Interview: Peter Mullan, a hard act to follow

Peter Mullan. Picture: Contributed
Peter Mullan. Picture: Contributed
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PETER Mullan is famous for portraying hard men, but as his first show for the BBC in six years airs, he explains to Janet Christie why he’d be just as happy to play a geek

YOU’RE a casting director looking for an actor to play a geeky Latin teacher. Do your thoughts turn to Peter Mullan? Probably not, but if it’s a hard man you’re after, chances are he’s top of your list. Not that Mullan is complaining when we meet in Glasgow to talk about his part in Stonemouth, BBC One’s much-anticipated adaptation of the late Iain Banks’ penultimate novel. In fact, he is characteristically sanguine.

Peter Mullan in Stonemouth. Picture: BBC

Peter Mullan in Stonemouth. Picture: BBC

“It’s what’s on offer. It’s not like I get offered that many middle-class, soft, squidgy guys and then there’s the hard guy and you get to go (adopts soft, squidgy tone) ‘I’ll take that one please’.” Back to gruff, he says: “It doesn’t work that way. When those other roles come in, you go, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it’. Last year I did a homeless gentleman in Hector,
then John Guthrie in Sunset Song, and then Akela in Jungle Book.

“The hard man thing is interesting, though. Ironically, I’ve probably not played that many but you’d think I have. And you know why? I mean, Jesus, with a face like this and a voice like this, obviously they’re not gonna go, ‘God, you’d be ideal for that geeky Latin teacher’. I could easily, and would love to play the geeky Latin teacher, but that’s where writing and directing comes in. I could write those parts. Writing is where I go to enjoy myself. If it’s just an out-and-out hard man, I say no. He’s got to be interesting.”

The role that won him an Astra, an Australian TV award, for his performance in Jane Campion’s small-town New Zealand TV crime drama Top of the Lake, a drug baron with a complex inner life, was a case in point. As was Richie Beckett in The Fear. “Yeah, he was interesting, a hard guy with Alzheimer’s. A man whose empire is dependent upon physical threats and it’s falling to pieces.”

But it’s not all hard men and headcases for Mullan. The 55-year-old is casual today in jeans and a red jumper, glasses tucked in the neck, but he scrubbed up well for a fashion shoot for Esquire in 2013, showcasing “sharp summer style” by the likes of Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. He also played a doting husband and father in 2013’s Sunshine on Leith, even serenading Jane Horrocks.

Peter Mullan in the title role of My Name is Joe. Picture: Contributed

Peter Mullan in the title role of My Name is Joe. Picture: Contributed

“Yes! That was all right. A bit too soapy for my taste,” he says in his fag-end-being-stubbed-out-on-gravel voice, “but all right. And I’m also Salty the Dog in Lily’s Driftwood Bay, a TV programme for under-fours. So I’m not always hard.”

His latest role, however, sees him back in scary mode playing the appositely named Don Murston, no-nonsense head of a fictional North-east village’s most notorious criminal family. “Don’s a father and a criminal,” says Mullan. “Anyone that doesn’t mind killing someone, you should be wary of,” he smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners like sweetie wrappers.

The first TV adaptation of Iain Banks’ work since his death in 2013, Stonemouth is a rite-of-passage tale suffused with violence and romance. It is also the first BBC show Mullan has done for six years after he vowed not to work with the corporation in 2009 over its refusal to screen a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza.

“They showed an appeal last year, so now I’m working with them. That’s the only reason. I would never have worked with them at all if they hadn’t, no way,” he says.

“But they didn’t show it because of me. I meant it and I stuck by it, but it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. You don’t achieve anything by going on strike by yourself. You achieve something with a collective.”

One of the reasons Mullan took the role was because filming in Macduff, which doubles as the fictional town of Stonemouth, and in Greenock and Ayr gave him the chance to spend more time with his children. He has four, three with Ann Swan and one with Robina Qureshi. He is rumoured to be close to Top of the Lake co-star Robyn Malcolm, but politely closes down any discussion on this.

“I’d been working away a lot and it’s really lovely to be able to come back home after work. Also it was a chance to work with Davy Kane (Stonemouth’s writer) and Willy Wands again, who I worked with on The Magdalene Sisters. It was a really good cast, too, and I liked the script, simple as that.”

CHRISTIAN Cooke and Charlotte Spencer play the young leads, with Sharon Small as Mullan’s wife, Connie. “I was in awe of Christian and Charlotte doing spot-on Scottish accents. Back in the day, I would not have been happy with two leads being played by English actors. But Bobby Carlyle playing a Liverpudlian in Cracker and Ewan McGregor and Kevin McKidd and now James McAvoy, all those actors proved you can do any part. You’ve got Scots actors playing English and the other way around. I don’t have an issue with it.”

Mullan can’t wait to see Stonemouth screened, not least because he doesn’t know how it ends. “We played a couple of scenes in substantially different ways and I don’t know which one the director opted for. It’s his choice,” he laughs. “I’ll let him take the blame if it’s shit, and if it’s good, I’ll take the credit.”

Mullan is familiar with the director’s role, having notched up both directing and acting roles himself. Which does he prefer?

