Interview: Line of Duty's Martin Compston

Martin Compston Picture: Debra Hurford BrownMartin Compston Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Martin Compston Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Martin Compston knows a thing or two about the line of duty. I’m not talking about his role as Steve Arnott in the hit police drama that is back on our screens at the end of this month, promoted from BBC 2 to a Sunday night BBC 1 prime time slot after almost six million tuned in for the finale of season three.

I’m talking about the rounds of media interviews and photo shoots linked with the forthcoming fourth series of Line of Duty, all on the back of filming The Aftermath with Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård in Prague. Compston has just flown in from there and is well and truly jetlagged. However, the Greenock actor is not for whingeing. He’s a professional and gamely poses for the shots, then goes back to his hotel to catch up on some sleep before it all starts again.

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Next morning when we talk he’s recovered, but is full of apologies. You get the impression Compston would hate to come across as entitled or stroppy, anything approaching difficult. He might have started his career with an award-winning debut – A Bafta Scotland ‘Best Actor’, British Independent Film Awards Best Newcomer and Critics’ Circle Best Newcomer, in a film that won Best Screenplay at Cannes, but when he calls you darling, it’s definitely “darlin’”.

“Please say sorry to your photographer,” he says, “but I was dying with jet lag and non stop thingmy-ing, and it just hit me. I was absolutely delirious, but she was really, really sweet, so please tell her I’m really sorry.”

Oh it’s all right, she’s used to it.

“I know, but when somebody comes over and has to set up their stuff, they’ve got a job to do as well. But by then I’d probably had about two hours’ kip in two days ‘cos I have to do stuff for America at nights, so by the time I got to her, I just had nothing left in the tank.”

Despite this, in his smart blue suit, he scrubs up well. Still only 32, Compston is an old hand at this game, since he burst onto the scene in his first ever acting role in Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen while still at school. He knows it’s part and parcel of promoting the work.

Compston loves his role of Arnott, in Line of Duty, playing an anti-corruption cop alongside Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar.

“Steve Arnott has been the role of a lifetime and I feel very happy to have ownership of him. Nobody will ever know him better than me, and when I do that accent and put on that waistcoat in the morning, I can just feel him creeping into me, which is a great feeling.”

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Ah yes, the waistcoat. And he has a very nice line in coats too.

“Aye, I’ve done all right the last couple of years for good clobber,” he says.

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The show, written by Jed Mercurio, was BBC 2’s best-performing drama series in 10 years before its promotion to BBC 1 this time round when Westworld actress Thandie Newton joins the cast.

“I’m chuffed to bits it’s been a success,” says Compston. “Hopefully this year lives up to expectations. When we started I knew how good the scripts were, and the cast, so I thought if we didn’t basically f*** up what was on the page, we were on to something special. But I had no idea of the response it would have in terms of viewers and that they’d stick with us over the years. We don’t make it easy. They can’t be messing about with their phones and stuff, because every wee detail counts. We have these massive long interrogation scenes that you have to stay with, up to 25 minutes at a time, not to miss tiny wee nuances that affect the whole top line.”

So no checking the footie scores when you’re watching then.

“Naw, naw.” He laughs. (Compston has missed the Celtic game the night before due to yet another “press thing” but the ex-Morton player was kept up to date by his mum and mates texting him every time a goal went in.)

“There’s something to be said for that old style, communal watching, where everybody’s sitting down across the country to watch it at the same time and the old watercooler mentality next day after a cliffhanger…”

Compston’s voice is back to his Greenock roots this morning, in contrast to Steve Arnott’s London accent which is based on the working class aspirational tones of Nick Leeson, the rogue trader. It’s an accent so convincing that when he appeared on This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield had no idea he was Scottish.

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“It’s like going to the gym for me; the harder you work the better shape it will be in. I really need to do my research. And I stay in the accent when I’m over in Belfast where it’s filmed. When you get to the point where you start talking to yourself in the morning in the accent, that’s when you know you’ve cracked it. It needs to become just a reflex, so when you’re tired and struggling, that’s the voice that comes out rather than your own. After a couple of pints though, the Scots tends to come out.”

Compston was able to use his own brogue last year in In Plain Sight, the ITV thriller about the notorious Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel, with Douglas Henshall playing his detective nemesis.

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“He was a monster in every sense of the word, and a genuine psychopath. But in acting terms it was a gift, because there were so many constituents to the man to really get my teeth into.”

