Interview: Kevin Guthrie

Kevin Guthrie, stars in Whisky Galore!, out now
Kevin Guthrie, stars in Whisky Galore!, out now
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With Whisky Galore! out this week and the blockbuster Dunkirk and TV series The Terror in the pipeline, the Scottish actor has a lot to celebrate

“If you bump into Kevin Guthrie in a bar and fancy buying him a drink, he wouldn’t say no to a dram, and if you really want to make his day, make it a Balvenie, 14-year-old, Caribbean cask.

Kevin Guthrie in Whisky Galore! Picture: Graeme Hunter Pictures

Kevin Guthrie in Whisky Galore! Picture: Graeme Hunter Pictures

That’s my outright favourite, my whisky of choice,” says the Whisky Galore! star, “although a Glenfarclas 105 is one of my favourites too.”

Although to share a tipple with Guthrie right now you’d have to be in a bar in Croatia where he’s filming mutiny and monsters TV drama The Terror, (by Mad Men and Breaking Bad creators AMC) and it’s more likely to be a beer or glass of plum-based slivovitz that he’ll be drinking to toast the Scottish film’s release this week.

“I had no real understanding of whisky until we made the film but I think we’re all self-proclaimed connoisseurs off the back of it now.” He laughs. “We spent time going to distilleries, not just to have a drink,” he stresses, “but to understand why it is what it is and why it’s a global product. To understand why it’s revered. We went to Glenfarclas distillery and they gave us a little sampling of the 105 which is special too.”

The 29-year-old from Renfrewshire has plenty of reason to celebrate with a dram at the moment, with his comic role in the feel-good Whisky Galore! remake, plus two other films due out this year; a two-hander with Sheila Hancock called Edie and Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk, as well as The Terror.

Kevin Guthrie, stars in Whisky Galore!, out now

Kevin Guthrie, stars in Whisky Galore!, out now

It seems to be Guthrie’s time in the spotlight after his career-changing turn in Terence Davies’ 2015 Sunset Song as brutalised by war ploughboy Ewan Tavendale alongside Agyness Deyn, and his role as the wizard Abernathy in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them last year. Throw in Ray Winstone’s sidekick Detective Sergeant MacPherson in Robert Carlyle’s The Legend of Barney Thomson which came on the back of the singing, dancing soldier boy Ally in Dexter Fletcher’s 2013 musical hit Sunshine on Leith, and Guthrie has proved his versatility, and can list theatre, film, TV, drama, comedy, singing, ensemble parts, two-handers, leading man and character roles in his repertoire.

His comic timing is to the fore in Gillies MacKinnon’s remake of the 1949 Ealing comedy classic, based 
on the novel by Sir Compton Mackenzie, in turn based on the true story of Hebridean islanders salvaging the whisky cargo of the SS Politician that ran aground off Eriskay in 1941. With rationing turning the island of Todday dry, it’s up to the islanders led by Gregor Fisher as wily postmaster Macroon to outwit the customs and excise men and Eddie Izzard’s upper-class English duffer of a home guard Captain Waggett, while James Cosmos’s hell and damnation minister looks the other way.

Guthrie is George Campbell, played in the original by Gordon Jackson, a teetotal teacher who falls in love with Catriona Macroon (Ellie Kendrick, Meera in Game of Thrones). His involvement in the salvage sees him fall off the wagon and fired up by the water of life, find the courage to stand up to his domineering mother.

“The whisky is a metaphor, it’s pop the cork and everything flows,” says Guthrie. “The film has more of a modern take than the original, with a less twee and tartan and shortbread vibe about it. It’s about family, loss and moving on, although it’s still about whisky – let’s not lose sight that this is about our national drink, and our national drink possibly not being Irn-Bru. You should probably enjoy the movie with a little dram, a little Speyside single malt for sure,” he suggests.

The choice of a Speyside malt references the location of the film, with the cast and crew taking up residence in Portsoy, Aberdeenshire, for the duration, where Guthrie had the chance to catch up with another native of his hometown of Neilston in Renfrewshire, Gregor Fisher.

“When I was younger I went to nursery with Gregor’s son and although my parents were aware of it at the time, being huge Rab C [Nesbitt] fans, it kind of went under my radar. But making Whisky Galore!, we spoke very fondly about the place and there was a synergy about us from the connection, an appreciation for the same little postcode we grew up in.”

