Kevin McKidd interview: the Scottish star launches a single to fundraise for foodbanks

The Grey's Anatomy and Trainspotting actor tells Janet Christie about lockdown, LA and getting the band back together

McKidd as Tommy in Trainspotting, 1996, with Jonny Lee Miller, Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner

Foodbanks were already a feature of austerity UK and as the corona crisis bites, more and more of us are turning to them. A fact not lost on Grey’s Anatomy star Kevin McKidd and his mate from back home in Elgin, James D Reid.

Leave a Light On

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Keen to do something to help, the time was right to put McKidd’s successful Speyside Sessions Band back together and the charity single Leave a Light On, along with an accompanying JustGiving fundraising page was born.

McKidd's Speyside Sessions musicians topped the album charts in 2012, raising funds for Save the Children, and have now recorded the single and video Leave A Light On, in lockdown

“We were mulling over, me and Jamie, the state of the world, and that night this song popped into his head and he wrote it down in 15 minutes.”

With a song to sing it was time to bring the band, which hit No1 on the iTunes World Music Charts in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Germany and Spain in 2012 with the Original Speyside Sessions album, raising funds for Save The Children, back together.

Another of McKidd’s friends River City actor Iain Robertson (who plays Stevie O’Hara and starred with McKidd in Gillies MacKinnon’s Small Faces in 1996) suggested raising funds for the Trussell Trust which runs a network of foodbanks nationwide.

“One of the biggest issues every country has right now, and certainly the UK, is food for families. Food and poverty issues. Donating money to research seemed far too politically loaded, but food on folk’s tables seemed a very simple and honest endeavour at this really hard time of extreme, unique circumstances.”

Leave A Light On was recorded and produced in bedrooms, attics, sheds and under the stairs by the Speyside Sessions musicians and technicians and performers, many of whom are old friends of the actor. Lead singer McKidd gaffer taped up a mic in LA, while in Scotland, singers resorted to night time recording to avoid seagulls joining the backing vocals

With people who used to donate to foodbanks now using them as well as the already high demand, the pressure is on for donations of food and funds, volunteers and supporters.

“Hopefully as well as raising money we’ll reduce the stigma attached to using foodbanks, normalise it so people don’t feel embarrassment.”

Written and performed by musicians and singers in lockdown – in home studios, on iPhones, in kids’ bedrooms, under the stairs – the ballad has McKidd on lead vocals with Northern Irish singer, Máiréad Carlin (of Grammy Nominated group, Celtic Woman) who also suggested raising funds for Help Musicians UK.

From Small Faces and Trainspotting to Grey's Anatomy

McKidd stars as Owen Hunt in the long-running ABC series, Grey's Anatomy, on which filming of series 17 was halted due to Covid-19. As well as acting in the series since 2008, McKidd has directed episodes too. Picture: Getty Images

Best known now as medic Owen Hunt in the long-running US TV hit medical series Grey’s Anatomy, McKidd’s career kicked off with a film debut in Small Faces then as one of the smackpack of future stars in Trainspotting, in which he played the tragic Tommy. Since then he’s had a busy TV, film and stage career including Britannicus, for which he won an Ian Charleston Award, Rome, Journeyman, Hideous Kinky with Kate Winslet, Max with John Cusack, Tulip Fever, Disney/Pixar’s Brave, Kingdom of Heaven and 16 Years of Alcohol, the former Skids frontman Richard Jobson’s biopic, which saw McKidd nominated for Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards.

Life in lockdown

Speaking to us from lockdown in California where the 46-year-old lives with his wife Arielle Goldrath and four children, it’s early in the morning and McKidd is waking up his brood. He comes on the line with Elgin accent undimmed, despite his years in LA.

“I’m just getting my kids awake and coffee going. I’m here with my wife, two amazing little kids, Nava and Aiden, nine months and two, and two amazing older kids, Joseph, almost 20, and Isla, just turned 18. I tell you, it’s a busy house. And we’ve got two dogs, a cocker spaniel jack russell mix and a pitbull. Oh my god.

As Lucius Vorenus in the HBO TV series Rome, 2005

“I was joking about it with Arielle yesterday,” he says, “how the little ones hit the ground running at seven in morning and need all your attention – it’s lovely – then go to bed at 6:30pm, which is when the older ones come out and want your attention. It’s pretty tiring, but it’s wonderful.

