Interview: Robert Cavanah, actor

YOU would normally find Robert Cavanah in pin-stripes. Today the actor is in pimp's strides.

• Robert Cavanah (left) in Pimp

The former star of Sunday night family entertainment – the clean-cut hospital administrator Carnegie of ITV's The Royal – has ditched his wholesome image and taken to the dirty streets of Soho for a new British film which sees him take the lead role, as well as directing and writing credits.

It's been a labour of love for the 44-year-old – even if it has left him broke, and sporting a rather individual look. "Yes, it's not quite how I usually look," he laughs. "It's all a bit seedy, hardly clean cut. But I do love having my hair long and so I thought, why not have a double ponytail? Maybe it's a mid-life crisis thing – my mum likes it long, though."

Quite what she – and his female fans – will make of his new film Pimp he's not so sure. Cavanah plays Woody, the main character in the movie, who is followed by documentary cameras as a week in his sleazy life goes from bad to worse.

The film, released this week – the premiere was at Edinburgh's Cameo on Monday night – also stars Danny Dyer, and boasts appearances by former Footballer's Wives star Susie Amy and Hostel's Barbara Nedeljakova.

"It is a bit of a departure for me, but I really needed a new challenge. I left The Royal because I ended up just hating it, I couldn't stand it. Not the people, I loved the other actors, there was some great talent, but I never wanted to do that kind of job. I was becoming synonymous with Carnegie, but it wasn't challenging me at all.

"I get bored with a lot of conventional telly but I am not cool enough to be in unconventional telly.

"I fall between a lot of stools. I am not handsome enough to be the romantic lead, I am not quite lived-in enough to take the character parts I want. I've been lucky enough to get a lot of roles but they are not necessarily the ones which I wanted. So I thought, I can create my own work.

"I felt I wanted to get back to doing something that made me feel the way I did when I was at college. So I left the steady job and the steady money behind about a year before ITV scrapped it, and went to Los Angeles. I had a nice part in Soccer Mom."

So far, so uncontroversial, but while he was working on the American teen comedy, he was also busy writing Pimp and trying to get the financial backing to produce the film. And he used his friendships and connections with a host of Scottish talent to get it made, getting Lord of the Rings star Billy Boyd and Martin Compston on board as well as getting some money out of his old friend Gerard Butler.

The pair worked together – alongside Angelina Jolie – in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. "Gerry is an old friend who is doing very well for himself," says Cavanah. "When I spoke to him about Pimp he was delighted to help out."

He adds: "I was first asked to play Woody six years ago I thought it was an interesting script, but I wanted to direct and when I realised that the writer hadn't actually been to Soho to see what was going on I asked if I could rewrite it as well as direct it. I hadn't thought of acting in it as well until it was suggested to me, and it seemed the right thing to do.

"I spent a lot of time in Soho visiting sex shops and watching a lot of 'different' films. I saw so many strange things . . . and I have incorporated some into Pimp, although there are sights which I will never be able to forget.

"The one thing I didn't feel I wanted to do though was actually spend time with a real pimp. I didn't want to get that 'method' about it. After all, I am an actor, I should be able to act out how a pimp behaves."

Unsurprisingly given its subject matter there's a lot of sex, bad language and violence in the film. "But then there's bound to be, so I'm not sure how people who have watched me and liked me before will take it," he laughs. "Still, I hope they will see there's more to it than that, there is a moral message in there too. It's not just a 'Danny Dyer' film. And as for violence, I'm the one who's always getting beaten up."

Cavanah – who also featured in the famous Glen of Tranquility Glenmorangie television ad – says that originally there would have been more Scots in the film. John Hannah and The Descent star Shauna MacDonald were originally slated for roles before other commitments forced them to bow out, and Robert also wanted to get Brian Cox and Robert Carlyle involved.

"I wanted Brian Cox for Danny Dyer's part. He'd always said when you are ready, show me it, but it took too long to get to him and didn't work out which was gutting at the time but I remain a massive fan. I had also wanted Bobby Carlyle for Woody but my producers said, why don't you just play it?"

He also got his old EastEnders co-star, Scarlett Alice Johnson – who played his teenage girlfriend Vicki Fowler in Albert Square – on board. "I know her because I was her much older boyfriend in EastEnders. I hadn't kept up with her at all so it was great to see her again."

Cavanah says he and his fellow producer Royd Tolkien – the great grandson of JRR Tolkien – have now established R&R Films and already have another movie ready to shoot. The Cellar will star Mad Men's Jared Harris and The Office's Lucy Davis and will be shot in Gosford House, East Lothian. It's about seven friends who go to a Scottish castle for a wedding and get trapped in an ancient wine cellar.

"We have got a lot of product over the last two or three years. We are in the middle ground when it comes to movies. We are looking at projects which cost around 500,000. Getting money is always the hardest part.

"I've not taken a salary for Pimp, though we've paid everyone else, so I am totally skint. But then for me the money wasn't ever what it was about."

He adds: "It's all very exciting at the moment, but I don't want to give up acting and just produce or direct. Acting is where it all began for me, and I love it."

Pimp is released on 21 May

EASTENDERS VIA EAST CALDER

ORIGINALLY from East Calder, Robert Cavanah and his younger sister grew up in Marchmont and then Gracemount when their parents split up.

The former James Gillespie's pupil says that school wasn't easy for him – he was bullied because of a limp he was left with after a car accident when he was 11 – and living in the socially-deprived area of Gracemount didn't help either.

"I got out of there, and out of school, as soon as I could really. I still go back and drive round Burnhead and the whole area when I'm in Edinburgh just to see what it's like and to remind myself of life there – it makes me appreciate everything I've got now even more. We didn't have much money then, but we never lacked for anything and my mother always inspired us to do what we wanted to do."

After football, acting was his passion. So after stints at Stevenson College and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, his career began for real with Scottish dramas such as Taggart and Hamish Macbeth.

But the bright lights of London called and so did the rounds of any jobbing actor – Casualty, The Bill, Judge John Deed, Silent Witness, then back to Scotland for Rebus, before landing the three-year role in The Royal. There have been movies too – Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and Sahara. And of course there was EastEnders, when he played Tommy, Vicki Fowler's older boyfriend who was eventually run out of Walford by Dirty Den.

His private life has been as unsettled as his working life. He has a teenage daughter Olivia in Denmark – whose mother he had a two-week fling with in the mid-nineties. He manages to see her about four times a year. His marriage to his American wife Kathryn ended a number of years ago, although he shares custody of their eight-year-old son Logan.