Interview: Cal MacAninch, the man who turned down Mel Gibson

Cal MacAninch. Picture: Toby Williams
Cal MacAninch. Picture: Toby Williams
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In-demand actor Cal MacAninch is loving life beside the seaside – and has no regrets about missing out on a part in Braveheart, he tells Anna Dove

AS WE settle into a pair of leather chairs next to an open fire, Cal MacAninch greets a passing waitress with a friendly hello. It’s clear the actor is a familiar face in the Foresters Guild in Edinburgh’s Portobello. “Oh no, looks like I’ve got the short seat,” he jokes, as he sinks lower into the cushions.

He’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and as I spy a flash of a tattoo on his arm, my first thought is that Mr Thackeray, the elegant head of fashion MacAninch portrays in ITV drama Mr Selfridge, doesn’t seem like the body ink type.

Originally from Govan, MacAninch is now a proud “Porty” resident. “I’m from Glasgow and then I was 20 years in London,” he says. “I met my wife [actress Shauna Macdonald] doing a radio play in London and – long story short – we decided to start a family eventually.

“When she got pregnant, Shauna said would I consider moving to Edinburgh? She’s from Portobello and wanted to be close to her mum. I’m always up for an adventure so I sold my flat and we bought a place in the same street she grew up in in Portobello. It’s been a fantastic move. We have now got three kids and have lived here for nine years.

“I don’t work very often in Scotland and I rarely work in Edinburgh so it really feels like I have got a home to come back to. Portobello is home.”

Other than bounding up Arthur’s Seat with his running club and the odd day spent soaking up the Fringe atmosphere in August, MacAninch seems content to enjoy a quiet life in and around Portobello.

Sundays are spent ferrying his daughters Jesi-Lilas, eight, Ava-Red Amahle, six, and Ever Eden-Rose, three, to and from drama club, walking on the beach or enjoying a lazy breakfast in the Skylark on the High Street.

“It’s so self-contained in Portobello,” he says. “We have got the beach and access to East Lothian which I have been exploring a lot recently because I passed my motorcycle test. I have been spending a lot of time on the country roads.

“Sometimes Shauna’s dad and I go for a ride and end up in Gifford for a cup of tea. Wandering on the beach is a wonderful feeling and looking back at Portobello from the seaside is a very pleasurable experience. At the present time I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I love Portobello.”

The topic of motorbikes crops up throughout our conversation. This has clearly become a passion for MacAninch, who did his CBT (compulsory basic training) a year ago. “I did a three-day course with two wheels and it was really intense,” he says. “It feels like an extraordinary achievement. It was the idea of riding through the Highlands and Islands on a motorcycle that seemed exciting and fired my imagination.”

Before bikes, climbing was the favourite pastime. “Just before I turned 40 I discovered climbing and that was so exhilarating,” he says. “There’s a connection I found between me going on stage for the first time, me discovering climbing for the first time and me driving a motorcycle for the first time. All three of them make you feel really present to life and all three of them people think are really scary. It’s a celebration of life rather than a fear of life.”

And at 52, MacAninch has no plans to slow down. “I’m more aware of being over 50 because of other people’s reaction to it,” he says. “I’m still fairly fit. I learned to box when I was 50 for Banished and I’ve just passed my motorcycle test. I don’t run marathons any more but I could run a half marathon tomorrow.

“Of course you get more grey hair but I think probably having young kids you have got to be active. I became a dad late so I really value it. For me, I was too busy doing other things and you have got to take your own ego out of it as soon as you have kids and I think that’s a lot easier to do when you are a bit older.”

While studying at Glasgow University, MacAninch struggled with courses in French and English. He still harboured a dream of becoming a footballer until he was injured during a game and turned to drama to make up the extra credits he needed to complete his degree. With a helping hand from an assistant director, the budding TV star worked as an extra at Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre. “Once I discovered acting, I was just doing play after play after play,” he says. “I finished my degree for my parents but I knew what I wanted to do after that.

“I decided to move to London and luckily I was taken on by a London agent who said he would take the gamble. I got a couple of small roles in telly and then I got a big break with a lead in The Advocates which was set in Edinburgh years ago. I played the main baddie in it. It was my first experience of playing a lead on TV.

“Then I turned down a role in Braveheart,” MacAninch announces out of the blue. “I met Mel Gibson and they were talking about me playing one of the leads, rewriting the script for me and talking about me playing Robert the Bruce. I said to them I’m more like the mad Irish boy cousin. It was early days so they said they might rewrite the script for me but then they came back with a part for me and it was the bridegroom at the wedding.

“I thought, wait a second, it’s got one scene and no lines. People said you can’t turn down Mel Gibson but agents love turning down work. They love the power of it. So my agent turned it down.

“Tommy Flanagan took the role who then went on to have a career in the States after doing Braveheart. In retrospect it was such a massive film and even having it on your CV would open doors but my agent was right at the time. I don’t have any regrets about it. I think it’s quite funny.”

It was BBC series Banished, filmed in Australia, that would become one of MacAninch’s proudest achievements. “I thought it was a really good show and it was really disappointing when they didn’t do the second series,” he says. “It was going to be wonderful seeing where they took those characters and bringing in the Aboriginal characters was going to be fascinating. It’s the third time that’s happened to me with the BBC and you think, not again, you’ve got something good here, just go with it.”

Exciting as being on location may sound, the long stints away from home can take their toll on family life.

“When I’m away I miss my kids,” says MacAninch. “I miss the community in Portobello. I have got a lot of friends now and everyone is very connected here.”

He’s getting ready to hit the road again, however, and his time it’s first stop Toronto then on to New York as he co-stars alongside Rupert Everett in The Judas Kiss, a play by David Hare about Oscar Wilde’s scandal.

“Initially I turned the play down because I said you’re not paying me enough and it’s too long away from my family,” he says. “Now they are flying the kids out for two weeks in Toronto and two weeks in New York. Whenever we can I make sure I’m not away for too long.”

• This interview first appeared in the spring edition of EH50, the magazine for fifty-somethings in Edinburghand the Lothians