A starring role in the iconic 1980s movie Gregory’s Girl set John Gordon Sinclair on course for a successful acting career. But now – as a crime writer and father – he has never been happier , finds Janet Christie
John Gordon Sinclair may still be best known to a generation as the eponymous would-be romantic lead of Scottish coming-of-age movie Gregory’s Girl, but today he’s almost unrecognisable from that floppy-haired, gangly, teenage dreamer.
Thirtysomething years on, the feathery locks are a grizzled buzz, the lanky frame has filled out into something you might not want to meet barring your way on a dark night, and he’s packing a pistol. Now 52, Sinclair has swapped mooning about the sexy girl striker on the school football team for a life of crime.
Today it’s all CIA-backed Serbian ganglords, Glasgow heavies, prostitution, drugs, stomach-churning violence and Keira Lynch, a lawyer who isn’t afraid to pull the trigger.
OK, the pistol’s yellow plastic. And the brutal world of crime he inhabits is all in his head.
When Sinclair speaks the spell is broken.
Does he know many Glasgow ganglords?
“Not personally, no. Or Serbian. I read up on it and Google a lot.”
The Glasgow accent is unchanged and his trademark warmth, humour and disarming honesty are intact as he potters around his Surrey kitchen making a cup of tea. Mogwai blasts in the background as he thinks about wandering down his cottage garden to the hut where he has written his way to a new career as a crime novelist.
“When I discovered writing I thought I’d finally found something that was right. Everything I’d done in my life I’d done because it was there and seemed a good thing to do, but not because I particularly wanted to. But with the writing, I feel I have finally found something I really want to do.”
Which is great, because he’s good at it. His debut novel, Seventy Times Seven, was published in September last year to favourable reviews, and next week the sequel, Blood Whispers, hits bookshops.
The critics used words like “astonishing”, “remarkable” and “impressive”. But assured debuts are something of a Sinclair stock-in trade. His first film (Gregory’s Girl, of course) won him a BAFTA nomination and his first West End appearance in the 1994 musical She Loves Me garnered an Olivier award for Best Actor, but Sinclair remains modestly surprised by his success. “The reviews for the first book were better than I expected. I thought, it’s a first book and I would be surprised if it gets much attention. It’s not the kind of book people are expecting from me.”
“A lighthearted comedy.”
In fact it’s brutal and gritty, fast moving and peopled by intriguing characters, such as a lawyer with a secret past, a bent advocate depute and a wise-cracking wideboy junkie.
“I just want it to be a ride. You get in the sports car, somebody jams the accelerator to the floor and your head jars back. It’s a blast.”
Sinclair’s acting career is also going well – film credits include last year’s summer blockbuster zombie movie World War Z, alongside Brad Pitt – “Brad is the coolest. He’s everything you hope he would be. He has a goofball sense of humour, that American college kid sense of humour” – and he’s landed a great part in the West End, playing Jeeves in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, so that’s brilliant, isn’t it?
“Yeah, well ...” he says, trailing off into a sigh. “I wish I could be more excited about it, but it gets in the way with what I want to do, which is the writing. I’ve been on the verge of phoning up saying ‘I don’t think I can do this’. Usually people get miserable when they don’t get jobs. And it’s a good job too. It’s perverse. I need to alter my approach to it. Maybe I should see someone about this,” he muses.
Ideally he’d be sitting in his hut working on his third book, writing between school runs and planning the evening meal for himself, his wife Shauna, a GP, and their two young children Eva and Anna.
“I take them to school, read to them every night, I’m proactive. With Jeeves and Wooster I’ll miss the bedtime reading. I do resent it. With the elder, we’re reading Roald Dahl, and the little one is just learning, so she listens in. I don’t understand people who don’t want to hang out with their kids, fathers who moan about having them at the weekend, that’s weird.”
So how is progress with the third book?
“I haven’t started on it yet. I have an overall idea and I’ve written the first chapter and got the second in my head. I’m working on it,” he says in a dog-ate-my-homework way.
“I was very close to doing only writing this year but I’ve got to do Jeeves and Wooster for six months. After that I can probably take the next year off and write.
“It’s the interruption. I really wanted to do a lot of the festivals and get involved. I will still be able to do Edinburgh, Stirling and Bristol crime festival, but there are other things we’ve had to cancel.
