WHEN IT COMES TO PLAYING characters in Norwegian drama, Steven Robertson is literally halfway there. He hails from the part of Shetland known as Vidlin, equidistant as the crow flies between mainland Scotland and Norway. That gives him a few extra insights to bring to bear on an Ibsen classic, Ghosts.
"There's a feeling about Nordic roots in Shetland which is important to people," he says, rolling his rrrrs in a musical Shetland accent. "It's a helpful thing, I think, for our process (with this play]. There's a great tendency to talk about Ghosts as a Victorian play, it's actually much more European than that."
Robertson says his northern roots also give him an insight into Ibsen's sense of humour. And yes, he does have one. "There's a sort of humour that comes from living in these remote environments with quite extreme weather – ironically a very dry humour! I've always found Ibsen very funny to read. There's a lot of humour in Ghosts, hopefully we'll get some way to the humour of the piece."
Jeremy Raison's production for the Citizens' in Glasgow stars Maureen Beattie as Helene Alving, a woman who faces a day of revelations about her husband's past and its far-reaching legacy. Robertson plays her son. For the 32-year-old, who was widely acclaimed for his role opposite James McAvoy in paraplegic buddy movie Inside I'm Dancing, and has since appeared in a broad range of films, television dramas and theatre, it is a rare appearance on the Scottish stage.
Robertson says that only now, with the benefit of hindsight, can he begin to make sense of the journey that took him from shearing sheep on Shetland to training in classic theatre at the Guildhall in London. Growing up he had no experience of theatre, and no interest in performance. He now realises that his connection to the Shetland storytelling tradition is the missing link.
"As a child I was close to storyteller Rhoda Bulter, she used to tell me the old Shetland stories and I would tell them at concert parties. Now I understand that that was actually the trigger for all this," he says, spreading his hands indicating the dressing room, and the lights above the mirror. "It's a strange story, a story that surprises even me, but that's the long and the short and the tall of it."
Like a true storyteller, he tells it with panache, letting each stage unfold in timely fashion. Drama at Fife College – "a splendid time", thence to the Guildhall, after which he was "very fortunate" to be picked for an RSC "academy" who staged a production of King Lear directed by Cheek by Jowl's Declan Donnellan.
"I played Kent at 25, it was a tremendously inspiring time. We played the New Vic, and we got to take it on a little tour of venues in Europe. It might have only been for a week, but I played Rome! And Girona. And Majorca – bizarrely."
Then he was cast by Greg Hersov in the role of Konstantin in The Seagull at Manchester Royal Exchange. "It was very well received, I got to meet a lot of casting directors at that stage." And then a script came in the post for Damien O'Donnell (East is East)'s new film Inside I'm Dancing.
While co-star McAvoy was already tipped for stardom for Shameless and Bright Young Things, Robertson was in his first screen role. "I still think it was very brave of Damien to cast me in that part at that time. But it was a joy to work with him and James and Romola (Garai)."
That said, it was hard work. The actors were expected to put in long hours learning about their "conditions" (Robertson played a young man with cerebral palsy). "I remember James saying, 'Steven, it's never as hard as this. If you get to the back of this film, you will be fine.' And I thought that was such a splendid thing for him to say."
Other film roles followed, from a drama about a North Sea trawler crew, True North, to a bit part in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, where he hung out with Liam Neeson and Orlando Bloom ("I don't care if it's only one line!"), to Christian Carion's Joyeux Nol, about the "outbreak of peace" on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914.
It was filmed in Romania with a multinational cast and crew. "There was something about the spirit of that job that has left a massive imprint on me. It was a very European process, I loved being amongst all those different nationalities and seeing the different ways of working. It tends to come on TV every Christmas – I think we're the new Great Escape!"
Recently, he has been working on television drama, the adaptation of Jake Arnott's novel He Kills Coppers and in David Peace's Red Riding, with David Morrissey. He approaches every job, however small, with the same enthusiasm and desire to learn, and invariably speaks of the new friends he has made.
He even refuses to be pessimistic about the trend to replace original TV drama with less expensive reality TV shows. "The desire to make work (like Red Riding] is out there, the desire to watch that sort of work is out there, so why not? I don't know what they spend to build the set of Big Brother, but if they took that and the prize money and put that behind the next Dennis Potter? If we think carefully about what we're doing with our money and why, I think another world is possible."
• Ghosts is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, until 30 May.
What other people are saying…
"Robertson captivates in his feature film debut."
– Larry Ratcliff, San Antonio Express-News on Inside I'm Dancing
"It is graced with terrific performances – and dramatically crucial chemistry – between its two leading actors, Robertson, a remarkable newcomer, and (James] McAvoy…"
– Michael Dwyer, Irish Times, on Inside I'm Dancing
"A performance that is physically, emotionally and vocally pitch perfect."
– Clare Brennan, The Observer, on Robertson's performance as Ariel in The Tempest at Manchester Royal Exchange