Guilt: Mark Bonnar on why 'people like dodgy' as BBC Scotland series makes return
Guilt is back, the much-anticipated final season of BBC Scotland’s award-winning drama and the brothers Max and Jake, played by Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives, are up to their necks in it from the start, crawling through muck in a cow byre.
“Well it's actors' muck,” reveals Bonnar with a laugh. “For health and safety, they have to make sure it's not going to give us anything bad.”
Being reunited with his on screen brother and off-screen buddy Sives [Crime, Annika] has made filming the third season of the darkly comic BAFTA-winning drama a blast for Bonner.
“It’s great to be back from our point of view because Jamie and I love working together and get on like a house on fire.”
Bonnar reprises his role as shifty lawyer Max, and as always is indefatigable in his efforts to come out on top when the McCall brothers find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
“Max and Jake are back in their own country after they're rudely deported from Chicago, with a lot of unfinished business to attend to,” says Bonnar.
“I would describe this series as the perfect meld of the first two,” says Bonnar. “And in the course of Max’s wheeling and dealing yet again, they manage to seek, and maybe hopefully find, some kind of redemption. That’s the theme of this series, redemption, and I think by the end we are hopeful that's what they both have. But it’s not set in stone…”
A familiar face from a host of TV and film roles including Shetland, and more recently The Rig and Litvinenko, Bonnar is speaking from the home in Hertfordshire he shares with actor wife Lucy Gaskell and their two children and justifiably proud of the Bafta-winning series, but will we be seeing the same old Max?
“I think he’s changed over the course of the series,” he says. “He’s still essentially a sociopath who’s out for himself but I think he's softened a little. He and Jake have been in each other’s pockets for a year now and at the beginning of the first series that wasn't the case at all so I think he's had to learn to get by with that. I think he loves Jake and the ties are close that bind them together. Max has always got an eye on getting back what he once had and that is his number one driving force, always has been, but I think he has changed. I think he's softened a little bit.”
Bonnar and Sives go all the way back to school at Leith Academy in Edinburgh and three series in, Guilt has built on their bond.
“I think we've got to know each other better so we have more of a shortcut than we might have had in the first series when we were kind of feeling each other out workwise. Obviously we knew each other before and were pals but once you work together that adds a whole new dimension to how you interact on and off screen. We've become much closer and once you become close to a person you kind of get used to their rhythms. Acting’s a very physical thing - it’s cerebral as well, it’s everything - but it uses your whole body from top to toe and it's an instinctive thing. So when you're very in tune with somebody at that level it's a great pleasure. I suppose it's like playing music; when you’re used to somebody’s rhythms, you can kind of improvise around - not the script because we stick to that religiously - but what goes on around that.”
So how would Bonnar describe the dynamic between Jake and Max?
“It’s difficult, because whenever Max needs something it's usually at the expense of Jake. So it’s a complex relationship and at the same time, bizarrely, it is loving. I think they respect each other in a weird way. They know what they’re getting. It’s blood, it's hard to describe what it is that ties you to your kin. And it's often just that, a lot of the time, that they’re kin. Blood’s thicker than water. Certainly in this case, because why the f*** hasn’t Jake just got out of there?” He laughs.
Audiences love bad boys like Max and Jake, but Bonnar doesn’t quite see it like that, jumping to the defence of his character.
“I don’t think Max is bad at all!” he says. “I don't think you’d want to trust him with anything financial of yours,” he laughs, “but I don't think he's bad. He’d probably be quite an exciting person to be around because he's always got a plan or knows somebody. I think he’s charismatic and alluring in a way, but I don’t know if he’s bad. I just think he’s slightly sociopathic. And like many people who are slightly sociopathic, he’s concerned about himself and where he’s going to get this next meal.”
Okay, if Max isn’t all bad… “Well, he’s served his time,” says Bonnar in mitigation, so we agree on ‘dodgy’.
"People like dodgy don’t they?” he says. “And it's more fun to play somebody complex and slightly sociopathic like Max, than a romantic lead that doesn’t have anything about them.
