Exclusive Interview: Paul Higgins
Paul Higgins is an actor whose best known character was incidentally described in In The Loop as The Crossest Man in Scotland. ReelScotland met with him in a Glasgow bistro, during a break from his successful run in The White Guard on the London stage, to discover that the differences between reality and fiction were vast. For a man who can deliver lines which have the ability to really sell the notion of an iPod Nano as an instrument of genital torture, Paul was relaxed and friendly as we discussed all aspects of his career.
ReelScotland: How did you first get into acting?
Paul Higgins: I just stumbled into it really. I trained to be a priest for five years. Instead of going to high school, I went to seminary. I met a girl and I left and I had all my qualifications to go to uni but I hadn't applied. So, I went to Our Ladies High in Motherwell, applied to uni and got in, which meant I didn't have to go to any classes or pass any exams. This was round about Christmas time in my sixth year.
They had a drama group at the school that did musicals and stuff. They were doing Godspell, and I used to sing in the seminary. Really, it was because I was a singer that I joined the amateur dramatic group and it just went from there. I did another youth theatre thing at Cumbernauld Theatre that summer, when I left Our Ladies, just about to go to Glasgow Uni. The director said to me, Why are you going to university? You should be an actor. I didn't know why I was going to university! I was going to university because I could and you did, if you could.
I was thinking vaguely about journalism or something. So, I took a year out instead of going to uni to audition for drama schools and I got in. I got into all of the drama schools that I auditioned for. I went to Central in London. It just went from there really.
You've lived in London since quite a young age; did you ever see your acting career being Scottish-based?
Nineteen, yeah. It was never part of my plan. I mean I certainly wasn't against it in any way but I think I wanted to go to London. I just did. I've always liked big cities. I know Glasgow's a big city but I was just drawn to London. You know, I love New York. If I had my time again, I would live in New York. That's just what I'm into. I like these big metropolises.
I love Glasgow, I must say. Actually, at the time when I left I didn't know Glasgow very well. I'd lived in Wishaw and the seminary was in Coatbridge. I'd been in to Glasgow a few times in my life and was pretty ignorant of it. I've only got to know what a great place it is since I moved away, coming up to work here.
Early in your career you worked on A Very Peculiar Practice (recently ranked highly on The Guardian's list of best TV dramas)...
...which was a great series. I had a lovely part in that. That was very early on with Andrew Davies, who has gone on to much acclaim. He was the writer on that. I played a guy in a noise band who discovered a sound that would make people unconscious, and went and joined the arms industry. That was great fun.
I did Tumbledown with Richard Eyre, which was a film about the Falklands War. It was a TV film and was very successful. I did allsorts, a lot of stage work. I worked at the National in London.
Taggart seems to be a rite of passage for most Scottish actors. Did you feature and do you remember what your role was?
I did Taggart. It was my very first job from drama school. I left drama school early. I missed the last term of my third year to go and do Taggart - very, very naÃ¯ve. Who did I play? I can't remember. Alan Cumming and I were friends in it. I can't really remember much about it.
Was that with Mark McManus?
I did it with Mark, yeah. I did it twice; I think they were probably both with Mark.
Ian Bannen was a big figure in Scottish television, how was he to work with on the revamped Dr Finlay?
That was an episode by Chris Hannan, the Scottish writer: a playwright and novelist, he wrote the novel Missy that was released recently. That was really interesting. Chris is a fantastic writer and that was a really interesting episode. It was great to work with David Rintoul and Ian Bannen. That was not long before he died.
Do you think, as a Scottish actor, you have to make your mark in Scotland first, or can you make your mark straight away down in England?
I think you can. I hardly worked in Scotland in the first fifteen years of my career. I would do the odd bit of television that came up and, of course, as a Scottish actor a lot of your work does tend to be up here.
I was mostly in London. I was mostly doing television and theatre in London and Manchester and stuff, and coming up here a bit. I would say it's only in the last five-or-so years that I started to get a lot of work in Scotland, with the National Theatre of Scotland.
Recent Scottish dramas which you have featured in, New Town and Hope Springs, haven't had the impact expected. Why do you think this is?
