“That’s the thing about acting,” says James Cosmo, sitting in his Surrey garden, accompanied by twittering birdsong, reflecting on lockdown.
“If you’re a musician you can play the piano for 12 hours a day if you like, a painter can paint, a writer can write, but if you’re an actor you need an audience, virtual or real, to bounce off. If not an audience, then the crew or other actors. So there isn’t anything actors can do, not really,” he says. “You can sit and contemplate parts, and hope. No, it’s not the best period for actors.”
The Glass Man
Yet despite the shutdown, James Cosmo has a new film out and not even Covid can be blamed for the length of delay on this one. Filmed in 2009, The Glass Man is only now on release after becoming entangled in legal issues over distribution after its premier in 2011 at FrightFest. A low-budget British psychological horror thriller it stars the 73-year old Game of Thrones and Braveheart actor alongside Andy Nyman (who with The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson, gave us their stage show turned hit horror film Ghost Stories in 2017) and Scream actress Neve Campbell.
Cosmo counts himself very lucky to have one release screening at the moment, with so many of his colleagues struggling, but in fact he has two. He is also in the second season of The Bay, ITV’s crime drama in which fellow Scot Morven Christie takes the lead, out soon.
Cosmo has always been prolific, working right up until Covid, with a six decade career whose highs include Braveheart, Troy, Game of Thrones, both Trainspotting films, The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials and Rebus.
In Cristian Solimeno’s The Glass Man, he plays Pecco (Latin for sin), a Cockney loan shark, calling in a debt from Andy Nyman’s high-flying banker Martin Pyrite (Fool’s Gold), who is brought down to earth by both the credit and Cosmo crunch.
Tension and violence, threat and fear, both psychological and corporeal, permeate the film with a Pinteresque menace right to the final frame. Yet it isn’t without its lighter moments, albeit darkly comic, as Pecco gives Pyrite the choice of paying up or becoming his accomplice in a night of criminality.
Speaking over the phone from the home he shares with wife Annie and younger son Findlay, 16 (their other son Ethan is 27) - on Christmas Eve, Cosmo is sanguine about the long wait for The Glass Man - well, he was a finalist in Big Brother in 2017 so he knows about keeping himself entertained. He’s outside and he’s as chirpy as the accompanying morning chorus, which is punctuated by tremendous chuffing and puffing whenever he stops to consider a question. Is he vaping?
“Yes. It’s like talking to Darth Vader, isn’t it,” he laughs. “Stopped smoking years ago, but I love the vape.”
Cosmo’s been in the acting game a long time and even a delay of a decade doesn’t ruffle his feathers (you’ll have seen those in the Bank of Scotland ads).
If anything, viewing Cristian Solimeno’s film ten years on gives it an edge as we look back at the high-spending follies of an era of excess and subsequent financial crisis through the prism of a pandemic and another recession.
“What Pecco represented was fascinating,” says Cosmo. “It’s a story on a couple of different levels which I found fascinating to play and very pertinent today. I don’t usually watch anything I’m in…”
“Well, as an actor I exist under the delusion that I’m really quite good, and when I see myself, that delusion is shattered, so I’d rather not do it! I can’t sit for 90 minutes with my toes curled up.” He laughs.
“But I did watch The Glass Man simply because it was nine, ten years ago when we made it, and I found it as fresh as ever. Maybe because it hasn’t been out there, but also… you know when you write something, put it away and read it a few years later, it’s as if someone else has written it and you don’t really connect to it. I think that was like me watching the film; I could watch with some objectivity and found it fascinating.
"Cristian Solimeno has always taken the individualist’s path and made movies he wanted to, talked about subjects he wanted to bring up and shoot films in his own style.”
Filming The Bay
Before Covid closed TV sets during lockdown Cosmo was in Morecambe filming The Bay at the end of 2019 and looks back on filming fondly.
“It was a lot of fun, a real ensemble piece. I guess it’s a whodunnit really, but very cleverly written. I think it’s going to be very popular with folk. I play the patriarch of a rather dysfunctional family, the head of a law firm, and something happens that disrupts the whole family completely. Someone has died and you've got to try and work out which of these dysfunctional people was very dysfunctional and killed someone else.
"I don’t want to spoil it, but lots of secrets come out, as they do in families when things open up, and lots of people are not as they appear to be.”
