Unravelling the mystery of the BBC’s The Woman in White, Dougray Scott talks to Janet Christie about finding the humanity in all his characters, films, football and muddling through as a parent. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown
Dougray Scott knows how to cultivate an air of mystery. From the moment he appears as Sir Percival Glyde in the new BBC1 adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ 1859 thriller The Woman in White, there are hints of baddie buttoned up beneath the elegant waistcoat, cravat and starched white collar ensemble, a sense that this dashing Victorian gentleman is not quite what he appears.
Regarded as one of the first crime mystery books, Wilkie Collins’ thriller ticks all of the Victorian gothic boxes: drugged heiresses in nightdresses, lunatic asylums, duplicitous villains, beautiful doppelgangers. It’s little wonder Collins had half of London hooked on their weekly fix of his sensational novel serialised in Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round magazine, and it’s the same mastery of intrigue that makes it perfect for the Sunday night period drama Downton slot now.
Scott says he relished the role of baddie baronet with an evil plan to carry off both the lovely Laura Fairlie and her inheritance, having become captivated by the novel as a bookish youngster hanging out in the library near his Glenrothes home.
“I was always reading and felt an incredible affinity for the power of the written word, fell in love with it,” he says.
“I’m just such a fan of writers, and feel so empowered by them. As an actor you bring their words to life, but it’s the writer who has the idea,” he says over the phone from London. He’s in town to promote the series, taking time out from filming the TV version of Guy Ritchie’s heist romp Snatch in Malaga.
“Wilkie Collins is an extraordinary writer who is a terrific storyteller. He understood the psychological thriller style of writing, mystery and suspense, providing the audience with a picture then very subtly undercutting that with another reality. With the character of Percival, Collins leads you down different paths and then surprises you.”
It seems Sir Percival is a long way from cardboard cut out baddie and Scott is keen to explain the complexities and moral ambiguities that go into motivating his character.
“I guess ultimately he’s a baddie, the bad guy of the piece,” he says, “but I think he’s complex. That’s what I was really interested in, to understand why he became who he became. He had a very fractured childhood and discovered his parents weren’t married so he’s had to live this lie, knowing the consequences of it coming out were devastating in terms of money and status. I don’t think he’s a psychopath, I think he’s desperate. And as it continues he becomes childlike, raw, vulnerable, desperate, tragic, pathetic, and you see more of who he is.
“That’s what’s interesting with any person described as bad. You want to find the like in them. And if you’re playing someone who’s good, you want to find the flaws.”
The Woman in White is just one of Scott’s current screen outings as besides Percival he’s also reprising the role of playwright Arthur Miller (he played him in Simon Curtis’ 2011 film My Week With Marilyn) in an episode of Sky Arts’ Urban Myths series, airing on Sky and TV Streaming service NOW TV. Entitled It’s Me, Sugar, it stars Gemma Arterton as Monroe to Scott’s Miller, as her then husband supports her through her 47 takes to deliver the titular line in Some Like It Hot.
“Yeah, I think that’s a true story,” he says. “It was great to play him again. I’ve read and watched every piece of film and interview with Arthur Miller and worked with my dialect coach. You do that with every character, start with nothing and build it up, combine the physicality with the lyric.”
Scott is an amenable interviewee, his Fife accent undimmed by years in London and LA, his current bases. He’s a happy-in-his-skin mix of where he’s from and where he’s gone, a guy in his 50s from Fife who is as content discussing his beloved Hibs as he is the craft of acting. Without ever lapsing into luvvie-speak, he’ll talk about how theatre can move him to tears or explain the way he invests in a character, and happily chats about parenting and his kids, ranging from three-year-old Milo to 20-year-old twins Eden and Gabriel, admitting to loving it, while still not “having a bloody clue”.
So when I ask him if he’s ever had any apparently supernatural Wilkie Collins-style experiences, he doesn’t miss a beat.
