SHETLAND’S Douglas Henshall doesn’t pull any punches about why British actors chase their dreams abroad
‘WHEN was the entertainment industry a bastion of integrity and truth? Where and when? A game is being played and if you take people at face value in LA then you’re a f***ing idiot. And you’d be an idiot here as well.”
Sitting in a trendy East London hotel, flanked by overly loud, overly enthusiastic entrepreneur-types who appear to have mistaken the lobby for Dragons’ Den, I can’t help but enjoy Douglas Henshall’s unabashed Scottishness – curmudgeonly, sweary and gruffly charming.
Henshall, 48, is about to head to Los Angeles for pilot season (or as he puts it, “the annual migration of British actors to America like swallows in spring”) and he’s regaling me with what he loves about that city. It turns out that means pretty much everything – the weather, the food, the architecture, the weird proximity of urban sprawl to oceans and mountains. He’s even quite looking forward to hawking himself in a series of meetings in the hope that some new plum role comes his way. American TV is in rude health so why shouldn’t he?
“It’s a kind of meat market,” he says, sounding cheery. “Depending on what age you are and what kind of parts you go up for – if you’re a young actor in your 20s or 30s you can be doing two, three or four meetings a day where you get handed ten pages of dialogue at 10pm to learn for 10am the next morning, to go with the other five or eight pages that you’ve to learn for the other two that you’re doing.
“People tend to dress for the part, because they don’t look at you, especially during pilot season, with the question in their mind of, ‘I wonder if we could mould you into what we want?’. They want it immediately. There’s no chit-chat. You do your thing.”
As for the outcome, you tend to know straight away, he says. “Either they say, ‘So, when you come back…’ and that means the first hurdle has been cleared, or they say, ‘Thank you, we’ll be in touch with your agent’. That means they won’t be in touch with your agent.”
If the complaint about the entertainment industry, and indeed LA as a whole, is that it’s phony, Henshall is having none of it. Don’t pretend it’s something that it’s not and you won’t be disappointed is his take. “People say, ‘But everyone is so fake’, but I don’t give a f*** if they don’t mean it – firstly, they ‘don’t mean it’ very well, and secondly, I’d rather have someone who is nice to me in a really fake way than someone who’s being an asshole when all I want is a coffee.”
It’s mid-morning on a bright, cold February day and his Americano with warm milk has hardly been touched, so I don’t imagine that this is Henshall at full tilt for one minute. He’s not one for small talk, that’s for sure, but he is full of conversation and questions, all delivered in that inimitable Scottish accent of his. Not so much Barrhead, which is where he’s from, but Barrhead via 20 years in East London and various West End stages. Ostensibly we are meeting to talk about the new series of Shetland, the BBC crime drama adapted from the novels by Ann Cleeves in which Henshall stars as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. But not for Henshall the petty business of self-promotion, he’d rather talk about the state of British TV, what makes an actor exciting and why he couldn’t live on those remote islands.
That’s not to say he hasn’t got good things to say about his second outing as Jimmy Perez. In fact, that Henshall signed on for a second series tells you that he rates it because, don’t forget, he’s the man who blithely walked away from Saturday primetime hit Primeval because he felt “the quality was slipping”. Not so for Shetland. Henshall has only good things to say about the writer, David Kane, and his fellow cast members, including Brian Cox and newcomer Rebecca Benson. “It’s one of the nice things about having been around for a long time, seeing new talent and thinking, ‘Ooh, look at you’,” he says. And what is it that he sees? He says it’s a combination of intensity, intelligence and something quite raw.
“It’s not forced, it’s just coming out,” he says. “Sometimes they’re not even sure where it’s coming from, but you know that once they’ve worked that out they’re going to have a lot of fun with it.”
Henshall started acting in Barrhead Youth Theatre in the early 1980s because lots of his pals were doing it. Once he was there, though, he realised that he found expressing himself on stage easier than doing it for real so he kept on with it. He went to Mountview Theatre School and took the well-trodden route to the Scottish stage – performing with 7:84 and at the Citizens before moving on to the Royal Shakespeare Company. In recent years there have been well received performances in the West End, including most recently Harold Pinter’s Betrayal opposite Kristin Scott Thomas. On telly Henshall made his debut in an episode of Taggart (where else?) back in 1990, and since then has racked up appearances in everything from Psychos to Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar to Kid In The Corner to thriller The Silence.
In a sense, it’s a surprise that it’s taken this long to find a tartan noir vehicle for Henshall. He’s got the requisite intensity, that burning stare and the world-weary look of someone who’s seen too much bad stuff. Set him against the backdrop of the rugged Shetland Islands and it’s an ideal combination.
When the pilot was made, Henshall stayed in Lerwick. He liked it. The next time he went back, after the programme had been shown on the telly, everything felt different.
“The first time I was recognised a bit but people didn’t feel the need to tell me, which I liked. But when we went back again, whatever the percentage of people in Britain had watched the show, a very large percentage of Shetland had watched it with varying responses from ‘ah, you’re Jimmy Perez…’ to ‘let me tell you…’ I ended up leaving places because of that. I just couldn’t relax.”
