Jamie and his magic touch

ALIVING room in Edinburgh, an advance peek at the BBC's big summer drama blockbusterooney To The Ends Of The Earth, and a female voice - previously silent, suddenly intrigued - pipes up: "That Jamie Sives, he's got a bit of the Russell Crowes about him, hasn't he?"

London's Almeida Theatre the following night, a sold-out performance of Sir Richard Eyre's acclaimed production of Hedda Gabler, and a female voice - trying to stay the cool side of very interested - pipes up: "That Jamie Sives, he's got a bit of the Colin Farrells about him, hasn't he?"

I'm present both times, and unfortunately for the women concerned, I'm the one who's now having a beer with the object of their affection in a swish hotel. We're talking about bad boys, how Hollywood is desperate for them, and also how the real Colin Farrell seems so keen to assume the role of hellraiser that in interviews he tallies up all his drinks and lists every pill, in a way that Oliver Reed and Richard Harris never would.

Nevertheless, Sives, 32, is hugely flattered by the comparisons, and of Farrell he says: "I think he's a good actor, a beautiful-looking man and he's having his day in the sun. He's cultivated this image, everyone is buying it - good luck to him.

"But it's all very well being a bad boy in LA... could he cut it in the Torino? Russell Crowe is bigger so maybe he'd last a few minutes longer." Then a chuckle. "I've just called Colin Farrell a beautiful-looking man; I'm not so sure I'd survive there anymore!"

The Torino is Sives' local when he's back in Lochend, the sprawling Edinburgh estate where he grew up. Across the road from his mum's house, it's where he goes if he's looking for a ticket for a Hibs game, also where he can be guaranteed a reality check, should he start behaving like The Actor. And if he's ever going to do that, now might be as good a time as any.

To The Ends Of The Earth, based on the William Golding sea trilogy, is the biggest thing Sives has done, the Beeb too. "It's their most ambitious project to date: 10 million quid, four months' shooting in South Africa, a whole ship built from scratch, water-cannon - fantastic fun," he says.

Set almost entirely aboard a dilapidated ship en route from England to Australia in the early 19th century, the three-part drama tells of the rite of passage of an ingenuous aristocratic, Edmund Talbot, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Lord Of The Flies overshadows everything else Golding wrote, but To The Ends Of The Earth is a stonking adventure yarn, getting right to the edge of the plank in its depiction of life on the high seas. Plus, for the actors, there's the chance to utter the kind of lines - "Get below, sir, or I'll masthead you!" and "Buggery is a hanging matter, sir!" - that sadly you don't hear anything like enough of in the average episode of EastEnders.

"It's not a swashbuckler, it's quite serious-minded," says Sives, who plays the first lieutenant. Mr Summers is described as a "well-built young man", and that's Sives, all right: a chunky character who, you think, would have been tough in the tackle when he was a young footballer dreaming of turning professional.

Now he has two top gigs as an actor, and in the Covent Garden Hotel today, in recognition of this fine achievement for a boy from Lochend, he's wearing two polo shirts, one over the top of the other. "I have performed the naval operation knows as coming aft through the hawsehole - I was promoted from among the common sailors," says Summers in the book. Sives' elevation into some high-grade acting company is no less spectacular.

Cumberbatch - great name - is the actor du jour and he's also starring in Hedda Gabler. "We're the only comedy duo featuring two straight men," jokes Sives. Alongside them in the Ibsen play, which has just transferred to the West End, is fellow Scot Iain Glen.

This is Sives talking: "I remember thinking: this is what I'm going to do with my life. And I loved it from the start. Why? Because you're doing a job of work for a day and then you're coming home and really deserving your dinner."

But this isn't Sives the actor. Rather, this was Sives the scaffolder. His route into acting is more interesting than most. "I was 18 and making 150 quid a week, which was a lot of money to me," he remembers. "Then there was a bad winter and I got paid off. Then my firm, JW Henderson of Bowling Green Street, Leith, went bust. If they hadn't folded I'd probably still be scaffolding and loving it."

So what did he spend his money on? "Oh, you know, sex. At least 140 quid of it anyway. Seriously, I was just an ordinary guy from Lochend trying to hold down a job and get myself a flat, a dog and a girlfriend."

And maybe he would have been perfectly happy in his ordinary life if he hadn't suffered his "mid-20s crisis". "They do exist, you know. Nearly every job I did after scaffolding I hated with a passion. I worked in an insurance office for six years, and it was there that I just woke up one day and realised there was something massively lacking in my life, and a non-contributory pension and a subsidised canteen could not fill it."

The son of a barman and a cleaner, Sives went to Leith Academy. "I was talking to Iain Glen about schools the other day. It's a very Edinburgh thing to do, I think. I knew he went to Edinburgh Academy so I was stringing him along for a while, saying I was at 'the Academy' as well." Just about the only subject Sives liked was drama, mucking about in Monty Python sketches with his mate Gordon Brennan, so he enrolled in an evening drama class.

He performed in a church hall on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, provoking much excitement among the tabloids. They were really there to catch a glimpse of his actress-girlfriend, Helen Grace, at the time a lipstick lesbian in Brookside. Cheering him on from the stalls, she told the hacks they'd all be interviewing him one day. The relationship didn't last - he's currently single - but Grace's prediction was spot-on.

Sives' big break came in the movie Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself; that rare thing, a comedy about suicide. He's glad he took the long way round to get to acting. Being a scaffolder first definitely helped keep his feet on the ground. "There are a lot of people in this profession with a neurotic craving for attention and they mistake this for talent," he says. "Then when things don't happen for them, crisis ensues. I came into acting with that sort of dull, meet-with-triumph-and-disaster-the-same philosophy and it's been the right one for me."

SIVES HAS DIPPED a toe into the big Hollywood swimming pool. "I don't know if I was completely comfortable there," he admits. This wasn't self-consciousness about his Lochend roots or his late start as an actor. "I've sifted through a lot of rubbish in Britain and now the work is good. I'm not sure I want to go to a new country and start right at the bottom again."

Right now, Ibsen is providing him with all the challenges he needs. "I shit myself every night!" he laughs. "I haven't done much theatre before and it's hard for a wee guy like me to keep up with Iain, him being from the proper Academy and all. I think I'm maybe more suited to movies and telly, but I'm having a go." The night I saw the production - with him as Hedda's old lover, the alcoholic writer Lvborg, played with a Lochend accent - there were plenty of whoops from the audience. "Were they girls? Call me old-fashioned but I prefer that."

Soon he'll be back on the big screen in On A Clear Day - playing the son of mid-life crisis sufferer Peter Mullan - and Richard Jobson's A Woman In Winter. "Acting is rare," he says. "You can be rehearsing Ibsen with Sir Richard Eyre and suddenly he has to take a call on his mobile telling him his friend Arthur Miller has died. Or you can come back from a job on the Isle of Man to be told by your agent you're going straight out to South Africa on another shoot. There's not even any time to wash your pants."

He smiles. "All things considered, I think this is probably my favourite occupation so far." Jamie Sives had to think about it, though, and his old scaffolding crew should be chuffed to have run the thesps so close.

To The Ends Of The Earth starts on BBC2, Wednesday, 9pm. Hedda Gabler is at London's Duke of York's Theatre until August 6