“Yeah, when I was a kid I saw ghosts when I was lying in bed back home in Fife. I remember seeing these figures floating across my bedroom and going out through the windows. I was petrified, couldn’t move I was so scared, frozen to the spot. See, something interesting did happen in Glenrothes.” He laughs.
At this point I put a good word in for Fife, but it’s not necessary as Scott rushes in: “Listen, I had a great time growing up there. I love the place! The house I was brought up in had a view of the Haig Whisky factory, an iconic building, and we overlooked Markinch. I loved it.”
Born in 1965 to Elma, a nurse, and Allan, a salesman, he grew up with three older siblings in a council house and remembers his childhood with fondness. At school he was football crazy, a passion he shared with his dad who had played for Queen’s Park and travelling to watch Hibs was almost an obsession. “He’d take me to away games too, religiously, wherever it was, Aberdeen on a cold night, Arbroath, it didn’t matter. I wanted to be a footballer too, but was never good enough for that.”
So football was out, but Scott was also obsessed with film and as well as the library, the local cinema was also a regular haunt.
“I’d go as much as I could and watched movies all the time on the telly. And I’d spend a lot of time in my room just daydreaming, mucking around pretending to be other people, so I suppose that was part of it. And then I discovered drama at school. Suddenly, Last Summer. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“As soon as I got on stage I was hit by a kind of thunderbolt, ‘this is what I want to do with my life.’”
While Scott’s family were supportive – his father had acted too when he was younger – the advice he was given at school was to get an apprenticeship or a job.
“Obviously where I came from to say you wanted to be an actor they said don’t be ridiculous, even when I went to do a foundation course at college. Then I got into drama college in Wales. But it was always like a fight, in order to do what I wanted to do.
“I just felt really comfortable playing these different characters; it excited me in a way nothing else had. The alternatives, which were fine, an apprenticeship at Rosyth or join the army, I just wasn’t passionate about.
“My dad was a salesman, selling fridges and freezers, and a wonderful talker. He had a great charm about him and loved meeting people, one of the happiest men I’ve ever met, and I thought about that, but I don’t have the gift of the gab he had. So the idea of bringing someone else’s words to life really appealed to me.
“And I remember reading Death of a Salesman, and because my dad was a salesman, I felt an incredible affinity for Arthur Miller. It just kind of hit me, I fell in love with theatre and acting and that world of film. So to get to play Arthur Miller, yeah, that was great…”
Before things came full circle, Scott left Fife for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama where he was named most promising student of his year. Regular theatre and TV followed, until his big break in the popular 1991 TV series Soldier Soldier. He appeared in BBC Scotland’s adaptation of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road in 1996 then made his film debut as a corrupt cop in Twin Town and with his leading man looks – “yeah, I’ve been mistaken for Antonio Banderas” he laughs – took the lead opposite Drew Barrymore in Ever After. He went on to play Tom Cruise’s nemesis in Mission: Impossible II in 2000 and when the film over-ran, missed out on playing Wolverine in X-Men to Hugh Jackman. Codebreaking opposite Kate Winslet in Enigma followed and in 2006 he was Teri Hatcher’s love interest in US hit Desperate Housewives. The small and big screen roles have kept coming with 2015’s Taken 3 with Liam Neeson, the TV horror drama Fear the Walking Dead and last year’s Snatch, playing convicted bank robber and patriarch Vic Hill.
“I love doing that character. He’s great, an East End gangster and the head of a crime family. It’s a great script and it’s fun. It’s very different from this, that’s for sure,” he says.
As Scott loves mysteries and the crime genre, whether it’s The Woman in White or Snatch, does he think it has anything to do with his experience, like many Scottish actors of his generation, of appearing in Taggart? He laughs.
“Yeah, I played a necrophile. I remember that very well, this kid who worked at a zoo and poisoned people with poison arrow frog gland juice and put snakes in beds. He was a nasty, nasty character, deeply f***ed up. His one redeeming quality was he was a Celtic fan.”