“And even though on the surface what you have is a kind of funny relationship between two brothers, they’re incredibly well worked characters and Neil has put them in extreme situations that have forced them to think on their feet. It's fun to watch people you might not necessarily want to share a cab with late at night try and worm themselves out of situations.”
As the show title dictates, everyone in it is guilty of something, so does Bonnar think Max ever has a conscience about his actions.
“If you were to ask Max if he feels guilty, he would probably Boris Johnson his way out of it,” he laughs.
Does Bonnar emphasise with Max? What has he ever felt guilty about?
“What have I ever felt guilty about? You mean on an hourly basis or… Guilt is… which is why it's an interesting title for a show, something we all feel, unless you are a complete sociopath. So yes, of course I recognise guilt for lots of events in my life. We all feel guilt for things we've done wrong, ways we've treated people that we maybe shouldn't have or… you know. We're all humans.”
When was the last time he felt guilt?
“What, that I felt guilt? I don’t know. This morning.”
What did he do this morning?
“Well I’m not going to share that,” he laughs, “but this morning was the last time I felt guilty.”
After spending such a long time with a character as well as cast and crew, Bonnar is satisfied by how the twists and turns of the plot are tied up but sorry it’s come to an end.
“I'm very happy with how it’s resolved. And I’m devastated. But at the same time as being devastated I'm immensely happy and proud to be a part of what is one of the most successful Scottish series in recent times and to have shared it with everybody that's been part of it.”
As well as Bonnar and Sives, returning cast members include Emun Elliot, Phyllis Logan, Greg McHugh, Ellie Haddington and Sara Vickers among others and Bonnar relishes working with the ensemble cast and crew again.
“The great thing about the show is that because of the quality of the writing people want to be in it, so we've got a really high calibre of cast. People of Phyllis’s calibre and Emun of course, obviously Greg, these people are phenomenal actors in their own right and that we can conglomerate them all in our wee show is incredible. All the cast and crew are magnificent and many turned down other jobs to be on Guilt, and that makes me feel incredible love for the show.”
With Edinburgh and Glasgow used as locations for Guilt, the show has put Scotland centre stage and Bonnar is optimistic about the industry here.
“When we were filming series three there were maybe another five productions on the go and ten years ago, you'd be lucky to have two or three,” says Bonnar. “I hope what we, along with other shows like Outlander and Crime among others, have helped to do is put Scotland on the map. Scotland is showing how diverse it can be, the people, the landscape, but it's also showing its heart and the more shows that come out of Scotland the better.”
Bonnar was also part of another Scottish-made drama The Rig, Amazon Prime’s number one ranking thriller with Iain Glen and Martin Compston, much of it filmed in his hometown of Leith. A series timely in its theme of the earth fighting back against humans responsible for climate change, its sci-fi/supernatural bent appealed to Bonnar.
“That was a fantastic show to be part of. A very different animal from anything I've done before which is why I wanted to do it. I’m a massive science fiction geek, but I have never really done a science fiction TV show, and it didn’t quite sit in any camp, which is what I liked. It was part gritty realism, part sci-fi, part supernatural, part horror, so it defied the moulds.”
“Alwyn was a great character, the go-to person if you had any problems, then all of sudden he’s gone. I love things that shock. So it was a fantastic thing to be in and I’m thrilled they've got a second series.
After Alwyn’s dramatic exit Bonnar has no idea if he’ll make a return but in sci-fi anything is possible so might he get to finish reading John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes in the staff lounge, a prescient and unsettling choice of reading material for a North Sea deck foreman?
“That was in the script and I bought my own copy when I was prepping for the show. It’s a great idea isn’t it,” says the actor who loves Ray Bradbury and was “raised on the Hitchhiker’s Guide”.
“It's like Hitchcock says, if you don’t tell anybody there’s a bomb under the table they’ll get a shock when it explodes, but if you tell them there's a bomb under the table they’re waiting for it to go off. I think Kraken Wakes was a tip of the hat that not everything's quite as it seems here.”
With The Rig giving him the chance to explore a supernatural/sci-fi theme, did it make him think more about climate change, or even the supernatural?
