Good guys play good bad guys, says actor Peter Mullan

Peter Mullan, photo: archive of Febiofest

Known for his often intense performances in the dramas My Name is Joe and Tyranosaur, actor Peter Mullan has also appeared in movies such as Trainspotting and the final parts of the Harry Potter series and TV series like Top of the Lake. Mullan is in addition an accomplished director, with his 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters taking the top prize at Venice and helping win belated recognition for the “fallen” women whose terrible story it recounts. The charismatic, working class Glaswegian, who studied economic history alongside acting at university, is a Socialist and supporter of Scottish independence. Peter Mullan has just been in Prague as a special guest of Febiofest. When we sat down at the film festival, I began by asking him which actors had really grabbed him when he was young.

Peter Mullan, photo: archive of Febiofest
“Spencer Tracy, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. And Cagney. Nobody dies like Jimmy Cagney. No-one.

“For me the greatest death scenes there’s ever been is Cagney on those church steps in The Roaring Twenties and the amazing one in Angels with Dirty Faces. When I was a kid they blew me away.

“Bogart just because he was Bogart – he was cool as all-get-out. Spencer Tracy – I remember even as a kid thinking he was the greatest actor in the world.

“But also like anybody I loved Ronald Coleman, I loved Clark Gable. All those guys.

“And then the new kids on the block when I got a little older. It would be Eastwood and then after that, obviously, my generation: Hoffman, Pacino and De Niro. Of the men, that is.”

When you started acting what were you finding in acting that you weren’t getting elsewhere?

“The right to act with impunity. You can smash a car and they shout cut and you’ll have policemen giving you the thumbs up.

“You can strangle someone you’ve just been having lunch with. You can strangle them and people say cut and you can go straight back to the chat you were having when you were having lunch.

“It’s a magical world where you can recycle anything. No other job on earth offers you that.

“It’s without doubt – and I really do mean this – the greatest job on earth. Because of that very reason.”

When you started university – you had had a few years on the streets running with a gang, you had a tough home life – you must have really stood out from your peers, who I guess were probably mainly middle class?

“Yes. I remember not long after I graduated I started teaching at the university and I said to one of the lecturers – it was at the college club, where all the academics went.

Peter Mullan, photo: archive of Febiofest
“I said, Listen, looking back – and I’m saying this when I’m 23, talking about when I was 17 – why was it in tutorials no-one ever disagreed with me, including you? Was that because I’m a genius, or did you think I was going to stab you? And be honest.

“Without hesitation she said, Oh, I was terrified of you [laughs].

“Which was so ironic. It was simply through my voice, my accent and probably my intensity.

“I never had a single fight when I was at university. Not once. I was in no shape or form aggressive. But sadly they projected a certain class prejudice.”

I’d like to ask you about your political awakening. I was reading that you studied the history of economics. Were you drawn to that because you were already a Marxist or did that lead you to Marxism?

“No, I was already one before then. All of us, my generation, in the Clydeside, all of us were coming in as the shipyards, as heavy industry was coming to a halt.

“There was the old Red Clydeside and we were the new Red Clydeside. We were far more academically oriented.

“The issues had changed. They had moved to apartheid South Africa. Nicaragua was a big high point. Gender politics, women politics, was very big.

“I had read The Communist Manifesto when I was 14 and then we all moved through various variations on the left.

“So by the time I got to university the politics were pretty much in place.”

If we could move on to your movies, Trainspotting was an enormous hit all over the world. What do you think it was that made it such a huge hit?

“I think it was because it had the spirit of the Beatles in the ‘60s but it had the music of the ‘90s. It had done something no other film had done up to then, which was not even really be a film.

Peter Mullan in 'Trainspotting', photo: archive of Febiofest
“I mean it’s certainly no comment on drugs. It’s a pop movie. And there hadn’t been a pop movie in a long time.

“Everybody had bought the book – very few people read it. It was a bit like James Joyce’s Ulysses – everybody liked it on the bookshelf but nobody had actually read the thing.

“The day I remember – apart from when I was told I wasn’t in it [laughs] – was when I was in the underground in Glasgow and I saw the poster.

“These days it’s an obvious poster. It’s really hard to get across – like to my eldest daughter, who’s 25 – it’s hard to explain to her: There had never been a poster like that for a British film.

“There’d been posters like that for maybe an album or for a band. But never for a movie. Not that kind of pop art, confident poster for a movie.

“What it did, and I think it worked around the world, was it kind of said, If you don’t watch this, you ain’t cool. If you don’t watch this. you’re going to stand out from your friends as the uncool one – because this is the only cool movie in town. You can find Hollywood movies, you can find gangster movies, you can find Bruce Willis movies, but this is the only bona fine cool movie.

“And it worked. It’s amazing that 20 years later… I saw it I think two Christmases ago after not seeing it since it came out and I was amazed – it really held up.

