Renowned primarily for his role in the hugely successful TV series Line of Duty, Scottish actor Martin Compston can now be seen on the big screen, playing Lord Bothwell in Mary Queen of Scots. Speaking exclusively to Hot Corn, he discusses how much it means to him to tell such significant Scottish tales, and how he went about accessing the emotions in this historical figure.
He also goes on to talk up the talents of his co-star, the wondrous Saoirse Ronan, and exactly what it is about acting that he loves so much. We also couldn’t help but discuss the forthcoming, fifth season of Line of Duty, as he describes Stephen Graham as their ‘most dangerous adversary yet’. Bring it on.
What was it that attracted you to getting involved in this project?
I was a bit young for Braveheart, so for me it felt like a dream to be involved in a big Scottish epic, and obviously being Scottish myself it’s a story I was very familiar with. The whole size of the project, the cast involved, and also Mary’s story has always been a side-note to Elizabeth’s story on the big screen and in books and stuff over the years, so it was good to have something that spoke about Mary. Our version of history is different from what is taught down South, so this story has righted a few wrongs in our minds.
I may be reading too much into this, but the Scottish independence referendum really shone a light on Scottish identity, and recently we’ve had Mary Queen of Scots and Outlaw King, which are films about Scotland. Is that a coincidence that these things are coming off the back of this period of self-analysis and celebration?
These are stories we grew up with. The book by John Guy is fantastic and Robert the Bruce is one of the greatest rebel Kings of all time, so they are very film-able stories. Then we have somebody like Beau Willimon who has written the best political drama of recent times in House of Cards, so this was the real deal, two titans of politics going head to head, and people were literally losing their heads.
It’s a directorial debut for Josie Rourke on the big screen – does that represent a risk for actors? In a sense that you haven’t got previous films to go on. With that in mind, what was it about her that make you think she was the right person to tell this story?
She’s done an incredible job, and for a first time director in terms of the cinematography, I mean it looks absolutely stunning. From an actor’s point of view, she has such a huge background in theatre, an impressive background, so I always knew she would be someone who would work well with actors, but obviously there’s other things in filmmaking, in terms of post-production, and pre-production, but this was one of the most intense rehearsal experiences I’ve ever had, and that comes from her theatre background. It was more than I’ve ever done in film before, and I found it massively helpful. Being in the Scottish court all the time I didn’t get to see all of the English court stuff going on, but we all rehearsed in the same room, so it was great for us to feel the differences in what was going on between them and us.
You’re playing a historical figure here, and they’re sort of confined to being paintings in galleries really and that’s sometimes all we have to go on. We almost forget these people had emotions and distinctive personality traits. What was it like getting into the head of a real person who lived hundreds of years ago?
It’s a challenge and a blessing in some ways because you can bring your own ideas to the role. Before I read the script, I had a meeting with Josie and she told me she wanted me to be a part of the film, and I said if I had the choice of role it would’ve been Bothwell. I loved his sense of duty and loyalty and I wanted to get that across. With the religious undertones of the film, it was interesting because people wanted to usurp Mary as she was a Catholic, but Bothwell was a Protestant himself, he just saw her as his Queen. So while she’s being stabbed in the back from the off, it was nice to get across the idea that there was somebody who was there for her.
Was there much available on him to go on?
Yeah, but you’ve got to be careful. He died a horrible death, he fled to somewhere like Norway or Denmark, and he was captured and held hostage and chained to a pole on the floor for ten years, and apparently you can still see the groove in the ground in this castle where he was held before he died. There’s a campaign going on to repatriate his bones. But you can get quite obsessed about things that need to be in the film, but it’s not his story, you have to go with what’s on the page.
