Interview: Emun Elliott, actor

What's a shy Scottish lad doing putting 'Glesbo' on the map? Emun Elliott tells Aidan Smith all about gay sirens and swordplay

During a break in filming, Emun Elliott talks excitedly about getting to ride a horse, brandish a sword and kill lots of people. "It's every boy's dream, isn't it?" says the 26-year-old actor, rubbing a stubbly cheek. That was his previous job, set in dim-and-distant 1348, and in Glasgow today, chuckling now, he thinks his current one might prompt envy as well. "Lip Service - that's every slightly older boy's dream!"

Some of Glasgow's more strait-laced citizens won't recognise the place in this new BBC drama. In fact, any time now, if they haven't done so already, our more excitable journals may very well christen the setting "Glesbo". And there are so many girls who know girls who like girls who do girls in this explicit six-parter that, initially, Elliott can seem as vital as that bloke on guitar behind The Corrs.

But he's finding the part rewarding. "When you read a script you want something to jump out, something that as an actor you can use," he says. The key word for him wasn't "lesbian", it was "independent financial adviser". "My character is being pushed by his girlfriend into getting a mortgage and I could definitely relate to that. The 'mortgage chat' is one of those signposts you're supposed to pass on the road from boy to man and I reached it recently."

We're in the Merchant City, in an approximation of an architect's office. Elliott plays Jay, friend of Cat (Laura Fraser), who's a flatmate of Tess and an ex of Frankie, the latter being the wildest one here: she picks up women in funeral parlours and has it off with them next to the corpses. Does he think the series will cause controversy? "Christ, I hope so!

"But it's showing a different Scotland, isn't it? We're well used to dramas where it's always raining and, bless them, there's this feeling of underlying doom. Lip Service is cheeky and daring and sexy. And I hope it'll find an audience beyond just gay women."

Short and dark, with a look David Bowie would call "slinky vagabond", Elliott was born in Edinburgh, and got his big break on stage in Black Watch. He did two and a half years in Gregory Burke's squaddie epic, counting them in and counting them out as the mouthy Fraz in Festival Edinburgh, in New York (Lauren Bacall, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Philip Seymour Hoffman - they all saw it) and lots of places in between. But he surprised himself with his career choice.

"I'm definitely not your stereotypical actor: the loud, cackling type who strolls into a room and grabs everyone's attention with a great story. I've always been much more of a listener. At school I was a shy lad and still am. But acting gives me licence to be up there, demanding the focus. It's the one time in my life where I don't have to shout to be heard."

At university in Aberdeen, the shy lad "went a bit wild". When he dropped out he thought his daft notion about acting would cause his parents to "freak out", especially as they'd stumped up the fees for George Heriot's in Edinburgh just so he could be reunited with his friend from primary, who promptly snubbed him. He pondered a job as a cruise-ship entertainer before the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama took him in, and last year he was high up Screen International's roll-call of bright young things (as well as number one in this newspaper's Eligibles List).

Now Elliott has been called back in front of the cameras; they want him to simulate more twentysomething prevarication and chaos. "Jay's got a good job and a girlfriend but he's constantly hungover and regarding women he can be a bit of an animal. Can't we all? I think his intentions are good but he enjoys his freedom and desperately wants to avoid settling down. I can relate to that."

We catch up a few months later. Lip Service has wrapped and awaits its first panting headlines. In the meantime, Elliott has been busy. That business with the horses and the swords was Black Death, and his first big movie - he was a mercenary hunting a necromancer - was released to good reviews in the summer. Paradox fared less well, the sci-fi drama being cancelled after its first series, so we'll never know whether his mad astrophysicist survived that gunshot. Now he's back in medieval garb for HBO's Game Of Thrones.

"It's a fantasy epic with a cast of 250," he says on his return from shooting in Ireland. "Everything about it is huge, breakfast is every kind of bagel. Read-throughs are you and the director in a small room; here you're in front of five cameras and a panel of US producers. I'm this minstrel called Marillion; he's a poet, a lover and he plays the pegged wood-harp. I seem to be drawn to this era, it's romance and darkness."

Games Of Thrones will air next year and, although his part is small, it will hopefully get Elliott better known in the US. Since we last spoke, he no longer has a girlfriend. We return to his favourite theme - freedom - and how being an actor can prolong it. "All of us in this business are clinging desperately to our childhood. We're dressing up and trying to make ourselves and others believe things which aren't really true. But I do think that actors, as soon as they lose the child or teenager within them, just become boring. You need that playfulness, that recklessness - I do, anyway."

Emun Elliott didn't get that mortgage and he still hasn't.

Lip Service, BBC3, 12 October, 10.30pm

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 3 October, 2010