A FEW years ago in this newspaper, Billy Boyd was named Scotland's Most Eligible Bachelor.
He doesn't read the chatroom stuff, he says, but he does still slip on his hairy feet for the odd Fellowship weekender, where the 'hobbit-fanciers' sometimes turn out to know more about Billy Boyd than he does.
"I will have made some throwaway comment in an interview about liking bananas and then when I go to the next event everyone comes and gives me a banana, and I'm thinking, 'Why am I getting bananas?'" Boyd's lips curl with a dry humour that's more Middle Scotland than Middle Earth. But there is nothing cynical about his smile. As someone who left school at 17 for a factory job, he isn't about to grumble in the face of international film stardom.
"There are a lot of actors out there and very few get to be in a film like The Lord of the Rings," he says, "so I know how lucky I am." It helped, of course, that as well as clearing out the Academy's trophy cabinet on its release, making the movies was a bit of a blast. During the shoot in New Zealand, newspapers and websites were filled with stories of the cast partying, adventure-sporting and getting matching tattoos. For all the 15-hour working days and itchy prosthetics, it began to look like a bunch of blokes having the best gap year of their lives.
"I suppose it was. We had swords and horses and all that. And there were hundreds of stunt men. There was a lot of going out with them and drinking and playing pool. So, yeah, it was a bit blokey, but it was good. Nothin' wrong with that. And then some of the most beautiful women in the world turned up every now and again."
While Cate Blanchett was in and out very quickly, Liv Tyler spent more time there. "Liv's lovely. She's very down to earth, actually. She always looks like she's a movie star, and very few people do. You could call her up and say, 'D'you want to get a coffee in 15 minutes?' and she'd turn up looking like a movie star. Viggo [Mortensen] doesn't. In the flesh he looks as though he's just been in a bar brawl. Very rough," he says. There were also plenty of practical jokes on set, remembers Boyd, "and Viggo's normally involved violence. He's very big on headbutting. Or he'd just run from 500 yards away and rugby-tackle you. Quite painful."
Of all the cast, though, it was the hobbits who formed the closest bond. Pippin, Merry and Frodo spent last New Year catching waves in Hawaii. An avid surfer, Boyd looks the part today, his casual shirt unbuttoned to show a couple of necklaces. I ask about the larger one. "That there? That's a green stone, from New Zealand. Orlando [Bloom] gave me that. And I gave him one. You're not allowed to buy one for yourself. You're meant to buy it, wear it for a little bit, then give it to whoever you want. It's good luck. A little bit of you... It doesn't mean we're engaged, though."
The other is a St Christopher. He flips it over to show a small figure crouched on a board. "Yeah, St Christopher, patron saint of travel but also surfing," he says. Boyd felt an urgent need of it in New Zealand, when he saw a dark shadow steaming towards his board. "I was surfing at night - never a good thing to do. But it wasn't a shark, it was just a seal. I was surfing in South Africa recently, though: lots of sharks there. But I wasn't eaten. So that's the good news. I suppose, statistically, every time you surf your chances of being eaten go up, but it's not something you think about as you go in."
In Boyd's new surf spot there's more chance of him becoming a freezer meal than dish of the day. "The good thing about surfing in Scotland is that nobody surfs in Scotland, so you get the waves to yourself. It's very cold, but it's great." After a few years of jet-set commuting, the actor quietly moved back home a year ago. "I'd spent a year and a half in New Zealand, then I was back and forth every year for two months, then there was the premire and the publicity, then travelling the world doing press junkets and then in between times I might spend a month in LA or a month in London. In the end I just thought, 'I've got to have a base, I've got to have something.' So I thought, 'Where do I want to be?' The answer was Glasgow. It was a good feeling to empty all the boxes."
Boyd grew up in Glasgow with his parents and his sister Margaret, who is a year older and manages a hairdressing salon in the city. The pair are "very close", with Margaret often visiting him on location. "We've always got on. Maybe it's because we lost our parents, I don't know." Their parents died when Billy and Margaret were in their early teens. "Just illness," he says. "It wasn't an accident or anything, but the two deaths were quite close together. A year between them. My dad died first and then my mum. It was hard, definitely; it's hard enough dealing with that loss at any time, but when you're just starting your teens..." Luckily, he says, their grandmother, who came to live with them, was "quite tough, quite strict".
