It’s an eye-watering start as Shetland returns with a new series, and the inhabitants of the remote islands are yet again experiencing a nerve-jangling boost to their anomalously high body count.
As episode one of the award-winning murder mystery series kicks off DI Jimmy Perez, played by Douglas Henshall already has tears in his eyes, and it’s not down to the relentless winds that sweep the isles but the funeral of his mother back home on Fair Isle. But there’s no time to grieve and Perez is dragged away from the wake when a local man is murdered.
With fresh grief compounding his unresolved sorrow over the death of his wife, on the professional front it’s all kicking off as Perez and his team swing into action to find the killer and as if that wasn’t enough, a murder from the islands’ past returns to haunt the inhabitants. All of which makes for another binge-tastic six-part season to light up our screens as the nights draw in.
Along with Henshall, there’s a cast of old and new faces in season six, including Alison O’Donnell, Fiona Bell, Neve McIntosh, Mark Bonnar, Steven Robertson, Kate Bracken and Stephen McCole joined by newbies such as Cora Bissett, Alec Newman, Lois Chimimba, Lucianne McEvoy, Benny Young and Andy Clark.
Henshall talks to me from Shetland where he is filming season seven, to be aired next year, and this morning is battling the wind and dodgy wifi/mobile connections. Now 55, he’s played the Shetland detective since 2013, bagging himself the 2016 BAFTA Scotland award for best actor, while the series received the award for Best TV Drama, along the way.
With a warning that the phone signal might cut out, Henshall talks as he arrives at the crew HQ before heading off to film at the beach at Cunningsburgh. “A really nice spot. It’s beautiful and sunny here today. It’s lovely to be out in nature and away from the city, hearing the sounds of birds and sea, it’s very soothing,” says the actor who this month unveiled a blue star plaque at his fictional home in Lerwick.
While Perez is based on an original character in Ann Cleeves’ books, the show’s writers have taken the show into new territory with fresh plots and characters and Henshall has made the character his own. What’s his take on him?
“Well, he's not the biological father of his daughter. He’s the stepfather and he brings her up with her biological father. And he’s a policeman who is kind of defined through his work. I think he’s somebody who's compassionate and empathetic and kind, but with very little regard for himself because I don’t think he ever really got over losing his wife, and he hides in his work,” he says.
So without giving anything away, what can viewers expect this time round for Perez and his team?
“On a personal note his mum’s died but the main story is the death of a prominent MP. There’s been a murder and they have to find out who did it, but within that there’s a great bunch of characters. There’s Donna Killick, who was a murderer in series four, who is given compassionate leave to come home to the island and that becomes a very important storyline. Fiona Bell’s a great actor, and also Stephen McCole comes in and plays a very prominent role, an ex-soldier, and does a great job. One of the best things about Shetland is we get such great actors who come in as well as those from previous stories such as Neve McIntosh. All that gives it something extra. And in terms of the plot, it really doesn’t let up.”
Having already lost people close to him, Perez has empathy for the family of his murder victims, something he instinctively employs as he tries to solve the case.
“Grief is an overarching theme for him, and because his dad’s suffering from dementia, he’s trying to deal with his dad and do his job and deal with grief. It’s never pleasant to go to places like that. I mean I know what it’s like to lose your mum; I’ve been through that, although it was donkeys’ years ago, and I have to go and visit those places and I don’t find it particularly pleasant. I always feel I’d like to just play people who are a bit less complicated. But that came off, at least I hope it did.”
It did. Watching it you don’t need to be standing in an exposed graveyard in Fair Isle with the wind blasting in your face to experience watery eyes.
Raised in Barrhead by a salesman and nurse, Henshall never aspired to be an actor since it wasn’t something he knew anything about, something he expands on later, but having played a policeman for a long time, is it something he has a hankering to do?
“Oh god no” he says, firmly, then launches into a story - Henshall is a very good storyteller - by way of an answer.
