HOLLYWOOD is a tough business to get into, and that’s as true for Scottish actors as anyone not born within a stone’s throw of Tinseltown. But plenty of Scots have made their mark on audiences over the years – and they’ve shined brightly even in supporting roles, writes Matthew Dunne-Miles
Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
There were precious few Scots in the orbit of Hollywood’s golden era, but Helensburgh-born actress Deborah Kerr was certainly one of its stars. Growing up in Scotland and Bristol, she moved to the States in the 1940s and became a go-to actress to play the reserved and well-spoken English love interest.
Fred Zinnemann’s From Here To Eternity was her chance to break away from this typecasting and the opening titles – which saw her embrace Burt Lancaster amid crashing waves – became an iconic piece of cinema. (There are reports that projectionists cut the scene significantly in certain towns, as it was deemed too racy.)
The film went on to pick up six Academy Award nominations, including one for Kerr in the Best Actress category for her take on the resentful military wife Karen Holmes. It has since been selected for preservation in America’s National Film Library, deeming From Here to Eternity to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Gordon Jackson in The Great Escape (1963)
A little-remarked quality of The Great Escape, one of the great World War II epics, is how generous the camera is to each of the dozen or so of its protagonists. When sharing a bill with names such as Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough, it says a lot for Gordon Jackson’s rakish charm and delivery that he manages to steal the limelight in one of the The Great Escape’s most beloved moments. Jackson plays Flight Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald, who attempts to board a bus to freedom with Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough). After passing the French test in front of the Nazi soldiers, the German officer extends MacDonald a disingenuous “good luck” to which his instinctive reply of “thank you” sees them outed as British escapees. It’s hard to watch Gordon Jackson’s face without burying your head in your hands.
Sir Sean Connery in The Untouchables (1987)
Still one of the country’s best-loved actors and for many the definitive 007, Sir Sean Connery put in a career-best performance in Brian De Palma’s prohibition crime caper The Untouchables. Sir Sean plays the role of Irish-born beat cop Jim Malone, who becomes the confidant of Chicago prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and shows him that the only way to fight the mob is to get his hands dirty – a lesson delivered expertly via the “they pull a knife, you pull a gun” speech in the pews of a church. Despite sharing the bill with a number of A-listers (including Robert De Niro as a baseball bat-wielding Al Capone) and making very little attempt at an Irish accent, Sir Sean went on to collect the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Brian Cox in The Bourne Identity (2002)
Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity was a game-changer when it came to action movies and, more specifically, spy thrillers (Doug Liman’s film came out in the same year as the self-parodying James Bond film, Die Another Day.) Matt Damon wasn’t the muscle-bound lead of his predecessors, but a smart and empathetic figure mysteriously left with the reflexes of a well-trained killer. But it wasn’t just the role of the action hero who changed in this radical makeover of the genre. Brian Cox’s role as CIA Deputy Director Ward Abbott is a truly understated villain. Without ever lifting a weapon, Abbott orchestrates sabotages and assassinations from the safety of the intelligence room, constantly on Bourne’s tale and weaving a web of deceit in the process. Cox brings a magnetic subtlety that would have been out of the grasp of many other actors.
Gary Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002)
Glasgow-born actor Gary Lewis is known to many from roles in Billy Elliott and Outlander, but one of his scene-stealing highlights comes in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York. Making your mark in a film alongside acting heavyweights such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brendan Gleeson is no mean feat, but Lewis’ portrayal of the Celtic gangster known only as McGloin makes for captivating viewing. His finest moment comes in a bare-knuckled brawl with Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio), following a wordless staredown after he refers to Vallon as a “Fidlam Ben”. Throughout the film, McGloin resembles a coiled spring ready to let loose at a moment’s notice. Whenever he lets go, the result is brutal.
David O’Hara in The Departed (2006)
Scorsese seems to have the magic touch when it comes to turning Scottish actors into violent gangsters (although he often casts them as Irish). Switching from the director’s usual world of Sicilian-American Mafia to the Irish mob, David O’Hara plays Patrick ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgibbon in crime drama The Departed and is described by Boston police chief Captain George Ellerby (Alec Baldwin) as a “fresh off the boat psycho who lives with his mother”. Fitzy is nominally just another heavy in Frank Costello’s (Jack Nicholson) criminal empire, but in a few key scenes he offers welcome light relief, including a truly sociopathic moment where he confesses embarrassment at the police discovering a corpse he dumped in the marshes.
Kelly Macdonald in No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Coen Brother’s tale of the spiralling chaos following a botched drug deal is a modern classic, but amid all the noise and fury lies one of the film’s best performances. Kelly Macdonald adopts a convincing Southern drawl for her portrayal of Carla Jean Moss, the wife of hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who becomes the target of a terrifying hitman after stumbling across a bag of money. Whilst Brolin plays Llewelyn as a man of few words, Carla Jean rattles on continuously, voicing the anxieties of the audience as danger draws ever closer. Macdonald’s standout moment comes in the film’s final few minutes, when she engages in a coin-toss with Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The tension is unbearable.