With two older sisters, Kevin was the quietest of the three so his parents, an electrician and nurse, sent him along with them to Pace Youth Theatre in Paisley. Guthrie loved it and won small TV and film roles, including a part in Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher in 1999, then Still Game, TV series The Key and Young Adam with Peter Mullan, Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, leading him to study acting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Leaving early to take the title role in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Peter Pan in 2010 he graduated in 2011 and acted alongside fellow Pace student and friend, James McAvoy in Macbeth. TV roles followed, the parts building, and in 2013 he was cast in Sunshine on Leith.

Sunshine on Leith came out of nowhere,” he says. “I was in South Africa filming Restless for TV, when Dexter [Fletcher] asked me back to screentest and I remember thinking, ‘look guys, my background is drama, not musicals, but they were ‘forget all that, we want actors who will sing’. I’m not Pavarotti and never claimed to be, but I was given heart and comfort by the fact that Dexter wanted us to be able to act through the song. He’s the most infectious guy, one of the most talented I’ve worked with, who gives you positivity and opportunity and bolstered me on a career that was possibly round the corner. We had fun and were grateful the film went on to be a bit of a knockout, creating the platform for us to go on and be doing what we’re doing now.”

Guthrie needn’t have feared about the singing as it runs in his family, with a grandfather and sisters who he says have “beautiful” voices, while he plays the guitar, piano and like his dad, the drums. “My grandfather 
and his brothers sang that old Italian a capella style,” he says referring to his family’s distant roots.

Seeing Guthrie in Sunshine on Leith led Robert Carlyle to cast him in The Legend of Barney Thomson, alongside Ray Winstone, who he describes as “a big, cuddly teddy bear, the antithesis of the roles he plays. More often than not, those actors, the Winstones, Carlyles and Mullans of this world are the opposite to the dark, sinister, possibly psychotic roles they play. They’re really warm, beautiful human beings and it makes the experience all the more, because you’re watching someone transform in front of you.”

Mullan and Carlyle were acting heroes of Guthrie when he was growing up, and he cites watching Carlyle in Riff Raff and Mullan in My Name is Joe as formative experiences.

“Those were two of the most charismatic performances I think I might ever have seen. So just being on a set with these guys is a complete luxury. On Barney Thomson, Bobby was so generous and slick and suave with what he was doing. He created a platform for us to have a bit of a play, create it, and he put a camera on it, as opposed to him creating it and putting a camera on us doing what he had asked us to do. That’s the magic he captured on screen and that’s why Barney is a great film,” he says.

Working alongside Mullan made Sunset Song sweet for Guthrie, but it was the complex character of Ewan that really made the film what he calls “the job of a lifetime”.

“As a character you couldn’t get any more to play with, because he’s every shade of light, every shade of grey and every shade of dark, and to have that spectrum in the same arc and journey… And obviously it’s a stunning piece of writing, one of the great novels, and what Terence achieved getting it from print to screen is nothing short of sensational. Only someone as single-minded as Terence Davies would have the depth and understanding of those characters in that part of the world, to tell the story in the way he did, unrelenting, unforgiving, brutal, unflinching, but absolutely in the context of what Lewis Grassic Gibbon wrote in his novel.”

Guthrie had come up against the novel at school when his dyslexia made it something of a struggle, but when he revisited it again at the RSAMD he chose Ewan’s eve of death monologue as a performance piece.

“It sums up for me beautifully what he represents. I like to hope I’m nowhere near as dark as Ewan as he went in certain places but that’s not to say that if I had to endure what he endured I wouldn’t go down a similar path. It holds a huge place in my heart, that film. The experience of making it was entirely life changing, career changing, and I’m really, really proud of it.

“I gave my life and soul for two years to Ewan, and if I could dedicate that to him then the authenticity of him would be believable and hopefully that’s what came out. On an acting technique level, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and it’s as far down a tunnel I’ve had to excavate a character. It’s made everything else since a result of the template that was created for Ewan. He was the prototype for creating character and that level of depth and understanding.”

Guthrie still sees Agyness Deyn, who won plaudits for her portrayal of Chris Guthrie, although with Deyn resident in the US, it’s sporadic.

“We keep up regularly, as often as we can, normally in London and I’ve caught up with Aggy in LA a couple of times. We agree that we’re in debt to Terence for his courage to cast us in these two iconic roles.”

These days Guthrie is based in London, where he lives with his girlfriend, who he politely declines to discuss as she’s “not in the industry and not part of that whole thing”. Guthrie was one of several of his RSAMD peers who headed south, some remaining and some heading home. He sees McAvoy often and Greg McHugh, who he met on Two Doors Down, with all of them being sports mad and playing in the “not the face” actors’ footie game with their friend and fellow thesp Martin Compston.