“I remember being in Los Angeles and there’s a very old, iconic restaurant called Dan Tana’s on Santa Monica boulevard. It’s very old school Hollywood and me and my wife went there for dinner one night years ago. I went outside because there was a wee smoking section there (I don’t smoke any more) and there was a big, heavy set kind of guy having a cigarette with a glass of whisky in his hand. We got chatting and he was just a little bit drunk, nicely so, and it turned out he was a homicide detective and said ‘I like coming here because I can see my pals’, and he nodded at an old guy standing to one side, ‘and get a little bit drunk so I can forget all the shitty things I see during the day’. And I thought, ‘I couldn’t do your job mate, it must be so corrosive, and most guys must get burnt out’. I think there’s only so much of that stuff you can see before it must take a toll on your mental health.”
“And it turned out that the old guy standing to one side, who came and joined us, was Harry Dean Stanton. It became a really nice night because my wife came outside and joined us 20 minutes later and while I was talking to this detective guy I hear her singing with Harry Dean Stanton, in Croatian - my wife Tena’s from there - and I’m like ‘how the f*** does he know how to sing in Croatian?’ It turns out he’d been to a film festival in the former Yugoslavia and got in tow with a bunch of guys who taught him songs. It was a lovely wee accidental thing to happen, and he started chatting away and was lovely and charming, and that’s a really long answer to a very short question. No, I wouldn’t like to be a policeman.”
In Perez’s eulogy at his mother’s funeral in episode one, he says there are people in life of whom you can say ‘we can be better for they existed’. Is there anyone in Henshall’s life he feels like that about?
“Outwith my family, my wife for sure. All the best things about my life I’ve got through meeting her. She’s made me a better human being. And we have a daughter together and she’s the best thing in the world.”
“Fatherhood, parenthood, is something that completely overwhelms you and absorbs you, and you just have to be the best dad that you can be. I’m glad I waited. Sometimes, god, I would love a wee bit more energy, but in terms of my personality and where I am, I’m much happier having had a child at the age I did, 50, 51.”
Speaking of his wife and child, is it true that he and playwright and screenwriter Tena Štivičić got married in Vegas in 2010?
“Yes, we did get married in Vegas. We were going to get married in Islington town hall because we were living in London at the time, but the faff, because my wife’s Croatian, everyone had to hand in passports and they were charging a fortune and we had to go through this immigration bullshit and eventually we thought, bollocks. Then we were in Los Angeles and we kind of had it in our heads that we might just go and get married, but it was very vague. Then my wife went out to lunch with a friend who said ‘do you think you two will ever get married?’ and she said well, we’re going to Vegas this weekend, and her friend said oh well if you’re going to get married, someone has to come to give you away so we’ll come and we’ll bring the kids. Tena comes back and tells me the story and I went well, f*** it, let’s get married then. It was as simple as that really. We got a car and drove to Vegas and got married that night and had a night out with our friends and their kids.”
“I was never a big fan of marriage. And I wasn’t a big fan of children or… cats! And now I’m married with a daughter and cats. So be careful what you think you want or don’t want.” He laughs.
Having moved back to Glasgow, Henshall says he didn’t work much during lockdown apart from preparing for Shetland and making Wednesday, a short comedy film with Morven Christie, written and filmed by his wife Tena and directed by Finn den Hertog for The National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival series.
“I made the Scenes for Survival film with Morven out the back door, and my wife was roped into that, but other than that, I did nothing. I hadn’t been in a room with more than four people until Shetland, so to turn up on set with lots of people suddenly wanting your attention took a wee while to get used to. I think the psychological baggage for this whole thing is still in the post.”
Henshall has been in so many productions, from stage to screen in his three decade career, that it’s impossible to list them all. From his first ever TV appearance in Taggart in 1990, highlights include TE Lawrence in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-6), Professor Nick Cutter in the science fiction series Primeval (2007-9) ITV’s In Plain Sight (2016), in which he played Detective William Muncie to Martin Compston’s serial killer Peter Manuel, Outlander (2015), Iona (2016) with Ruth Negga, and in 2018, he spent starred opposite Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery in a highly rated National Theatre production of Network. Which has he found the most satisfying?
