Interview: Douglas Henshall, actor

How do you get to know someone well enough to write about them in an hour? Usually, by discussing all the things etiquette says you shouldn't: politics, sex, family, religion…

A tricky business if the interviewee is Scottish actor Douglas Henshall, star of films such as Orphans and Lawless Heart, and TV series Psychos and Primeval.

After reading Henshall's cuttings, I'd never regretted suggesting an interview more. It sounds like one big no-go area. Porridge or cornflakes for breakfast?

No comment. Safe ground is St Mirren football club – eh, forget it, frankly – and his youthful passion for tennis. Excited already, dear reader?

I promise there's more to Henshall. He's sitting at a table drinking coffee in a London club and see that way he looks up, with those really focused, watchful eyes? There's a little spark of challenge in them that suggests things could be interesting.

But to take a tennis analogy, let's warm up first: his latest project. Henshall is about to star in a new BBC drama, The Silence, about a deaf girl who witnesses a murder. Her uncle, Henshall, is a detective, and the girl later recognises one of his colleagues as the murderer.

Against his instincts, the detective protects his vulnerable niece from testifying, and in doing so becomes guilty of corruption. But that's all right because Henshall gets impatient with too-perfect characters. We're all flawed, he says.

Really? I can't resist it, despite knowing he'll hit the ball in the net. What are his flaws? "Too numerous to mention in an interview," he says smoothly. Coward. The blue-grey eyes do not respond.

So… Henshall played a lot of tennis. Strange really, he says, since he came from Glasgow. Not exactly an area you associate with green lawns and Pimm's.

Has he read the autobiography of Andre Agassi, the former world number one? Eh, no. Why? It's a revealing character divider. Agassi detested the game he excelled in, but the interesting bit is why. He always wanted to play a team sport.

He hated the loneliness, the psychological, one-on-one battle across that net. Henshall listens intently, eyes curious.

"How funny. I always wanted to be… Oh God, yes, I always wanted to be the person who was cut out for that. I liked the idea that you were out there alone and responsible for nobody else except you. If mistakes were made they were down to me, and I felt fine with that. That's interesting…"

Humour sidles into his eyes. Still, Agassi was bound to be odd, growing up in Vegas. "People say if you take the Strip away it's just like any city, but the Strip is there. And, anyway, you're in the middle of the f***ing desert!"

Henshall should talk. He's from Barrhead, which he admits is a strange hybrid of town and country.

"In some respects, I was almost a country boy. I ran around in streams and rivers and all that sort of thing." But just as sportsmen divide into solo and team players, he realised early on that people in Barrhead divided into those who stayed and those who left. Henshall was always going to leave. He found it claustrophobic?

"No, there was just a feeling that I wasn't going to find what I wanted where I was, that there was something else in the world I wanted to find or be."

That 'something' was acting. Though sometimes, he says, people give you the feeling that it would be much better if you had been a doctor or something useful. Does he ever feel that?

"No. I think I do a really worthwhile job. I entertain people. I think that's pretty good. That's what I contribute to society. I'm proud of what I do. I don't think I am someone who sits on someone else's coat tails while others do worthwhile work."

Yeah, but actors, writers… When it boils down to it, who actually needs us to survive? "I don't agree with that at all. You are the only thing that's left of history. What do we know about the ancient world? Anything we can find is written. I won't apologise for myself," he adds.

He was shy as a child. Actors are seen as people who like to show off, and there's a little bit of that, he acknowledges. "But I think the other side is finding something where you can express yourself and feel comfortable, and for me that was on stage in front of lots of people."

He hid behind characters? No, the opposite. He became more himself, explored his own emotions playing out someone else's. After all, what else could he draw on other than his own experience? "I'm the only emotional frame of reference I've got."

He started acting in the Glasgow Youth Theatre before going to Mountview Theatre School, in London, and then had spells with 7:84, the Citizens' Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. "In the theatre there's this whole working-class thing about, 'Theatre is not for the likes of us…' I don't like that." Was his own upbringing working-class?

