Interview: Kevin McKidd, actor and star of Brave

Kevin McKidd. Picture: AP
Kevin McKidd. Picture: AP
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THOUGH he doesn’t see himself as a big star, rejecting the title ‘Doctor McHunky’, Kevin McKidd is certainly in demand, playing two parts in Pixar’s latest release, Brave. By Siobhan Synnot

KEVIN McKidd and I are sitting in one of Edinburgh’s poshest hotels, home-made shortbread untouched, as we gaze at a panorama of drizzle. Below us, a street entrepreneur is doing a roaring trade in brollies for pac-a-maced tourists seeking an upgrade, and a bagpiper has elected to serenade the roadworkers ploughing half of Princes Street.

On days like this, Kevin, don’t you long to come home? “I do miss being here, I really do,” he says immediately. “I lived in Glasgow for four years and Edinburgh for four years and I’m from the Highlands, you know? I split my missing into loads of different places, because I’m connected to it all.”

McKidd is from Elgin, where one of his first jobs, at 17, was building swan-necked copper boilers at the Glenmorangie distillery to pay for drama school in Edinburgh. “I was in Sandy Bell’s pub last night, and I shared a flat with my girlfriend of the time right above it, so I was having a real trip down memory lane,” he says. “All the pissheads drunk from Oddfellows spewing under our bedroom window every Friday and Saturday night.”

These may not be the kind of tartan-tinted memories that Pixar’s Brave wants audiences to carry away after 90 minutes in the company of an 11th-century animated highland princess, but McKidd’s brand of Scottishness is very much like the rest of him: robust, candid, and enthusiastic.

Years away from here, living first in London and then in LA, have not smoothed down his accent, although he doesn’t use it often on-screen since joining the American TV hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy, where he plays battlefield veteran Dr Hunt. The job has worked out well – his character’s tortured romance with Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) boosted viewing figures to No 2 in the US, behind American Idol.

Since 2008 the show has kept him in California, where he lives with his wife Jane and their children Iona and Joseph, for a minimum of nine months a year. Summer is his main window of opportunity for holidays, flying visits home and other films.

“There’s not a lot of time, so we were thinking about maybe giving Scotland a miss this year… until my kids came to the Brave premiere in Los Angeles. They were like, ‘No, we want to go to Scotland.’”

They may also have calculated that Scotland was their best chance of catching their father this summer: McKidd has been in and out of here for the past two months, dancing up a storm at a ceilidh in Prestonfields at a reception for the world press and returning again to walk the red carpet when the film closed the Edinburgh International Film Festival last month.

However, when he was first approached about the film four years ago, he had no idea that he was going to be the North-east accent for Brave. “As soon as they said Pixar, I said ‘yes’. Didn’t care what it was, or who I was playing. I was a fan and I wanted to be part of it.”

In fact he’s part of it twice over, playing blustery, pigtailed Highland noble Old MacGuffin, as well as his moonfaced unintelligible son Young MacGuffin, whose strong Doric accent is one of the film’s running gags. Most of Young MacGuffin’s dialogue was extemporised by McKidd, in a dialect rarely heard in dramas outside Sunset Song, and never in a film.

“A first,” McKidd drily notes. “And probably last.” He also detects a family resemblance between the MacGuffin clan and the McKidds. “I can definitely see my furrowed brow is part of the look, and you can a version of me in Young MacGuffin’s face. That would be me if I ate pies, didn’t live in Hollywood and didn’t go to the gym.”

Promoting the film has also teamed him up with the First Minister at dinners to tubthump for Scottish filmmaking, got him on the Craig Ferguson chat show, and on red carpets here and in the USA. When Salmond and his staff fancied a pint in LA, McKidd took him out to his pal’s pub (effectively, a well-stocked home bar) for a sociable night out.

At the last election, McKidd released an endorsement of the SNP, citing the party’s commitment to promoting culture, film and theatre. So how deep does this support go?

