Outlander's Craig McGinlay, on rugby, acting and teamwork

From blending with Beckham to hanging with Sam Heughan, the Scottish actor is on the move

Craig McGinlay, the Scottish actor is one of the new faces in Outlander season four. Picture: Michael Shelford.

Craig McGinlay is going places. He’s already made the move from playing rugby to acting with a role in the latest season of Outlander, and now he’s moving ahead of the pack with a new Bollywood film, Shamshera. Right now he’s on the phone minutes after his flight from Mumbai lands, catching a connection to Scotland where he is due for a bout of fight training for his latest role.

“Sorry if I sound a bit tired and jetlagged.” He doesn’t, in fact. He sounds on a high after a week of meetings and rehearsals for the action adventure film, walking and talking 20 to the dozen in his warm Paisley tones as he cuts a swathe through the airport, all sculpted beard, Matchless leather jacket and jeans. In four short years, he’s made the move from working as a sports consultant to acting in films, this latest being made by Bollywood giants Yash Raj Films. Directed by Karan Malhotra, Shamshera stars Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Vaani Kapoor as well as McGinlay playing the lead villain.

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“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind in Mumbai,” he says. “I’ve never been there before and I’m just getting used to it. I’m back for a week here, then back to India and we’re filming until July.”

McGinlay as Sir Percival, in Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, second from left

We’ll catch him while we can, when he’s back for a bit of dreich weather to cool him down after the heat of India.

“I like dreich-ness,” he says, “the fresh air.” He’s upbeat and positive and why wouldn’t he be? He’s running with the ball, taking his chances without getting ahead of himself. With his muscular physique he’s action hero/villain material and has played both so far, honing his sword skills and horsemanship as well as his acting. Guy Ritchie cast him as good guy Sir Percival in last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which starred Jude Law and Charlie Hunnam. Then he nailed lead villain Aldred in Knightfall, a historical drama about the Knights Templar on the History Channel alongside Tom Cullen. He packs a punch too in the season two opener of the Edinburgh-filmed BBC 3 student thriller Clique, before playing a baddie again in Outlander.

“I play a horrible guy called MacNeil and the army of Outlander fans on Twitter have been at me over it,” he laughs. “No, there’s been a lot of positive feedback. I never really thought I was gonna play villains because I always loved watching Superman and James Bond and I thought action hero roles were for me. And I do still want to do those, but the latest three have been villains, so it’s nice to do that too.

“This is my first Bollywood film and I didn’t know much about it,” he says. “But I do now. Bollywood just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. It was daunting, but it’s been amazing. I’ve worked on big sets – King Arthur and Outlander were massive – but I’ve been blown away by this. There are 800 people on the sets in India just now, building forts, castles, docks, caves, it’s incredible.”

On the set of the Haig Club advert with David Beckham

McGinlay didn’t expect to break into the Bollywood market, but after Guy Ritchie finished King Arthur, he moved on to making Aladdin, using a lot of Bollywood actors and the same casting director who was working on Shamshera.

“There was that initial connection: it’s a small world,” says McGinlay, who knows to take his chances when he can, and put in the hard work when he is given an opportunity. “I’m playing a British soldier and I’ve been doing screen tests, rehearsals, stunt work with horses and fitness and soldier training.

“And I’m doing some fight training now with Seoras Wallace who did the fight choreography on Braveheart, Gladiator and Highlander. I’m also working with my friend Roger Gracie Gomes, who is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter. So it’s a real adrenalin rush movie, it’s going to be fun.”

But McGinlay is not all action and no words – in fact he’s learning Hindi for the part, something a bit different to go alongside his swashbuckling skill set.

“I speak a little bit of Hindi in this so I’ve been doing intensive language training. I would never have thought I would be learning another language for a movie any time soon, but I’m really excited about the challenge and enjoying it so far.”

Not that he’s been out and about in the sprawl of Mumbai to practise his vocabulary. With a schedule that consists of 5am pick-ups and full studio days of rehearsals, Hindi training, screen tests, costume fittings and horse riding, he’s hardly been out of the studio.

“I’ve only been out to go to meetings and do muay thai training at Soho House, although that has phenomenal views of the beach! Once we start shooting I’ll be there for a long time, so maybe I’ll get to walk along it.”

Among the on-set discussions has been the question of McGinlay’s appearance, from hair colour to moustache, beard or no beard.

“They’re trying different looks, different hair colouring, moustache, no moustache. We’ll see. If a director wants something, I give it a go, whether it’s having a moustache or different hair colour or having to go skinny or bulk up, learn a language… The exciting thing for me is the challenge of trying to become the character.”

The grooming issue is something McGinlay has been brushing up on since he started acting and did a bit of modelling too. He picked up Breakthrough Star of the Year at the 2015 Scottish Style Awards and was named as British GQ Rising Star last year, requiring him to get red carpet ready.

“It’s all a bit of a change for me from shorts, T-shirts and trainers, which is what I wore before. It’s a bit of a learning curve,” he laughs.

Shamshera won’t be released until 2020, but McGinlay is on our screens at the moment in Outlander, season four of the Starz and Amazon Prime International hit which features Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s historical time travel novels following the adventures of Jacobite Highlander Jamie Fraser and Second World War nurse Claire Randall, the new series sees them building a life in 18th century America. It’s a time of slavery and colonisers encountering Native Americans, with Scotland doubling as North Carolina. McGinlay plays Andrew MacNeil, a Scot who leads a racist mob.

“He’s not a nice guy – a horrible character and a horrible situation. I thought Outlander dealt with the slavery issue very well, and these issues should be raised. It was a tough episode to film and it hit home how bad that situation was. There were a couple of people crying on set, and you do feel emotion. The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck.

“Because there’s a massive Outlander fan base you want to do these characters justice, but I was such a small part of this beast of a machine that is Outlander. It was amazing to be part of it.”

McGinlay was pleased to be involved not least because he sees the “Outlander effect” as building momentum for the establishment of a Scottish film studio.

Outlander is sparking ripples throughout Scotland. You see it at the Baftas, in the press, all the talk of building a film studio. It would be a massive positive because there are so many talented, passionate people in the industry here who are just dying to get in there – we could do some good stuff.”

Now 32 and based in London, McGinlay is modest about his success so far, although ambitious to make the most of the opportunities that come his way.

“I’m still new to acting and I’m learning all the time,” he says. “I wasn’t sure how some actors might take it, because I’m not trained in acting and I’ve obviously moved quite quickly within the last two and a half years. It’s early stages…”

One of the actors whose path he has crossed is fellow Paisley Buddy Gerry Butler, who he first met at a film festival last year in Ischia, Italy.

“I’ve only met him two or three times, so don’t know him well, but he’s been really kind, given me some good advice and introduced me to a couple of people. And obviously the guy’s from Paisley, and doing really, really well, has an amazing career.”

At one time McGinlay was destined for a rugby career, playing for the national under-20s team in the World Cup, but was forced out by injury in 2004.

“I dislocated my shoulder playing in a World Cup in Italy and had two operations. I could probably have come back and played as it doesn’t cause me any hassle now. I liked the game, but I probably didn’t love it enough.”

Determined to stay in sport, McGinlay did a sports science and physiology degree at the University of Stirling and after graduating started working with professional athletes. Setting up his own consultancy, he worked with professional footballers and rugby players, focusing on general fitness and doing sports massage. He trained athletes for the 2010 Delhi, 2012 London and 2014 Commonwealth Games, working with the hockey, badminton, swimming, cycling, weightlifting teams.

“Then they took the ones I was working with to make an advert for the Games and said the weightlifter was a little bit too short, would I step in? Why not? I had to pull on this tiny one-piece weightlifting outfit and was out in the cold by the Squinty Bridge [in Glasgow] with everyone looking, thinking, ‘What is this idiot doing, lifting a bar above his head’, doing a clean jerk.” He laughs.

“Anyway, the ad came out and randomly a director saw it and I got a lead role in a short film that randomly won best thriller in LA and Calgary so I went out for the premiere. It wasn’t Hollywood or anything, but it was a great experience and I hadn’t done anything like that before. I loved it.”

Back home in Glasgow, McGinlay signed up with an extras agency and did a couple of adverts, one being for the Haig Club whisky, starring the brand collaborator David Beckham and the stunning Scottish landscape, directed by Guy Ritchie.

“It was just five days’ shooting, but I got to know Guy quite well and that was a turning point for me. I was standing in Glencoe looking down at Guy behind the monitor and [cinematographer] John Mathieson behind the camera and [film pilot] Marc Wolff taking shots of Beckham riding his motorbike up Glencoe, and that was it for me. So many great movies were made there, like Skyfall, and it felt so cinematic, although it was an advert. I decided: when I come off this I’m gonna go back, quit my job, move to London at least give it a go. If it doesn’t work out, then, you know, it’s not worked out…”

But it did work out: within four months McGinlay had an agent, auditioned for Ritchie’s King Arthur and landed the part of Sir Percival.

“It was very hard to give up my job because it was going well and I did love it, but I can always go back. I wanted to keep going with the wave, having done the advert, met Guy, wanted to keep the pace going and move to London. So that was another turning point: I moved down and did King Arthur, then got Knightfall.”

With Chris Pine famously watching Scottish rugby captains on YouTube to prepare for his role of Robert the Bruce in Outlaw King, McGinlay has the advantage, being the real McGinlay and able to jink the middle man. For him, the worlds of rugby and acting are not so far apart.

“There are similarities, things like bulking up and getting fit and ‘in the zone’. How I prepared in the dressing room as a rugby player is still how I build up for a fight scene or any kind of fight choreography. You pump yourself up for it. Outlander was the same, marching at the head of a mob, you’ve got to get yourself into a zone and turn yourself into a different character.

“Running out onto a sports field you have to play a character a bit as well. You’ve got to make that last tackle, be aggressive, stand up for yourself. Rugby’s about teamwork and it’s the same in acting – costume, hair, make-up, director, producer, writer, everyone’s trying to do their best.”

As someone who never seems to stand still (already moving into scriptwriting because it’s good for his acting, and as he keeps saying, who knows?) it’s time for McGinlay to catch his next flight.

“I’m not in any way there or where I want to be yet. It’s very early stages. I’m still massively learning. I’ve had a few good short film roles, three good roles in three big productions so far and this is the fourth one now, so it’s going well, but I’m still way, way short of where I want to be.

“I’ve not made it or anything. I still have a long, long way to go and I’m very ambitious. If I quit my job to move into this, then I’m not in it for a laugh, I’m in it to go as far as I can.”

Craig McGinlay can currently be seen in Season 4 of Outlander, available to watch now on Amazon Prime.