Q & A: Iain Robertson

Published October 25, 2010

BAFTA winning actor Iain Robertson discusses what it is like to stand behind Tom Hanks in a dinner queue, how Shepherd’s Bush is superior to Hollywood and why you may just get told off if you go and see his new play My Romantic History at the Bush theatre and misbehave…

CV in brief:

1996 Starred in the award-winning film Small Faces
1998 Wins a role in Grange Hill
1999 Makes National Theatre debut in The Mysteries and stars in the film The Debt Collector
2000 The Good Hope and The Winter’s Tale at the National Theatre
2001 US series Band Of Brothers
2003 The Slab Boys Trilogy at the Traverse theatre, Edinburgh
2004 Stars in BBC drama Sea Of Souls
2006 Basic Instinct 2 with Sharon Stone
2008 Small Craft Warnings at the Arcola theatre
2010 Currently starring in My Romantic History at the Bush theatre

Age 29

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Govan in Glasgow.

What first got you interested in acting?
A teacher said I had a special aptitude for drama. I’d always fancied going to the drama club but it just seemed to be a room full of lassies which scared me a wee bit being the only boy on my own! Then I got that report card and it gave me the encouragement to take the bullet and go in the room with all those lassies and I’ve never looked back – being in a room full of lassies suits me fine!

You trained at Sylvia Young, how did that come about?
I’d started buying The Stage when I was about 11 to find out about auditions and things and there were auditions for scholarships to Sylvia Young Theatre School. My parents thought it would be good a experience for me, but I don’t think they were ever expecting I’d get a full scholarship and move to London when I was 13.

I’m one of five so they stayed up in Glasgow. I look at my niece now who is just eight years old and I think ‘God, what would happen if she went to London in five years time?’ It would be scary. But I think I was quite streetwise and I knew acting was what I wanted to do with my life so my parents were in full support. They weren’t pushy stage parents but they knew I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Where did your desire to act come from?
My dad was an audio-technician and my mother was a home helper at the time. I don’t know where it came from really. Someone in the family claims that we’re related to the big fat woman that was always in Charlie Chaplin. I’ve never looked to find out if that’s true!

What was your first acting role?
I wasn’t there [Sylvia Young’s] very long before by fate I was back in Glasgow and met Gillies MacKinnon who was on his first day of casting for a film called Small Faces. I met him at a youth theatre through some friends in Glasgow and it was his first day casting the film. It took him two months to believe that on his first day of casting he met the boy he was going to give the role to. I think he was quite shocked as well that he’d met a boy from Govan who actually had an agent! That was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

I think Gillies feels funny about it because he cast a 13 year old boy in a film who is now hitting 30 and still plugging away at it now. There’s not a lot of money in theatre and it’s funny, he feels a kind of responsibility as if it’s his fault that I’m an actor! It’s the other way around, I’m very grateful to him that he took a punt on me.

You have acted on stage, on television, in films and on the radio. Do you have a favourite medium?
I prefer the theatre but my mortgage payments prefer film and telly! I love all of it, I just want to act and do good work. If a script falls in your lap that you just know is wonderful, you just want to do it, it doesn’t matter to me if it’s film, TV, radio or theatre. With this particular script, My Romantic History, it just happened to wow me.

Tell me about the show.
It’s a funny one because it’s sold as a kind of office romance – a rom-com – which is a phrase I hate because it makes you think of Jennifer Aniston talking about getting pregnant.

Daniel has written about a funny age, late 20s, early 30s. You write off 29. I’m only 29 but I’m telling everyone I’m 30! You might as well accept the fact that the inevitable has happened. It’s a play about people in that funny stage and how we mess up the relationships we’re in by clinging on to the ghosts of girlfriends or boyfriends past.

I think Daniel is a wonderfully observant writer. People are laughing and going ‘God, it’s so true’ but it’s not in any way depressing. His observations are doubled with tears of joy, of laughter rather than wanting to go home and stick your head in the oven [laughs].

The play started at the Edinburgh festival this summer, how did you find the experience?
I loved it, I’ve never done Edinburgh [Festival], I always find it an utter meat market of plays and talents and creativity and I’ve struggled with Edinburgh because you never know what to see and whatever is said to be worth seeing has always sold out. The fact that this was at the Traverse theatre and I wasn’t going to have to go and flyer people  – the thought of flyering makes me want to cuddle up in a wee ball somewhere – I thought ‘I’ll go and give this a go.’ I’d say the Edinburgh Festival is about a week too long though and I think my liver would back me up on that [laughs].

You have worked on several high-budget films. What is it like to then be working at a small theatre like the Bush?
When you’re filming things like that you’re usually out in the cold and rain and the freezing wind, up at six o’clock in the morning with two lots of thermal underwear on for a wee bit of warmth when you’re standing out in the biting cold. Working in the Bush is inside with central heating, so that’s a bonus!

Also, I think it’s just so nice to be able to rehearse something. If you go and make a film, you can be on it for one day, two days, six weeks at the longest most probably, and to be on this job for four months, even now there are things that you think ‘Oh God, I’ve just nailed that!’. It might always have been good, but after having it under your skin for four months something can happen where you go ‘Why didn’t I think of doing that three months ago?’

What was working on Steven Spielberg’s Band Of Brothers like?
It was really just a cough and a spit but it was an eye opener for me because you just walked on to the set and you knew that someone somewhere was spending a few quid! The director I worked with was Mikael Salomon who was the director of photography on The Abyss so I was walking around a bit star struck. Standing in the dinner queue next to Tom Hanks was just bizarre; I was used to standing in dinner queues with people like Jimmy Kranky!

It was a brilliant experience but the only problem is that the people that like Band Of Brothers are fanatics. It was never really my cup of tea; I don’t like war films so the thought of watching Band Of Brothers is like watching ten war films back to back. But I was in Rome in a café and there was a Chinese guy going crazy because I was in Band Of Brothers and you think ‘Why can’t you watch something I was in that I liked? I’ve got a list of things here. Come and see me at the Bush!’

What is your favourite thing about being on stage?
I think the fact that you get to tell the whole story and take the audience on a journey with you. This play in particular is very audience dependent. If the audience come along and they’re up for it, it can really take the play to a brilliant place. I like the fact that at the Bush you’re in a room with 80 people who have a say in how the night is going to go.

It was scary in the beginning when we had a guy who was slightly inebriated, we’ll say, and had obviously decided when he left the house that night that he wasn’t going to enjoy himself and spent the whole of the play trying to sabotage us. Every dramatic pause from us had a big cough from him.

Are situations like that the worst thing about being on stage?
It is the worst but at the same time, if you deal with it right, it can enhance the night. There’s a bit where I snap in the play and it’s direct address and I ended up snapping at him and we had punters from the play hanging about in the bar afterwards saying their favourite bit was when I shouted at the guy who was drunk and annoying everyone.

What is the most memorable thing you have done so far?
Weirdly, I did a film when I was 17 with Billy Connolly who was a hero of mine for years; I went to the same secondary school in Glasgow that he went to. Before the film came out there was a clip from the movie sent to a documentary about Billy and the clip was introduced by Sean Connery. I remember rolling around laughing saying ‘Of all the things I’ve ever done, I’m most proud of the fact that my face is in a Billy Connolly documentary and I was introduced by Sean Connery.’ That’s me, I’m spent, I don’t need to do anything else now!

Where do you call home?
I think I should buy a wee hut between London and Glasgow! Home is Glasgow but I seem to spend most of my time in London, so I think I should live halfway between them and then at least I wouldn’t spend my whole life on Virgin trains.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
A gardener. If I hadn’t gone into acting, gardening would have been right up my street.

CM

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