PICTURE the scene: Alastair Mackenzie, the actor best-known for playing Archie, Laird of Glenbogle in BBC's Monarch of the Glen, is on a train travelling from London to Edinburgh.
It's been two years since Mackenzie left Monarch of the Glen, but it's going to take a little longer for people to stop thinking of him as Archie. Does he wish he'd taken the same strategy as Christopher Ecclestone in Doctor Who and thrown in the towel after just one series? "I think that was a very canny move on his part," he laughs. "It certainly put him on the front of all the papers. But I remember Monarch very fondly. I was there for four-and-a-half years, made some lifelong friends and left a big piece of my heart in the hills up there." Despite the on-set camaraderie and the healthy paycheck, Mackenzie had his reasons for leaving. "I actually thought there was nowhere else for my character to go," he explains. "My character reluctantly arrived from London at the beginning of series one to take over the bankrupt estate and decide which girl he was going to marry. By the time I left, the estate was successful, I married the girl and reconciled my relationship with my father. It seemed appropriate to leave when I did."
If Mackenzie has any regrets about leaving, they don't show. Sitting in Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel he's relaxed, confident and has the air of a man who's going places. Even the inquisitive glances of the two American couples sitting at the table next to us don't bother him. Interviews from a couple of years back painted the actor as a man who was shy, guarded and wary of talking about himself. Today, it's clear, something's changed. He takes every question seriously and gives a thoughtful response, but in between times is constantly joking, as if to make it clear that he doesn't take himself too seriously.
Mackenzie is back in Scotland to talk about his forthcoming role in a Fringe production, The Gigli Concert. Tom Murphy's play - rarely performed in Scotland but hailed as a classic in Ireland - gives Mackenzie the chance to play a role far removed from affable Archie. As JPW King, a practitioner of a fictional therapy called Dynamatology, Mackenzie's character is supposed to cure wounded souls, but he has more than enough problems of his own to contend with. When an anonymous Irishman (played by Lorcan Cranitch) arrives and asks King to teach him how to sing like opera star Beniamino Gigli, the fun really begins. "It transpires that I am in more need of help than he is," laughs Mackenzie.
The actor describes The Gigli Concert as "a marathon of a play - a rollercoaster". He's onstage for two-and-a-half hours - something of a contrast to the world of film and television where, Mackenzie says, they shoot three to five minutes of screen time a day. Is he nervous about treading the boards for the first time in six years? "You've got to be in shape and you've got to be focused, because you can't wing your way through something like this," he says. "People often say 'how do you learn lines?'. The incentive to learn them is pretty intense, because if you don't, you're going to look stupid." As if terrified by the thought, he adds: "I shall probably have pages of the script strewn about the stage so I can look every now and then."
And with all those lines to learn, does it mean he'll be missing out on the late nights which come as part of the package of being in Edinburgh in August? "As long as I don't imbibe too much I'll be okay," he laughs. "I don't want short-term memory loss - I'll be drinking a lot of carrot juice and wheatgrass. In fact, I shall be growing my own wheatgrass."
This isn't his first experience of performing on the Fringe. When details of The Gigli Concert were announced, Mackenzie was quoted as saying his previous appearance was "utterly forgettable". "You've got to be so careful what you say," he clarifies "Somebody might read that - ie the director - and really hate me." It turns out that his first Fringe experience as an actor was in a student production of Berkoff's Agamemnon. "We - as very intrepid and passionate drama students - were all dressed in black. If we wanted to represent ships going off to get Helen of Troy, we would all make ship shapes. As students, it was a dream, but to be diplomatic, I don't know how well it would go down critically these days."
Mackenzie was 18 when he made his first decisive steps towards a career in acting. Having been a pupil at Glenalmond, the exclusive Perthshire school better known for turning out captains of industry than actors, he decided to enrol in a foundation course in Theatre Studies at Stratford-upon-Avon. Rather than going on to drama school he went straight to Borderline Theatre Company and then the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow, where he worked as an assistant stage manager and did enough acting work to earn an Equity card. From there it was off to London, where work as a barman and waiter paid the bills in between small roles in TV shows such as Lovejoy and Soldier, Soldier. His role in Channel 4 drama series Psychos, in which he played a troubled doctor, really got him noticed and soon after Mackenzie had signed up to a three-year deal on Monarch of the Glen.
