Stephen McCole interview: Life imitating comedy

EVER hear the one about the actor who became a stand-up comic? If you have, then you've probably seen Joey Frisk on stage. Indeed, when Frisk appeared at Glasgow's Stand comedy club last year, all was not what it seemed.

Audience members could certainly have been forgiven for thinking: "Don't I know you from somewhere?" Frisk is, in fact, Glasgow-born actor Stephen McCole, whose credits include Orphans, Rushmore and Band Of Brothers. And his act? All part of his extensive preparation for Crying With Laughter, due to be unveiled at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Entirely devised through improvisation, this darkly comic thriller follows rising Scottish stand-up Frisk across a life-changing week when he runs into the mysterious Frank Archer (Malcolm Shields), who he knew when they attended a military academy together as teenagers. While the technique behind the film's creation is nothing new – Mike Leigh develops all his films in collaboration with his actors – the end result is a remarkable achievement. Not least because McCole and director Justin Molotnikov were working on a meagre budget of 500,000.

Fortunately for McCole, 35, he was already well versed in improvisation after starting his own Glasgow-based troupe Improv Dogs a couple of years ago. "It's really difficult at times when you're an actor, having to wait things out," he says. "You can lose touch about why you do it. All actors start off acting because they love it. Then it becomes a job and a business. I certainly was losing touch with why I was doing it in the first place. So I started this improv group so we could just act without anybody's permission."

Impressed by what he saw, Molotnikov – who had worked with McCole on the STV show High Times – came to him with the idea for Crying With Laughter. McCole agreed, with one proviso: that he could make Joey Frisk a stand-up. "I've always wanted to do stand-up," he admits. "I've hosted a comedy club twice in the past, and failed miserably. I used to DJ for this guy who ran comedy nights. I was always very good at comebacks when he was on stage. But when I tried it, I froze both times. I was under the impression that you could rely on your own sense of humour, that this alone would take you through. But it was never the case."

Molotnikov and McCole began developing Frisk by watching comics such as Doug Stanhope and Jerry Sadowitz. But with the film containing various scenes of Frisk on stage (at fictional Edinburgh club The Bullpit), it soon became clear that McCole would need to not only develop his own gags but test them out on real audiences. "This is the most work I've ever put into any film I've been involved in," he says. "I've crawled through mud with bombs going off on Band Of Brothers, and I never put in anywhere near the amount of work I put into this."

McCole began with a lesson in stand-up from Glasgow comedian Viv Gee. Subsequently speaking to other comics, thanks to Laura Keenan – a comedy manager who was cast as Joey's agent – he also spent time hanging out backstage at comedy clubs. "I would sit in the green room, listen to the banter, see where the egos were." He recalls the night of his first gig when he was checking out the opening act. "This guy comes over and as I was leaning out the door listening, he just closed it in my face. I thought that was great. He just thought I was another comedian. That's how they treat new stand-ups. There's a pecking order and I had to see that."

Not only did McCole write his own gags for gigs, he did so for the sequences (shot in Edinburgh venue The Caves) where Joey is on stage in a series of comic routines that are the backbone of the film. This aside, Crying With Laughter also gave McCole the chance to act with his older brother Paul, who plays Joey's long-suffering landlord. "He knees me in the balls in the film, which was very, very painful. I'd like to thank him for that," says McCole. "We did Romeo And Juliet not so long ago. He was Tybalt and I played Mercutio, and I slapped him in the face every night. He definitely got his revenge here."

Raised in Glasgow housing scheme Castlemilk, McCole's recurring role in the 1998 adaptation of Iain Banks' The Crow Road gave him his first break. He followed that with Peter Mullan's Orphans, playing one of the four grief-stricken siblings. "It's one of the great Scottish movies," he says. "I'd say that even if I wasn't in it as well. It's one of the most unappreciated pieces of Scottish cinema." Arriving in 1998, the same year he worked with Mullan on Ken Loach's alcoholic drama My Name Is Joe, McCole also went to Texas, to work on Wes Anderson's quirky high school comedy Rushmore, where he played Magnus, the Scottish bully.

In some ways, McCole seems far happier working at home. His next project, he says, is a black comedy about an alcoholic kung-fu vigilante. "He'll be walking the earth, helping people, but he's really just a Glaswegian alcoholic," he says. Then there's the possibility of continuing the comedy circuit. He's already been encouraged by co-star Keenan to continue writing new material as Frisk. "I like being Joey Frisk," he says. "To continue doing stand-up as that character would be fascinating." Come August, don't be surprised if you see an advert for "Frisk at the Fringe".

Crying With Laughter screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 21 June at 8pm and 26 June, 9.30pm.