“I have enjoyed the community of writers in crime. They’re a great bunch of people who talk and tweet and help you along. I did an event in Belfast with Ian Rankin who was so supportive, said kind things. It’s too big a generalisation to say actors are in it for what they can get, but it’s different with writers,” he says.
Sinclair started writing when Eva was born, and turned down acting jobs that involved travelling in order to be a stay-at-home dad. He took the opportunity, in between changing nappies, to develop an idea he’d had in his head for years. It’s tempting to think that because he’s well known, he’d find it easy to get a book deal, but he insists this is not the case.
“No, in fact the head of paperbacks for Faber said, ‘Oh no, a book by John Gordon Sinclair. I don’t want to read books by an actor’. She told me that at the launch party and we laughed about it. But the person who had read it first and persuaded her to go with it was 24 or so, and had no idea about Gregory’s Girl stuff or the acting. She was reading on the basis of it just being a book.” With one book under his belt, writing became a viable option for Sinclair who happily adapted to writing from home as he looked after the children.
“With the first one you have no idea if anyone will ever read it but with the second, you know it will go into a system, and it makes you more confident. It meant I could afford the time to sit down and write. It was legitimate and a proper job. Before that, if my wife came home and I was sitting in the same position with the nappies not changed and dishes not done she’d say, ‘What have you been doing?’ Now I can say ‘I’ve been writing’. You have to do a lot of research on the internet. It’s professional daydreaming. It’s allowed.”
Unusually Sinclair has gone against the crime thriller grain and chosen a female as his main character. Given his domestic competence and ambivalence to gender demarcation – he cooks, puts on the washing, does the school run, but also comes over all workmanlike and installs bathrooms in the house – it’s perhaps no surprise that he manages to make her entirely credible.
“Having a female lead character gave me a slightly different approach to the violence. At times I thought, if it was a guy he’d probably throw a punch, but she probably won’t, what would she do? So it’s much more internalised. Because of what happened in her life, she’s not very trusting, especially of men.”
Like Sinclair, Keira drinks whisky sours, and has a penchant for David Bowie. “I’ve been a fan of Bowie for ever. When I first started watching Top of The Pops I’d never seen anything like him. Suddenly you think anything is possible, there are no rules. It’s liberating. If I had to choose one person to take to my grave with me, it’d be Bowie…”
Now he’s scaring me, especially since they share an agent and he’s seen him several times over the years, going backstage in LA on the 1987 Glass Spider tour.
“… or rather, his music.”
Is there anything else he and his feisty Glasgow lawyer have in common?
“She’s like me, yes. A little bit of a sociophobe, which is why writing suits me. I wish I wasn’t. Again, there’s something I need help for,” he laughs.
Help is already at hand, however, in the shape of Shauna, whom he married in 2004. In what Sinclair calls “a weird reflection of the film” the pair were introduced by Clare Grogan, Sinclair’s Gregory’s Girl co-star and long-standing pal.
“Before I got married I’d been living in this house for about five years and didn’t know any of the neighbours. Then Shauna moved in and I heard her on the phone saying ‘we’d love to come round for cake’. The guys next door had invited us for coffee. She’s a much nicer person than me, she’s a people person. Once I meet people it’s fine, but it’s a crippling shyness. It’s terrible.”
Sinclair never set out to be an actor, and was an apprentice electrician in Glasgow when he joined Glasgow Youth Theatre and met Bill Forsyth. Gregory’s Girl followed, after which Sinclair moved down to London to try acting.
He’s worked solidly ever since, with award-winning roles in stage musicals such as The Producers and became a household face in the Tesco ads with Jane Horrocks.
“I feel I’m being dragged through life by the hair. If someone said do you want to do this? Or do you fancy being in this play? I’d say yeah, yeah. It was the same with moving to London. I thought ‘yeah, I’ll do that’. Someone had a spare room and that’s how it came about.
“Without thinking through the consequences of it at all, I always feel something’s going to happen. That kind of blind faith, where you’re having fun and don’t think things through.”
Arriving in London barely out of his teens, Sinclair was not the domestic god he is now.