This time round, he stayed in Scalloway, which he says is beautiful. “I began to get the remoteness more and what is attractive about that. And if we were to do more and we were to go back there I’d certainly want to live in Scalloway again.”
In his Crombie coat and dark denims, brogues on his feet, Ray-Bans in his top pocket, I can’t quite imagine Henshall living in Shetland. I wonder if he can?
“When I was there in September I thought about it, I wondered if I could,” he says. “It might be interesting to try. But then when I’m sitting here now I think no, I couldn’t do it. And of all the other places in the world I think I could be for six months of the year, I don’t know that I could be there.”
Henshall speaks most highly of Fair Isle, where the cast and crew shot for four days. “It was my favourite. It’s such a unique, specific place. There are about 65 people living there and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.” He explains that only a skeleton crew was used and since they couldn’t take any of their own transport they were entirely reliant on the islanders to lend their vehicles. As far as accommodation was concerned there was precious little, given that it was peak season, so those who could bag space did. Those who couldn’t find rooms stayed with local families.
“Everybody just mucked in together,” he says. “There was such a nice vibe amongst the crew and the cast but also because of where we were. It was such a beautiful place and people were being so nice to us, we had a great time.”
There were other special experiences too. He describes a moment when they were filming on two opposite headlands. All of a sudden they could hear the most astonishing sound – it was whale song. “We could hear it, but the crew on the opposite headland could hear it and also see four minke whales. I’ve heard whale sounds on television documentaries but to hear them there was amazing.”
Whether he’s talking about the wonders of the Shetland Islands or the state of the TV and film industry in the UK, there’s something earnest about Henshall. When he speaks about his business, he does so with real passion, a sense of being an actor who wants to do good work but who’s been around long enough to know that’s not as easy as it sounds. Maybe that’s why he’s so up for his trip to the States.
“What the Americans have done is refuse to back down,” he says, leaning forward. “They’ve refused to make the cheapest, lowest common denominator forms of entertainment for TV and instead have championed television drama as an important part of our culture. And I’m so glad, because we haven’t.” I can’t help but feel that if there were two large glasses of red and no dictaphone on the table instead of two coffees and the red recording light winking at us, Henshall would be quite happy to tell it as it is – no polite skirting around the truth, no politic face-saving. As it stands, he leans back and reminds me, “I have to be very careful because they pay my wages, but it’s very frustrating.” I feel a bit disappointed that from this point I’ll be experiencing the edited Henshall, but I needn’t have worried. He’s quick to warm to his theme. “Twenty years ago we were what the Americans are at the present, and instead we’re talking about Broadchurch as being the best drama of last year, when basically it’s a poor imitation of a very, very good Danish show. That’s an appalling set of circumstances. And by saying that, I’m not meaning to denigrate Broadchurch or any of the people involved, but my point is true.
“People say, well what about Sherlock? And yes, Sherlock is a very good show with very good actors, but essentially we’re taking something that Arthur Conan Doyle created however long ago, and it’s like, really is that the best that we can do? Plus the fact that it’s one show.”
It could be that Henshall’s disappointment in the state of British TV is at least in part to do with the fact that it’s “the house I live in”, as he puts it. And it wasn’t quite where he was aiming for.
“It’s where I’ve ended up,” he says. “I had a film career in the late 90s. And then I stopped having a film career because suddenly I didn’t do anything. They forget you very quickly. I started doing more theatre because I love that and I ended up doing television. I ended up doing it.”
The films for which Henshall is best known – Orphans, If Only, This Year’s Love and Lawless Heart – were all critically well received but they never quite found their audience. And then those roles just stopped. He can’t explain it, although it’s clear he’s wondered about it.
“People just stopped thinking of me that way,” he says. “I did wonder – did I do something? Did I upset someone?” He shrugs. And then, just as inexplicably, last year it started again. Before shooting Shetland, Henshall made The Salvation with Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green and Eric Cantona.
“I got a phone call on a Friday saying I’m sending you a script, you’ve had an offer to do a Western in South Africa. I got this script, I read it and it was a no-brainer. It’s an old-school, proper Western, and even better than that, I play the sheriff.” He grins. “There was a seven-year-old inside me doing cartwheels every day.”
But it wasn’t just that he got to wear the star badge on his waistcoat that made him enjoy his experience, Henshall, however gruff, admits he “still has hopes”. And, more than that, no matter the vagaries of the business he’s in, he still loves acting.
“Oh god yes, otherwise there’s no point. Fundamentally, I do a job at which I can make a living and I like it. That’s the bottom line. I still really enjoy it. I like getting up and going to work. I’ve spent my whole adult creative life doing this.”
He drains his coffee cup and fishes out his sunglasses, ready to leave. There’s just time for a last word, after his paean to Los Angeles and before he heads out into hipster East London, we revisit Shetland. “I am hopeful for it,” he says, “because I think it’s worth having around.”
And coming from Henshall that is high praise indeed.
Shetland, BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm