Jack Lowden interview

The Bafta Rising Star nominee on fame, films and the future - From Black Watch to playing Lord Darnley in Mary Queen of Scots and a wrestler in Fighting with My Family - the Borders-born actor talks to Janet Christie about acting, activism and stepping behind the camera

Bafta Rising Star nominee Jack Lowden. Location: With Thanks to Leith Theatre Trust 28-30 Ferry Road, Leith, EH6 4AE. www.leiththeatretrust.org

Bafta Rising Star nominee

Jack Lowden is not one for sitting still. He’s itching to have an “ogle” around Leith Theatre in Edinburgh, but in the meantime sit still he does, upstairs in a flower-filled function suite, talking about how chuffed he is to be shortlisted for a Bafta EE Rising Star. The only award chosen by the public, given to rising talent who’ve captured our imagination, it will see the Edinburgh-based Lowden heading to London for the ceremony on 2 February.

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“I’ve got no idea why I’ve been nominated now,” says the 29-year-old, in his warm Borders accent. “I’ve been doing this for about ten years, but it’s really wonderful. It’s a very hotly contested thing and it’s lovely for it to be now, because you feel like you’ve earned it a bit more. It’s an honour.

In Mary Queen of Scots, in which he starred with Saoirse Ronan and James McArdle in 2019

“And it does have an effect on future job prospects for us. When awards highlight young talent it can only help everybody get into rooms they couldn’t get into and that’s what awards should be used for.”

You can see why Bafta have shortlisted him as one of the bright lights of 2020, along with Awkwafina, Kaitlyn Dever, Kelvin Harrison Jr and Micheal Ward as Borders boy Lowden’s career has been on an upwards trajectory ever since he caught the attention in The National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch in 2011.

From Black Watch to wrestling

More acclaim followed when he won an Olivier Award for Ibsen’s Ghosts, and he moved into film and TV, in the BBC’s epic miniseries War and Peace, playing a plantation owner in The Long Song, the country’s first golfing superhero Tommy Morris in Tommy’s Honour, then clinched Best Actor from Bafta Scotland for chilling Netflix film, Calibre. He won praise for his role as a fighter pilot in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, as real life wrestler Zac ‘Zodiac’ Bevis in Stephen Merchant’s Fighting with My Family, and brought a new complexity to Lord Darnley in Mary Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan.

Jack Lowden in National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch, 2011

“I loved playing Darnley,” he says. “Obviously he was an arse but it comes from somewhere, some deep-seated insecurity. It’s fun to play weak characters. I’ve no interest in playing the finished product kind, it’s boring. I’m not a finished product and I struggle playing them. But when they have great big flaws, I grab onto them like, and run with it.”

Fonzo, Small Axe and Cordivae

This year we’ll see him on the big screen in Fonzo, playing an FBI agent to Tom Hardy’s Al Capone, and alongside John Boyega and Letitia Wright (previous EE Rising Star winners) in Oscar-winner Steve (Twelve Years a Slave) McQueen’s Small Axe, set in London’s West Indian community, for the BBC.

In Fonzo, Lowden’s FBI agent hails from Boston, a suggestion that came from the actor himself.

Playing Morrissey in England Is Mine, 2017

“I don’t know why I did that,” he says and laughs. “Made it difficult for myself, but I’ve always loved that accent, that sort of ‘packed the ka in the ka pak’. When they thought it was a great idea I thought now I’ve got to do it, oh christ.

“And Small Axe with Steve McQueen – he’s my favourite director, the best I’ve worked with. Because he’s got an incredible instinct for anything false. He also knows how to push actors but not humiliate them.

“When I first started I thought in a sort of arrogant way that actors were fannies and spoilt and you just turn up and say something, but the longer I worked, and then getting a chance to produce and see the other side, they really are the magical bit.

“Because a film set is like a building site, all these guys walking aboot with North Face jackets with lighting rig and sound stuff, and then the actor comes out in the middle and someone says ‘right, you’ve lost your daughter, go’. It’s difficult, and for Steve, his priority is the actor and the story, bang, straight, everybody’s told to bugger off until he’s sorted it out. He’s amazing, he pushed me, which I love.”

Playing real life wrestler Zac Zodiac Bevis in Stephen Merchant's Fighting with my Family, 2019

Mangrove Nine

Lowden plays Ian Macdonald, the radical barrister who advised the Mangrove Nine, the defendants in Britain’s most influential Black Power trial from 1970-72. They were standing trial on charges arising from violent clashes with the police as they campaigned to defend Notting Hill’s black community from police racism.

As well as working towards being able to pick the jobs he works on – his definition of success as an actor – Lowden has always wanted to step behind the camera.“I enjoy acting, but I’m very restless. I’m no’ very good at standing aboot daein’ nothin’ and the thing as an actor when you’re used for about four minutes a day, drives me mental. I’ve always been jealous of the people that are running around busy.

Stepping behind the camera with his own Reiver Pictures

“That’s why I started this very, very small production company, Reiver Pictures with the producer Dominic Norris, basically to trap myself into actually making a go of ideas that come up.”

Such an idea is Cordivae, a psychological thriller, shot in Ireland and as well as co-producing it, he stars with Fiona Shaw and Tamara Lawrence, who he worked with in The Long Song.

Bafta Rising Star nominee Jack Lowden Location: With Thanks to Leith Theatre Trust 28-30 Ferry Road, Leith, EH6 4AE. www.leiththeatretrust.org

“It’s this cool sort of twist on Rosemary’s Baby kind of film, really weird. I played a creepy weirdo, which was great fun. It’s all about paranoia, psychosis in pregnancy, and being manipulated,” he says, of the film which they’re hoping to get into a film festival and released this year.

“It’s my first film and was a baptism of fire. It’s no’ easy! But I loved problem solving, and that acting became secondary. I almost forgot when it was my turn to go on camera. It was great to be doing everything from jumping in the car to go and get cappuccinos for folk, holding something, throwing something that needed throwing. It was just great, like actually film-making, instead of just turning up and mincing about, which was what I just felt I’d been doing for ten years.”

Lowden doesn’t really think acting is “just mincing about”, but he does adhere to what he calls “the typically Scottish thing where you’re taught to take the work seriously, but not yourself.”

With his blue eyes, fair hair and brows, dressed in black jeans and jumper, green puffer jacket and hat, he blends in easily outside on the Capital streets and loves being able to move around, anonymous.

“Someone asked me the other day, are you getting recognised, and I really don’t. It’s great. Maybe it’s to do with living up here. Or because the work I’ve done is very varied in terms of not going after big commercial stuff, and I’ve tried to do stuff that’s challenged me. So I’ve not noticed it, thank god.”

Borders upbringing

Raised in Oxton near Lauder, where his mother ran an art gallery and coffee shop, while his father worked for a bank, Lowden started acting while still at Earlston High School. It was an English trip to Glasgow to see Black Watch, the play he would later star in, that inspired him.

“It was amazing,’” he says. “What that play does so brilliantly is focus on the soldiers and the stupidity of war. I hope it comes back. Even though it’s about the Iraq War, it could be very relevant now.”

Like Ghosts, Black Watch was tough for Lowden too, he remembers, but in a different way. “It was so physical. I mean if I did it now – that was almost ten years ago and I was about 20 – I bet I’d be like, ‘aw right, I’m no’ doin’ any o’ that runnin’ around.’”

Footie and footlights

Lowden was always running around as a kid, usually with a football. The game was his first love, and he dreamt of being a professional, for “anyone that would have taken me,” he laughs.

“I still want to be one!” he says. “If someone said I could, I would chuck everything, oh my god yeah, because there’s something about it… You kind of get that buzz in theatre, but you know what’s going to happen. With sport, you don’t, victory or loss, oh my god. So the buzz is even bigger.”

These days there’s less playing football too and more watching, Lowden having long been a fan of semi-pro junior football ever since his dad took him and his younger brother Calum to matches.

“I go and watch Broxburn Athletic and we’ve been literally all over Scotland. It’s brilliant, not only for the football, just being there with 150 people, one man and his dog, no police and you’re three foot from the linesman.”

As well as football, the Lowden brothers were mad keen on dance, and Jack accompanied Calum, two years younger, to ballet classes.

“He was brilliant and I was awful, like really bad, but I sort of stuck with it. In the shows they said, ‘maybe you should narrate?’ and I was like, ‘but I wanna dance!’ I just loved being on the stage.”

So while Calum went on to train at the English National Ballet School and Royal Ballet School in London and is now a soloist at the Royal Swedish Ballet, Jack segued into musicals and joined Scottish Youth Theatre.

“Musicals are bigger than life in the Borders and I was in everything… The Boyfriend, Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma. I loved it.”

Comedy classics

He was also obsessed with TV comedy, growing up watching Only Fools and Horses, Dad’s Army, Porridge, Open All Hours and Fawlty Towers.

“I watched two episodes of Fawlty Towers last night,” he says. “The one where Manuel has the rat,” and he starts to laugh. “I think a large part of why I got into acting is that life always seems a lot nicer in those comedies. I’ve always wanted to live in one of them, probably Open All Hours, in the shop with Granville, or strangely, Porridge. I know it’s jail but they managed to make it look so idyllic.”

Musicals led on to the Conservatoire where Lowden studied acting, then London beckoned.

“I think you still have to go down there unfortunately, but now you can come back a lot quicker. Things are popping up here, you can feel it’s a very exciting time. New people in new positions, even where we’re sitting, in Leith Theatre, it’s another venue being developed again.”

Looking ahead

Lowden is full of plans for the future, and upfront about about his support for the causes he believes in, whether it’s the Save Leith Walk campaign, supporting the SNP or speaking up for independence. “I’d love it to happen. I think why can’t we, and with what’s happened with Brexit, there seems to be a growing appetite.

“Last year I went to Iceland, which has a population of 300,000, tiny, and they have a remarkable landscape like we do, they also have geothermal power – we don’t – which is a no brainer, but … these smaller nations that are all around us seem to be doing brilliantly well. I don’t see why we can’t.

“The thing about independence is quite often the argument is ‘can we’? It’s almost that’s not the question. It’s ‘do we want it?’ Because anything’s possible. Do we want it? People spend so much time pointing out why it can’t be. If you don’t want it, that’s fine, just say you don’t want it, you want to be British, you want to be whatever, just do it. Don’t say ‘have you thought about the oil?’ – none of us know what’s going to happen. Experts don’t know, nobody does. We should just give it a go. It would be just wonderful, and I think it would be a good kick up the arse.”

More films with Reiver Pictures

Workwise more producing is to come for Lowden, with a short film that he’s written and will now direct, and there are another two projects with Reiver Pictures – “which is beyond my imagination,” he says.

One is a film Lowden would love to make in Scotland “if people will give me money. It’s a case of going cap in hand to arts bodies, private equity and film financiers and convincing them. And there are a couple of things I’m really excited about but I can’t say what they are yet – which is annoying.

“I think a lot of actors wait until they’re megastars and have made millions to do this. I haven’t done either of those, but I thought ‘well, why no’ just do it now?’”

Leith Theatre

And with that, he’s on his feet for a tour of Leith Theatre, the art deco gem at the centre of a project to breathe new life into the venue which first opened in 1932. The paint might be peeling and more money needed to get it fully functioning, but like many, Lowden can see the potential. EIF used it as a venue last year – Kate Tempest, Jarvis Cocker and Anna Calvi among the acts, and it has a year round programme of events, from showcasing new bands to film nights and theatre.

“Magical, amazing. I’d love to do something in the round in here,” he says, a gold claddagh ring on his finger shining as he points down from the balcony into the ground floor hall. Then he’s sweeping down the grand staircase past the original wooden ticket booths, and into the main hall, striding across the deep stage, checking out its rake. Lowden loves the nitty gritty – what about seating, acoustics? And it’s on backstage into the original male artistes and female artistes dressing rooms, still with their original lettering, the separate ‘ladies’ bar and finally up into the projection room high up over the balcony with the best view, back down over the seats to the stage.

Back downstairs having his picture taken astride the almost Soviet-scale mosaic star spread across the foyer floor watched by busts of Provosts past, possessed of ‘indomitable perseverance’ according to the brass plaques, Lowden says: “What do you think of Leith’s motto, Persevere? I like the presumption that it’s going to be hard.” He laughs.

It probably is, but Lowden thinks some things are worth the effort.

In the meantime, the biggest night in British film beckons, and Lowden will be there centre stage.

Bafta voting

Voting is now open at ee.co.uk/Bafta and the winner will be announced at the EE British Academy Film Awards on Sunday 2 February at the Royal Albert Hall. The ceremony will be broadcast on BBC1 , BBC iPlayer and Bafta.org, watch live on baftaawardslive.comFor more on Leith Theatre and the Leith Theatre Project, see www.leiththeatretrust.org or to donate, justgiving.com/campaign/LeithTheatre