Interview: Peter Mullan, actor and director

COMPELLING, corrosive and sometimes profanely funny, Neds is Peter Mullan's finest drama to date, but it's been a long time coming.

Almost a decade has passed since he last went behind the camera for The Magdalene Sisters, and even Mullan is surprised by the length of the gap. "I honestly never intended to let it go on for so long," he admits as he relaxes in a hotel library in Covent Garden.

Yet after Magdalene had wrung irritable quotes from the Catholic Church and won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Hollywood took a strenuous interest in courting him.

"I was being offered everything," he says, cheerfully. "There was a script with Russell Crowe attached, one with Tarantino and two with Madonna - but they just weren't very good scripts. Never liked any of them, never took any of them. They just wouldn't have made me a happy chappie."

The closest he got was romantic fantasy The Time Traveler's Wife. "I did a properly Hollywood pitch for that but completely f***ed it up," he says.

"I went in to talk about it, and what I thought it was about, and when I finished there was complete silence. I'd been all cerebral and arthouse and it turned out all they wanted to know was: who did I think should star, and how much did I think it would make."

So what has he been doing instead? "Acting. Paying the mortgage. Raising weans."

Mullan has been in demand on TV for grim dramas such as Boy A, Red Riding and The Fixer, but also as a wizard in the kids series Shoebox Zoo.

Right now he's working with Steven Spielberg on an adaptation of the West End hit play War Horse, which is why half of his face is hidden behind a big brush of a beard.

"It's f***ing Father Christmas," he cackles as he comes through the door, although the look is more Edward Lear than Santa Claus.

Like his wizard in Shoebox Zoo, War Horse's Albert is a relatively benign character compared with the menace Mullan brought to Children Of Men, The Last Legion and the latest Harry Potter film, where his villainous Yaxley hurled thunderbolts and threats at the teenage wizard and his pals.

"I did Deathly Hallows so my kids could get on the Harry Potter set," says Mullan, who has three teenage children from his relationship with actress Ann Swan and a daughter, now almost two, by charity activist Robina Qureshi. "They met Daniel Radcliffe, who was a darling and couldn't have been nicer to them so I'm a hero right now."

Although he hasn't seen Deathly Hallows Parts One or Two yet, Mullan thinks he can guess his appearance ratio in the notoriously star-stuffed franchise. "I filmed four scenes," he estimates, "so they've probably cut three of them."

If he sounds sanguine, it's because Mullan tends to pride himself on being an old pro who knows the drill for character actors on big budget projects. A principled talent who mocks the "I'll be in my trailer" mentality, he also scoffs at the idea that his acting has brought him lottery win-sized wages.

"I earn more than the poor souls having to work on the tubes and buses at the moment but the wages for acting have gone right down," he says.

"I never made a lot of dough. When I did Ordinary Decent Criminal ten years ago, I got a hundred grand for ten weeks' work. My average wage up to that point was under 20,000 a year, then suddenly I was earning that in a fortnight. But that only happened for a short time and I've never earned anything like it since.

"If you are the kind of guy who draws in 100 million people to see his film, you've got every right to be paid accordingly, but I qualify as a character actor. I don't put a bum on a seat."

Mullan's own films cause bums to shift uneasily, since they are unpredictable, almost feral works.

Orphans was a sometimes surreal study of madness and grief; The Magdalene Sisters was an outraged account of young women betrayed by a church that was supposed to offer them sanctuary, and his new feature Neds studies a gifted schoolboy, John McGill (Conor McCarron), who is let down by family, friends and school and allowed to slide away from a promising future into a Glasgow gang.

The treatment is no cautionary tract: Neds is often funny, surreal and never feels untruthful, perhaps because, as Mullan acknowledges, it is rooted in personal history.

The film is set in the 70s, when Mullan himself had been a studious child with his heart set on university until he fell in with a knife-carrying street gang.

For a year, the Young Car-Ds got drunk, fought other gangs and chased girls until, to his embarrassment, Mullan was asked to leave because the gang felt he was both too bright and also too wild for them.

Mullan plays McGill's alcoholic father in the film, a man who can silence a family gathering just by shuffling into the living room, and there are parallels with Mullan's own life there too, although he says that the most liberating decision he made while writing Neds was abandoning autobiography in favour of fiction: "I forget who said it, but just because it happened to you doesn't mean it's interesting," he notes.

"There were bigger truths I wanted to get across. I wanted to dismantle the bollocks that there's a military structure to a gang, with a leader, second leader, the good looking one, first babe, second babe. It's far more arbitrary than that and their values shouldn't be romanticised. They aren't something you want to sign up to. They are a bunch of low self-esteemers who get together to bully every f***er."

With his brother Lenny as casting director, Mullan advertised open casting sessions in the Daily Record and Sunday Mail. Fearful of being besieged by starstruck hopefuls, he kept his name out of the ads, only to find that Scottish self-esteem issues were still alive and well.

"We were worried that we would have so many that we couldn't manage to see them all," he says wryly.

"But over two days we got 350. I was convinced we'd get ten times as many as that, so my first reaction was "oh shit". But once we had gone through their tapes we realised we had a fair chance of getting all our cast from that 350. But I'm still shocked how few came forward. It's the underdog mentality, and Scotland seems very much ruled by that. It holds us back.

"The working-class aspirations are worse now than when I was a kid - and it was pretty bad when I was a kid. Reality TV means they are being told they are no longer a working class, they're an underclass. Young lassies want to be Jordan or Jade, but very few aspire to be the next Germaine Greer.

"And amongst young guys there's the idea of becoming a pop star or a footballer - but you don't get many working-class boys wanting to seize governmental posts or go into television production or film production."

Since he rose to fame in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe and kissed Andie MacDowell when he collected the best actor prize at Cannes, Mullan has seized the opportunities that have come his way to work with cinema's best-regarded directors;

"I'm grateful to all of them not just for the work but because when you come to direct your own movies, you know that you aren't the only one who has ever felt panicked or discomforted. I've seen Danny Boyle crying behind the set. Michael Winterbottom got frostbite on his ear on the first day we worked together on The Claim. On My Name Is Joe, I saw Ken Loach throwing up. It happens even to the talented guys, which is kind of reassuring."

Has he been swapping director war stories with Spielberg then? Mullan laughs: "I don't think we have even talked about my directorial efforts. I certainly wasn't going to bring them up. Can you imagine? 'You know, I've done a bit of directing myself... hang on, are you really going to put that camera over there, Stevie?'"

Somehow word must have leaked out anyway, because when Neds won best film at the San Sebastian film festival in August, Spielberg rearranged his shooting schedule so that Mullan could pick up the award in person.

"I didn't think I'd be able to leave the set," says Mullan. "But he was jumping up and down about it, saying, 'Don't worry, we'll rejig the shots.'"

And has he offered Spielberg a private screening of Neds since then? Mullan grins a little sheepishly. "I have not."

Neds is released on 21 January

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 9 January, 2011