“Actors by definition should keep their politics to themselves,” he says. “I respect actors who don’t feel that way, but I think it’s better for me to keep my private thoughts that way. I’m uncomfortable talking about, or jumping on, political bandwagons.”

He certainly keeps tabs on local issues, though, speaking out against the closure of RAF Lossiemouth. “It wasn’t because of me that they didn’t close the base, but hopefully it helped a wee bit. If there’s something happening to my local community that is negative for the place that I love, I’m going to try and help in any way that I can.”

At the pro-independence Yes platform, popular actors including Brian Cox, Alan Cumming and Martin Compston stepped up. Was he invited to join them? “I’ve not really been approached in that way,” he says, without hesitation. “I would be surprised if I was. There’s higher profile fish to be caught than me.”

But McKidd is personable, successful, democratic and skeleton-free. Surely any party would be interested in having him as a representative? “Mmm, yeah, well, we’ll see.”

I think I’ve tormented him long enough. Later on he makes the point that although he visits Scotland, he can’t see himself returning in the near future, and that’s probably a factor in keeping his political distance. However, he was back in the North-east last Christmas to record The Speyside Sessions, a charity album of folk music played by McKidd and old friends, with his fellow Small Faces actor Iain Robertson acting as chef, photographer and video director. Last month, the downloadable version topped the Billboard World Albums chart.

McKidd also has a sheaf of Scottish films on his wish list – another film with former Skids frontman Richard Jobson, a version of Macbeth with his friend James Cosmo, and a romantic “Big Chill” scripted by Andrea Gibb, who also wrote the 2003 film Afterlife in which he starred – all of which seem to be in need of a final financial boost. “All we need is three weeks and a bunch of good actors,” he says.

A love triangle called The Indian Summer is set for the summer of 2013 with Ashley Jensen co-starring but an intriguing project called High Places with McKidd and Ewan McGregor as the ill-fated explorers Mallory and Irvine hiking up Everest has come apart. “I saw Ewan recently and he’s no longer attached, I don’t know why. And though I’m still involved, there’s the logistics of shooting on Everest in my summer window.”

The gaps between filming series of Grey’s Anatomy are small and precious. He was ardently sought by John Carter’s writer and director Andrew Stanton but Grey’s commitments meant he passed it on to Mark Strong. And – look away now if you are Kevin McKidd’s children – he also had to turn down the last two Harry Potter films. “A villain,” he says “a werewolf who was going to be a big part of the final film. I couldn’t tell the kids I’d said no. They’d be heartbroken.”

What does McKidd tell his kids about his early days? More than once, he’s been close to the edge. After playing Tommy, whose fall into drug use in Trainspotting was one of the film’s most plangent moments, he didn’t work for a year and walked home from the premiere in the rain, unable to afford a cab. Around the time of another Irvine Welsh adaptation, he was almost wiped out by the taxman, and paid his debts by becoming a motorcycle courier.

“My ‘we were once so broke’ stories? Yeah I tell them about it because it could come back around. It’s a constant fear that work will dry up. I was a barman and a labourer on building sites to pay the bills and at times I thought, ‘Maybe I am shit.’ But at drama school they told you that was the nature of the business, hot one week, then cold.”

His “plan B” now is directing: he’s helmed three of the $5m episodes of Grey’s Anatomy so far: “The first time, I don’t think I slept for a whole month, but it’s getting better now.”

More unsettling he says, is his ascent to Doctor McHunky. “If it’s a guy comes up to me, he probably wants to talk about Rome. If it’s a woman, it’ll be Grey’s Anatomy. I just figured that if I am OK with a sword, I’d be OK with a scalpel. I was always the geeky character actor so it’s kind of flattering but surprising more than anything. Jane thinks it’s funny too. First thing in the morning, before a shower and a coffee, I promise you she’s not calling me ‘Dr McHunky’.”

• Brave is in cinemas across Scotland from Friday 3 August.