MARTIN Compston is fast becoming the go-to guy for directors seeking a leading man with an edge. We join him as he does his best Daniel Craig impression in the Irish Sea
We are sheltering from a howling gale in a small, out-of-season seaside resort on the east coast of Ireland. Battered by the fierce wind roaring in off the Irish Sea, a tired-looking fairground appears to be struggling to remain upright. At the fairground – which is in fact a set for a new ITV1 drama The Ice Cream Girls – bored teenagers light up in an apathetic fashion by the waltzer while their friends try in vain to stop their candy floss blowing away in the gale-force winds. Next to them stands another ride, festooned with pictures of young women in bikinis looking inexplicably cheery. Just beyond the fairground, the raging sea is a dark shade of grey. Enormous breakers crash on to the shingle beach with a sound like thunder. It’s not what you would call a good day to go swimming but unfortunately for him – that’s exactly what Martin Compston is about to do.
Ensconced for the time being in a nice warm caravan, the actor looks out of the window with quite understandable apprehension at the storm-tossed sea. However, he knows he can’t get out of it as his plunge is part of a crucial scene from The Ice Cream Girls, the three-part adaptation of the bestseller by Dorothy Koomson.
Compston plays Marcus, an apparently charismatic, yet actually ferociously controlling schoolteacher, who is conducting affairs with two of his teenage pupils, Serena (Georgina Campbell) and Poppy (Holli Dempsey), at an unnamed seaside town. One of Marcus’s exes warns the girls that, “He’s in control. He always is, but you don’t always know it.” They are too infatuated to take any notice, though.
When both relationships take a decidedly troubling turn, Marcus winds up dead and Poppy finds herself in jail for his murder. But the circumstances of his death are still shrouded in mystery. Seventeen years later, in the present day, the adult Serena (Lorraine Burroughs) and Poppy (Jodhi May) – now released from prison – have flashbacks which unravel exactly how he met his end. It is a dark, disturbing tale with as many twists and turns as that fairground waltzer.
The actor begins by articulating his feelings about his impending dip in the icy waters of the Irish Sea. “Look at those waves, man! I do hope it calms down soon.
“I see it as a bit of a challenge,” he carries on, flashing me a masochistic smile. “In the scene, Marcus emerges from the sea, and Serena and Poppy are watching him. It’s a bit like that famous scene where James Bond walks out of the surf in his blue trunks. The difference is that he was in the Bahamas and had a totally calm sea, while I’m in the Irish Sea with ten-foot waves.”
Compston goes on to reveal that he has been indulging in a spot of Daniel Craig-style working out in preparation. “I have been keeping in decent shape because this is the moment where the girls fall for Marcus. I have to come out of the sea looking good, or else what’s the point? It would look daft. I have been hitting the gym every day for two months, so I should be all right. Daniel Craig and Colin Firth have already done similar scenes – I don’t want to be the terrible third one.”
The remark is typical of the actor who is drily self-deprecating. His modesty is particularly appealing as Compston has a lot to boast about right now. Over the past couple of years, the 28-year-old former professional footballer has become the “go-to” actor for producers looking for a leading man with an edge. He possesses that rare screen presence which means your eyes are drawn towards him even when he is not speaking.
Impressive and varied performances as an internal affairs police officer in BBC2’s Line of Duty, as a desperate kidnapper in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, as a youngster immersed in the 1970s Northern Soul scene in Soul Boy, the notorious Glasgow hard man Paul Ferris in The Wee Man, and a shy delivery boy seeking bloody vengeance for his brother’s murder in Piggy have only confirmed Compston’s status as one of the country’s most in-demand and versatile young actors. He also has major parts coming up in Filth, the eagerly anticipated movie based on Irvine Welsh’s novel, and in BBC1’s account of The Great Train Robbery.
With refreshing candour, Compston admits that his choices have not always been so sound. “I’ve had a great run, so I don’t have to chase work or take on jobs that I don’t need to do. I’m trying to be more selective now. I love being on set, so maybe that’s why I did a couple of jobs on films that turned out to be terrible. I had the attitude that I’d rather do something bad and try to make it better, but that can have a negative effect.
“I now realise I need to be more patient. I know I’m in a good position, as there is always another project coming up. I have been very lucky. But you need to keep going – you can never rest on your laurels.”
Compston, who made his acting debut in 2002 when he was offered the principal role in the movie Sweet Sixteen, says he was taken by the central themes of guilt and redemption in The Ice Cream Girls. “The drama plays on that idea of people going back over their lives and rekindling feelings of guilt. You can never move past certain things. They can stay with you and ruin your life.
