Peter Mullan may be reluctant to talk about his gangland history, but with politics, a new crime drama and fatherhood to embrace it's little wonder the past is a foreign country, finds Aidan Smith
THERE are hugs and there are hugs, and then there are full-on, full-nelson Peter Mullan grapples. The skinny girls at ITV who have made today possible just don't have the body armour to cope.
Programme launches are traditionally kissy-kissy, mwah-mwah affairs and Mullan takes the language of them and re-interprets it. Most of those present will have heard of a Glasgow kiss and maybe they would have been nervous about a Glasgow hug from the bogeyman of an ultra-dark new crime drama The Fixer. But Mullan is really a teddy bear and no one – not publicity girl or fellow actor – is left suspended in mid-air, enveloped in the folds of his bobbly cardigan, for any longer than 10 seconds.
The 49-year-old star – who made his name with tough films such as My Name Is Joe, Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters – doesn't have to say or do very much in The Fixer's opening instalment to be utterly menacing as an ex-cop working outside the law to muster a team of hitmen and ensnare untouchable criminals. When his character does speak – "One simple rule worth remembering: I call the shots" – it seems superfluous. Why would anyone doubt that?
The shot-calling extends to this interview, high up in the glass-walled ITV HQ in Grays Inn Road, London. Mullan will only talk, the press office states, if I promise not to ask him about "the past". But which bit?
No questions about his violent drunkard of a father or his long-suffering mother? Steer clear of the occasion he tried to poison his dad with tea laced with sleeping pills? And as for his career in a Glasgow gang – don't go there? "I think he means all of that," says the press-girl. Well, he's spilled his guts on many occasions and, quite honestly, I was wondering what there was left to say about those wild years, before Marxism, parental responsibility and acting took hold.
I let him start and right away he launches into a rant about the ergonomics of this stark building and how anyone would think it constituted a pleasant working environment. "The only thing it's conducive to is a flyin' heidie," he says. "Even the lifts are oppressive (adopts mechanised voice]: 'Doors. Open. F***. Right. Off.' Whoever designed this place should be shot in the back of the head. Unless it was Terry Gilliam because it looks like one of his film sets. In which case it's fantastic.
"Prince Charles was right about modern architecture – at last I can agree with a Royal about something," he continues, stopping only for a slug from his beer. This leads him onto the Scottish Parliament, a building he despises.
Mullan is full of conspiracy theories, such as why it was sited at the bottom of a hill and, more significantly, why it looks like it does (mingin'). "It was politically motivated, I've no doubt about that. It was: 'We're so not going to give you lot an icon.'" The "we" were Donald Dewar and our New Labour lords and masters at the time who, he says, took the view that a drop-dead gorgeous centre of partial power would only have encouraged confidence in full independence. This is what Mullan wants. "I always hoped I would see independence in my lifetime and I think it's more than possible now." So far, Alex Salmond's SNP have impressed him.
"They've shook up New Labour and that's been hugely positive. I'm enjoying seeing them struggle. In a UK sense, all the main parties are much of a muchness: so Americanised, no huge manifestos and you're just voting for a personality. But in Scotland we've been living under the cosh for a long time.
"Old Labour were nepotistic and parochial and I don't think it's an exaggeration to label them Stalinist. But New Labour have done damage to our country through sheer arrogance and just no' listening." Mullan, who has a cameo role in the upcoming Stone Of Destiny film, could yak about politics all day. But when the local difficulties of his beloved Scottish Socialists are mentioned, he holds his head in his hands and groans.
How, then, does he view SNP policy as a film-maker? "Our world hasn't been their first priority – quite rightly. More could be done to help the industry, but we aye say that. Movie-wise, we're tiny. Now and again, we'll surprise folk with a film that comes out of nowhere, like a 1-0 win against France at the football."
Trainspotting was the equivalent of a James McFadden wonder goal. So was Ratcatcher and so, too, Orphans, which Mullan was moved to write after the death of his mother. He says that in the history of film – with Germany making its mark in the 1920s, Sweden claiming the 1940s and China excelling right now – Scotland's best years were 1993-2003. And since then? "We've not done much, it's true, but after you've made your movie you soon realise that you cannae make a living, so you have to export yourself, or at least your ideas.
"Someone like Lynne (Ratcatcher] Ramsay is an absolute genius but you'll slog away on a film for a year and a half and probably only earn the equivalent of 225 quid a week."
The films with which Hollywood tries to tempt Mullan are a mixed bag. "There was this boxing movie. Apart from the fact the guy had one arm longer than the other, it was just Rocky all over again." He was interested in a new version of Anna Karenina, and the chance to direct the late Heath Ledger, until the project fell through.
It is very easy for Mullan to avoid talking about the past; he has an opinion on most things. But his next film will return him to his bad old days – at his own instigation. This is his long-mooted Glasgow gangland movie, set in 1974, to be called Neds, and shooting finally commences this summer. Mullan is writing and directing but won't star. What, not even as a gnarled veteran of a previous era of mayhem – say, that of the razor-gangs – adding a cautionary note in a Cagneyesque manner? He chuckles. "As the great Denis Potter used to say, this will be personal, not autobiographical."
Mullan has three children and the oldest of them is now 17, slightly older than he was in 1974. What's he like as a father? "A good one, hopefully. Not a dictator. As a dad I'm emotionally dedicated but I'm not 'figuring out their life plans'.
"But of course as I'm telling them about the rights of wrongs I'm thinking back to what I was like at their age. And, yes, I'm thinking: 'Shite, I'm probably going to pay the price for going public on all that stuff.' That's why I don't want to talk about the past any more. I did it for a reason: to demonstrate to others that you can come out the other side. But I think everyone's probably heard enough of it."
The 17-year-old, Mairi, has just declared her intention to follow in his footsteps – as an actress, not a tearaway. In her final year at second school, she's applied to drama college. "Mairi's brilliant," says Mullan, the pride almost bursting out of that bobbly cardigan. Though he admits to some initial apprehension.
"When she was younger I didn't tell her that her old man was an actor – I said I worked in a hotel. I guess I didn't want to influence her. Later, I admitted I was in Braveheart. That got embarrassing when she'd see Mel Gibson on a big hoarding and shout out: 'That's my daddy!' Folk hearing her must have thought I was a creep for deluding a wee girl like that.
"I've told her this is one of the greatest jobs on earth but that unemployment levels are frightening. She wants to go for it, though, and good luck to her. I'm dead chuffed. Very few people outside of her pals know I'm her father and that's a good thing. She takes my wife's name rather than mine and of course I'll help her in any way I can, but I want her to stand on her own two feet and so does she. I'll leave the nepotism to others."v
The Fixer starts on ITV March 10, 9pm