Interview: Richard Rankin on The Syndicate

Glasgow actor Richard Rankin has already won the lottery, flown a helicopter and trained as a field surgeon, writes Janet Christie. What’s next for the versatile star of stage and screen?
Richard Rankin stars in the television series The SyndicateRichard Rankin stars in the television series The Syndicate
Richard Rankin stars in the television series The Syndicate

Richard Rankin is posing for pictures, the photographer prompting him for a variety of expressions.

“You have a look of Gerard Butler there,” he tells him. “Only slimmer.” Ouch, sorry Gerry.

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“Gerry Butler, I’ll take that,” says Rankin, who has moved on from his beefcake pose and is now working something that fellow actor Anne-Marie Duff has taught him.

Scots actor Richard Rankin. Picture: Robert PerryScots actor Richard Rankin. Picture: Robert Perry
Scots actor Richard Rankin. Picture: Robert Perry

“She says it’s a ‘who me?’ red carpet look,” he says. “You swing round to the camera and do this.” He swings and presents a quizzical, engaged look that does indeed do the trick, then laughs.

“The beard’s new,” says the photographer. “You suit it.”

“I think I’m the only person that doesn’t like it,” says Rankin, stroking his chin.

“Makes you look kind of Russian tsar-y,” observes the snapper.

“Yes, I’m wondering how much opportunity there is going to be to play that Russian tsar. But the beard’s growing on me, ha, ha. It’s for From Darkness because I’m playing much older than my age.”

From Darkness is a four-part BBC1 drama filmed in Manchester and Scotland to be aired towards the end of this year that Rankin has just finished filming. He co-stars with Duff, who plays an ex-policewoman who has set up a new life in the Western Isles with her new partner Norrie and his daughter Megan.

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But today he’s back home in Glasgow to talk about The Syndicate, the latest and third series of Kay Mellor’s lottery winner drama that airs on BBC 1 on Tuesday. Rankin plays Sean, estate manager and gamekeeper in the six-episode series following the win of a syndicate of staff in a Yorkshire stately home. Five of them share £14 million and, with the staff suddenly richer than the struggling aristos, the scene is set for drama, romance and a whodunit.

“You instantly have that Upstairs, Downstairs element and on top of that a lottery win with working-class staff becoming more wealthy than the aristocracy and that turns everything upside down.”

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“I loved doing The Syndicate. I was at the screening last week and was absolutely gripped. And I know what’s going to happen! Kay Mellor’s writing is just so brilliant and it’s a great theme.

“When she interviewed people who had won the lottery it was common for them to have four to six days of euphoria, then the problems started. With money comes problems.”

“I’d love to work with Kay again, her writing is so good,” he adds. “She knows exactly what she’s doing and to have that material to work with as an actor, it’s a real treat.”

The compliment was returned by Mellor after she saw Rankin read for the part, and rewrote the Irish character of Sean as a Scot.

“That was absolutely wonderful, it was an honour, because she puts a lot of care and work into writing these characters.”

Rankin isn’t the only Scot in The Syndicate as Elaine C Smith appears behind the counter in the newsagent as the vendor of the winning ticket.

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“She was very surprised when I turned up,” says Rankin. “She said to the whole BBC drama department at the read through, ‘Oooh! He’s great, aye, I’ve seen him naked! I’ve seen him with all his kit off.’ I had to say it was in a play! I wasn’t just randomly naked with Elaine C Smith.”

The naked play in question was Good With People with Blythe Duff and Rankin had no problem with nudity as it served the script.

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“It had a very definite purpose. It was a very poignant moment and had a lot of meaning, both metaphorical and literal, and furthered the richness of the story. Getting naked for something like that, I’m all right with, but to do it for any shock factor is pointless.”

And does he hit the gym a bit before such shedding of costume?

“Yeah, I do, yeah. As much as I’m all about the art, I still want to look all right when I do it.”

Our chat inevitably swings to the perennial “what would you do if you won the lottery”. Would he jack in his job?

“No! I wouldn’t stop working. I love acting. I’m very lucky to have a job I love but I understand people who quit – I’ve got friends that work 12-hour shifts in call centres. But if it was me, I’d take a chunk of the money and invest it in either theatre or TV or film production. And I’d like to start a scholarship for young actors who need extra help getting into training. And you’d give some to friends and family of course.

“It would be so liberating, I would just go and do whatever the hell I wanted as an actor. It would only give me a bigger appetite to do a wider range of things and be more experimental.”

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Rankin is relaxed, amenable and chatty, with bright blue eyes and pleasing, leading man good looks. At 32, his career is going well, particularly on TV. Fresh from a role in last year’s First World War drama The Crimson Field and this year’s Silent Witness, in which he played Detective Inspector Luke Nelson opposite Emilia Fox, as well as The Syndicate and From Darkness, both BBC, he’s also just filmed a role as a US soldier in American ­Odyssey, an NBC series with shades of Homeland, starring Anna Friel.

