent. He wouldn’t let the idea go of having me in it.” So in the fall of 1999, while directing a U.K. production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hill grabbed a camera, borrowed a Rohan-esque barn from a friend, and taped himself in a Theoden scene, using lines supplied by screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. He was immediately offered the role — but still wasn’t sure he should take it. ”The script came in, and it wasn’t very encouraging, to be honest.”

”Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh called, and they basically went through it — in Tolkienese. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. [But I] pretended all the time that I did. It was probably my best bit of acting in the whole project.”

Hill, who speaks in a humble purr, is selling himself short here. Few were unmoved by Towers’ conflicted steppeland king, who loses his mind, his son, and very nearly his realm before being yanked from his spellbound torpor by Gandalf. (And his battlefield scene with Miranda Otto’s Eowyn in Return shows how superbly Hill preserves the ”human undercurrent” he prizes in every royal character.) Theoden may not have made ”Bernard Hill” a household name in America, but Bernard Hill has certainly put ”Theoden” in common usage. And no one’s more pleased — and surprised — than he is.

”No one like me ever became an actor,” says Hill of his working-class upbringing in Manchester. ”No one I’d ever known had become anything more than what their parents were.” These days, the man who once resigned himself to living as a surveyor appears in mainstream fare like the recent Halle Berry thriller Gothika and the upcoming Wimbledon, in which he plays the father of Paul Bettany’s slump-stricken tennis star. Which brings us back to ”the fame bit.” Is it really such a drag? ”I may be naive and stupid about it, but if I could do what I do without being famous, I’d be really, really happy.” He may have to settle for merely really happy.

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