“It’s not too bad as my son’s in his second year at college, my daughter’s a senior at high school and we’ve two in nappies, who don’t have a clue what’s going on. The older ones I feel badly for – my daughter who’s missing her final year at school but doing a lot of online learning, and making me laugh with TikTok, and my son who’s at university. He and his friends have written a musical and booked a venue for the Edinburgh Festival… they were so excited, and that’s all gone away now. Somehow we just have to accept 2020 as the year some things never happened.

“But this time has made us closer to the older ones. It’s a very challenging situation for everyone, but there’s an upside.”

In Tune

One of the upsides being that Joseph plays guitar and has introduced his dad to a lot of music. “I’m starting to enjoy Mac DeMarco, and Tom Misch, and he plays quite a bit of Grateful Dead. I was listening to Ravi Shankar yesterday, always Peter Gabriel, and Gillian Welch, who did the final track in 16 years of Alcohol – I never tire of listening to her singing.”

And The Skids?

As Count Vronsky, with Helen McCrory as Anna in Channel 4's Anna Karenina, 2000

“Of course. I love The Skids – me and Richard Jobson are still good friends,” he says.

Given the confines of lockdown, releasing a single was complicated, but the sound and vision encapsulates the ethos of the isolated coming together wherever they are.

It’s all very informal, an autonomous collective, very grassroots and not overly produced. There’s a kind of couthy charm to it that I like. It’s the antithesis of the very corporate and polished world I work in all the time.

Grey's Anatomy

When he says all the time, he’s not exaggerating as the Seattle-set medical drama is a vast undertaking that films ten months of the year, five 14-hour days a week.

“When I get two weeks off at Christmas and in summer I’ll come back to Elgin. But with that schedule, when you’ve got family, I don’t get home as much as I’d like.”

However, McKidd is still close to family and friends and remains wedded to the values and ties of his upbringing with a plumber dad and secretarial worker mother.

Early years in Elgin

“I had a very good life in Elgin,” he says. “My mum and dad were the best parents a kid could have but they lived pay packet to pay packet. We grew tatties in the back garden and it was my job when I got in from school to dig them up and make them into chips. On a Thursday, the night before my dad got his pay packet, I remember many times we’d go through the sofa looking for change to get a chippy for tea. That stays in the forefront of my mind. That’s the way things were. I’m proud to tell my kids that story, to make them realise how fortunate they are.

“That’s why I think this foodbank thing is brilliant. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.”

“We’re already half way to our £5,000 fundraising target,” says McKidd. “And one of the biggest bits of feedback I got was … I’m totally gonna name drop... from my friend Seal.”

Seal of approval

The pair met through tennis, which McKidd learned to play when he moved to LA, and now the actor and singer play at the annual charity tennis tournament arranged by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to support families hit by drug issues.

Seal re-tweeted Leave a Light On, saying it was ‘really really lovely, magnificently heartfelt, what beautiful voices and so sincere. I love, love, love the song’. That’s pretty good coming from Seal, I was pretty chuffed with that,” he says.

Hollywood in lockdown

Like most of those working in the entertainment industry McKidd’s work is on hold. One of TV’s longest-running series, with 363 episodes and counting, for the first time since it began in 2005, filming on Grey’s Anatomy stopped before completion of its 17th series. When does McKidd see it resuming?

“I don’t know. We were meant to shoot 25 episodes and were in the middle of number 22 when on Friday 13 March, in the middle of the scene, they said due to this whole thing we want everyone to go home and we’ll be in touch.”

Since then McKidd has been at home, making music and hanging out with the family.

“I know the Grey’s Anatomy writers’ room is working in conference calls on the new season,” he says, “but as far as physical production goes, it’s a hard one. There are between 130 and 150 crew on six different sound stages with circulating air conditioning. That’s a hard environment to work in with something like this going on.

“Work is going to look very different. Steven Soderbergh, who directed Contagion about a global pandemic, is head of the Directors Guild of America task force figuring out protocols for us to get back to work safely.

“But nobody really knows when that‘ll be and we’re all living in this very weird unknown space at the moment.

Trainspotting

McKidd will always be proud of Trainspotting and is used to people referencing the start of his career, no matter what he’s done since.

