Peter Mullan on Stonemouth, running with Glasgow gangs and being a Death Eater

The Scottish actor also explains why he owes the BBC everything - and felt let down by its "horrendous bias" in the Scottish referendum

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Peter Mullan is a past master at acting scary. “It’s a trick, a flick of the eye,” growls the Glaswegian star who happily terrified a generation as a Death Eater in the final two Harry Potter films. “Just the same as if you’re going to do Mr Squidgy or Mr Cuddly-Nicey. You just think about it for a few minutes and then you do it.”

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It’s fair to say that the prolifically talented Mullan, 55, has had plenty of practice. “I used to stare in mirrors a lot when I was a kid. To see if I could outstare myself. I think it’s because my father used to stare at me and frighten me. And I thought, ‘Right, I’ll give it you straight back.’ I spent I don’t know how long trying to master this process of not blinking, where you can just look at someone and really, really terrify them.”

To describe Mullan’s voice as “gravelly” does no justice to its rich expressiveness; it’s the rumbly bass of a friendly giant – fast, ironic, fluent – rolling out of a 5ft 9in frame. Growing up as the sixth of eight siblings in Glasgow’s Southside, he learnt the “scary trick’” early on, as a way of coping with an abusive father.

Later, as a teenager, Mullan “ran with a gang”, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I got no pleasure from running after a guy and catching him and then seeing other guys kick his head in. There was no thrill in it for me. It only happened the once – I decided to run slower. I think I realised I was changing into someone I didn’t recognise and I didn’t like it. And I got lucky. The gang threw me out because I was no use to them slow.”

Gangland’s loss was acting’s gain. He won best actor at Cannes for his performance as a recovering alcoholic in Ken Loach’s 1998 film My Name Is Joe. As writer and director, he swept the board for The Magdalene Sisters (2002), an indictment of abuse of young Irishwomen by sadistic nuns, and Neds (2010), a semi-autobioraphical film about gang culture.

He played a drug dealer in Trainspotting before his spell as a Death Eater. And, true to form, Mullan turns in a mesmerically menacing performance in BBC Scotland’s new dramatisation of Iain Banks’s 2012 novel Stonemouth.

We’re in an artsy Glasgow café and neighbouring tables have fallen silent. “The great thing, for me, about film and telly,” Mullan goes on, to general relief, “is that you can’t take pretendy-violence seriously… someone’s head being blown clean off – that’s just silly. You can play it seri- ously – that’s a different thing – but you know no one’s going to get hurt.”

Rape scenes, on the other hand, are harder to rationalise. “I did a Channel 4 film about slavery, The Longest Memory, where I had to rape a young woman and that was really horrible to play. Obviously you’re actors, there’s trust between the two of you, but it’s your job to force yourself on a woman and her job to resist you. You’re looking at someone doing a great job of looking terrified and begging you to stop hurting her. And that is unspeakably difficult.”

With its twisting themes of love and loss, revenge and redemption, Stonemouth is the first screen adaptation of
Banks’s work since the acclaimed 
Scottish author’s death, aged 59, in June 2013. Set, and shot, in Aberdeenshire, the two-part drama pulls off the distinctively Banksian coup of creating a story that’s both tense and lyrical. The tension is Mullan’s side of things.

As local businessman and drugs baron Don Murston, he has the small town of Stonemouth in an iron grip; his son has died in mysterious circumstances and Don doesn’t appreciate the efforts of returning native Stewart Gilmour (Christian Cooke) to investigate; much less the renewed relationship between Gilmour and his daughter Ellie (Charlotte Spencer).

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“My take on it is: a guy loses his son and it’s existential crisis time,” says Mullan. “Don is a strange fellow – he’s got it all under control then suddenly he doesn’t know what the hell is going on. There’s clearly more than a little distance between him and his children, and his marriage is a sham. He loses it massively, and I don’t have sympathy for him, but you can see what’s happening. It’s grief. Don’s thing is grief.”