Gripping as it was, they don’t come much darker than In Plain Sight, and Compston has played his fair share of cops and criminals. As well as Arnott, he played James McAvoy’s sidekick Gorman in Filth, and was on the wrong side of the law in The Disappearance of Alice Creed with Eddie Marsan and Gemma Arterton and in the role of Paul Ferris in The Wee Man. But would Compston ever consider doing comedy?

“Funnily enough, somebody actually called me last night about a comedy series,” he says.

Tell us more.

“Well, I’d be up for it yeah, although I’m not a slapstick sort of guy. I could probably play the straight guy in a comedy. But honestly, at the minute, I’ve just done eight months solid back to back and I’m just looking forward to getting home to the wife!”

The wife is Tianna Chanel Flynn, who married Compston last summer in Scotland but is now back in LA where she works as an actor and runs a nightclub.

“Technically I’m based in LA, that’s where Tianna is, but I’ll be lucky if I’ve spent six or seven weeks there in the last 18 months. It’s tough but you can’t complain when the job’s going well. You’ve got to take it. I think in the space of this week I’ve maybe done Italy, Germany, Scotland, London, Utah, LA, you know, so it kind of frazzles yer heid. I’m under no illusion how lucky I am to be doing all that stuff, and that travelling. But at the moment getting home, seeing the wife and walking the dog sounds like bliss.”

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The actor has been so busy working since the wedding that the honeymoon has been much postponed.

“Tell me about it!” he says. “It’s one of the things I am contemplating – am I a terrible husband when I’m constantly away in all these far flung countries in eight months, and I’ve still no’ given my wife a honeymoon? But she understands and she’s very patient. It just means I need to spoil her when I get the opportunity.

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“I was in Prague for a month and it was stunning, but minus 20 each day, so you just go from set to hotel and on days off you’re just stuck in this room by yourself. But she’s got her own life to live over there, she’s got a job and stuff. She’s an independent girl, she’s not going to be just following me about all the time.”

Compston and Flynn met in the bar she was working in LA, when he clocked the claddagh ring she was wearing. “Well you’ve seen Tianna? She’s mixed race with huge hair and I said ‘what are you doing with that?’ It turned out her dad is Irish, so from that I started singing her a couple of songs from the old country and she was hooked.”

He laughs and won’t be drawn on which particular songs worked their charm.

“She’s mad on her Irish family and when we’re filming Line of Duty in Belfast and she comes to visit, we jump on a train down to County Meath to see them all. It’s beautiful.”

Compston is big on family too. Back in Greenock his dad’s a welder and his mother works at the council. When I ask if they’re proud of their son he concurs. “They’re chuffed aye, but my brother has a son, my wee nephew, and he’s eclipsed me as the family golden boy now, my wee nephew.”

On the Line of Duty set Compston’s co-stars McClure and Dunbar have become close friends and his support network.

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“We all live next door and head between each other’s flats at night to eat. We have a blast. Adrian cooks a lot of Irish stuff, champ and all that. And Vicky’s very good at Sunday roasts. I cooked once this year, because Tianna has been teaching me so it’s not all eating out and Doritos every night, and I did lemon pepper chicken with roasted asparagus and mashed totties. They arrived 45 minutes early and it wasn’t till after I sussed it was because they wanted to be sure I was cooking it right.”

When he’s working in London, a kick about with James McAvoy is often on the agenda. “There’s a weekly actors’ game that we try and get along to when we’re in the same neck of the woods.”

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Is this the one that Greg McHugh (aka Gary Tank Commander) talks about, the “not the face, not the face” game?

He laughs. “I think the main rule is not the groin, not the groin. And no heavy slide tackles. I introduced Greg to this game – he’s one of my close friends – and the first thing I said to him was ‘no slide tackles’, then the first f***ing kick of the ball he nearly broke a boy’s leg!”

Since Line of Duty, Compston has been filming on location in Hamburg and Prague, for The Aftermath. Based on Rhidian Brook’s international best-selling novel about the aftermath of the Second World War, it’s directed by James Kent and is due out later this year.

“It’s a fascinating period which probably isn’t documented as much as the rest of the events around the war. Germany was occupied by the allies, with the Russians, Americans, British and French divvying it into zones. The British were in Hamburg and a lot of their families came over so German families were evicted. It was a difficult time because Germany was in ruins and there were wild rumours of insurgents called The Werewolves, sort of Hitler’s elite bodyguard troops.

“My scenes are with Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård and Jason Clark. All three of them were fantastic to work with, very generous people with their time, no airs and graces. I really enjoyed it.”