With Covid closing productions and actors struggling, Cosmo is aware of the problems the industry is facing but identifies one positive in the long-term.
“Although film production has been shut down this lockdown has given the opportunity for writers and screenwriters to have nowhere else to go but their laptops, so I think there’s going to be a lot of product, and there’s a huge demand for it; we’re all tired of seeing old stuff repeated, and we’ll also want stuff that is uplifting and hopeful.
"I think it’s going to be extremely busy in the years to come.”
EE and BAFTA Scotland
Cosmo has been trying to keep busy doing audio books, and did a short cameo for EE and BAFTA Scotland about 4G and 5G and how it’s kept the industry moving during lockdown, as well as a role in Jagame Thandhiram, a Tamil-language thriller shot in part in Kent.
But his main activity recently has been fly fishing, something he doesn’t sound too sorry about since he’s been doing it since childhood when he skived off school in Dumbarton to go fishing.
“I fish on The Kennet in Hampshire, and near Dorking and we’ve been able to fish through the lockdown, mostly. I’ve fly fished all my life. It’s one of the loves of my life. It’s a zen thing to do,” he says.
Not that the fish he catches ever make it onto the plate, despite Cosmo’s love of cooking, which he has been indulging in lockdown.
Cosmo in the kitchen
“I’m not that fond of trout so I put them back and we’ll meet another day. But I love cooking, not fussy cooking, all that two things on a plate that has to be put on with tweezers, no thank you. I like peasant cooking, stews, lots of wine, and the joy of cooking something and watching my wife and two sons enjoy it.
It’s a surprise to hear the Clydebank-born actor talking about fishing in The Home Counties as he seems the quintessential Scot who in your head lives somewhere like Glencoe or Glen Etive, where he filmed the Bank of Scotland ads in 2015.
“In mine too,” he laughs. “But no, I’ve been down here a long time now. And as a child I was down here for four years as a little boy.”
Named James Ronald Gordon Copeland, with his namesake father also an actor, he took the name Cosmo from his grandmother’s middle name. “My mum said well you can be James Copeland Junior and for some strange reason I didn’t want to be called that, maybe it was the hubris of youth. She said in that case you’d better use your gran’s middle name, Cosmo - there’s Italian somewhere - and I always did what my mum said, so that was it.”
Playing hard men
With his strong build and ginger hair he’s played a whole host of hardmen from Angus MacLeod in Highlander to Night Watch commander Jeor Mormont in hit HBO series Game of Thrones and gangster Mo Cafferty in Rebus, a performance Ian Rankin called “perfect”.
“Obviously one is typecast, especially early in your career, by your physicality. I was a big lump, I was fit, so I was considered more for those parts. I do still play patriarchal, authoritarian figures, leaders, warriors, and it’s great to play those. But sometimes, not very often, you get to play characters that may well be strong, patriarchal, but there is a weakness in them, which makes it much more interesting, like Farder Coram in His Dark Materials. This avuncular, solid good man that had married the witch when he was young and he becomes old but she hasn’t. How utterly utterly tragic. I really enjoyed exploring that. She couldn’t turn back time for him, and that’s the one thing he wanted, not to live longer, but to have youth and that love again.”
Are there periods of his life that he would revisit if he could?
“I’m very happy where I am now, but yeah, you know… It would be a bad thing, but you think I’d have done that differently, or whatever. But our life unfolds as it should. Was it Montaigne who said god, or the world, is very kind to us, because as old people if we could remember what it was like to be young, we couldn't survive that? Nature is very kind and takes away the memory of how it felt to be young.”
For Cosmo life unfolded and expanded with Braveheart in 1995, a career-changing opportunity, along with the role of Jeor Mormont in Game of Thrones which went on to become a global phenomenon.
“Braveheart was such an extraordinary period in my life,” he says, “to go from being financially supported by my wife who was working in BBC production so was the breadwinner, and having a newborn baby and no money, to suddenly working on a huge movie with Mel Gibson. It was terrific, wonderful, a fantastic period that I look back on very, very fondly.”
Cosmo had grown up learning just how precarious an acting career can be, with a father in the business. James Copeland Senior was a water bailiff and a policeman, then joined The People’s Theatre in Dumbarton and became an actor, working away from home and returning to his family in Scotland or having them join him in London.
