Interview: Martin Compston talks about his new film The Wee Man

Martin Compston
Martin Compston
0
Have your say

OF ALL the ways you might expect a ­conversation with Martin Compston to begin, I’m fairly certain that effusive praise of veteran TV actress ­Julia Mackenzie would probably be considered a long shot.

But Compston, who’s just finished shooting a Miss Marple with Mackenzie as the St Mary Mead sleuth, can’t praise the ­actress highly enough. Not only is she “an absolute darlin’ ”, but watching her nail that final scene, when Miss Marple assembles everyone to reveal whodunnit, was, he says, an acting masterclass.

IT’S quite a leap from Miss Marple to gangland Glasgow, but then Martin Compston has had the most unlikely mentors, he tells Claire Black

Of all the ways you might expect a ­conversation with Martin Compston to begin, I’m fairly certain that effusive praise of veteran TV actress ­Julia Mackenzie would probably be considered a long shot.

But Compston, who’s just finished shooting a Miss Marple with Mackenzie as the St Mary Mead sleuth, can’t praise the ­actress highly enough. Not only is she “an absolute darlin’ ”, but watching her nail that final scene, when Miss Marple assembles everyone to reveal whodunnit, was, he says, an acting masterclass.

“That denouement scene is hard going and watching her make page after page come alive was amazing,” he says. “You can’t help but look at it and think, ‘What would I do?’, but I’d have skipped over this bit or that bit and she made every word come to life. It’s what I love about this job – you never stop learning.”

Compston might talk with starry-eyed enthusiasm about his co-stars but at 28 he’s already got a decade-long acting career behind him and the future’s not looking too shabby ­either. The Greenock-born actor’s breakout performance was as Liam in Sweet Sixteen, but he learned his trade in three years on ­Monarch Of The Glen. He made his mark on the big screen in gritty indy flicks Red Road and The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, and ­cemented his mainstream ­dramatic chops most recently in last Line Of Duty.

And now there’s his performance as Glasgow gangster Paul Ferris in The Wee Man. Based on Ferris’s memoirs, the film charts his rise through the ranks of Glasgow hoodlums in the 70s and 80s, giving Compston the unenviable task of humanising a man who, when he was still a teenager, became an enforcer for gangster Arthur Thompson, collecting debts on behalf of the man the tabloids dubbed “the Godfather,” and being linked to stabbings, slashings and knee-cappings. Starring alongside Denis Lawson as Ferris Senior and John Hannah as Tam “the Licensee” McGraw, Compston is as watchable as ever, however unpalatable the subject matter.

“Growing up on the west coast, everybody knew who Paul Ferris was,” he says. “Every­one claimed to have a cousin or relative that was connected to him. It was that kind of thing when you went into a pub that people were like ‘don’t talk to him, his cousin’s dad is Paul Ferris.’ ” He laughs and says Ferris was generous with him while he was making the film. He was on hand to give advice but was also clear that the film is fiction not a documentary, and that Compston is playing a dramatic role not doing an impersonation.

“We met and had a chat about it and then he was really hands off, which was great,” he says. “He only came down to the set once and that was him being coaxed by the director for a photoshoot. Paul’s the first to tell you he’s got a chequered past, but from my point of view he was really supportive and just let me get on with it.”

Still, Compston acknowledges there is a certain pressure in playing someone who is not only still alive but is only in his late 40s. “I’ve never made a film that has been this anticipated. I’ve never been stopped in the street so often by so many people from completely different walks of life.”

Compston acknowledges the criticism the film has already attracted, with Strathclyde Police and Glasgow City Council refusing permission for the film be shot in the city (production had to be shifted to London) and a ream of stories appearing in some tabloids about how Ferris’s life story isn’t suitable for the big screen. “I understand the police and the authorities having an issue with it, but banning us from Scotland was a bit much,” Compston says. “I’ve got a lot of friends who are working crew and it took a lot of money out of people’s pockets.”

He’s not convinced by the outrage either. “There are certain papers going against us [the film] yet they are the ones who brought these people to life for us, they glamourised them to sell papers.” He mentions the nicknames certain gangsters were given and the various columns and supplements that have been devoted to this subject. “I think it’s a bit hypocritical that people who have made money out of this in the past are now getting on their high horses,” he says.

Writer/director Ray Burdis leans heavily on the honour amongst thieves narrative, suggesting Ferris abided by a code which ensured “civilians” were excluded from the worst of the violence meted out. Similarly, the film makes a concerted effort to place Ferris’s story within the context of what can happen when a boy is relentlessly bullied, as Ferris was while growing up in Blackhall. As to how convincing either of these devices will be probably depends on what your take is on the damage that organised crime and gangsters wreak on communities. Compston makes an ­eloquent case that in communities where there is little in the way of opportunity or aspiration, being seen as a hard man was – and in some cases still is – one of very few ways to garner respect.

“When I was growing up, it was the guys who were hardest at school who got the prettiest girls,” he says. “It’s a status thing. If you don’t have the chance to go to uni or whatever, it’s a way of having some sort of status in your community, and I can see why that’s attractive to some young guys.

“What I think the film does well is show that there is no glamour in it. You spend your time in these horrible wee pubs, they’re wearing horrible clothes. They’re not Al Capone.”

There are some who might say that success on a bigger stage, namely America, is long overdue for an actor of Compston’s abilities, but for his part, he says he’s got a “really nice” manager in the US who’s always asking him to go over, but things are going so well here it’s hard to get the time.

“America is not the be all and end all. It’d be great to do it but people usually go there during the quiet season, and I’m signed up to do another series of Line Of Duty. I don’t really like to think too far ahead because I’d probably just get stressed out.”

Compston reckons the controversy around The Wee Man could be a bit much to handle, but it’s clear he’s also relishing a project that’s bringing him more attention at home. “A film like Red Road wins awards but basically in Scotland not many people see it, whereas this might not be a Critics Circle film, but everybody is going to see it. That’s a change for me and I’m really excited about it.” «

Twitter: @scottiesays

• The Wee Man is in cinemas across Scotland from Friday