“We played in a charity game at Celtic Park last summer and I work with the Celtic foundation as well as charities providing support for children with autism and different disabilities. It’s for a great cause and we really look forward to it because it gives us a chance to meet up as we’re often all over the world.

“I think starting out the pressure is there to go south, because the casting all happens within a two square mile radius of Soho, whether the jobs are in America, Scotland, Europe or Ireland, but nowadays I think there are opportunities opening up in Scotland. I’ve worked quite a lot back home and a hell of a lot abroad and the last couple of years in the States, so I feel a bit more like a nomad than I’ve ever been, but everywhere you go, you bump into someone Scottish.”

Guthrie is playing a Scottish soldier again in Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s epic blockbuster due out this summer. The story of the historic evacuation of 330,000 British troops from the beaches of France in May 1940, it also stars Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, and Scottish actor Jack Lowden (War and Peace, Tommy’s Honour) not forgetting Harry Styles, in his cinematic debut.

“It’s Christopher Nolan so obviously it goes without saying that it’s a huge blockbuster, no stone unturned, and you can be sure it’s the best possible film it could ever be. In my eyes it’s also the most palpable experience for the audience to see the same story that those soldiers had to go through, that’s why it’s shot on IMAX and why there aren’t visual effects, why we were on the continent for months on end.

Did they shoot in and around Dunkirk?

“I need to limit what I’m saying on that at the moment,” he says. “There’s a bit of a veto, but yeah we went into the lion’s den. It tells the stories of lads from north of the Border, south of the Border, from Ireland, everywhere, who were there.”

Guthrie can talk more openly about his other forthcoming film, Edie, with Sheila Hancock, about an 83-year-old who gives a care home a swerve and heads for Scotland, set on climbing a mountain, hooking up with Jonny, played by Guthrie, en route.

“It was me, Sheila and our producer and a small band of filmmakers who went up to Lochinver and Suilven for five weeks, this time last year. It’s a story where a female, I’m sure Sheila Hancock wouldn’t mind me saying, in her twilight years, is ready to create a final swan song for herself. I won’t give it away, but she’s in a bid to conquer this mountain. She meets a lad about town on the way, me, and through arguments and tension, they uncover an appreciation and understanding for one another. It’s a really beautiful film and I hope it sings to people.

“Sheila Hancock was great, a … I don’t use the word lightly... legend. She’s an award winner in every area, performer, writer, director, singer, producer, actor, so to be aligned with that level of talent was a really humbling experience.

“I’m greedy with learning, greedy with the people I work with and want to sponge off them all the time, so I was able to sponge off Sheila, to understand how in her younger years, in her middle years, in her older years, she would get into a character.

“Also she was possibly learning off me, a younger, more modern approach to the newer science of filming because it’s possibly more technical now than ever, you’ve got to be more aware of the camera now than ever. So we would both agree that we were learning and teaching at the same time, exactly what the two characters did. Hang on each other’s word as if it’s gospel. I think it’s something a lot of people are going to relate to and I hope it wins awards that one, yeah.”

Guthrie has been canny so far with his career choices, achieving a spread of roles and genres, carefully picking and choosing his roles.

“First and foremost I have to respond to great material whether it’s an indie film or blockbuster, as long as I feel it’s a story I can tell.”

His latest outing, The Terror, he was keen to do because it was a move into what he terms “high-end television” after several films.

“I’m trying to have as many pots turning and as many plates spinning as possible with the idea of longevity in mind. It’s not about superstardom, I’m more conscious about the work.”

Filmed in Croatia and Budapest, The Terror is an adaptation of Dan Simmons’ novel about Captain John Franklin’s doomed expedition to the Northwest Passage in 1845 in which two ships and 129 men were lost. It’s a tale of scurvy, cannibalism, mutiny and monsters, and due out later this year. It’s not called The Terror for nothing says Guthrie, with a nervous laugh.

“It’s great fun, but it’s terrifying. And it’s psychological terror too. You don’t know if it’s the beast within or without, imagination or reality. It’s all cannibalism and scurvy and monsters,” he says. “Honestly, I’m terrified anyway.”

Give that man a dram, a 14-year-old malt should do the trick. n

Whisky Galore! is in cinemas in Scotland this weekend and across the rest of the UK from 19 May.