“One of the few advantages I had coming in was I didn’t have any illusions that this was going to be fantastic. Hardly! I’d seen my dad with his head in his hands wondering what the hell he was gonna do, so I realised it wasn’t a particularly gilded career for most actors, and it’s stayed that way for most actors. Most actors unfortunately can’t survive in the business.”
When acting jobs were thin on the ground Cosmo turned his hand to other things to pay the bills.
“I’d do anything at all ... barman, bouncer, worked on the roads. But one of the advantages of that is if you have to be a barista, or wait tables, whatever you have to do to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, you can look on it as part of your training as an actor. Because what you’re doing is living in the world and observing and interacting with other people and one day you’re going to use that experience, of how people react to things, show themselves emotionally. You will have a greater knowledge of your fellow humans’ behaviour and that’s hugely helpful.
"So when you’re pouring that coffee don’t think ‘I’m not an actor, I’m just pouring coffee’, you’re an actor - you’re just learning what it’s like to pour coffee.”
For all the Mel Gibsons and Sean Connerys and Brad Pitts he’s worked with, it’s not the big names that immediately spring to mind when Cosmo is thinking back over his career. It’s the horses.
“If you said, who was in that film with you and mentioned a film 20 years ago, I would say, oh god I’ve got no idea. If they said what was the name of the horse you rode, I’d know it right away. I’ve worked with horses an awful lot, which I really, really enjoy. I find horses much better company than most actors - and marginally more intelligent in some cases. When you’re typecast into that sort of thing, you’re always on a horse. My backside is actually saddle shaped now. I spent nearly six months on the back of a horse on Braveheart and that was just joyous. Orejas was his name. He was beautiful. Orejas, little ears.”
“And there was El Nino on The Last Legion (2007). I rode him for ages, and he was the bravest horse I ever rode. Unbelievable. The stunt guys loved him because you could ride him into a bunch of them and he wouldn’t flinch, just batter through and they could bounce off him. He was just young, four or five, and little, but he was BRAVE. I nearly bought him, but then I thought that would be really stupid, and he wouldn’t have had half the fun he’s had I’m sure. And there was the horse I rode in Troy, so yeah, they’re all there in my memory.”
While we’re on the subject of horses, Cosmo tells me a story from his childhood, involving his mother Helen, a brilliant middle distance runner who stopped when rheumatic fever affected her heart, but never lost her adventurous streak.
“My dad was down in London and got a part in a farce called Sailor Beware at The Strand Theatre and they knew it’d run for two or three years because it starred Peggy Mount. We were living in a tenement in Dumbarton and he sent money and said settle the debts and come down. He thought she would take the coach, or maybe if there was enough money left, the train, but no, my mum went out and bought a gypsy bow-topped canvas covered wagon, and a grey horse called Bobby, piled her friend Elizabeth and myself and sister Laura into it, and we travelled all the way to London in a horse-drawn wagon. It was an adventure for an eight year old boy.”
It’s a story he’d love to turn into a movie one day. “ I’ve run it through my head so many times and hope it won’t disappear when I do.”
There’s a part in it for Cosmo too, as a fellow traveller they encountered on the way.
“Passing through Dumfries cattle market we met an old, well I thought he was old, he might have been 60,” he laughs, “a man who asked my mum where we were going and she told him London. Then as we got outside Dumfries we heard him shouting, and he was trotting behind us with an old, battered army suitcase. He jumped up over the bars of the caravan, and that was Sandy. He slept beneath the caravan and me and him became great friends over that trip, very close. He walked away one summer morning outside St Albans, and we never saw him again, but he was a character who lives with me still.”
For the future
In the meantime, Cosmo’s been offered a film next year and “there are things sitting there, half waiting to go, but everything’s up in the air...” he says. Yet Cosmo counts himself lucky, whatever happens:
“There have been few benefits to all this horror that’s going on, but maybe we have one small one, that we sit back at this time and think what are the priorities? What do we want out of life? And they’re really obvious aren’t they: family, friends, being a community, and being good to each other. That’s what’s really important. All the rest is just... tinsel.”
James Cosmo stars in Cristian Solimeno’s film 'The Glass Man', which is available now on digital download at Sky Store, Apple TV, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube and Amazon now. He also appears in EE’s Film Stories in collaboration with BAFTA Scotland: https://www.youtube.com/ee'
The Bay season two is on ITV soon.
The Glass Man Trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIJNQfgeC1w