This is one of many football references Scott drops during our conversation. Hibs daft, he used to be a season ticket holder but being based in LA and travelling so much, has to make do with watching his team online. Isn’t it a bit surreal watching in LA or Spain?
“No. I’ve got Hibs TV, so I watch every single game I can. I’d love to get back for more matches though.”
The subject creeps in again when he’s telling me how much he’d like to do an Arthur Miller play sometime, and reminiscing about Ken Stott in A View from the Bridge.
“He was incredible. I didn’t stop crying from the start to the end, it was just such an extraordinary production, and he was phenomenal. For a Jambo, incredible.” He laughs at his football jibe. “No, he was phenomenal.”
Warming to his live theatre theme, he raves about productions of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes at London’s Royal Court, which he declares “amazing, extraordinary”, and Conor McPherson’s Bob Dylan musical drama Girl from the North Country.
“Shirley Henderson was amazing in that. Oh my god, bloody hell, what an amazing play! I could have seen it ten times. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life. Conor has written a play in the style of Dylan’s writing which is left-field and full of jumbled words, but it somehow makes sense. So you have a vision of the world as it is and as it could be and should be and as you want it to be.”
The world as you want it to be, for Scott, would be one where women get equality of opportunity and treatment. He supported his wife, actor Claire Forlani after she revealed escaping Harvey Weinstein’s advances, and is hopeful that the #MeToo Movement brings meaningful change.
“It’s been very tough on women over the years, and it’s not just in Hollywood. It’s about the world, how women are perceived and treated. One shouldn’t sexualise a work environment. It should be are you good at your job. Women should be able to flourish and thrive regardless of sex and gender. To me it’s crazy. I’ve been directed by women before and it’s not easy for them to have guys saying ‘I’m not listening to you, you’re a woman,’ it’s crazy. They’re the director, you listen to what they have to say! Listen, I’ve had very strong women in my life, and I’m happy.”
Aged 52, Scott is mainly based in LA with his wife who played his love interest in the 2011 film Love’s Kitchen, and their three-year-old son Milo. His two older children from a previous marriage, are now both in further education.
“My boy is at the same drama college I went to and Eden’s about to start film studies at Exeter. She’s been my sort of assistant in Spain and she’s been great. And Milo – he’s three.”
Third time round, does he find parenting any easier, is he more confident?
“I wouldn’t say that. I’ve done it before, but I never know what I’m doing. I’ve never got a bloody clue about anything. Anything I’m starting, I’m like, I really don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know if I’m going to get away with this. But it’s as fascinating to me today as it was at the beginning.”
“The thing I say to my kids is ‘listen, I don’t care what you end up doing in life as long as you have a passion for it and you’re happy.’ My dad said the definition of success is not how much money you’ve got and how powerful you are, it’s how happy are you? So when the twins were doing exams I said I don’t care what you get, don’t put pressure on yourself to get As and Bs. Try and do the best you can and discover something new about the world. You don’t have to get those grades in order to be successful and don’t let anyone tell you if you don’t get them that that’s the end of your life, because it’s not, there are so many things you can do. And subsequently my kids did really well, but even that… what does ‘failure’ even mean anyway? Everyone has a different way to get where they should be. What I want to pass on to my kids would be to be gentle with people, see things from others’ point of view. Yeah, do all the things I couldn’t do!” He laughs.
Time for one final question says the PR, so with web of intrigue that is The Woman in White now unfolding on our screens, what’s next for Scott?
“Well, I’m doing a film called Forgiveness,” he says. “What can I say about that? Well, it’s not a comedy that’s for sure!” he says and laughs.
And with that tantalising hint, he’s off back to Malaga, leaving us wanting more.
The Woman in White continues tomorrow at 9pm on BBC1 and catch up on BBC iPlayer.
WaterAid: Dougray Scott is supporting The Water Effect campaign with WaterAid. Find out more at www.wateraid.org
It’s Me, Sugar, one of Sky Arts Urban Myths, is on demand on Sky and TV Streaming service NOW TV