Film

Peter Mullan: "It’s like the '80s again, when it was hip to be cruel"

Stonemouth star Peter Mullan on homelessness, how to play a gangster – and the time he truly feared for his life

Peter Mullan gives good angry. Few actors can unleash their inner psychopath with such menace as the 55-year-old, whose back catalogue reads like a Best Of… modern Scottish film.

So, when Mullan raises his voice, we should listen. “The next big epidemic is going to be homelessness,” he says, talking above the hubbub in a crowded coffee shop on Glasgow’s Byres Road.

“The first step was foodbanks. That was grotesque enough in a rich country like this. But we will soon be seeing more and more kids and families out on the street. We have this horrendous housing crisis. We’re back in a Cathy Come Home situation where whole families are being evicted because of benefit cuts and sanctions.

“They are deliberately removing the safety net. All that progress is being unmade. It’s like the ‘80s under Thatcher, when they made it hip to be cruel.”

We’re back in a Cathy Come Home situation where whole families are being evicted

As an actor, writer, director and outspoken activist, Peter Mullan is one of the giants of British culture. There are few more uncompromising voices in the film world, where, he says, younger actors are encouraged to keep their political opinions hidden by agents and producers.

One look at his career suggests a man unafraid to take risks. Mullan’s semi-autobiographical 2010 film Neds charted a youth spent running with local gangs and suffering violent abuse at the hands of his father. His role alongside Olivia Colman in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur was equally hard-hitting, while his depiction of a recovering alcoholic in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe won Mullan the Best Actor award at Cannes in 1998.

He might intersperse his chat with references to Danny (Daniel Day-Lewis), Brenda (Blethyn), Johnny (Hurt) and Bobby (Robert Carlyle), and be on first-name terms with half of Hollywood, but roles in Shallow Grave, Braveheart, Trainspotting and last year’s surprise musical hit Sunshine on Leith confirm his heart remains in Scotland.

We meet to talk about his latest television role, in BBC Scotland’s adaptation of Iain Banks’ penultimate novel, Stonemouth. Asked why he took the role as a small-town gangster, Mullan answers quickly. “Filming in Scotland. That was the biggie.”

For his first scene, we see him dancing to a musical cartoon exercise video. Unusual behaviour for a gangster? “These guys don’t need to be scary,” says Mullan. “I don’t have to do my scary acting. There is an old adage that when an actor walks on stage as the king, you don’t play the king, the courtiers make the king. It is the same for the gangster.”

Mullan has had plenty of experience of scary individuals, from his teenage years and when he taught drama in borstals and prisons. “I worked with psychopaths and murderers in prisons but the really scary ones on the outside were so different to how you would expect them to be. One was a moneylender with big bottle specs. And I called him a scumbag.

These guys are capable of getting other people to do really unpleasant things

“I was 19, at university, and we were in the bar where I worked. This guy did kill people – he also hung babies over balconies by their ankles, so I never took to him. The way he went, with just a look, ‘do not go any further’. It was one of the few times of my life when I was really scared.

“Because these guys are capable of getting other people to do really unpleasant things. That is the big scare. And they are not going to do you in easily.”

Mullan is preparing to follow the well-trodden path to US television. Quarry is a new HBO series about a Marine returning to Memphis from the Vietnam War.

“They asked me to film a three-minute screen test myself, which is the big thing these days,” says Mullan, who will spend eight weeks in Mississippi this summer. “I couldn’t really be arsed but I did half-an-hour with a voice coach and sent them 60 seconds I filmed on my phone.

“The next day I got a call. I expected it to be them saying, ‘Your accent’s pish, how dare you insult us.’ But they offered me the role and asked me to be less Southern! I was on the floor laughing. I’m now going for something more like Bill Clinton, rather than extreme rural Mississippi.

“Accents are so tricky. I don’t know anyone where I can pinpoint exactly where they’re from. My sisters don’t sound like me. They sound more posh. My accent was quite deliberate, I wanted to be in with the boys, in with the gang.”

On June 18 the world premiere of a project close to Mullan’s heart takes place at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Hector (pictured above) follows a homeless man making his annual journey from Glasgow to London for Christmas dinner at a shelter, with Mullan in the title role.

“I knew what made the guy tick. I knew what he was running away from and what he was running towards,” says Mullan.

Director Jake Gavin’s film was made with help from The Big Issue, and Mullan is keen to hear what we make of it. Having been to a preview screening, I tell him that it is a special film and that it is vital to tell the stories of people like Hector, who are so often overlooked.

Mullan’s sister worked with homeless people for a long time, and the actor talks at length, and with great empathy, about the issues raised. Filming Hector was tough. Night shoots in Liverpool were a stark reminder why the film – which The Big Issue will cover on its release nearer Christmas – is so important.

To be a refugee on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean – that is the ultimate form of homelessness

“We were in our sleeping bags, and it was really cold, but we were acting it and then going back to a nice hotel. The four guys around the corner were staying there all fucking night. It was brutal.”

Mullan, a seasoned campaigner who took part in protests against dawn raids to deport asylum seekers in 2005, links the discussion to a current crisis.

“To be a refugee on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean – that is the ultimate form of homelessness, with 500 of you on a boat built for 50. Yet you get scumbags like Katie Hopkins describing them as cockroaches. How that woman can be allowed any kind of platform is beyond me,” he says, his voice rising again.

“I read today that Britain – I don’t like that word, I’m a Scotsman – is in danger of becoming the world’s least compassionate nation. And it grieves me.

“Because if Scotland had our own government, there is no way we would turn our backs on these people. It is yet another reason why the Scots will push for control over our own country and borders. That is becoming inevitable.

“They are only in these boats because of situations we created. We were the ones who moved in on Libya. We are the ones who moved in on Iraq. We helped create this catastrophe. And the idea of rescuing them, but putting them back on the boat to float off elsewhere, is beyond inhumane.”

Mullan relates the situation to his own childhood, and being forced to return to an unsafe environment because of a lack of refuges. “It is a horrible place to be, when a family is trying to get out of a situation. I have been there,” he says. “I remember it from when I was a kid. My mother trying to find somewhere to take me, my mentally handicapped brother, my wee brother and my wee sister. But we’d have to take the long walk back to the house where my father was in the process of wrecking the damn place. We would find a little room, barricade ourselves into it. We were going back to utter madness.”

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