Mackenzie says that despite having been working more often than "resting" over the last decade, his profession isn't one in which you can ever get complacent. "The weird thing about this business is there's not a ladder of promotion that you climb," he says. "Between every job, you're back to square one again. There's that little yapping dog of neurosis - I give myself about three days after each job before the dog is biting my heels and I'm thinking 'oh no I'm never going to work again'." In fact, since he left Monarch, Mackenzie has been busy taking on a variety of roles which should help prove there's more to him than playing the romantic lead. His real passion is for film, and with his brother, director David Mackenzie, and producer Gillian Berrie, he runs Glasgow-based production company Sigma Films.
Sigma was behind Young Adam, featuring Ewan McGregor, and The Last Great Wilderness, which Mackenzie wrote and starred in, with his brother directing. "It was the first thing I'd ever written," he says. "I started out writing, thinking that because I've seen lots of movies, I know how to write one - it's an arrogant mistake a lot of people make. So it took me many years just to learn the language of writing, but eventually I loved it." One good thing about honing the craft of writing was that it meant by the time it came to film, Mackenzie had a deep understanding of his character. The Last Great Wilderness, about revenge set in the Scottish Highlands, was filmed to a tight schedule on a budget of less than 1 million. "Everyone was mucking in, there was no hierarchy and we were all living in a house together," he says. "It was like being part of a travelling circus and that really appealed to me." And despite the odds, he never came to blows with his brother.
Mackenzie will also be appearing soon in Man With a Movie Camera, a dark tale from director Bernard Rose, the man behind cult horror movie Candyman, and the Beethoven biopic, Immortal Beloved. He has various film projects in the works with Sigma, but doesn't want to say too much lest he jinx them. It's clear that Mackenzie still has plenty of ambition with regards to his career. Last summer he spent several months in California, partly as a holiday with his family, but also to make contact with Hollywood's movers and shakers. "Lots of doors were opened out there, so I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing out on anything," he says. He now has US representatives and spends quite a bit of time going back and forward to America. "It does require a lot of transatlantic flights, so I have to wear my anti-thrombosis socks," Mackenzie says.
The actor's lifestyle - lots of travel and time spent away from home while filming on location, doesn't sound like the most conducive set-up for family life, but Mackenzie says he's used to it. His partner is Susan Vidler, an actress who has appeared in films including Trainspotting and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. The couple have two children, five-year-old Martha and a nine-month-old son. "I was just saying goodbye to my little girl this morning," he says, "and she was like 'yeah, yeah Daddy, I know'. She's totally au fait with it now." If his daughter is used to her dad disappearing for weeks on end, there are times Mackenzie longs for a bit more stability. "You've no idea the number of holidays I pay for and have to cancel," he jokes. "There are times when I wouldn't mind a little more structure in my life. But as someone said to me the other day as I was moaning about it, 'this is the bed that you've made, so shut up and lie in it'."
Mackenzie says that having a partner who works in the same industry is a good thing as she understands the pressures of the business, then adds "but it can be a bad thing when one's reading a script and the other's going 'is there anything in it for me?'" When Mackenzie catches himself talking about wanting more structure in his life, he laughs as he remembers his mother trying to persuade him against being an actor, by pointing to the lack of security. "I remember actually saying to her 'I don't want security' because, of course, when you're young and impetuous, you don't want that." Today his parents are proud of him and probably relieved that it's all worked out well. His brother has also made the foray into Hollywood and has a new film, Asylum, starring Ian McKellen and Natasha Richardson, out in August.
"I must mention my poor sister who lives in Edinburgh and is lovely and married with three children," he adds. "I'm sure she must get sick of reading about her bloody brothers all the time. She's not in this terrible business and quite happy not to be."
Mackenzie says that although most days somebody stops him in the street and calls him Archie, he hopes that the diverse work he's doing will prove his versatility. There's talk that if The Gigli Concert goes well, and assuming he does manage to learn all those lines, there's the possibility of it transferring to London's West End, or even Broadway. "I daren't ever rest on any laurels because I don't want to tempt fate at all," he says. "I've always maintained that the only thing you can hope for as an actor is choice. If you can get yourself to a position where you're allowed to exercise some sort of choice, then that's fantastic." So isn't he even prepared to relax and pat himself on a back for just a moment? It seems not. "I'm getting there, but I'm not satisfied, I'm still not content," he says.
"There's still a hell of a long way to go and I've got to learn so much." You get the feeling there will be quite a few more cancelled holidays before Alastair Mackenzie is ready to sit back and put his feet up.
The Gigli Concert is at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, 6-29 August (not 22), telephone 0131-226 2428.