SURE, IT HELPS TO HAVE GRADUATED from England's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, not to mention having a bent for breeches, honed by appearances in a slew of costume dramas over the last two decades. But the real secret of success in trendy period films is having a flair for facial hair. Just ask Irish-born Ciarán (pronounced Keer-rawn) Hinds, who is fast becoming to British historical dramas what the Duke was to westerns. "I think people hire me because I come with my own hair kit," jokes Hinds, who can grow sideburns faster than you can say "muttonchops." "With me, you don't have to add things on. I tell directors, 'I'll just snip this bit off or grow this out for that Old World look."
On Oct. 19, American audiences can watch Hinds fairly bristle with emotion on A&E's presentation of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë's 1847 saga of an unworldly governess (Samantha Morton) and her love for her mysterious, imperious employer, Mr. Rochester (Hinds). The Romantic period is familiar terrain for Hinds. Last year he played the heroic seaman Capt. Frederick Wentworth in the movie Persuasion. "Many actors can't make the mental leap to another place and time," says Delia Fine, executive-in-charge of Jane Eyre. "Ciarán has that ability."
For his part, the 44-year-old Hinds claims that these "boys in breeches," as he calls them, are nothing at all like him. "I get these masculine roles," he says, "but I'm a bit of a wimp really." That hasn't stopped the British media from anointing Hinds as their newest sex symbol; he even has his own, unauthorized Web site (Hindsite) where fans discuss his every dramatic move. "It's almost like your life isn't yours," says Hinds. "I can't decide whether it's flattering." Hinds still hasn't gotten over a piece on him in the London Times that began: "There is always something funny about an accidental heartthrob." Nor that tabloid headline that dubbed him "Captain Dreamboat." "Does that suck or what?" he says, laughing.
That notion is also amusing to Hinds's girlfriend of 10 years, Hélène Patarot, 43, a French-Vietnamese actress who shares a two-bedroom flat in London with Hinds and their daughter Aoife (Gaelic for Eve), 6. While she appreciates his swarthy good looks, Hélène says it's Hinds's "kindness" that attracts women. "Ciarán has a good aura," says Hélène. "In a supermarket he is the one old ladies ask for help."
So far, though, the supermarket aisle is the only one Hinds and Hélène are likely to stroll down together. "People say marriage is a commitment, but so is living together, so is having children," says Hinds. "I think Hélène would like to be married, but I'd hate to make a vow and suddenly find myself not able to honor it." Says his girlfriend: "We don't talk about it now at all. I'm not anxious."
As a boy, neither was Hinds, who was born and raised in Northern Ireland's turbulent Belfast and often fell asleep to the sound of intermittent gunshots in the distance. The second of five children (and only son) of a doctor father and a schoolteacher mother, he showed an early interest in drama, acting in grade school productions. But by the time he enrolled in Belfast's Queen's University in 1972, Hinds had decided on a career in law. When a friend convinced him that he'd make an apathetic lawyer, Hinds instead entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He graduated in 1975 and quickly landed the job as the back end of a horse in a pantomime. "I always knew my Irish dancing would come in handy," he jokes.
Hinds didn't mind making an ass of himself as long as he was working. Traveling through Europe as a migrant actor, he met Hélène in 1987 during a Paris run of Peter Brook's nine-hour play The Mahabharata, in which they both appeared. After a turn as Richard III in London's West End in 1993, he began landing roles on TV (he shared the lead in the BBC's Ivanhoe) and in Hollywood, including a bit part opposite Julia Roberts
in Mary Reilly. Later this year he will costar with Ralph Fiennes in Oscar and Lucinda, for which Hinds grew (what else?) long sideburns. For Hinds, it seems, history keeps repeating itself. "I'd like to do a comedy," he says. "But you find the next script coming through the mail slot, and it's time to get out those breeches."
BRYAN ALEXANDER in London