Interview: Emun Elliot, actor and star of Prometheus

EMUN Elliott was first noted as a young actor of talent in the acclaimed Black Watch. Since then the Scot has risen through the ranks to work with some of the biggest names in the film industry

EMUN Elliott was first noted as a young actor of talent in the acclaimed Black Watch. Since then the Scot has risen through the ranks to work with some of the biggest names in the film industry

‘I think I was more surprised than anyone when I beat Andy Murray,” says Emun Elliott, with a laugh. “My mother couldn’t quite believe it.” The movie world may only just be cottoning onto Elliott, but The Scotsman’s sister paper, Scotland on Sunday, talentspotted him way back as a face to watch – as one of Scotland’s Most Eligible Bachelors. He debuted on SoS’s annual list at No 14 when he was part of the award-winning cast globetrotting the world in the National Theatre of Scotland’s heart-twisting military lament, Black Watch. Then two years ago he shot to No 1, pushing aside Murray, and gamely saying that he played guitar and liked “natural women.”

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“Oh, that’s still the case,” he says, bashfully. Certainly, 28-year-old Elliott has heartthrob tendencies, mixing Clooney, Javier Bardem or Colin Farrell with Edinburgh edginess, but his potential extends beyond the pin-up. Since graduating from the RSAMD, he has barely stopped moving from stage to TV and film sets and, nowadays, he’s a cog in some very big wheels

The £100m Alien prequel Prometheus, directed by Sir Ridley Scott, opens on Friday amid much anticipation and quite a bit of secrecy. A heap of movie images have appeared online – showing off new space costumes and giant setpieces – while its selected clips and trailers have been raked over obsessively by fans. “It’s basically this epic adventure through space that tackles some of life’s most fundamental questions,” says Elliott. “Ridley seems more excited about this film than anyone else, which bodes well.” The film’s now so close we can almost touch it, yet none of the stars, including Elliott, who pilots the spaceship Prometheus into deep space terrors, has seen the finished film.

His audition set the tone: “I was given a couple of script pages, with no context. So I just had to go on instinct.” Even the reading offered few clues as to what Sir Ridley was looking for. “One of the people at my reading was a seven foot tall albino skinhead, so there definitely wasn’t a particular type they had in mind. But I was a private in Black Watch and I’m an officer in Prometheus so at least I’m moving up the ranks.”

Elliott is not a man in a hurry. “I think it’s been a case of steady progress,” he says, an upward Edinburgh lilt turning this into a question. “By the time I stepped onto the set of Prometheus I had been in the game for a while, and I see that as a positive rather than coming to this straight out of drama school. I still felt a bit nervous on my first day, mainly because Ridley had built a spaceship and it looked pretty much like the one in Alien. I first saw the film a long, long time ago, then went back to watch it again before doing Prometheus. I was surprised how suspenseful and ahead of its time it was, and being linked to it made me nervous because you want to do it justice.”

When Ridley Scott’s Alien came out in 1979, it was as revolutionary as Star Wars had been two years earlier. This was the grimier, grittier side of science fiction, where space truckers griped about their wages, then stumbled across something predatory, unnameable and lethal. Prometheus is a loose slingback that predates Alien but there are similarities, including a stern corporate presence (Charlize Theron) and an android (Michael Fassbender) aboard the ship.

During preproduction, Fassbender was still tied up working on another picture, so when Sir Ridley conducted screen tests for the character of the project’s reckless scientist Holloway, Elliott stepped in to play the android David. “This was the first time I met Ridley,” he says. “It was great because it broke the ice, and instead of small talk, we got to know each other on a professional basis.”

Was Scott intimidating? “Actually he’s very warm and a bit cheeky. He’s up for a laugh, although he can go into General mode if he has to. He just fills you with confidence. When I was preparing to play Chance the pilot, I came up with a backstory, but at the back of my mind I thought he’d tell me to forget all that and just play what was on the page. But he took it all on board. He’s very open and collaborative, even though he’s been doing this since before I was born.”

By contrast Elliott is a little shy and private but instinctively courteous, which is to say that he tolerates my attempts to prise out plot secrets. Did he get to keep anything from Prometheus, I ask, hoping he’ll let something slip obliquely. “Yes, a facehugger. It’s above my bed,” he says and chuckles, not unkindly, at my frustration.

