Ken Stott interview: View from the top

Claire," Ken Stott says, beaming, as I walk into his West End dressing room. I don't know what throws me more: the fact that he says my name like we're old pals (we've never met before) or the fact that he's grinning so widely that his eyes have disappeared into crinkles in his craggy face.

Either way, it's welcome, if unexpected. For the last two hours I've been watching him prowl the stage as Eddie Carbone, the flawed protagonist of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. Carbone, a Brooklyn-dwelling Italian-American longshoreman, is a knot of emotional inarticulacy. A man whose paternalistic instinct towards his niece, Catherine, slips into something more dangerous and taboo. A man so repressed you can feel the beat of his heart reverberating through the auditorium, the rumble of his desire like the wail of the cargo ships he spends his life unloading.

Stott's performance is intense and utterly absorbing, the furious pulse in his temple saying what Carbone has no words to express. Visceral you might say. And angry. Stott does both brilliantly well. It's partly his face, naturally set in a scowl or at best a kind of relentless disappointment. But there's also a quickness, the sharp edge for anger.

There's none of that in the flesh though. Stott's full of wit and charm and a kind of impish bad behaviour. His face, a roughed-up landscape of expression, is all about the eyes. Inky black and deep, but when the mood takes him, and it often does, they twinkle.

Five minutes after arriving, I'm sitting on the sofa, glass of champagne in hand, listening to Stott and Alfred Molina, who's popped in to offer his congratulations on the performance, wax lyrical about the trials of eight shows a week and indulge in a bit of gentle showing-off. They drink a beer and Stott sucks on his first of several Gitanes (he has the remnants of a chest infection to shift, he says with a wry smile).

Half an hour later, Stott and I weave along the street heading for dinner. We're stopped twice on the way for autographs and pictures.

"She's come all the way from Dumfries," one young woman says of her friend, who's standing beside Stott, looking embarrassed. "Dumfries," he says, smiling at her. "Surely not just for tonight?"

"Yes," says the friend. "She goes back tomorrow." Pictures are taken and we continue, leaving them staring at the little screen on their digital camera and laughing together.

J Sheekey's is a plush, wood-panelled restaurant lined with black-and-white portraits of the actors who have played in the neighbouring theatres. It's full of people who think nothing of spending 200 quid on caviar on an average Friday night. We're shown to our table and, as soon as we sit, a succession of staff come over to say hello.

A woman arrives first.

"You're nearly finished," she says, talking of the London run of the show. "Feeling relieved?"

"Yes, well, both, you know," he answers.

"You must be looking forward to a rest, aren't you?"

"Whoaf, yeah," he shifts in his seat.

"You only get one day off, don't you?"

"Just the one, just the one."

"They're hard on you."

"Hnnhhnhnh," Stott does a fine line in non verbal communication, it turns out. "But it's nice and I know I'll miss it."

"Are you going straight back to Italy?"

"Yes I will."

"Missing your girl?"

"Yes I am."

"Aw."

She smiles and wanders off. There's a long pause as I marvel at the ease with which she asked the questions and presumably Stott thinks about what he's just given away. The "house" is one near Perugia that Stott has owned for 16 years. The "girl" is Nina Gehl, an American artist with whom Stott has been in a relationship for four years.

"She's a painter," he says. "She's 36. And I'm not. (He's 53.] But the difference in our age is not as great as that of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – that celebrated love that everybody adored." If a nerve has been touched, I didn't touch it, and he's soon over it.

Stott is probably still best known for his TV roles: The Vice, Messiah, Rebus. He's made beleaguered detectives his stock-in-trade, bringing a battered honour and depth to their disillusioned demeanours. He's a respected film actor too, with credits in everything from Shallow Grave, through Fever Pitch, to Charlie Wilson's War. It's on stage, though, where he's built a stellar reputation.

It started in Yasmina Reza's Art in 1996, in the hallowed company of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. Stott might have been the lesser known of the triumvirate but he got the best reviews. In fact, the only person who had his doubts was Stott. At one point, when rehearsals were going badly and he thought he was going to be terrible, he was seriously thinking of pulling out. "I was on my way to hand in my resignation and a man came up to me and said, 'Excuse me, I just want to say my wife and I love your work.'

"'Oh, thank you.'" He raises his eyebrows. "No more resignation."

It's the first time a fan had approached him that he can remember. If only he knew the role he had played, I say. "If only he knew, yes." He laughs.

"Theatre is the place where actors must go to find out whether they can do it or not," he says earnestly. "It's a graveyard for people who are not good. There are many actors who'll make their living in other areas and they'll say they don't like theatre. What they're saying is that they're afraid of theatre because they know it will separate those who can from those who can't. But it's also the actor's friend because if you can do this, you can do anything."

A waiter appears. "We must have oysters," Stott announces with a flourish. "I was here last night and the oysters were wonderful," he says, then stops. "I promised myself I wasn't going to tell you I was here last night." He laughs, pleased with himself.

"We could have caviar," he says with mock innocence. We have a budget, I tell him.

"Haha, I know. Don't you worry about that," he says and the eyes glint. "I'll pay the difference or they'll take it out of my wages," he says with a wave of his hand. Then he orders a bottle of Meursault that costs 80.

Stott is a household name now, but success didn't come easily. When he finished drama school in the 1970s, no parts came his way. There was an unhappy time at the Royal Shakespeare Company during his twenties and then he waited. Finally he landed a job in rep and his career began. He never doubted that it would, but his family weren't always so sure.