“I didn’t have a clue, about cooking or changing sheets. I would be on the phone to my mum saying, if you put an egg in water, how long do you cook it for? I thought, I have got to learn to cook, I can’t live on boiled eggs. I learnt tuna salad and did that for six months. Now I do anything, curries, Chinese, steak… I’m really interested in cooking, not the fancy stuff … just good straightforward cooking.
“I love having a houseful of people and cooking for them. I have made myself responsible for it. Shauna keeps asking me how do you do that, and I say I’m not telling you.”
Domestic routine is important to Sinclair and he repeats his own childhood experience of a Chinese meal every weekend with his kids.
“Every Friday we used to go swimming with my dad and he would get a Chinese in Scotstoun on the way home. I always used to feel guilty because we’d steal loads of it off his plate. But recently he told me he used to buy five portions and put them all on one plate. It was a mountain of chow mein. I want my kids to feel like that, be part of that. But, oh no…”
“What if the reverse happens? And they grow up and say, remember every Saturday we had to go for a Chinese and they’d hated it?”
In preparation for Jeeves and Wooster Sinclair has undergone another transformation, growing out the buzz cut he’s worn since playing a Navy Seal commander in World War Z, and shaving off the goatee he’s been sporting for quite a while.
“You don’t get butlers with buzz cuts, so I’ve grown it out. When I first had it done the kids started crying and saying you’re not my daddy and they kept saying why are you angry, and I’d say I’m not, I’m making a cup of tea.
“I shaved the goatee thing off and they didn’t like that either. They said you just don’t look like my dad, grow it back.”
It’s not the first time Sinclair’s family have had trouble with his appearance, his mum having struggled when he took her to watch him playing Ivar the Boneless in Eric the Viking.
“I took her to the premiere and she said I thought you were hardly in this film. I said, I haven’t been in it yet. She’d been looking at Tim Robbins. I’ve had that in a lift in New York too, someone staring at me. Eventually they said, ‘are you him?’ I said, ‘who do you think I am?’ and they said Tim Robbins.
“The weirdest thing is that the first book, Seventy Times Seven, I was originally going to write as a screen play for Tim Robbins. It’s about two brothers always mistaken for each other, and I was thinking about him.”
If it makes it to the screen maybe Sinclair and Robbins could play the brothers. As for the soundtrack, Sinclair goes straight for Mogwai.
“Rave Tapes is going to be the soundtrack of the summer. There are some cracking tracks on it. If I had my time over I would change the Bowie references in the second book to Mogwai. I’ve already said if any of these get made into a film, I’d love them to do the music. So they better hide.”
So Sinclair is funny, can cook, plumb, organise kids, write a thriller from a woman’s perspective, why was he single for so long?
“Yes, yes, for 20 years I was just batting them off. I’m glad it worked out this way, you know. I was just having quite a good time really and hadn’t reached that point where I thought I want to settle down and have kids.”
There was a long relationship in the 1990s with actress and singer Ruthie Henshall that saw them become engaged twice before ending it without acrimony when Henshall headed for Broadway.
Are they still in touch?
“Every now and then we exchange a tweet and sometimes I bump into her in town. We don’t go up to town much, though, occasionally to the Groucho Club for a night out. I don’t hang out with celebs, my only starry pal is Jane Horrocks.”
Mostly Sinclair is to be found at his garden lair in Surrey, writing. Shauna wanted a desk of her own there, but, new man though he is, the hut is out of bounds.
“Er, it’s a space for thinking. And my beer fridge is in there.”
And with that he’s off, hut bound. It’s time for a little professional daydreaming…
Blood Whispers by John Gordon Sinclair is published by Faber & Faber on Thursday, £12.99. He will be appearing on 4 June at Waterstones, Argyle Street, Glasgow, 7pm, www.waterstones.com; on 5 June at Drymen Church Hall, 7pm, tel: 01360 660751; on 6 June at Primavera Cafe, the Avenue Centre, Newton Mearns, 7pm; on 7 June at Old Well Theatre, Moffat, 1pm, see www.moffatbookevents.co.uk for details.
John Gordon Sinclair plays Jeeves in Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense from 30 June-20 September at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, tel: 0844 8713051, www.JeevesAndWoosterplay.com The subsequent tour plays at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, tel: 0844 871 7627, www.atgtickets.com/venues/theatre-royal-glasgow from 24-29 November.