List Compston’s co-stars and it’s a roll call of screen greats: A Guide to Recognising Your Saints with Robert Downey Jr, The Damned United with Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall, Soulboy with Felicity Jones and Alfie Allen, Sister with Gillian Anderson, plus Gemma Arterton, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Ken Loach. It’s quite a CV.

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“Yeah, when you say them like that it does actually sound pretty good. I’ve learnt from all of them. Everyone has different skills. One of the first ones I remember was an episode of Miss Marple and Julia McKenzie doing the denouement at the end. She just blew my mind because I looked through it going, right, skip over that, skip over that bit, because it’s about 15 pages long. But when she did it, she committed to every single line. And I thought if she’s been acting this long and is doing that at her age, there’s no excuse for me at my age not to be thinking why can’t I bring every line of this to life?”

Did he ever see himself where he is now, when he was at school and cast in his first role by Ken Loach?

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“I love Greenock so I would have been happy to stay, but in my head I always thought somehow I’m going to go out and see a bit of the world. I wasn’t sure this would be the way it would happen. So I feel lucky, but not fazed by it. I talk about this with my friends, they’ve got different jobs – insurance, greenkeeping – and we never knew what we’d do immediately after school, but 15 years later we’re all pretty good at whatever it is. It comes from experience. I’m grateful for where I am and very lucky that people gave me the chance to work on great scripts and believed in me. Because you can have all the talent in the world but unless people give you the chance to showcase it, you’re gubbed.

“But I’ve still got a bit to go in me yet, I’ve still got ambition,” he says, and flags up future roles he’d like to play in Benny Lynch, 1935 flyweight champion of the world, and Edinburgh-born republican and socialist, James Connolly.

“Just in terms of what they both achieved, when you delve into their lives, their stories would make great films. I’m probably just coming up to the right age for Benny and just a few years short of James Connolly, so if somebody could get scripts together I’d be up for it.

“I know there’s a campaign to get a statue to Benny in Central Station, where he arrived back after winning the world title, and I think that’s more than deserved.

“And Connolly’s another. When you read into his life it’s incredible what he achieved, the places he went, the things he saw and the people he inspired – and still inspires today.”

Ask Compston about his defining role and he still plumps immediately for Liam in Sweet Sixteen, the casting that kick-started his career. He also has fond memories of Monarch of the Glen, which followed: “It was sort of my drama school.” Loach remains his hero and he’s full of praise for the director’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake.

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“He told me he’d retired, then to come out and do I, Daniel Blake, his biggest hit ever, winning the Palme d’Or and the Bafta, only Ken could

do that. I loved it and it just typifies Ken. Nobody’s brave enough these days to make that type of film, but he’s proved that not only can he get his message across but also that people will go and see it, it can be a commercial success too. He’s proved what he’s been trying to prove his whole career, that you can get your message across and highlight something that is at the core of all the problems we’ve got – this country’s horrible lurch to the right – that you can stand up against it and also make it entertaining.”

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Now that the conversation has taken a political turn it’s time to ask Compston about his backing of the Yes campaign in indyref1.

“Yeah, my views are very clear. I was just reading Corbyn and [Sadiq] Khan’s comments and it amazes me how spectacularly out of touch they are, because they keep going on about this thing that there’s no appetite for a referendum in Scotland. We had no appetite for a referendum on our EU membership, but we were forced into that. We’re backed into this ridiculous situation of being dragged out of the EU against our will. 2014 took a lot out of everybody and it was settled for a generation, but it was settled on very clear terms: we were going to be Scotland which was part of Britain, which was part of the European Union. Now that’s no longer the case. So it’s not about appetite, it’s about necessity.

“I hate when it’s seen as a dirty word, but I’ve never seen myself as a nationalist, I see myself as a democrat,” he continues. “I’m tired of governments being forced on us that we don’t vote for, from the South, which in the end make all the big decisions for us – whether we’re going to war, whether we’re being taken out of the European Union. That’s just not a healthy state of affairs.”

As for indyref2, that’s a discussion for another day as our time is up and Compston is racing to the airport to catch yet another plane, this time to Utah for the weekend.

“Yeah, it’ll be a good laugh,” he says. It’s been eight months of madness so me and a couple of pals are going on a promotional thing, kayaking, biking, driving cars. And the wife’s meeting me at the airport for a night, so happy days. Happy days!”

Season four of Line of Duty starts on Sunday 26 March, BBC 1, 9pm