"Good God, my brother, he won't want to be reminded of this, but he was detailed – sent – to tell me, 'It's been a year now and you've not worked.' Poor boy, he was despatched by my parents because they were genuinely worried. But I mean, being out of work for a year, it's nothing to worry about these days, is it? It was then, though, in the early 1980s."

Stott grew up in Edinburgh, one of two sons born to a Scottish father and a Sicilian mother. They lived in Newington, his father was head of the English department at George Heriot's and his mother taught Italian literature at Edinburgh University. His parents were "great, so sweet", always encouraging and fond of the arts. His father was the president of the Scots Italian Circle, "a sort of cultural exchange thing", so people would come to stay: poets and opera singers and performers. The theatre always figured.

There was music too. Stott sang in a couple of bands that Tam Paton managed. "I was the frontman," he says as a slow laugh rumbles in his chest. "There's nothing like it. No acting, no production, could take the place of that moment when you come out in the dark on to the stage and the drummer plays four beats on the hi-hat and then lights and music. It just takes your breath away. No words can do what music can. You get close with something like this (A View] but the truth is that music is far more immediate – and far more powerful."

It was acting he wanted to pursue, though, and when it didn't go to plan, it was difficult. "I was deeply depressed but I was determined. I was determined. I never had any doubts. I don't mean I knew I'd be doing what I'm doing now, but making a living. Surviving."

He made ends meet by selling double glazing. Mentioning it, I get the only glimpse of the Ken Stott that I thought I'd be meeting tonight.

"I was trying to pay my debts and it was a method of doing that," he responds, coolly. "I wasn't particularly good at it but you have to have a bit of luck and now and again I would. It's just a tiny part of what I did then. It's something that people, I don't know why, have caught a hold of. Nothing bores me more than talking about it.

"It's become amusing, but it wasn't amusing then. I was out of work, I had no money, nobody gave a f*** about me, nobody would buy me lunch. Now everybody wants to buy me lunch. Even the press office." He's joking, but he sounds serious.

Things are different now, though. When the tour of A View is over, he's taking some time off. He will go to Italy and then there's work lined up. "It's been like that for many years now," he says simply, without offering to elaborate.

"An actor has power and their power is very simple: it's the power to say no. They are like a hired gun and that's how they survive. It hasn't changed since Elizabethan times and I think it's rather splendid. Producers and directors think they have the power but what they think of as the weakest link, the actor, is all-powerful."

With all this talk of power and control, does he ever have a moment like he had before Art, I ask – when he thinks he won't pull it off?

"Every time you go to work you worry about it," he says. "I know it's glib to talk about the fear of being found out; I don't have that fear so much now, but I did, I did. I used to find it difficult to find tears when they were required, but of late I've found I've started and I cannot stop because for some reason you come round full circle with what you do.

"I now feel there's nothing I cannot do. Whether I can do it well is a different matter, but I don't think there's much that could be asked of an actor that I couldn't say, 'I can do that, I'm your man.'"

Maybe it's because he knows what it's like to work for success that he's not shy about enjoying it. He certainly hasn't forgotten what it was like before. He tells me that when he's in Edinburgh, lots of people say "hiya" (which he delivers in a pitch-perfect, nasal Edinburgh accent).

"It was fantastic because it started at a time when I was feeling very depressed about having left Edinburgh," he says. "I felt as though I had no friends anymore. I recognised every crack in the pavement but somehow there was something missing. But then when I started doing some television shows that people recognised, it all changed. And so much for the better. It made me feel that I belonged to Edinburgh."

The thing about London, he says, is that nobody's going to do that. "Nobody's going to say hello to me in the street, really, because there'll be someone a bit more famous coming along the street in a minute. That typifies London really."

It's not true, of course, because it's been happening all night, but it captures the feeling he has about London, where he's lived since the 1970s. He has a penthouse in Shoreditch that he moved into five years ago. Before that he was in a terraced house in north London. He left because he hated the thought of everyone lying in their identical houses, in their identical bedrooms, all of their feet pointing the same way, the neighbours knowing your business. "But actually they're exactly the bloody same where I live now, only they wear different clothes."

He remembers a time, he says, when London offered "everything that was better", but the novelty is wearing off. He comes to Scotland fairly regularly. His son is studying at Glasgow University so they use Edinburgh as a kind of midpoint to meet and watch "the glorious Heart of Midlothian".

Stott's good on Scotland. Not sentimental, but genuinely affectionate. Edinburgh can be "depressingly parochial" but also the "most beautiful city on earth". Glasgow is in your face, full on. "The first thing you'll come across is a taxi driver saying, 'What's wrong with you? Smile, c'mon smile.' They find your weakness, they pinpoint it and they aggravate it. They'll reduce you to a wreck. 'C'mon, smile. C'mon be nice.' And there's a terrible pride in their sorrow and anguish."

But, of course, we do our own brand of anguish in the east. I tell him the last time I was in the Port O' Leith, a pub he likes, the music was turned down so that the entire pub could sing the line: "Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow" from The Proclaimers' Sunshine on Leith. I don't think I've ever heard a more joyful sound. He laughs like a drain. "Well said," he says. "Well said. Where better to sing it? What a fantastic place. A better bar you'll never find. You take someone from Glasgow, they think no-one ever has a good time in Edinburgh, and in there they're dancing on the bar."

We've not reached that point, but it's definitely time to leave. As we walk from the restaurant, drunk people weave past us on their way home and Charing Cross Road looks like a midweek rush hour. As Stott is stepping into the car that's waiting for him, a horn blares and three men shout and wave. Stott waves back with a smile then says goodnight and is gone.

• A View from the Bridge is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 1-6 June. Tickets, priced 6-66, available from the Box Office, tel: 0870 060 6647.