“There’s a couple of big questions,” he says and laughs. “Climate change is at the forefront of my mind on a daily basis anyway and the UN report that’s just been published should make it at the forefront of everybody else's as well. Because if we don't do anything, we are going to die as a race which will be intensely sad because we have so much to offer.
As for the supernatural he simply says: “Yeah, I like to think that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’, as Hamlet says.”
Speaking of Hamlet, is that a role he’s ever played?
“No I haven’t. I was going to say I’m too old but Ian McKellen did it last year didn’t he? It's a brilliant part but there's a huge trail of people that have played it and I’d rather do something new.”
Something new for Bonnar and coming out later in the year, is Napoleon for AppleTV, directed and produced by Ridley Scott, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby and Tahar Rahim. How did he find working with Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix?
“Joaquin is lovely and a great laugh. And Ridley’s brilliant. Ridley’s Ridley for God's sake. He's made some of the best films of the last 50 years. He's very considerate, clever and fast, so you have to be on your mettle. I wafted through it in a slightly kind of panicked dream state.”
“Ridley’s very good at giving you notes, like all the best directors. Rather than say do that faster or funnier, he'll tell you a story that sparks your imagination so you’re ‘oh, I know what you mean’. He’s very good at using what you've got inside to get you to do what he wants.”
Playing one of Joaquin Phoenix’s generals, Bonnar spent a lot of time with the actor on set, not least between takes.
“We got on really well, which is great, because I was standing or riding beside him on a horse for weeks on end so it was nice that he was nice, and a good laugh. Because if people are standoffish - which hardly anybody is in this business to be honest - or a bit up their arse, it makes it harder for all of us.”
Playing something different and new is what swings it for Bonnar, when he gets the chance to choose.
“Mostly you're just looking for something that excites you, in the way that Guilt did. I was four or five pages into the first script and thought ‘this is amazing’. When something does that you want to be in it. It always depends on the script. ‘The play’s the thing…’.”
Another opportunity that excited him was joining the cast of the second series of Peter Bowker’s acclaimed World on Fire for the BBC.
“I filmed that in Belfast last year and got to play a part, Sir James Danemer, the like of which I haven't played before. And to work with Lesley Manville as well, who is just one of our absolute best.”
Another recent departure for Bonnar was working with horses for the first time, on Napoleon, because up till now the only animal husbandry he’s been involved in was the care of his children’s hamsters, including the recently deceased Twinkie.
“We had a hamster. In fact we’ve had four. That sounds like I’m the Harold Shipman of the hamster world, but we’ve had four. Our last one, Twinkie, who I absolutely loved, died about three weeks ago. Prematurely. I say it was hard for the kids, but I was the one that changed him and fed him, and Lucy. But I suppose the grieving process is almost finished, and we'll probably enter into some kind of negotiation soon. There are all kinds of pets on the table, if you pardon the expression. I’m allergic to dogs, more of a cat person. With dogs, it’s the saliva. If they lick me I’m just like ‘oh christ’. And you’ve got to think about walking a labradoodle along the street. I’m obviously a very masculine-looking man…”
So a Doberman or St Bernard. Maybe a staffy called Tyson?
“Oh Christ yeah, that would be nice. But the animal I fell in love with most recently was horses, on Napoleon. I’d never been around horses before and had to learn to ride. Horses are absolutely magical beings and I hadn't got close to them enough to realise before. Oh my God, I’m kind of yearning to get back on a horse again. It’s just absolutely magical.”
Quite a jump from a hamster though.
Hamsters or horses, time’s up and Bonnar still hasn’t revealed what it was he felt guilt about this morning so we’ll never know.
“I feel guilty every morning,” he says and laughs. “It’s a good way to start the day.”
Guilt returns on Tuesday [25 April] on BBC Scotland, 10-11pm, BBC Two on Thursday 27 April, 9-10pm, with all episodes on BBC iPlayer from Tuesday 25 April. Seasons One and Two are also available on iPlayer now. To watch Trailer double click on image
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