HE started performing 18 years ago, but Christian Cooke is quite happy that professionally he’s just started to come of age
CHRISTIAN Cooke is a trouper. I say this because anyone who agrees to be interviewed first thing on a Sunday morning and continues to comply with the question and answer hoopla while having his hair dried deserves credit.
He is filming in Montreal and the job, starring in TV series The Art Of More alongside Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth, has only just started. He plays the lead, an ex-soldier called Graham Connor, who gets a job working for one of the top auction houses in New York. A small fish in a big pond, he manages to get access to antiquities by using his connections to smuggling rings that he was exposed to as a soldier in Iraq. The first week has been “a bit crazy” he says, but he spares me the details.
Cooke is probably best known for his roles in Peter Kosminsky’s fine four-part drama, The Promise, which told the story of a young woman’s quest to understand the role of her soldier grandfather (Cooke) in the final days of Palestine under the British mandate. He also featured in the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant comedy, Cemetery Junction.
But that’s not the half of it. Cooke has been acting since he was nine. His first appearances were in adverts, but he soon graduated to ITV’s Where The Heart Is, which ran for nine years, and in which he played Luke Kirkwall throughout his time at school. And there have been roles on American TV as well as independent movies.
The Art Of More and Stonemouth, BBC Scotland’s eagerly awaited new adaptation of the late Iain Banks’ penultimate novel, mark Cooke’s return to central roles.
So why has it taken the actor so long to fulfil the promise of The Promise? “Sometimes you look at the careers of people you admire and it looks like they’ve planned it the whole way, like they’ve never put a foot wrong,” says Cooke.
“But if someone tells you that they planned their acting career, they’re probably lying. You get to a stage where you have more options and you might be able to pick and choose. But really you’re only ever picking and choosing out of what gets presented to you.
“I hadn’t played a lead role in three years. I spent a few years doing supporting roles and actually that’s kind of fun because it means you don’t have the burden of carrying the whole thing. And often those roles are the most interesting. It’s a different rhythm that you have to get into when you’re in every scene, every day. It’s a different kind of endurance that is required.”
Cooke speaks with a real self-confidence, which is probably borne out of the fact that at only 27 he’s been working for nearly two decades. He is used to the ups and downs of the profession it seems, so when leading roles stop coming, there isn’t a panic, just the sense that this is a chance to do something a bit different. “I didn’t see it as a bad thing,” he says, pausing to tell the person drying his hair to turn down the heat. “If anything it was positive. My film career started really. It felt like I was starting to do a different kind of work.
“I once read an interview with Emma Thompson and she said if the script was good she’d make the tea, which I just think is great. It’s just about being involved with good material.”
Stonemouth, the first adaptation of Banks’ work since the writer’s death in 2013, certainly fits that description. Set in the fictional titular village (Macduff doubled for filming purposes) the novel is about the stultification of Scottish small town life with a helping of violence and vengeance and the poignancy of first love thrown in for good measure.
Starring alongside a glittering Scottish cast including Peter Mullan, Gary Lewis and Sharon Small, Cooke plays Stewart Gilmour, a young man returning to Stonemouth, where he grew up, for his best friend’s funeral. There’s not exactly bunting to welcome him given that Gilmour was run out of town two years earlier by his girlfriend’s criminal family, headed up by her father, Don Murston (Mullan). The uneasy truce which allows Gilmour to return provides the perfect backdrop for him to face up to his own past as well as the sinister truth behind his friend’s apparent suicide.
“I had never read any Iain Banks but when I read the novel I just thought it was really great,” Cooke says. “Some actors avoid reading source material, and if you were doing a remake of a film or playing Hamlet or something where so many people have done it before you, then I can imagine wanting to steer clear in order to make it your own. But I wanted to use the book to try to access stuff about Stewart that wasn’t in the script. I also think that when it’s the first time something has been adapted, you kind of owe it to the writer. I wanted to read the novel as a mark of respect.”
Cooke says he took an “academic” approach to creating Gilmour. “I use whatever I’ve got in front of me, so with this it was the script but also the novel. I built up a sense of my character from that. And I tend to do a fact sheet at the start – I write what I’ve got in terms of facts and I write questions prompted by those and then I write a bit of a biography. That gives you quite a lot to go on. And the rest is instinct.”
Gilmour is world weary. He’s confronting the girl he left behind when he returns to Stonemouth but he’s also confronting the small town that he always knew he wanted to get away from. According to Cooke, Gilmour is more likeable in the adaptation than in Banks’ novel. “I like him because I’ve got a similar, cynical outlook on the world. And he’s got a good sense of humour, a good wit. Certainly in our adaptation he is morally intact. He’s got a good moral compass.”