"Very much so, but I was never made to feel I was less than anyone else, that there were things that weren't me." His parents were not so much influential as non-judgmental, allowing him freedom to choose a less conventional career. "I think they were relieved I found something I cared about. That's what they gave me: encouragement to do something I cared about."

Henshall is protective about family memories, particularly of his late mother. It's a risky tactic to ask an interviewee permission to ask a particular question. Better just to ask. But today feels different. Does he mind if I ask about his mum and dad? "You can ask me anything you like," he says quietly. "If I don't want to talk to you about it, I'll tell you." I bet he will.

Earlier, when Henshall was talking about The Silence, he said that he liked the fact that very different characters, on very different paths, come to the same conclusion: the only thing that matters in life is your family. Then, it seemed like one of those things actors say about their dramas. Later it doesn't.

Henshall's father worked for the Daily Record, then DC Thomson in Dundee before joining National Chemset.

"He was a commission-only salesman for 13 years, supporting a wife and a house and bringing up three children – and I don't know how the hell he did it," says Henshall.

"I did Death of a Salesman in the West End, and I have a huge affinity with that play because I have always looked at it and seen my dad." His father was an only child, yet good at getting people to talk. "It was a precarious profession, but he was a good salesman because he was interested in people and got them talking, and they got to like him." An extrovert, then? "My dad could charm the birds from the trees."

His mother was a housewife while Henshall and his two sisters were growing up but later trained as a nurse. "She wanted to be out in the world doing something, and she had a good imagination, a good mind and a sharp, independent will."

But disaster struck. Childhood rubella had damaged her heart muscles, and she had two heart attacks aged just 43.

"That put paid to it… I think that half-destroyed my mother. I think she felt she had done the right thing, given up a good 12 years of her life to bring up her kids right… Then that. And she loved being a nurse, loved it. She was very social, my ma. She liked people, liked being around them. It hit her really hard."

There's something very touching about the way Henshall talks about his mother. Partly it's the insight he shows into her inner life and desires: a surprisingly deep level of understanding. "Women of her generation had a really hard time," he says.

"They were just a couple of generations behind women who had so many more opportunities than they did. I think my ma would have given anything to go off and be a missionary or something."

But the heart attacks reined in even modest ambitions. Despite that, she continued smoking like a chimney. "Two days after she had open heart surgery, she went to the loo with a drip alongside her so she could sit and have a fag. Unfortunately for my mother, she died at 59. Massive heart attack."

I fully intended to cop out and omit the next moment – I won't tell if you won't, Henshall had said with a small smile – but now I'm writing, I realise it would have done him an injustice. You often hear stories of bereavement in interviews, but there is something about the way Henshall is talking. Suddenly I'm ambushed by my own memories, rising unbidden inside my head like a flock of birds, wings flapping. My eyes fill. Henshall notices.

Later, I listen to the tape again. How did that happen? There it is. Rewind. "I don't know," Henshall is saying quietly, "if you have both your parents or not…?"

No. My voice is composed. But it is an unusual moment. Interviewees are usually so focused on their answers, most don't turn the question on the questioner. Significant the way Henshall handles the conversation. Maybe he has that quality he described in his father. His voice continues.

"It's a very singular pain. You only get one of each. There's nothing quite like it." Nothing quite like it. The birds rise. Changes your life, I say, less composed now. Did it change his life? But he's asking his own question. "You all right?" No fuss, just kindness, a small gesture, a hand on an arm. "It's okay," he says. Funny isn't it, he muses, how even a long time after, grief can simply reach out and grab you all over again.

He was doing a press night for a London play when he heard his mother was in hospital that final time. He came home from the party, got the news, then phoned the hospital. "I spoke to a sister and because my ma was a nurse, I know how they talk. The sister said if you can come up, you should, and I knew then my ma was in trouble and she was probably going to die."

He stayed up all night and caught a 5am flight, staying at the hospital for 48 hours, sleeping on a camp bed.

"I didn't want to go home. She never came round again. She died on the Thursday night and I was back on stage in London on the Friday night. It was surreal. Everybody knew, and the box office had been telling people because two shows were cancelled, so it was a bit of a circus. It was really hard."

He returned home for the funeral on the Monday, then went straight back to work. Worse, shortly after, he began filming Peter Mullan's 1998 film Orphans, the story of a family who have just lost their mother.