Saoirse Ronan is exceptional in this film. What was it like working so closely with her? It feels like we’re witnessing a Meryl Streep-type career unfolding here,
She’s a powerhouse, and she’s a lovely woman. She’s young but she has a vast amount of experience now, and I spent a lot of time in this movie protecting her, over her shoulder, looking over at what she was looking at, and it’s intimidating on a dramatic level, a young Queen addressing a circle of Lords, also played by great actors, staring at her, hanging on her every word, and she just completely owned the room. Her confidence and maturity in her performance was something to behold. She’s got all the talent in the world, a fantastic range, and she loves her craft and that’s the main thing. She loves what she does, and from the first day of rehearsals you could just see how prepared she was, whether it be learning French, or a Scottish accent, or how to move properly, she completely immersed herself in it.
Paul Greengrass once spoke about Captain Phillips and the scene when Tom Hanks breaks down, and he was saying that on set there was this moment where all of actors and crew-members just stood there in silent awe. When you work with people like Saoirse, or any of the incredible actors and actresses you’ve worked with, do you ever have that moment? Are you able during a scene where you appreciate who you’re working alongside, or are you too caught up in the character to notice their brilliance until afterwards?
No, you’re right, it definitely happens. But you’ve got to be careful because somebody does that and if you react to it, it can bring them out, and that’s the fear, you don’t want to bring them out of moment they’re in. If they’re completely immersed in that, they don’t need you bringing them out of it. But yeah, there are definitely moments you do think, ‘fucking hell’. It’s happened on several occasions. It’s so funny when these things can happen. I remember when I once watched Peter Mullan breaking down in a film I was on, and it was just so amazing, he just went into it. When I do these things, I need to have a minute, to be thinking through things to go into this dark place, but he just went. Also seeing Julia McKenzie on Miss Marple for the first time was mind-blowing. That’s the great thing about acting you’re constantly learning from the diverse wealth of talent going around. When things are good in this job, they’re really good, and it’s great to see some of these things first-hand, because when you see it on the screen it can be different, sometimes you’re breaking it down in your head how it was done, rather than appreciating how good it is, so sometimes when you see it first-hand you can appreciate it more.
On the subject of what makes this job so fun – when you’re making a movie like Mary Queen of Scots, does it tap in to that inherent, almost childlike quality we have, which is what draws us into acting into the first place, which is the world8 of make believe.
You’ve hit the nail completely on the head. You’re riding about on a horse, with a sword. It’s fantastic, so much fun doing that stuff. You’re just pretending and you get to be all these people who you aren’t, like a heroic Scottish warrior charging through a battle. These are fantasies you play in your head, and then you have a situation where everybody around you is having you believe that you’re that guy and it fills you with a sense of power on set. Absolutely, you’re dressing up in these amazing yet ridiculous costumes. When things are good on this job… I mean, at the moment I’m playing a cop running around with a badge, it’s fantastic.
I guess we also get the chance to exercise and explore aspects of our personalities that in the real world we have to temper. These characters may do and say things that we may harbour an affliction to do ourselves, but we have to stick within societal rules…
You’re absolutely right. We see all of these different shades to ourselves, which we get to express. When this job is going well, there’s nothing like it in the world.
Going back a moment… it must be pretty hard riding a horse and wielding a big sword at the same time. Is there training that goes into things like that?
Well that’s one of the luxuries of being on these big jobs. The funny thing was that Outlaw King, another big Scottish epic coming at the exact same time, meant that when we were filming we were training at the same place as they were, and a lot of them were my pals, so that was a good laugh. But don’t get me wrong, being on a horse with a sword is hard, but the horses are so well-trained, and as long as you can hold on at all times, the horses will do a lot of the work for you. But again that’s the luxury of being on something like this, we had nearly two months training, and it’s something I would never have the time to do, or probably afford, but it’s something that will now stay with me, it’s something on the CV. But the horses are so good, the stuntman does one run-through what we have to do, and we just get on the horse and the horse knows where to go.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by where you’ve got to in your career? You’re back in your homeland, making this £200m movie. Did you ever have to pinch yourself?
