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Interview: Nick Rhys, actor, River City

THE scene is the Caledonian Hotel a few years ago. Act one, the laundry room.

Nick Rhys is sorting through various items of dirty linen. He's been working at the hotel, back-breaking work helping clean rooms left behind by well-heeled visitors - the hotel is a favourite of Sir Sean Connery - while he figures out his future.

He's wondering whether one day, he too might ever get to lay his head down on the Caley's crisp white sheets and savour its five-star luxury as a successful actor.

The scene shifts to today. Now Nick is wearing army fatigues, he's strolling purposefully past the Tall Ship and the Oyster caf, the busy health centre and Shieldinch's local garage Montego Motors.

He's no longer simply Nick the former Royal High pupil, drifting in and out of jobs like the one at the Caley or the Haymarket caf or - maybe worst of all - the mundane job at the Scottish Traffic Area offices in Lady Lawson Street dealing with vehicle licences.

Instead the 28-year-old is about to make his first appearance on the nation's television screens in a gritty soap opera storyline that no other has so far dared to attempt.

He'll arrive in River City tonight as Leo Brodie, a soldier just back from Afghanistan, tormented by what he's witnessed and fatigued by the grind of battle. And when he gets to Shieldinch, it's to be met by his brother and his new wife, who is Muslim.

"It does fuel possibilities of a clash of ideologies," nods Nick, referring to the potentially explosive combination that so far has been uncharted territory for British soaps.

"But Leo's not a one-dimensional character. He's not a soldier who comes in and shouts a lot and does stupid things. He's a complicated guy."

Nick didn't have to look far for inspiration for Leo. His cousin has been serving with the American military in Iraq and he has friends who have direct experience of the war in Afghanistan.

"It's a real eye-opener to talk to them," he says. "We're all aware of what they must go through, but to hear these guys speak about the struggles they face, living with insurgents and IEDs and the conditions weather-wise they have to cope with.

"What's interesting is that there's a humorous side to them too - they need to have a coping mechanism. So Leo can still laugh and joke and have banter with his brothers."

Nick, who'll play one of three brothers to arrive at the fictional Glasgow suburb, joins other Edinburgh-based stars who have become River City regulars - Eileen McCallum, who plays feisty Liz and Billy McElhaney who plays rough diamond Jimmy.

Snaring the role is a major breakthrough for him. After four years in various theatre and advertising roles, River City is a chance for stability in a notoriously unstable profession.

Yet if he reckoned on it bringing glamour to his life, he's probably been disappointed. "I'm back living with my parents and sleeping in my old bed," he says.

"I was in London for six years doing drama school and theatre. I was always very vocal there about coming from Edinburgh and how it's an amazing city. But I didn't want to be a Scot in London going on about the old country, I wanted to come back here," he explains.

"So now I'm back staying with my mum and dad, Lynn and Rupert, and it's actually lovely to have them around to support me."

Indeed, it's worked out remarkably well, he adds. "I think my mum expected me to revert to my younger self, that there'd be a few late nights but she says my room is actually cleaner now than it ever was.

"It's because they are working me pretty hard, I finish up, get home and go straight to bed."

Filming demands do mean some nights he doesn't even make it back along the M8 from Dumbarton, where the soap is filmed at a cracking pace. "Last week it was nine scenes in a day then I'd go back to a hotel and lie there thinking of what's coming next. It's an amazing work rate.

"But," he grins, "I'm absolutely the luckiest guy in the world. If I ever find myself moaning about being tired I remember I'm doing something I love."

Of course, he'd never dream of doing anything else now, but when he was growing up it took a while for Nick to discover his future lay on the stage.

Sporty and athletic, he was more prone to hitting the football pitch or the basketball court than dreaming of treading the boards in Macbeth, the role he now admits he'd love to get his teeth into.

"I was mad about sport," he says. "I grew up in Roseburn. I could see Tynecastle every day so I'm 100 per cent Hearts."

It was Sir Sean and James Bond, however, that made him consider becoming an actor. "I saw a James Bond film and thought 'Wow, that's amazing'. Then when I found out that Sean Connery grew up just a mile or two from where I was, well, that was pretty cool.

"I would have loved to have been a professional footballer and I was crushed when I realised I wasn't good enough. So I thought back to when I was young and how every couple of weeks I wanted to be something different, a soldier one week, a doctor the next.

"I thought if I became an actor, I could be all those things."

He was 15 when his mum organised for him to attend a summer drama course at Bristol Old Vic theatre. "Within two hours of starting, I was hooked," he laughs.

In between then and now there has been a string of back-breaking jobs, none more so than that at the Caley.

Today he's a step closer to his dream of one day returning there, only in a slightly different capacity. "I'm tall - 6ft 4in - and it was hard going cleaning rooms and working in the laundry. But it stood me in good stead, I know that whatever acting brings, it could be worse, I could still be doing that.

"Today acting keeps me up at night and wakes me up in the morning, it's absolutely my passion.

"But my dream is to go back to the Caledonian Hotel," he says with a laugh, "only this time I'd be there as a customer not a cleaner."

&#149 River City, BBC One Scotland tonight, 8pm

CURRENTLY SHOWING

RIVER City follows the lives and loves of residents of Shieldinch, a fictional suburb of Glasgow.

It has been running since September 2002 and attracts an average of 500,000 viewers every week.

The Brodie brothers - soldier Leo (Nick Rhys), former Army doctor Michael (Andy Clark) and streetwise Gabriel (Garry Sweeney) - are the newest cast members. They are joined by Iranian-born actress Maryam Hamidi, who plays GP Michael's second wife.

Lothian actors have been well represented in the Shieldinch soap since it started, and of course the whole soap is the baby of writer Stephen Greenhorn - a native of Fauldhouse, West Lothian.

Recently, Ewan Stewart played ex-con Daniel McKee, while Tam Dean Burn also played a gangster. From the original cast there was Jo Cameron-Brown, who played troubled granny Moira Henderson, Duncan Duff, as property developer Lewis Cope and Eric Barlow as publican Tommy Donachie.

 
 
 

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