"In some ways, I shouldn't have done it. I remember Peter saying, 'Are you sure you want to do this? I am not sure I should let you.' And I said, 'Don't you f***ing dare make the decision for me. I am more than capable of doing this. If you decide I'm not right for it, then fine, but don't make an emotional decision for me.' But in hindsight, I think he was probably right. I was exploring my own grief and it wasn't really about me."

It was a defining period in Henshall's life. "When I look back at that film, and at pictures, there is something I will never be able to replicate from that time.

That's just the way I was. I think I went to a pretty dark place for a number of years after that." He read a lot of Robert Burns after his mother died. "My ma loved Burns, and the copy I have is from when she was pregnant with me. There was a bit of an umbilical connection."

Acting has allowed him the emotional exploration of events that in real life have caused problems. "I didn't deal very well with my ma dying because I don't deal very well with normal emotional situations like that."

If that was once true, I'm not sure it is now. But then was different.

"I went away somewhere else and I didn't really come around again for about another five years." The hard thing is that even when you do claw your way back, nothing is ever the same again. "Nothing. Everything changes. Even the family… the relationship with your father." His dad is still alive? "Yes, he lives in Cyprus now."

His father has been through real emotional turmoil. "For four years, he thought he would never find anyone else and he would just be old and on his own. Then he fell madly, head over heels in love, married and became 16 all over again.

"Then, just before Christmas, she died of cancer, which is just brutal. But they had ten years together of being very happy, and a lot of people don't get ten years of happiness together, ever. So in one way he's fortunate. But it's a hell of a thing to go through once, and to go through it twice is awful."

However much he liked his stepmother, his father's remarriage must have been hard? "No, I was delighted for my dad. The only thing I ever said to him was, as long as you don't compare her to my mother, then neither will I. And he never did."

Sometimes real change comes less from the gains in a person's life than the losses. But it can take time to assimilate that and I'm glad I didn't interview Henshall ten years ago, when he was in the dark period he describes.

Nowadays, he seems more comfortable in his own skin. It's not just loss of people that is influential. It can be esteem or power or dreams. Ten years ago, Henshall was a young Scots actor seen as having the potential, the charisma, to go global. It's true, he has had a successful film and television career. When we talk politics, he refers to paying 50 per cent tax, so he's not starving in a garret. But has his career quite reached the strata he wanted? "No, no," he admits. "I think I always wanted to do more. I'm ambitious, always have been."

He once thought talent was all that mattered.

"But that's nonsense and nave. It's probably 50 per cent and the other 50 per cent is stuff I'm not good at. I don't want to go out every day saying, 'Who should I be talking to?' I just can't be bothered." He laughs.

"Fierce ambition coupled with crippling laziness… it's a difficult one!"

He and his partner, Croatian writer Tena Stivicic married on the spur of the moment in Vegas in February. "She's about as perfect a match as I could ever find, so if it doesn't work with her it's not going to work."

Does it help to be with someone creative? "It has more pluses than minuses. We're both passionate, stubborn people, both strong-willed, so we clash from time to time. It's nice to have someone who challenges me. She's brighter than me and I like that, though it does drive me nuts sometimes when she reminds me of it!"

Tena is 12 years younger, but Henshall is still uncertain about children. "I have lots of existential angst about it. I am one of those people who think the apocalypse isn't far away. I think we're all f***ed!" He laughs. "I would feel really guilty about having children just because it's what you're supposed to do… Then another part of me thinks, 'Bloody hell, in 1939 people were still having children so just shut up and get on with it!'"

The photographer has arrived. Henshall wants to nip outside first, he says, taking out a fag. He smokes? Driving him mad, he admits ruefully. Henshall is on the cusp of new things, privately and professionally. He has hopes but no illusions on the American front. It takes imagination, he reckons, to cast him as a leading man. And if the American dream doesn't happen? "There are people who would cut off parts of their body to have the career I've had, so I'm just grateful for the opportunities I have had."

The Silence is on BBC1, 10 May

• This article was first published in The Scotland On Sunday, April 25, 2010