Aye! Absolutely, and I never take any of this for granted. Especially because when each job is done you’re unemployed usually, looking for the next one. There are definitely moments though, like when we were going up a hill, and there was a helicopter flying besides me, moments like that. I think at times growing up in Scotland, you take things for granted, and going back up there with people seeing it for the first time with fresh eyes made me feel like I was seeing it for the first time. Scotland has never looked better than in this film. The DOP has done an amazing job. I do feel very lucky, and while I wouldn’t say you make your own luck, you are given opportunities and it’s whether you have the balls to take them.
Sometimes in this industry, you’re just relying on someone taking a punt on you – and you had that with Ken Loach and Sweet Sixteen.
Ken definitely took a punt on me, but I had four auditions to get that part, it’s not like somebody came up to me and just gave it to me. I had to walk in that room, and go back again. It’s like getting a good hand in poker, that’s all it is. You can be dealt a good hand, but it’s how you play it from thereon in, and having the balls to put your money in. Yes you need opportunities given to you, you need people to take a chance on you, but you need to walk out that door first.
In recent years much of your finest work has come on a smaller screen – but when watching Mary Queen of Scots, is there anything quite like seeing yourself on the big screen in a room full of people?
That was one of the major draws for me. Sitting in that audience… I had a private screening over here in Belfast and it was just myself and a friend in the cinema, but going to the premiere, and with is being Universal we had the opening jingle, and it is really an incredible experience to see yourself up on that screen. Especially when it’s such an ensemble, because it’s hard not to switch off at times when you’re constantly critiquing yourself, but when the costumes are that amazing and you’re under that amount of hair on your face with that beard, you can switch off and enjoy it, especially with something like this, which has to be seen in the cinema.
It’s hard to speak to you and not touch upon Line of Duty…
Of course, man!
Did you get a sense when you signed up to that show just how well-received it would go on to be? Generally speaking, as an actor, are you often to tell when making something what will work and what won’t? Any surprises along the way?
I knew they were fantastic scripts and I knew the cast were great, so I thought it would do well critically, but did I think we’d be here on series five? Not at all, and I don’t think anyone planned for that. It was lucky to start on BBC2 and it was more grounded, to then gradually be more wild as it went along, and the audience came with us. I had no idea how big it was going to become, and even now, you are very aware of what people are fawning about, which we had no idea about before. But the basis is always the script, and these ones are the best we’ve ever had.
Can success of a TV series change an atmosphere on set? It sounds like an odd comparison, but thinking back to the first series of Big Brother when nobody knew how big it would be, there was something very natural about the people, but then of course in later series, people would respond to what they knew audiences wanted. Is there a similar thing on a successful drama series? Does it change the dynamic on the set at all?
Probably, but we’re all very close, all of us at the core of the show are best pals now, we have three flats next door to each other and every night we’re at each other’s house cooking, so that keeps everything grounded, and a massive pat of the show’s success has been the brilliant guests who have come in, like Lennie James Keeley Hawes, Thandie Newton, Danny Mays and then this year we’ve got Stephen Graham, who is an old friend of mine and Vicky’s. It’s something that happened on Mary Queen of Scots as well, which is that, when you have that sort of talent around you it’s very hard to have an ego. Everybody in the room realises that everybody brings something different. Also Jed Mercurio, he’s the closest I’ve ever felt to having a ‘show-runner’ over here, and he instills this work ethic. He’s brave with his decisions, and if something isn’t right on set or the chemistry of the show, he would change it pretty quickly, so we have a formula that works. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a long old slog, but we all love the show and we care about it, and the most important thing to care about when you get to series five – and we already have six commissioned if we all survive – is complacency, and I don’t think any of us have any of that.
So what can fans expect of series five? The only correct answer here, by the way, is ‘more of the same’.
It’s unpredictable. It’s really unpredictable. I think Stephen Graham’s character, as our nemesis this year, is probably the first out and out criminal we’re after. I can probably say this, but on basic terms, he’s the most dangerous adversary we’ve ever had. That’s exciting.