“Obviously Shetland is going to be in there because I’ve been involved in it the most and I’m pretty much making my own decisions playing Perez. Also I did a film with Thomas Vinterberg years ago called It’s All About Love with Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Sean Penn and Mark Strong, and Thomas was just amazing. I learned a lot from him. It was a very stressful shoot because he demands so much, but I learned not to think ahead, to focus on what you’re going to do that day, to turn up and see what happens, and be brave enough to do that sometimes.”
“Also I loved watching Joachim and adored the story and the character I got to play, and I loved working with Mark Strong - I’ve done a couple of things with Mark... Anna Karenina - also with the amazing Helen McCrory…”
“It’s terrible. I can’t believe it...” he says of her death, remembering the 2000 Channel 4 series in which McCrory played Anna and Henshall, Levin.
“But really, which of my roles has meant most,” he says, returning to the question, “that’s difficult as I don’t spend much time looking back at things yet... thank god.”
Or forward, taking the roles as they come.
“I’ve always just waited and seen what comes around. I’ve never been very good at planning. It’s all been a bit haphazard.”
Given that Henshall never thought he’d have a career as an actor, never mind such a successful one, what advice would he give to the young Dougie starting out?
“God. Er... don’t be scared. Because I have Imposter Syndrome to the max.”
This comes as a surprise, since Henshall is one of our best known actors with a huge list of credits to his name.
“Yeah. But I do. Jesus God, it’s terrible. Crippling. Every job I still think ‘I wonder if this is the one they’re going to sack me for’. Because nobody aspired to be an actor where I came from. And I didn't think I would get in anywhere, so when the first place I auditioned for said yes, I thought well what’s the point of going anywhere else? And I assumed I’d be the worst there. It took a long time to get any confidence. Absolutely. And it’s been a battle ever since. I’d love to find a way to get rid of that. I would love to find a way to have nurtured that young Dougie.”
While attending Barrhead High school, Henshall joined Scottish Youth Theatre before attending Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London, returning to Scotland to work with 7:84 and his career took off. But as a child the young Dougie harboured dreams of playing tennis.
“I wanted to be a tennis player. I was good, but anyway I screwed my knee up doing a stunt on a film set. That didn’t stop me being a tennis player, my lack of talent did that, but again, it's another one of those things you weren't really supposed to do. Class, for lack of a better word, it means so much, still. You know, going to the theatre, that’s not for the likes of us, and playing tennis, that’s another thing. Judy and Andy Murray, the work they’ve put in trying to get courts is astounding and I wish they could have more support. It’s such a great game for kids and gives you somewhere to put your energy and any aggression you might have. It’s a great way to get rid of a bad mood - just go and smash a tennis ball for two hours.”
With tennis out of the court and being a policeman in real life about as appealing as a prison sentence, doesn’t Henshall have the best job anyway, since actors can go on for ever?
“I don’t know about that,” he says.
That you can go on forever, or acting is the best job?
“Both. I think the difficulty is that a very small percentage of people get to do it. It’s NOT fair, it’s not a meritocracy, it’s not a very nice club, and as actors you’re constantly being told you’re lucky to be working because there are 100 people who would snap your arm off to do the job you do because there are too many people for not enough jobs. Anything with that as a basis for a working model, that hierarchy, is open to corruption and abuse from day one. Until things start to change and we do something about that, it’s always going to be difficult.”
Henshall is just getting into his stride, but right then Shetland intrudes. There’s been a murder.
“Sorry, I’ve got to go, or I’ll get shot,” he says. And we don’t want that. There are already enough bodies piling up in Shetland.
Douglas Henshall stars in Shetland, BBC One, Wednesday 20th October, 9-10pm