Did the death of his parents have an effect on who he grew up to be? "I think everything that happens to you in your life affects who you are," he says. "I'd definitely be a different person if they hadn't, but who that different person would be I don't know." And he's not the neurotic type who needs to find out. There's been no therapy or counselling, he says with a smile that's half-uncomfortable, half-ironic, "because I don't feel like I need any. I'm quite happy, you know."
Although an early role in a school play as the Artful Dodger gave Boyd a taste for acting, he didn't go straight into it. Instead, going on the discouraging advice of a sour careers adviser, he got himself a trade: bookbinding. "I remember getting sent around the factory to do a 'lead test' once. The guys said that it was to take the lead content out of the air, which it wasn't. It was just making me walk around with a big red cross sticky-taped on to a piece of paper. When apprentices started after me we did a lot more of that kind of thing, because I was involved in it. Sent them down for 'a long weight', tartan paint, all that kind of stuff," he grins.
Six years later, and "thoroughly sick" of bookbinding, he successfully auditioned for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. A stage career with St Andrews Repertory and the Traverse Theatre followed as well as one or two small television roles in Taggart and the like. When his agent suggested Boyd make a show reel for The Lord of the Rings he sent it off and thought little more about it, never having read the book. It was only when Jackson flew to Scotland to meet him that Boyd began to think this new film might turn out to be something.
Getting into acting later seems to have inoculated Boyd against the poisonous effects of sudden stardom. He's said that he's a bit "long in the tooth" to have his head turned by fame, but there also seems to be a conscious decision to see the best in life. Making The Lord of the Rings was, he says, such a great experience he'd "do it again in a second". Even getting stopped in the street doesn't bother him. "I know what it was like when I was a young boy to see somebody that I liked, and to hope that if I went up and asked for an autograph they'd give me one."
For Boyd the film was Star Wars. "Yeah," he deadpans, "but I very rarely saw anyone from Star Wars in Glasgow. 'Harrison Ford! Hello!' I never got fanatical about it. I enjoyed watching films, but I never wrote to anyone or anything like that." Still, he's unfailingly generous towards the fanatics of the film who swap Boyd minutiae online, along with 'meltsome' photos of him. "A lot of people meet friends through the websites, and they meet up and have holidays and that kind of stuff, so that's got to be a good thing," he says. "There's also a group of girls in America who, if they find out I'm involved in a charity, will do work for it too."
The frenzy surrounding the recent G8 summit may have died down, but Boyd is still wearing his Make Poverty History wristband. As well as rallying protestors to the event, Boyd spoke on one of the main stages. "It was quite a special day. There were a lot of moments that will stay with me for a long time - like the silence, when everyone released their balloons. I met some really interesting people as well - a couple of farmers from Africa, telling their side of the story."
If The Lord of the Rings means Boyd has charity clout, it also means that these days he's in a position to pick and choose film scripts. Since shooting the Tolkien epic he's played a sailor under Russell Crowe in the Oscar-winning Master and Commander and now a shipyard mate of Peter Mullan's in the Glasgow-based drama On a Clear Day. He and fellow hobbit Dominic Monaghan also have their own comic screenplay in the works, which is getting developed with help from Boyd's old Traverse pal David Greig.
On a Clear Day tells the story of how Mullan's newly redundant foreman decides to swim the Channel. The whole cast had to take the plunge. "It was freezing!" yelps Boyd. "Freezing cold. It's a film about swimming the Channel and they film it in the Irish Sea, which is colder! I think you can see the fear in our eyes." At one point, Boyd's character glumly pulls open his Speedos to check everything's still there. "Don't worry, it'll grow back," says his friend. Did he have a similar experience when filming? "No. Never! I'm very happy with... everything," he laughs.
And he seems to be. Back in Glasgow, he's getting his old band back together again (a good singer, he also plays guitar, bass and drums) and, at 37 years old, has removed himself from the Eligibles list. How long has he been seeing someone?
"We'll just keep that to ourselves."
"But it's going well?"
"I'm not saying... yeah, she is."
Since The Lord of the Rings everything's changed for Boyd. And nothing. Whether it's a surfer philosophy, hobbit wisdom or something else, he seems to have cracked the secret of being an ordinary, contented film star. "Sometimes, when you're in a room full of Al Pacinos and Diana Rosses it's a bit weird," he admits, "because you think, 'If I was naked this would be a nightmare.' But when things become real they're not that big any more. When it's happening to you, it's natural. It's just your life, if you know what I mean."
On a Clear Day is at Cineworld, Edinburgh, on August 20 and 22, and at the Glasgow Film Theatre, August 21. See www.edfilmfest.org.uk or call 0131 623 8030 for more details
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