From Leith to Game of Thrones, the James Plays, The Victim, Guilt and back
In a television studio in Glasgow, journalists sit round a table watching previews of BBC Scotland’s new drama, Guilt, as the producers give us the lowdown about the show. The four-part thriller set in Edinburgh starts with a bump and keeps up the momentum and it’s a gripping watch with a dark vein of humour. But it’s hard not to wonder what its two stars, deep in animated conversation at the other end of the room, are bent double guffawing about.
Thirtysomething years ago, when the actors Jamie Sives and Mark Bonnar were both at Leith Academy, they might have been separated or told to share what was so funny with everyone else, but these days their chemistry is exactly what makes their star turn as brothers Jake and Max so credible.
“We first met when we were 11 and were in the same English and drama class,” says Sives, “but this is the first time we’ve ever worked together. It’s been a long time coming.”
They’re both familiar faces on our screens, Sives from Chernobyl, and the feature film Wild Rose, The Victim, Netflix’s Canadian-set Frontier and Game Of Thrones, and Bonnar from Catastrophe, Line Of Duty and Shetland. Sives also took the lead as a swaggering yet subtle James III opposite The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl, in one of The James Plays, a highlight of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival that went on to storm London’s National Theatre during the independence referendum.
Now Sives and Bonnar are back in Leith, as well as Glasgow and East Kilbride to film Guilt, co-commissioned with BBC2 with support from Screen Scotland. After premiering on BBC Scotland’s new digital channel, the series will also be shown on BBC2.
With a strong Scottish cast that includes Ellie Haddington and Bill Paterson, the series has a “weird kind of Twin Peaks, David Lynch feel” according to Sives, partly because “its anamorphic format makes it look like a movie”.
Written by Neil Forsyth (Bob Servant and Eric, Ernie and Me) and directed by Rob McMcKillop, Guilt centres on two brothers who accidentally kill a pedestrian while driving home one night. They keep quiet, but when questions start to be asked, their web of lies unravel and they discover no-one can be trusted, including a brother.
Jake, sensitive and romantic, the rock star that never was, runs Leith Beats, a vinyl store where records sell three for a tenner and he’s not exactly coining it in.
“I know a guy who works in a record store in Edinburgh so I went in and spent some time with him,” says Sives. “It’s like going back in time, people coming in with cassettes and getting told they’ll get 50p each and £1 for CDs – you can see them draining.”
Max, by contrast, is a high rolling professional, driven and ruthless. “Max bought the shop for Jake and uses him as his lackey so there’s some deep resentment there. But then he starts to form an opinion and grow a pair and the tables begin to shift,” says Sives.
There’s a shorthand that siblings have which also applies to the actors who have known each other since they were 11.
“Sometimes you have to work to build a relationship but we had that for free from the start,” says Sives. “At school we hung about with different groups but shared some classes and Mark lived not far from me so we’d often walk to and from school together.”
Sives was one of the first people Bonnar bumped into when he joined the school after the first term had started. “He told me he was Mark Bonnar from Lanarkshire, so that’s what he became known as.”
What was Sives known as at school?
“Dunno, maybe that wee nasty keely bastard fae Lochend,” he laughs. “I was at school in Leith, and later lived in Leith for a while, but I’m from Lochend and there was a big rivalry. Being from Lochend I got chased out of Leith,” he laughs.
Asked what they did at school, Sives shoots back with “Skive. I didn’t go very often. I wanted to be a professional footballer so couldn’t see the point and played a lot of football instead. I regretted it later and went back when I was 21 to do my Highers – I wish I’d stuck in and gone to university – but I got a job and had to take it,” he says.
It seems Bonnar spent a bit more time at school, and in fact won a prize for drama.
“Only ‘cos I was off that day,” points out Sives.
Sives loved the job he had landed as an apprentice scaffolder but after 18 months he was laid off over the winter then the firm went bust.
“So I never got taken back on. If I had, I’d probably still be doing it. I was a grundie, on the ground passing stuff up, and you’re not meant to go up high, but the crew would often get me up and scare me,” he says.
After that he worked in a paper mill, as a postie and on the door of a pub before leaving to study acting at the Drama Centre London.
“I just didn’t want to lift anything heavy any more,” he says and laughs. I just wanted to play and get paid for it. Basically I retired when I was 27. It was great,” he says.
TV, theatre and film roles followed and for the 2002 film Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself with Shirley Henderson he was nominated for Best Newcomer at the BIFAs. His hot poker work on Joe Fiennes playing Edward II led to more theatre, such as Richard Eyre’s Hedda Gabler, and films included Hallam Foe and last year’s Wild Rose. In 2014 he was an attention-grabbing James III opposite Sofie Gråbøl in The James Plays in Edinburgh and London.
“I loved that – it was anachronistic and we got away with liberties – the PVC kilt and dancing to Human League – it was great fun. And it was magic to do it on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre on the night of the referendum result. Twenty Scots all on stage – it was highly charged, magical.”
The audiences and critics may have loved it but no matter how successful a role, when it ends it’s all about looking for the next job.
“I was unemployed for 14 months after The James Plays,” says Sives.
But he had his 2011 turn as Jory Cassel in the first season of Game Of Thrones to thank for a new opportunity. Not because of the longevity of the role as he was stabbed in the eye and killed by Jaime Lannister in season one – “Kit Harington and Alfie Allen had read the books and were walking about going ‘you get killed on page 66…’” he laughs – but it was there he met Jason Momoa. The Aquaman and Conan the Barbarian star played Khal Drogo in the HBO hit, and the pair hit it off, hanging out in Belfast and tearing up Malta. “We did a bit of acting too,” says Sives.