“I don’t get sick of it,” he says. “Obviously it did open doors, and still kind of does because it’s such an iconic film and I feel blessed for that. I’m very proud of it. I remember it did bother me in my twenties. I was sick of talking about Trainspotting, thinking what about this play I won an award for? It was really frustrating. It was a bit like I was trying to outrun this thing. I felt this primal need to make my mark, not just connected to that brilliant film. It definitely felt like a shadow for a while, but it doesn’t now, so many things have happened since.

“Back then people were saying you should go to America off the back of Trainspotting but I was 21-years- old, and from the Highlands. I hadn’t ever been to London and I just knew it wasn’t the right time for me, so I took a back seat, didn’t chase all that stuff in LA. It was just too daunting. So I had a couple of years working on construction sites and in pubs in London, and people would come up to me and say ‘you’re that guy in that huge film, why are you doing doing this?’ Then I started to slowly but surely turn the corner and make a name for myself.”

Nowadays it’s not all Trainspotting. People approach him to talk about Grey’s Anatomy, Brave, Call of Duty or Modern Warfare video games, and it’s all welcome.

“I decided early on you can’t control anything as an actor, but you can set intentions for yourself. I wanted to be known for a diverse bunch of things. That was the plan I had in my head. I didn’t know how to implement it, but I set that intention.”

Neeson knows

McKidd was following his plan, filming Kingdom of Heaven in Northern Spain when Liam Neeson stepped in to give him advice for which he has been grateful ever since.

“I had committed to doing a couple of independent films in Scotland and was waiting to find out if they’d got the money when HBO offered me a part in Rome. I’d never watched American TV so I said that’s nice, but I can’t. Liam got wind of this, and as we were sat in the hotel pub after work that night he said ‘I need to have a word with you’ and led me outside.’ I thought ‘oh shit’ cos Liam’s an intimidating guy. Out in the street in this little town he just gave me a talking to. He said you’re walking away from the biggest opportunity of your career, do you know what this could mean for you? He said go to that pay phone, call your agent and say you’ve changed your mind and hope they haven’t moved on. So I did.

“That was a pivotal moment and I will be eternally grateful to Liam Neeson because that show really caught the imagination of American audiences and opened a massive door for me.”

That door was Hollywood, home of Grey’s Anatomy, which inspires a huge, loyal following who obsess over the medical drama each season.

“I joined on season five and remember being the new kid on the block, listening to actors who’d been on it a while saying it can’t go on longer than maybe two years, but we’re on season 16. Usually shows run out of steam or run out of stories, but this keeps going because of the writers; they keep it interesting.

“I feel lucky to have some semblance of security in this business. I never expected that, I knew I was signing on for a life of uncertainty and that will come again, but at the moment when I’m in this amazing period, especially raising children, I do not discount how lucky I am to have this level of security – coronavirus aside.”

There’s always plenty of interest in Owen Hunt, head of trauma and a former army medic who wrestles with PTSD and relationships, notably with colleagues Cristina (played by Sandra Oh) and now Teddy (Kim Raver), who has given the serial cheater a taste of his own medicine on the eve of their wedding.

How does McKidd think Owen would handle the current crisis?

“Weirdly he would be very calm. This would be the time when he would really shine, because he was an army doctor in an incredibly challenging environment and he would be one of the ones less affected by it, less thrown up by it all.”

Hold it together, then completely unravel later on?

McKidd laughs. “Yeah. Bottled it up, then it would ALL come out…”

Garage rocks

Until filming is resumed, McKidd is keeping up a camera ready regime by exercising daily in the home gym he’s set up his garage.

“I have a woodwork bench there too, and a desk with lamp and headphones and laptop – to get away from it all indoors.” He laughs.

He’s joking, counting himself lucky to be in lockdown with his loved ones, and to be able to help others by making music with his band.

“I am very proud of the track and it has been a real honour to sing with Máiréad and all of the old Speyside bunch again,” says McKidd. “If ever there was a time that we need music, it’s now.”

Leave a Light On is available on multiple platforms including Download iTunes and Google Play and can be streamed on services including Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, Deezer and Tidal. Donate to just.ly/lalo

Donations are going to The Trussell Trust and Help Musicians UK

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Actor Kevin McKidd sings lead vocals on Speyside Sessions' fundraising single Leave A Light On, in support of foodbanks and musicians. Picture: Elaine Livingstone
With his wife Arielle Goldrath in January this year at Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles, California (Picture: Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for The Art of Elysium