“Both, but they’re totally different. Acting is the sex and directing is bringing up the baby. In the course of cutting a film, you’ve got to coax it, nurse it, feed it … And then it becomes an adolescent, and it might tell you it doesn’t want to do this. And you think, ‘I created you, if I say you need music, you’re getting music’. And the scene’s saying, ‘Fine, it’s shite, but go ahead, if you want to give me music…’ There’s nothing worse than arguing with your own film! So you take the music out and then the film’s like that, ‘telt ye!’”

Asked to choose among the “babies” he’s coaxed, raised and argued with, which would he say is his favourite? “Ah, you never choose among your children. All six, three features and three shorts,” he says.

Mullan began directing in the 1990s in between acting roles, making three shorts then graduating to feature films with Orphans in 1998, The Magdalene Sisters in 2002 (which won the Golden Lion at Venice), and Neds in 2010 (which carried off the Golden Shell at the San Sebastián Film Festival). Along the way he also won Best Actor at Cannes in 1998 for his role as an alcoholic in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe.

“Yeah, tons of awards, man, millions of them,” he says joking. Then, more seriously: “I have won awards, but I need to make more films, particularly in Scotland. I’ve been remiss, too busy acting in the last ten years. Acting, you’re earning more money and you’ve got more time to spend with your kids. But I’ve got a script for a film about Hurricane Katrina I wrote two years ago that I’d love to do if I could get the money for it.”

Born in Peterhead in 1959, Mullan’s family moved to Glasgow before he was one. He was the third youngest of eight children born to Patricia, a nurse, and Charles, a lab technician at Glasgow University. His adolescence is pretty much summed up by his film Neds, in which a bright, working-class teenager growing up in 1970s Glasgow, whose mother is a part-time hospital worker and father an alcoholic wife-beater, gets involved with gangs. Mullan himself went on to Glasgow University to study economic history and drama, and started to act. His career took off, and then some, spanning films such as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Braveheart and Riff-Raff as well as My Name is Joe, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and now Sunset Song.

Does he think there’s any possibility he’s drawn to troubled, struggling-with-demons-type roles because he’s trying to understand his own father?

“You could be right,” he says. “Whether I was working him out I’m not so sure as much as working myself out. I think there is usually a quest to find something out with actors. It could well be a parental issue, or an oedipal issue … Some find out what it is, but most of us don’t. I’ve never worked it out. Can’t be arsed …” he laughs. “It’s more fun not knowing.”

Aside from Stonemouth, Mullan has also been in Scotland filming the role of John Guthrie in Terence Davies’ long-awaited Sunset Song with Agyness Deyn, Daniela Nardini and Kevin Guthrie.

“John Guthrie is tortured, with his sexual desires working against his Presbyterian beliefs. He’s a very sad, twisted man. One looks at him thinking he’s just an old-fashioned, sexist, misogynistic git, but when he crosses over into the thoughts that he has about his daughter, that’s a pretty brutal place to be. It could only end up in one poisonous, broken, twisted place. It’s pretty extreme,” he says. “I loved doing it. I’m dying to see it. Because, again, there were tricky choices from a director’s point of view, finding that balance between the human drama and the drama of the landscape that figures so largely in the book.”

WHAT was Mullan’s impression of Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie, the book’s heroine? “The weird thing is, John Guthrie doesn’t often make eye contact. He’s so cut off from everybody, himself included, that it dawned on me afterwards I never saw Agyness act! So I don’t really know what she was like, but she sounded great and she had a brilliant presence about her. She’s a total sweetheart, a lovely demeanour.”

What about playing Akela, in Andy Serkis’s motion-capture version of the Jungle Book. Is he a hard man, a jolly canine sea captain or a squidgy Latin-teacher type?

“Well, he’s a wolf! By nature you cannae get a squidgy wolf,” he laughs. “But he’s not a hard man. He’s the voice of compassion, I guess. He’s the only thing that stands between Mowgli and Shere Khan. Shere Khan is Benedict Cumberbatch, a glorious off-the-chart psycho tiger. There’s Christian Bale as the panther, lovely Cate Blanchett as the snake, Eddie Marsan, Naomie Harris and Andy Serkis is Baloo. It was like the school play, no set, just running around in plastic visors with tiny cameras, going roarrrr, arrrrrr. A school play full of some serious f***-off actors,” he says.

Ahead for Mullan there’s an eight-part series for HBO, filming in New Orleans then a film about the history of golf with Jason Connery. “We’re shooting in St Andrews. I didn’t know much about golf, but back then it was in the grip of the aristos.

“Then I’m in another film shooting in Australia up till February,” he says. Set against a backdrop of the sheep shearers’ strike of 1892, the film touches on the beginnings of the Australian labour movement and the country’s move towards independence from the UK in 1901.

“It’s a true story. And the parallels with what we went through last year on 18 September are quite interesting. I play this self-made millionaire Scot who has been trying to break the strikers and comes to realise what he’s doing is counter to his instincts.

“There is one scene where a unionist who wants to stay within the British Empire says the London banks will simply not allow it to happen. That really struck a chord with me. I got to that bit in the script and went, ‘I’m doing it’. I always just follow my instincts.”

• @JanetChristie2

• Stonemouth is on BBC One Scotland on Monday at 9pm and on BBC Two on Thursday at 9pm. Part two is on Monday, 15 June, at 9pm

• Hector will be screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 18 and 20 June at Cineworld 3, Edinburgh (