“It’s very funny. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It nods to the seriousness of the issue.

“It’s character-driven – there’s zero narrative, there’s just no narrative to that film. It just holds up. And it was brilliantly directed. Brilliantly directed.”

A couple of years later you had a kind of breakthrough as an actor with My Name is Joe, for which you won the Best Actor award at Cannes. For me Ken Loach is a brilliant director to watch as a viewer. As an actor, what makes him so great?

“He’s the guy you can trust one thousand percent. Every good director does that. With Ken you trust him and you really get to play.

“You’re talking about somebody who does 30 takes in a single shot. Usually that would just be beyond laborious, to do something 30 times. But Ken keeps it fresh every time.

“What you do a Ken film you barely notice the camera, you barely notice the process.

“Where Ken is an absolute genius – and it’s really difficult to do – is he keeps all the machinery away from you. That’s really tricky. And it’s not just a case of putting the camera on the other side of the room.

“One example would be, if you’re watching a scene and the actor needs to move three inches to the left, most directors will come up and say, Listen, fantastic, could you do that three inches to the left?

“You’re not allowed to do that in a Ken Loach film. Nobody can speak in any technical language. You’re not allowed to say, That’s brilliant but could you just make sure you don’t mask yourself?

“So question: How do you get someone to do it? I watched him do it one day in one of the few scenes I’m not in. He achieved this beautiful composition eventually. But before then it wasn’t working.

“The girl was being masked and Ken went up to her and said, Can you hear what Davey’s saying? And she went, Yeah. He said, Can you see what he’s saying? And she went, No – all right, I’ll do that.

“So she moved without realising she was moving for camera. Now, when you get six weeks of that, that’s an absolute joy. Nobody’s marking your foot. Nobody’s talking about continuity – although he does talk about continuity quite a lot.

“You feel like you’re acting to an invisible camera. With no machinery.”

You had some very intense moments in that movie. You also had some in Tyrannosaur, of course. Do you ever surprise yourself by how far you can go in some of those scenes?

“[Laughs] In terms of how crazy you can go? No. The great joy of acting is that you can just recycle anything.

“I think, on the whole, good guys play good bad guys. For a dead simple reason – they can go as far as the director wants them to. It’s a game.

“The game is: Be really horrible to this person, and as long as you and your fellow actors are all having a good time, you all trust each other, then you can do that.

“What you can find now and again is that you can get some asshole actors who will come in to, say, the make-up bus in the morning and they’re going to have to be horrible to another actor in the scene.

“That morning, they ignore the actor. Maybe even try and make little comments or whatever. Some even go a bit further than that. This is them thinking they can use this in the scene.

“The exact opposite happens. Because that same actor is going, OK, what the fuck is going on here?

“You then come on set. If, when they shout action if you have to play scared to his bad guy, you ain’t going to play scared.

“You’ll play scared because you have to. But you won’t play totally scared.

Peter Mullan in 'Trainspotting', photo: archive of Febiofest
“So then he has to raise his game, and he starts to look ridiculous. He starts to whisper to the director, I’m starting to look ridiculous.

“The director says, Can you be more scared? The actor will go, Yeah, I’ll be more scared. But they won’t. That’s the way the dynamics can work. And I’ve seen it happen.

“Whereas if you’ve got two actors and they treat each other with complete respect off camera… they don’t have to necessarily love each other, but as long as they respect each other the victim actor will do anything for the other actor.

“So the other actor doesn’t even have to do that much, because you’ve got something. It’s trust.”

I’ve got to ask you a political question. The world will be watching the referendum in the UK in June on in or out of the EU. I guess in Scotland it’ll be watched particularly closely?

“Oh yes. It’s a tricky one for us. Very tricky. I’ve got big issues with the EU. Like most on the left. It’s a banker’s playground.

“They didn’t design the EU for the workers, that’s for damn sure. So I’ve got big issues with it.

“Another issue is I’m a republican – I want to see an independent Scotland. And if you like there’s a tactical part of me thinks, Well, if England vote to leave, then we get another referendum, because Scotland’s for staying in.

“On the whole, on balance, I’m kind of for staying in. At the moment, I’m leaning towards staying in, even though I’ve got big reservations about the EU.

“As I say, there’s a part of me that almost wants the English to vote to leave it – and then we will get a referendum and we’ll definitely get our own parliament.”

And what do you think is going to happen anyway with Scotland in 10 years, 20 years?

“A lot will depend on the next few years. I’m pretty certain there’s not the political will for another referendum in the next five years. I really don’t see that happening.

“There can’t be any risk of us losing it. Because if we lose it, we’ll never get another one.

“I think we’ll get independence. Hopefully, if I live till I’m in my 70s, we’ll get it within the next 15 years.”