Rankin was born in Rutherglen in 1983 as Richard Harris but uses his mother’s maiden name to avoid confusion with the other actor. The son of a policeman and a hotel manager, he studied acting at Glasgow’s Langside College after switching from IT and first attracted attention in Burnistoun, the comedy sketch show broadcast by BBC Scotland from 2009-12.

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“I loved doing that and it’s still popular, especially on the internet. There was a big gap in sketch comedy and Scottish comedy in general because Chewin’ the Fat and Still Game had finished. I think it finished too early, but there might be a 45-minute special coming back, and it’s on live at The King’s in Glasgow too. There’s an appetite for sketch comedy that’s still there,” he says.

As well as comedy Rankin has enjoyed a variety of roles and is keen to flex his acting muscles in both theatre and TV.

“I’m taking the opportunity to establish myself as much as I can in TV and once that’s there, I’m dying to do more theatre,” he says. I don’t have a preference but something in me thinks theatre is where the real game is at because it’s so self-contained from start to finish. That’s essentially where the actor was born, in theatre.”

Rankin is a self-confessed sponge when it comes to studying other actors and their approach.

“I find it endlessly fascinating. They’re so diverse and you learn a lot when you’re on set with a lot of the big players. It makes you realise there’s no set way of acting.”

Among those he has worked with, including Hermione Norris and Kevin Doyle in The Crimson Field, he’s found Anne-Marie Duff to be among the most helpful with advice, and not just about how to pose for pictures.

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“She’s the kind of person you can ask about the processes and she’s such a generous and giving actor. Others are more closed off. Some can sit and have a casual chat then when action is called, go straight into an emotional scene, others take all morning getting into it, or need a couple of gins…”

Rankin is as big on research for his various roles as he is on studying the craft. For The Crimson Field where he played a First World War army medic he visited the army medical services museum in Surrey while for Silent Witness and Detective Inspector Luke Nelson, he did a lot of background work on the police and his character.

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“He had done archaeology and anthropology at Oxford, so I looked into that a bit,” he says. “But it’s a massive degree and there’s only so much you can do in a couple of weeks! Then I did research into the psychology of the character’s experience, because it really helps if you get your character a good solid history.”

Also on hand to offer advice was his former policeman dad.

“He’s the first to fill me in,” says Rankin. “‘Oh, that doesn’t happen. You wouldn’t get a DCI and a Detective Inspector out on the a case at the same time. Who’s in the office?’ Or, ‘why don’t you have a notepad?’ But no, he’s good on the relationships, the way people speak to each other, he’s helped a lot.”

As Rankin looks back over his career to date, he brings up two seminal moments that have shaped it. The first was a chance encounter with the director or producer of the OC series in a hotel in Hollywood where Rankin and his then girlfriend had gone to celebrate his 21st birthday. At that stage Rankin had never considered acting.

“He was there with the cast and we just got chatting. It was a random social encounter and he said you have a good look for an actor. I thought, yeah, yeah, right, whatever, but it was a seed planted and that bred an interest. There was nothing to say I couldn’t give it a go and once I got into it, I really got into it.”

The second moment was when he was watching National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch.

“I thought this, what I’m watching right now, is why I’m an actor. It was just one of the most powerful and beautiful things I’ve ever seen on stage. It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. So when I heard it was being recast I hounded my agent to get me in it.”

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His agent got on the phone while Rankin got down the gym and soon he was leaping about on stage in the role of Granty.

“One night I ran on and everything just went into slow motion as in my peripheral vision I saw a sea of green and red. It was the Black Watch Regiment, in the theatre to see a play about the Black Watch. Not only were the Black Watch in the audience, but they were in uniform, with red hackles proudly on display across an entire seating bank,” he says.

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Fortunately, the Black Watch contingent was pleased with the play.

“Yeah, we got a lot of interesting feedback. They loved it but there wasn’t enough f***ing swearing, and ‘what was a’ that dancin’ aboot?’ Well, actually that was us doing stylised fighting. They said, ‘Nah, we dinnae dae any o that pish. If you’re going to fight the guy, fight him, dinnae dance aboot wi him, eh?’ But they were a great bunch.”

His latest military foray also contained a heart-stopping moment when the helicopter he was in unexpectedly took off and went off the edge of a canyon.

“I was like, woah, ho! and said to the director, we’ll need to do that again, because my face is going to be… He pulls a Munch/Scream expression.

“I’m only in two episodes but it’s a very nice foot in the door of the American casting market. I’d like to do more work there, but I’m in no hurry. There’s so much good work going on in the UK, I’d like to build up my career here. I’m really stubborn, one of those actors that is staying rooted in Scotland.

“The American Dream is for those seeking fame and fortune but that’s not why I’m in the business. I’m not that interested in building up a massive fortune or being super famous. I’m genuinely in it for the love of doing it and am hungry to experience as much of the business as I can and develop as an actor. Then I’ve earmarked my forties for directing…” He laughs realising he is wishing his life away.

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“But being an actor you get to do everything. Win the lottery, be a policeman, be a First World War army surgeon, fly about as a special forces military officer. Other people don’t get to do that.”

No, they don’t, not even lottery winners.

The Syndicate, Tuesday, 9pm, BBC1

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