Direct action


Already known for a performance style that refuses to be contained, Glaswegian actor Peter Mullan is rapidly gaining recognition as a film and television director. Andrew Burnet meets a man who doesn’t suffer compromise gladly. Photograph by Chris Blott.

t’s lunchtime at Drumchapel Hospital in Glasgow. and nurses wearing starched white caps ignore the plight of an injured woman, her cheek split by a gaping incision. Unlike NHS cuts, however, this wound is neither real nor painful. We‘re on location for the television series Cardiac Arrest, and the chuckwagon is serving up hearty platefuls to a line of hungry actors and technicians. At the front of the queue is the director. Peter Mullan. who’s just received a Scottish BAFTA for his short film.

musical theatre company Wildcat. and begged for work. To his surprise. he found himself cast in a Christmas show, The Magic Snowball. Several more Wildcat shows followed -—

including the anti~Poll Tax Harmony Row, which he co-wrote with Amott and looking back was no longer an option.

Another turning point came in 1988, when Michael Boyd cast him in his first ‘straight‘ play, Hector MacMillan’s The Funeral at the Tron. Mullan didn’t like the play much, but took

citing the BBC‘s London-based ‘Depanment of Swearing’. which allocated Ruffian Hearts five fucks and an unlimited supply of bastards. One memorable directive stated. ‘you can have as many wanks as you want‘.

‘We’re a really passionate race,’ he insists, ‘and we’ve got some brilliant actors, but often we’re only seeing a quarter of what they can do because they’re on a leash.’ With funding from various bodies that don‘t impose social or linguistic restrictions, he has now made three short films, all of them exhibiting his


Mullan is already familiar to

Scottish audiences as an actor. His tightly curled hair. greying and receding. frames a lean. weathered face. tempered by intense. candid blue eyes. These features, together with a voice like whisky seeping through shingle, have won him a wide range of parts from hardan a gangster in Shallow Grave, a battle-weary clansman in Brave/wart to more esoteric roles: a bird with a black soul in Ted Hughes‘ Crow; a warped expressionist painter in David Kane‘s Ruffian Hearts; and most recently the central character’s alcoholic elder sister in The Trick Is To Keep Breathing.

To all these roles, Mullan has brought an extraordinary inner power, an undeniable sense of truth (the drag role in The Trick. inherently tragi-comic. was not played for laughs) and a barely suppressed violence. ‘Acting,’ he admits. ‘was a means of getting to show the darkness and agony that l was trying to hide behind closed doors. The idea of exorcising it on a stage was very appealing and I still do that to a large extent.’

Born in 195‘) into a ‘very ordinary working class’ family of eight children. Mullan did a little acting at school and at Glasgow University, where he also directed student films. He applied to the National Film School aged 21. but failed to get in. ‘Classic Scot,‘ he comments. ‘I got a knock-back and figured, right, I‘m not cut out for this.‘ Fourteen years went by before he made another film.

In the meantime. he became a community drama worker, and moonlighted as a member of left-wing cabaret group Redheads with co- writer and performer Peter Amott. Then someone grassed him to the buroo and he had to get a steady job. He went to David MacLennan. artistic director of the left-wing

‘Acting was a means of getting to show the darkness and agony that I was trying to hide behind closed doors. The idea of exorcising it on a stage was very appealing and I still do

that to a large extent.’

Peter Mullan

it because the deal included a part in the next show, Peter Arnott‘s much—acclaimed Losing

Alec. Since then. he’s been a regular member of

Boyd‘s acting company.

Mullan is one of those rare actors who seldom lack work. but lately he‘s returned to directing. He began out of frustration with the way the television establishment had handled his early film script. The Aerial, about ‘the fury of a whingeing wee git who nobody listens to‘. He also despises the limitations imposed on Scottish television drama by the powers-that-be.

continuing left-wing sympathies and his horrified fascination with violence.

The first, Close. is a raw, if ironical, slice of urban paranoia with a nod to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver“. Mullan plays the anti-heroic new parent intent on ‘cleaning up’ his downbeat tenement close a microcosm for the potential horrors of a whole city.

The second, A Good Day For The Bad Guys, draws on his theatrical experience. allowing the backstage conflicts in a panto company to stand for the iniquities of the workplace: fear of redundancy, the impotence of the unions. sexual harassment and the triumph of divide-and-rule management.

Although ostensibly the bleakest of the three. Fridge which last month picked up the prestigious Best Short Film Award at Canada’s Atlantic Film Festival carries the most optimistic message. A simple story of two homeless alcoholics attempting to save a child from suffocation in an abandoned freezer cabinet, it illustrates Mullan‘s belief in basic human goodness.

‘For all that they’re fuck—ups, there’s that little germ within them that saving a young life is worth it; and I still believe that‘s true of people that we have that little seed in us that would rather help someone than shoot them. What I’m into ~ particularly after the success of the anti-Poll Tax campaign is trying to look in an abstract way at direct action.‘

Lunch is over and that young woman’s cheek

isn’t looking any better. Medical terms may replace their vernacular equivalents on set (at least while the cameras roll), but today’s tnain restriction is a crazin tight schedule. With his earthy charm intact. Mullan returns to the ward for some directing action. C lose, A Good Day For The Bad Guys and Fridge will be screened at Glasgow Film Theatre on Monday 4 December, followed by a discussitm with Peter Mullan.

The List l7-3() Nov l‘)‘)5 1?