It’s easier to talk about Filth, which brought him back to Scotland last winter. Adapted and directed by Jon S Baird from Irvine Welsh’s novel, it puts you inside the head (and eventually inside the bowels) of a corrupt cop, Bruce Robertson, played by James McAvoy. Robertson is perhaps one of the vilest characters in print since Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and his karmic balance is a more idealistic, straight-arrow detective, played by Elliott. The film also stars Jamie Bell and Low Winter Sun’s Brian McCardie and hopes are high for the film when it opens next year. Creative Scotland used a still of McAvoy, Elliott, Bell and McCardie in party hats to invite the world’s press to their annual party at the Cannes Film festival. “I’d been wanting to work with James McAvoy since I was in drama school. I suppose there are parallels in that we’re Scottish, we went to the same drama school and share the same agent but aside from that, he’s someone I’ve looked up to. Most people in my year found him an inspiration – he gave us all hope.”

A shame then, that he punched him in the face on his first day. “It was the very first scene we shot, in a nightclub, and I had to throw a punch at Brian McCardie,” recalls Elliott. “Unfortunately James got behind Brian just as I was swinging the punch. Brian ducked in time, but I cracked James on the nose. You could hear it. First day. First rehearsal. James, not wanting to make a fuss, wandered off. He was all right in the end. I thought he took it very well.”

In Filth’s stills, the physical contrast between the two men neatly underscores their character’s rivalry; McAvoy is fair, blue eyed and grungy, Elliott is darker, dimpled, with expressive chestnut eyes crowned by strong eyebrows. Eliott was raised in Portobello by his social worker mother and his university lecturer father. The name (“Ee-mon”) is part of his father’s Persian heritage “but I see myself as Scottish too. They are both ancient cultures with an incredible history and I’m proud of them both.”

Since he graduated from the RSAMD with a gold medal in his year, Elliott has worked almost constantly. His first TV job was Monarch of the Glen, playing an artist and painter. “I remember going shopping with the costume designer and afterwards getting to keep my clothes. I couldn’t believe it: I was in the Scottish countryside for two weeks in a Scottish TV show. It was a lovely way to start.”

Since then he’s taken on the sort of furious workload that McAvoy used to be famous for. He’s currently working a six-day week to complete his role in the second series of Comedy Central’s sitcom Threesome, where he plays the one of a triangle who are bringing up a baby between them. Then he’s off to Newcastle to star in The Ladies Paradise, an eight-part TV drama loosely based on Emile Zola’s novel Au Bonheur des Dames which has been earmarked by the BBC to warm primetime audiences this winter.

Elliott plays the owner of the first ladies’ department store, who charms an ambitous young employee, played by Above Suspicion’s Joanna Vanderham. “It’s pacy, sexy and dark,” he promises, although the five-month shoot meant he had to bow out of filming Glasgow romcom, Not Another Happy Ending, where he was due to fall in love with a character played by Doctor Who actor Karen Gillan.

“It was heartbreaking because I’d been attached to that film for three years, and workshopped it with the writer, director and the producer. It was really close to my heart, and we tried to juggle the schedules. Sod’s law, and really hard to let it go, but I went for Ladies Paradise because it was unlike anything I’d done before.”

Fans of Game of Thrones are already disconsolate that it is unlikely he’ll return to HBO’s fantasy drama, where he played Marillion, a lover, poet and musician until drastic action was taken.

“I mean, I could come back,” he ponders. “but they cut out my tongue in my last episode, so I don’t know what they’d do with me. He’d certainly be short on lines – ‘It’s all in the eyes’”

Viewers of BBC Scotland’s raunchy lesbian drama series Lip Service were also sorry to see his lothario architect depart the hit show: “But at least I didn’t die in a car crash like Laura (Fraser, his Lip Service co-star), he just disappeared to London. Maybe it will be like Coronation Street – in 14 years they’ll find me in a room, keeping a mute minstrel company.” Somehow I doubt anyone could keep Emun Elliott locked out of sight for that long.

• Prometheus is in cinemas from Friday