JOHN Hannah is heading home in the car. Wife Joanna is driving (at least I’m assuming she’s at the wheel, since Hannah is on the phone speaking to me) and nine-year-old twins Gabriel and Astrid are in the back, under strict instructions to stay silent while Daddy speaks to the nice lady journalist.
But when we get to the bit about the meaning of Christmas, Astrid can’t quite help herself.
“Particularly when the kids were younger,” Hannah is saying, “I was adamant that they knew it was about more than presents and stuff. Now, as they’ve got a bit older, I kind of lament the way they’ve moved away from all the stories about the manger and the goodness, and they’ve unfortunately become more driven by what’s under the tree.”
Which is when I hear a small but forceful voice from the back of the car. “What’s that?” says Hannah. Astrid, just out of earshot, says something.
“No, I know it’s not all about presents. That’s what I’m saying.”
“I know, darling, I know it’s not all about presents, but for some people it does become a bit like that.”
“Well, that’s good, I’m glad about that.”
The Hannah twins, it seems, have their priorities in the right place.
The reason we’re full of festive cheer is that Hannah, fresh from gritty roles in Spartacus and gangster flick The Wee Man, the story of Paul Ferris, is starring in a very different style of film – one that, this time, his young children might actually be able to watch.
“It’s a very sweet little Christmas film,” says Hannah, “it’s exactly what it says on the tin. And, although playing the minister is a bit of a risk in a sense, it’s not at all evangelical. It’s just a sweet film about a minister who’s lost his faith, who doesn’t particularly want to find it, but can’t help finding it.”
Set in the town of Gladbury in 1890, The Christmas Candle centres on an alleged miracle that takes place every 25 years, when an angel blesses a single candle in the town.
“Yes, there are miracles, there are angels,” says Hannah unapologetically, “but it’s about faith in a broad sense – having faith in whatever it is you need to believe in. I’ve never been particularly religious myself but my neighbours were and I could see that it gave them great strength. As an actor, there are other things you need to have faith in,” he adds, “lots of gods you might pray to, but more than anything you need to have faith in yourself.”
Born in East Kilbride, the young Hannah was itching to escape Scotland and trained as an electrician as a route to somewhere else; anywhere else. “I had a very good friend who was a toolmaker – we used to work together in the Barras. He’d been paid off and was working in Los Angeles,” he recalls. “There was the lifestyle, the pay was better – even if you were working illegally, which a lot of them were. So that was my plan. I was going to go over there and set up as an electrician.
“Then I began to think, ‘Maybe it’s not WHERE I’m doing it, maybe it’s WHAT I’m doing I need to change.’”
So he enrolled at RSAMD – now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – and, after graduation, almost immediately headed to London. His breakthrough role was in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which his rendition of Auden’s Stop All The Clocks left nary a dry eye in the house. Since then he’s done blockbusters (The Mummy), romantic lead (Sliding Doors), TV ’tec (Rebus) and pretty much everything else in between.
But he’s never lost that Scots brogue, which seems as strong as ever. “I think some actors become known for being chameleon-like and some actors become known for what they are,” he says. “Now, even when I’m in something where I’ve thought, ‘OK, I could do a different accent on this,’ they say, ‘Oh no, we just want you to do YOUR accent.’ It’s almost like that’s part of what they want when I get the job in the first place.”
Within those constraints, he could be at risk of typecasting, something he’s only too aware of. “You have to live with it, but you try and constantly change it,” he says. “Doing The Christmas Candle was very nice coming off the back of things like Spartacus and The Wee Man,” he says. “I seem to have been getting into quite a dark area and this was something that was straightforward, very honest, very simple and magical.
“I try and do a variety of things, if possible,” he adds. “It becomes tiresome for an actor if they’re doing the same things over and over again.”
And, though it may be years since he was on the career path to becoming an electrician, he’s not slow to take out the old Black & Decker on occasion, to fix the wiring or repair the odd table lamp.
“Unfortunately I do, yes,” he says. “In fact, I’ve still got my toolbox from my apprenticeship. You know how it is – you try to get somebody in to do a small job – it’s fine if they’re coming in to do the whole place – but if it’s a small job, it’s easier to do it yourself.”
He plans to visit his parents – who still live in Scotland – before Christmas, and will be back in London in time for Santa’s arrival. And, while as a young man he couldn’t wait to kick the Scottish dust from his boots, he’s growing more fond of the old place the longer he stays away. “I haven’t always been the biggest fan of some of the obvious things Scotland has to offer but recently, especially as I’ve got older, I’ve started to see it in a different way. Last time I was up I took my dad over to Arran and I loved it.
“Now I come up for a week and I really like it. And I’m looking forward to going up next time, which is nice, rather than when I was in my twenties, I would come up and see my folks and couldn’t wait to get back to London.”
And there always seems to be plenty for him to get back for. This year he’s worked steadily. As well as The Wee Man, he’s appeared in the US version of the Sherlock Holmes drama, Elementary, alongside Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu; in the TV series A Touch of Cloth; and has just completed two films: Ping Pong Summer, about a child table tennis prodigy; and political thriller Still Waters.
The day after we talk, he heads for Belfast to begin Shooting For Socrates. “It’s a nice wee independent film set in 1986 against the backdrop of the early days of the peace process. But in the meantime,” he explains, “Northern Ireland have qualified for the World Cup in Mexico, so there’s a sense of unity about that.”
All of which means his face is getting increasingly familiar. But, he says, fans are usually discreet and tend not to approach him when he’s with his children. “They don’t get in your face too much. It might be that when the kids have gone off to the toilet or something, somebody might come up and say, ‘I saw you were with your family, I didn’t want to bother you, just blah blah blah.’ And people are usually coming up to say something nice.
“Fortunately,” he adds, “all my critics keep their thoughts to themselves.”
• THE CHRISTMAS CANDLE previews Sunday 8 December 3pm nationwide and select cinemas from 13 December. Book tickets here: http://thechristmascandle.moonfruit.com/