Cooke lived in Glasgow while they were shooting. He had a flat in the city for nearly three months. He’s comfortable being “a nomad”, he says. It suits him. “I loved Glasgow. It’s an amazing city. I really enjoyed it – the restaurants, the architecture. I had a lot of fun. Most of the locations were within about an hour of Glasgow and then we spent a week up in Macduff. I’d never even heard of it. And it seemed to me that a lot of Scottish people haven’t heard of it either. It was a beautiful little place, but absolutely freezing cold. Everyone got ill while we there.” He laughs. The fact that the drama is so character-driven (“you don’t always get that in TV”) is part of what attracted Cooke to Stonemouth. But another major draw was getting to work with Peter Mullan. “He’s everything you hope for,” Cooke says, explaining he’s already pegged the Scots actor to star in a short film he will be directing in October. “Peter is one of my favourite actors and a bit of a hero. He’s a very generous actor. It’s great to watch him work – everything for him has to come from a logical, believable place. If it doesn’t feel right, he won’t do it. The process has to feel organic.”
Mullan – who has praised Cooke for his faultless Scottish accent in the role – has clearly been a bit of an inspiration. But it soon becomes clear that Cooke has often turned to older actors for advice. When he was reflecting on his decision not to go to drama school, it was Ralph Fiennes who told him that although it’s not the only way to become an actor, it is “a chance to f*** up for three years without any consequences”. Still, though, for Cooke, learning on the job, making his own decisions and finding his own way to what interests him have been the right fit. And although he didn’t take Fiennes’ advice, it was the film on which he met him (Cemetery Junction) that provided a turning point in Cooke’s career. It was the first job which made him really proud.
“When you start working when you’re nine, it’s just about taking whatever you get,” he says, “you just want to get experience. But after Cemetery Junction I knew I wanted to do things that I could feel proud of. That’s most important thing.”
As to how a boy from a family in which no one else acts discovers that is what he wants to do, the answer involves a dedicated mum and Yorkshire’s school of performing arts, Stage 84. Cooke went to the school with his brother, who stopped taking drama classes when he was 15, but went on to become an agent in the business.
“I think my mum just wanted us to be doing something,” he says. “I played football, but my brother didn’t play any sport. My mum was a single parent and needed to get us doing stuff. It was my auntie who suggested Stage 84. We went and we both just loved it.
“My mum sacrificed a hell of a lot. We used to go three times a week. She’d get home from work, we’d get fish and chips or whatever – it was on the run – and then we’d be straight on the way to drama classes. She’d take us to auditions. She couldn’t really afford to take us to all those classes, they were a proper rip off, but she did it.”
Cooke remembers that many of his contemporaries at the school were sent by “overbearing, pushy parents” who were living out their dreams through their children. “It was never like that for us. When I was doing Where The Heart Is, I got quite insecure about missing so much school. My mum was amazing. She just said, ‘If you don’t want to do it then just stop, just leave. You don’t have to do it’. Year by year I had just kept on going back and doing another series, but my mum was like, ‘Don’t go back, concentrate on school for a few years’. I thought about it. But I knew my desire to act was greater than my insecurity about school.”
As it turned out, his career didn’t hold him back academically at all – in fact it was a spur. “By the time I was about 15, a lot of the teachers were a bit like, ‘Who do you think you are? You think you’re going to be an actor?’ So I thought, ‘F*** you, I’m going to do really well.’ And so I started trying really hard. In a weird way I was trying to get one over on the teachers and prove that I could do both, that I could act and that I had a brain and I could do well. That was the impetus.
“I was quite savvy when I was young. I knew that if I could stay in Where The Heart Is until I was 18, then I would have made it through that difficult pubescent stage when a lot of kids fall out of acting. I knew that if I could leave it as an adult then I might have a chance of making it as a career.”
And that’s what he did.
“There’s no right or wrong path as an actor. I think as long as you know that you never know everything and you always need to keep learning to keep getting better then you’ll be OK. It’s been an amazingly interesting journey so far. I can never predict what I’m going to be doing next and I love that – I wouldn’t want to know what was coming up in the next five or ten years.
“A friend of mine was talking about this and the way he put it was that the average person goes for two or three job interviews in their life and they might stay in their job for ten or even 20 years. Actors might have four or five interviews a week.”
His hair is dry and now it’s time to get on set, which is exactly where he wants to be.
• Stonemouth is on BBC1 Scotland tomorrow at 9pm. Part two is on 15 June