“He’s one of my best mates now, and basically my American agent. He called me up at three o’clock one morning to come and do Frontier for Netflix, so I did.”
Set in the 18th century North American fur trade, the historical period drama starring Momoa is a rollercoaster of trapping and treachery, and Sives revelled in the physicality of his role as Scots trapper McTaggart.
“I love doing all that. Jason directed a lot of the fight stuff and he’d say ‘Jamie can you just leap off there onto that’, and I’d go ‘but I’m nearly 50 Jason’, and he’d growl, ‘f***ing leap off there onto that, soldier!’ and I’d just do it.”
As well as getting to hang out with Momoa, Sives had a lot of fun on Frontier on account of the North American crew not being up to speed with his Edinburgh accent.
“I met the Netflix head honcho and he said, ‘I love your character man. Nobody knows what you’re saying, but we love it!’ So I just made up my own lines. I could hear the producers whispering ‘whaddy say?’ ‘Dunno, but it was hilarious’, so I got away with murder, tonnes of bad stuff.”
Oh good. Give us an example.
“No, it’s just too bad,” says Sives so you’ll just have to watch Frontier to hear for yourself, although he does oblige with one of his ad-libs that doesn’t require asterisks.
“There was one bit where one of the English guys was asking me what I’ve done with the pelts and I said ‘They’re up your mother’s fanny and there’s still room for ma big boaby’. The producers are whispering, ‘whaddy say?’ ‘Something about Bobby and Fanny, dunno, just print it.’ Then later on Twitter you get some Scottish guy going ‘I cannae believe they let him say that!’”
Sives laughs, but for all his messing around and irreverence, there’s a serious side to him and when we turn to the theme of well, guilt, in Guilt, he admits there are times when he has been quite heavily plagued by it. Not, about skiving or “doing all manner of things I can’t tell you about” when he should have been at school, but surprisingly when he left for London to train at drama school.
“I just felt like I was running away to join the circus, literally and metaphorically, you know. People were saying that’s very brave, to go to London, take a chance and go to drama school, but I thought it was the complete antithesis of bravery. I thought it was cowardice, running away and not having a proper job, starting theatrical training.”
That was a long time ago and Sives has made a success of his career so has he got over the guilt of that now?
“Yes... with the help of this conversation actually, so thank you for coming,” he says and laughs. Sives has a quick sardonic humour that is masked by manners and a reserved demeanour. Solicitously polite and quietly spoken, take the deadpan delivery at face value and you might miss the gleam of mischief in his brown eyes. You can see how he ran rings around the Frontier guys.
“Anyway Guilt,” he continues, “most of the protagonists or antagonists have moments of guilt. Even slightly peripheral characters. When there’s moral ambiguity and conflict, that’s where the best drama comes from, and maybe the best comedy too. And Neil Forsyth has a flair for dialogue, and timing, and there’s an awkwardness that makes for humour.”
Around the studio a guitar rests on a chair, and Sives often picks it up between takes, but he’s dismissive of his abilities. “I’ve been thrashing the guitar for years,” he says, “no aptitude for it. I just muck about.” But in fact he wrote the music for a short film he directed called Song, with Aidan Gillen and Darrell D’Silva.
“Two tiny little guitar parts,” he says, “and then I made an album which is on iTunes if you want to download it and I’ll reimburse you. I was in a band called The Cone Gatherers with two mates. We got together to record an album, me being a daft actor wanting to be a rock star... had to get it out of my system.”
Playing the guitar was something he did a lot of between takes on The Victim too, the nail-biting legal drama that had Twitter in a frenzy earlier this year over who dunnit. “It took it out of Kelly [Macdonald] and James [Harkness] more than anyone else. I was the supportive husband until episode four when I came out guns blazing,” he says.
After two decades away from Edinburgh, two years in Madrid, a year and a half in Paris and 16 in London, Sives returned to his home town two years ago. There may have been professional or personal reasons, but Sives is straight in with a much more pragmatic explanation.
“I had 20 years of washing fer ma ma. I was running ootae knickers. No, it just felt like the right time to come back, and I’ve loved it. Don’t know if I’ll stay though. I get itchy feet.”
Back in his home town he sees the changes that have taken place in the north of the city over the last three decades as the waterfront is gentrified.
“When I grew up Leith was empty. All these trendy buildings down by The Shore were empty shells, HGV trucks lined up in the streets and guys sleeping in cabins. It was bandit country. Where I used to sign on at The Shore is a restaurant now.”
After Frontier came Moon Dogs, last year’s Outlaw King, The Victim, and Wild Rose all filmed in the Glasgow studio we’re in today.
“I was cut from Outlaw King though,” he can’t help pointing out. “Couldn’t believe that, I mean it was only one scene, but I was playing f***ing William Wallace! Took it on the chin though, you can see I’m over it, eh. It’s fine! It happens, I’ve been cut from three or four films, I’m starting to get the message. I’m surprised I’m still in this!”
He’s very much still in it and as for the future, Sives doesn’t want to tempt fate by talking about what’s in the pipeline. “Nothing’s confirmed so I don’t want to give anything the kiss of death,” he says.
If the future’s under wraps, the past looms large in the present and Sives can’t help but reflect on a career that’s taken him full circle back to Leith.
“It’s all been great fun and I’ve achieved much more than I thought I would,” he says. “When I think back to me and Mark walking down the road to school... now we’re acting in a BBC drama... well… it’s amazing.”
Guilt is on BBC Scotland from Thursday 24 October, 10pm and coming soon to BBC2