“Serena appears to have moved on, but she still has a dark cloud hanging over her. None of the characters can have any redemption till they face up to the past. The drama has very interesting things to say about the way people remember the past. Everything seems rosy when you look back, but of course it was not really like that at all.”
It is an inspired idea to cast this very likeable actor as such a deeply unsettling character as Marcus. His co-star Jodhi May agrees. “The two teenage girls get sucked into his orbit. When I read them, I found those scenes between the girls and their teacher so disturbing. That’s why casting Martin in that role is a stroke of genius. He is the loveliest guy in the world. He’s very boyish and trustworthy.
“You can completely see how girls at such an excitable age would form a huge crush on this apparently lovely teacher. It’s easy to understand how a teenager could become infatuated very quickly. But of course, an adult teacher must never abuse his position of responsibility with his pupils – and that’s where it goes tragically wrong.”
Compston, who was brought up in Greenock, but now lives in London, explains why he was attracted to the role of Marcus. “It’s simple. It’s been a while since I played someone so sinister. But what I liked about the role is that he is not a one-dimensional baddie. He’s a very subtle operator – his hold on the girls grows gradually.”
The actor, who has also starred in Monarch of the Glen, Red Road, The Damned United, A Guide to Recognising Your Saints and True North, proceeds to outline his character. “Marcus is charming and manipulative. He’s very clever in taking advantage of girls. He’s cunning. Poppy has never had anyone showing interest in her before. Marcus senses that, and realises that if he woos her with kind words, she’ll cooperate.
“Meanwhile, he allows Serena, who is not completely innocent, to seduce him. He plays the vulnerable card. He uses sincerity and gives her an inkling that she’s in charge, and that soon makes her melt. He tells her that he can’t live without her. But he soon changes and becomes violently obsessed with her. The power goes to his head. He loses touch with reality and becomes a really horrible man.
“It’s a very good part because there are loads of different dimensions to him.”
Compston speculates about how Marcus got himself into the situation that he did. “Marcus is that teacher who is always trying to be cooler than the other teachers. He was probably the geek when he was at school. Within his own peer group, he didn’t have much presence and was rejected by girls. This is his revenge. Now that he’s in a position of power, he is getting revenge for what he saw as an injustice.”
Some of the scenes were quite harrowing to film. Compston got through them by drawing on his formidable powers of concentration. He says: “On set, I don’t act like a big kid. I work hard. I needed to focus on this dark story. But away from the set, I like a carry on.”
Next up, the actor is reprising the role of DS Steve Arnott, the buttoned-up detective who, in partnership with the more instinctive DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure, This Is England), investigates police corruption in Line of Duty. In the compelling first series, they probed the suspiciously high conviction rates of the charismatic yet corrupt DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James, The Walking Dead).
“I’m chuffed that Line of Duty is coming back,” says Compston, who split from his long-term girlfriend last year. “The scripts were very strong and the cast were great in the first series. We were blown away by the figures. It was the highest rated BBC2 drama for ten years.
“The new series will focus again on the partnership between Steve and Kate. Vicky is probably the best young actress in Britain. We really clicked on set and became good friends. We both love our craft. We’re very lucky in this job. We enjoy getting up every morning and making things come alive.”
The actor reflects on why the first series of Line of Duty struck such a chord with audiences. “There is inherent conflict in an internal affairs investigation. What the writer Jed Mercurio does so well is blur the lines. When the police in Line of Duty first start crossing lines, you think it’s not too bad and you can almost understand it. In the last series, Gates was a good cop. You could say that he was merely cutting red tape. But once you cross that line, where do you stop?
“By the end of the series, Gates was doing terrible things, but you still liked him. My character was most annoying, he played everything completely by the book, whereas the bad boy Gates who was breaking the law was actually very attractive. That’s really clever writing.”
If Compston’s life had gone down another track, if Ken Loach’s talent scouts hadn’t swung by the gym class in Gourock where they recruited him for the lead in Sweet Sixteen, he might by now have made his name in the field of professional football. He played two games for Greenock Morton, but now says he harbours no sense of disappointment about swapping soccer for showbiz.
“I don’t regret giving up football for acting. I love football and am very proud I played for Morton. But the truth is, I wasn’t going to get much higher in football. At the same time, I sensed I could go somewhere in acting. I’m 28, which is young for acting, whereas in football I’d now be near the end of my career. Acting has been really good me. You end up in some wild places, and I love adventure.”
With one last wry grin, Compston concludes, “I know it’s cold today, but where else would you be paid to swim in the Irish Sea?”
• The Ice Cream Girls airs on STV at 9pm on Friday 19 April