Interview: Angus Macfadyen on reprising Braveheart role as Robert the Bruce

Angus Macfadyen is pondering whether or not to reveal the name of the Oscar-winning actor he needs to thank for getting his new film about Robert the Bruce off the ground.

Angus Macfadyen is stepping into the role of Robert the Bruce once more. Picture:(Signature Entertainment
Angus Macfadyen is stepping into the role of Robert the Bruce once more. Picture:(Signature Entertainment

“F**k it. It was Gary Oldman,” he says after prevaricating for a second or two.

The reason for the hesitation is perhaps understandable. Oldman isn’t in Robert the Bruce; he’s not a producer, a backer or even a supporter. In fact, he might not even be aware of its existence. Nevertheless, when he won the Academy Award for playing Churchill in Darkest Hour, Oldman’s crowning glory proved unexpectedly fortuitous for Macfadyen, who last played the Bruce nearly 25 years ago in Braveheart and has been dreaming about completing his journey on film for almost as long.

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“It’s one of those funny Hollywood stories,” says the actor over the phone from his home in Panama. “I was doing a film in Leeds Castle and the actress playing the queen, I was talking to her about this film…” – he’s referring to New Zealand actress Anna Hutchison, with whom he was making a Games of Thrones parody entitled Purge of Kingdoms – “…I was saying to her, ‘You know, you’d be really good as this character, Morag…’” – that’s one of the main characters in Robert the Bruce – “...and I gave her the script and she fell in love with it.”

Coincidentally, Hutchison had an Australian filmmaker friend called Richard Gray whose next movie, a western, had just fallen through. “He had an actor who had agreed to play the role in this western and then overnight won the Oscar and suddenly his fee doubled,” explains Macfadyen. “They only had a certain amount of money, so they couldn’t make the film. So they had this money sitting in the bank and no script. And that’s how my film got made.”

Thanks, then, to Gary Oldman.

The film did, apparently, come together this fast. Macfadyen, who co-wrote it, says it took just four months from Gray reading the script to production starting. “I met Richard at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, just next door to an old hotel that John Wayne used to own,” he says, setting the scene. “There was this guy, who was Australian, and it turned out that Braveheart was his favourite movie when he was a kid. He started crying at the table. I thought, ‘Here’s the guy to do this.’ Plus, of course, he also had the money ready to go.”

This money, it turns out, was from a private investor who owned the land in Montana on which Gray had been planning to shoot his western with Oldman. “I had to convince the investor that Scotland and Montana look completely alike,” says Macfadyen. “He couldn’t believe it. But they actually do. I defy anybody to tell when we’re in Montana and when we’re in Scotland.”

If all of this sounds incredible, no one is more surprised than Macfadyen. Since playing Robert the Bruce in Braveheart he’d wanted to continue the story, especially having witnessed the galvanising effect Mel Gibson’s film about William Wallace had. Despite Braveheart becoming an Oscar-winning box-office phenomenon, however, he found there was no appetite in Hollywood for any kind of sequel.

The response, Macfadyen says, was always: “‘What are you going to do, bring back the ghost of Mel?’

“But I was like, ‘No, we don’t need to do that. We just need to tell the rest of the story.’”

In 2006 he decided to do just that. He wrote a script for an elaborate, continent-hopping historical epic that would tell the post-Braveheart story of Robert the Bruce by incorporating tales about the Knights Templar and the Vatican’s exodus to Avignon. “It was one of those big Hollywood blockbuster-type scripts that would have cost $70 million and would have needed Sean Connery,” says Macfayden.

After trying to get it made for four years, he realised it was unfeasible, so decided to write a more intimate version of the Bruce’s story, one that narrowed the scope to the winter of 1306 and imagined an injured Robert wrestling with the legacy of Wallace and his own destiny while being nursed back to health by a crofter (Hutchison) and her children. “But even that took until 2018,” he says.

By this point Outlaw King – David Mackenzie’s rival Robert the Bruce project for Netflix – was already in production. Surprisingly, Macfadyen reckons this actually helped. “Once you’ve got one film, you can have two because there’s obviously a public interest,” he says.

He does, however, wonder if Netflix really needed the million pounds that Creative Scotland invested in the project when his own independently financed production got no public funding help to shoot in Skye, Glencoe, Stirling and Eilean Donan Castle. “It was difficult finding extra funds to shoot there,” confirms Macfadyen, who felt he couldn’t very well do a film about Robert the Bruce in Montana alone. “The investor had to kick in more money for that. We didn’t get any support from Creative Scotland or anything like that. Which was a bit of a disappointment.

“I don’t know if the Netflix people needed the million bucks, or quid, or whatever it was,” he says again.

Did he like Outlaw King?

“I did, actually,” he says.

Though some events overlap – most notably Robert’s murder of John Comyn (played in this film by Chernobyl star Jared Harris) – he reckons the two films diverge significantly in the portrayal of the title character. Macfadyen’s Robert is weary and ragged, with the film focusing on the period of self-reflection that he hypothesises helped transform the Bruce into a more humble leader. “I think after so many lives sacrificed on the battlefield he didn’t want to go any further. He didn’t want any more bloodshed. He didn’t want to widow any more mothers and wives. And so he abandoned it; he gave up.”

It’s an idea aided by the incongruity of his own casting. The film, after all, takes place eight years before Braveheart’s Bannockburn coda, which saw Macfadyen leading the charge as a much sprightlier (and obviously much younger) king. “I certainly knew how to play that character when it was handed to me after all these years of trying to get the film made,” he surmises. “I knew the despair and the sense of futility of even bothering to carry on. I’d basically given up trying to make the film when it actually came together. I really knew the sense of futility of the Bruce and was able to play on that.”

He’s thinks that’s also reflective of what’s happening in Scotland now. Politically, he says, the timing has been “rather remarkable in the sense that we got the money and we were suddenly in this Brexit shambles. Having had a referendum on staying in the EU, we were now leaving the EU and being told we couldn’t have another vote to reaffirm what was said already. The timing is incredible I think. I’m quite happy about that.” n

Robert the Bruce has its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival today and screens again on 25 June. It is in cinemas from 28 June