TV

Line of Duty's Martin Compston: 'I was a wee bit of wide-o. But I don't think there was any malice'

He started out as a professional footballer, but when Ken Loach advised him not to take up acting there was only one thing for it

Martin Compston at the Waterfront Cinema in Greenock ahead of the preview of his new series, Martin Compston's Scottish Fling. Picture date: Monday September 5, 2022.

Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Martin Compston was born in Greenock, Scotland, in May 1984. His future looked to be in football, signing as a youth player with Aberdeen before signing to Greenock Morton, where he made two first team appearances.

Though he had no previous acting experience, he successfully auditioned for the lead role in Ken Loach’s 2002 film, Sweet Sixteen. He won Most Promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards for his part in the film. He went on to appear in a host of films including Red Road and True North, along the BBC TV series Monarch Of The Glen before landing a starring role in the hit police drama Line Of Duty.

He has since become a familiar figure on our small screens – in Mayflies, Traces, The Rig and a series of travel shows, among many more – along with films including The Wee Man, Filth and Mary Queen Of Scots.

Speaking to the Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Martin Compston looks back on youthful obsessions with football and music, getting into acting and being surprised by the success of Line Of Duty.

When I was 16 it was looking like I was going to get a professional footballer contract at Greenock Morton. So my mum was on my case. She was quite adamant that I wasn’t going anywhere without my school qualifications, which would get me into uni later, just in case it didn’t work out. I was playing so much football, it was actually quite an intense time. My dad used to go to all my games and was quite
hard on me. At the time it felt rough. But looking back you realise that he travelled to every single
game, away or at home, and you appreciate how much effort that must have taken. 

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I got that professional contract at Greenock Morton, and I got offered another one when I left for about £100 a week. It was lovely to get the opportunity to live my dream and go out and play professional football when I was 17 years old. The last game of the season we had about 15,000 in and running out there, in front of those fans, at the time it meant everything to me. But football in the lower divisions is probably a more unstable career than acting. I think you’ve got to know your limitations,
because knowing your limitations can actually set you free. You can have a proper goal. I thought, look, I’m a pretty decent footballer, but I’m never going to get to the level of playing for Celtic or Scotland. I like to think I’ve got my wits about me and some ability as an actor. And I had a few people telling me I had some acting talent. 

I was obsessed with Indiana Jones growing up, I didn’t answer to any name except Indy. But
being an actor never felt quite attainable. Then I saw My Name is Joe [a Ken Loach film about alcoholism starring Peter Mullan] when I was 15, which I sort of saw by accident, and it changed my mind about what cinema can be. I went, oh my god, you can talk like me and be on the big screen. Because until then I thought you had to be Indiana Jones or James Bond

Martin Compston and William Ruane in Sweet Sixteen
2002: Martin Compston in Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen with co-star William Ruane. Image: Collection Christophel © Alta films / BBC / Road movies filmproduktion

Joe Harkins, our football coach, told me they’d had a memo round the school and someone was looking for this kid to cast in a film. They wanted someone who had something about him, was wise beyond his years. He said, I think this is you. I said, I can’t do an audition, the lads will take the piss. He said, I’ll get a group to go with you ’cause I really think you can get this. It was a weird thing, to have someone with such confidence in you. 

I would tell my younger self he made the right decision to leave football. Though Ken Loach [who gave him his first role in the film Sweet Sixteen] actually advised me not to act because of how insecure it was. He was worried for me. He said, football is your passion, it’s what you want to do. But he was also encouraging me as an actor, telling me I had some talent. I had a few auditions set up in London, just to see if I wanted to try, before I went back to the football. There was one particularly horrible audition where I wasn’t properly prepared – they sent me the wrong stuff to learn. It was totally miserable and I remember thinking, this isn’t for me. I just felt lost. I was in London, I didn’t know anybody… and then I got offered that job. That was a massive wake-up for me, to think, actually, maybe I’m pretty good at this. 

If you met the teenage me you’d think I was a bit cocky. If you grow up on the west coast of Scotland – my favourite Scottish word is gallus – you need to have something about you. Maybe it’s just projecting insecurities. And me being a bit of a short-arse as well, you need to fight for every bit of space you get. So, another great Scottish word – I was a wee bit of a wide-o. But I don’t think there was ever any malice. I always tend to get on with people. I don’t think I was arrogant, I was a boy who was just thrown in a world that I didn’t know anything about. I had a lot of pressure thrust upon me, and looking back, I think I handled it pretty well.

Martin Compston (left) and Dirk Kuyt playing in a charity match in 2018
2018: Martin Compston playing in the Match for Cancer at Celtic Park, opposite Dirk Kuyt for Liverpool. Image: Roddy Scott/SNS Group via Getty Images

I’d tell my younger self to believe in himself. I think that’s a good thing for any kid, to believe they’re meant for something different. I always dreamed about doing something and I’m really happy for that kid that it came to fruition. I was always very aware of pressure after Sweet Sixteen. There was a lot of talk about me being the next big thing. I could have had that one hit then disappeared, and had a normal job and a normal happy life. That would have been great, but I would always have had people saying to me, you’re that guy who was in that thing, what happened to you? So I’m really chuffed that didn’t happen. Actually, I’ve been doing this for more than half my life. For 23 years. So I feel like I know what I’m doing. 

Martin Compston in Line Of Duty series six
2021: Martin Compston as DI Steve Arnott in Line of Duty season 6. Image: BBC Pictures

When I was offered Line of Duty I’d already been offered the film, The Wee Man. And at that time my focus was really on The Wee Man, because growing up on the west coast of Scotland, that story is so ingrained in the culture, it’s like our version of The Godfather. So I was actually just panicking, trying to work out how I could do both jobs and the schedule at one point wasn’t going to work. I was about
to pull out of Line of Duty. So I’m forever grateful to my agent who said, you have to do this. I had
no idea what a big success it would be. I just knew it had an amazing cast and a script. It was a BBC Two show – I had no idea it would be that big.

I made a couple of mistakes. I did a film called A Guide to Recognising Your Saints in 2006, with Channing Tatum, Shia LaBeouf and Robert Downey Jr, and we won Sundance. There were a lot of opportunities in America for me at that time, and I just didn’t feel ready for that. I felt like I was gonna go into another world where I didn’t feel comfortable – and like I could have really gone off the rails. That was daft. It made me not want to go back to America. But then again, if I had done that I would never have met my wife and had my wee boy. They live in Vegas and I spend half my year there now. So, you know, these things happen for a reason.

If I could live just one time in my life again it would be the year I went to T in the Park with my mates. It was all the bands I adored – Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, Kasabian [in 2007]. I just remember all my mates had on Hazmat suits so we could find each other. It was just a point in time when everything felt perfect. The music was incredible and I just feel like we sang and laughed and drank for a whole weekend. It was just a special, special time. 

Late Night at The Euros with Compston and Smart is on BBC Scotland and iPlayer. 

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