Hope Springs didn't deserve to do well, in my opinion. That was not a happy experience for me. I did it in good faith, but it was fairly miserable.
It had a strong cast.
It was a fantastic cast, yeah. I think it could have been a Hell of a lot better than it was. It's a great shame that New Town didn't go. I saw Mark Gatiss the other day in London, because he wrote an episode of Poirot that my wife [the actress and writer, Amelia Bullmore] and both my daughters are in and we had a little screening of it. He really regrets that it didn't go, because it's such an interesting bit of work and it would have been a very interesting series.
Do you think that Scottish-set programs that move beyond the parochial and break with conventions of how Scotland is normally portrayed fail to connect with an audience down South?
I don't know. It's an interesting idea. I don't know if that's what it was. I think maybe it was just more that [New Town] was slightly obscure in places, that it wasn't trying to be very simple all the time and spoon-feed the audience. I don't know, I really think it could have built an audience.
It's a terrible title, New Town. I haven't spoken to Annie [Griffin, the writer and director] about that. Purves & Pekkala was the original title “ I don't know if that's any better. Of course New Town, you just think of Milton Keynes or Cumbernauld. It's only if you know Edinburgh you'll understand what New Town means. I really wish it had gone again, and I don't know why it didn't.
I take it there's absolutely no chance of it proceeding from the pilot?
I don't know. I don't know if these things are ever final. Certainly, a lot of people I meet have said to me, I loved that thing in particular, that programme. It's a great shame that Hope Springs gets made and New Town doesn't.
Is Hope Springs coming back?
Not as far as I know.
What do you think of the current climate in Scottish broadcasting, with STV and regional opt-out programming, precluding showings of certain English shows?
I haven't kept up with it at all. I don't know anything about it. That could be an opportunity to make things that don't have to appeal to the entire television network. It could be an opportunity to make more interesting things. I just don't know enough about it, I've been down there so long. I've got two children and I've just been in London so long I haven't been able to keep up with things in television. Weren't STV the first to say they weren't going to take The Bill?
And now The Bill's been dropped completely.
A lot of the more interesting Scottish broadcasting is coming from places like BBC Four, stuff like New Town and a Scotland season which included Peter Capaldi's Scottish Art documentary.
I didn't see that. I heard it was good. I saw a thing before I came out that my girls were watching at my mum's, which was a documentary about fishing that Peter Capaldi was narrating. It was great, it was really interesting and I wish I could have watched it all actually.
You worked on Complicity, how did you feel about the results? Are you an Iain Banks fan?
I'm not. I mean, I'm not not a fan; it's just not the kind of thing I read. People said that film was a little dull, a bit dour. It's impossible for me to say. It was my first big part in a film and it's very, very hard to be objective in that situation. I certainly enjoyed making it.
Do you think it suffered from being lumped in with a post-Trainspotting wave of new Scottish films. Were people expecting another Trainspotting?
No idea. They had already made Trainspotting because I think Jonny [Lee Miller] had already done that. I don't know. I saw the DVD in a shop a couple of years ago and I bought it, but I've never watched it. I saw the screening in Edinburgh and it just never ˜happened', did it? I don't know the story behind it. Certainly the people who made it had a great track record.
Film is a bit of a mystery to me: how it works, how things get made, the things that get made and the things that don't. A lot of it is having a marketing budget. You just can't say, except that people have said to me that it's a very dour movie.
Moving on to The Thick Of It, how did you come to be involved in that?
I just auditioned for it. They had made three episodes and they got money to make three more. I went up for a part, the part of Peter's [Capaldi] even-angrier assistant. That's how it ended up anyway. I don't know if that was the plan to begin with.
I was just going to be in that one episode, that was the deal. In fact, I was only in that one episode in the rest of that series: what's now regarded as a series, in fact it was two series of three. So I wasn't in the other two episodes but then when they made the specials, they asked me back “ the two hour-long specials, which I loved. That's some of the best fun I've had on television.
Was your character, Jamie, always meant to be Scottish, or did your casting change that dynamic?
It wasn't written at that point, I think. They cast me in it and then, actually, somebody got cold feet and said, "Could you do another accent?" after they offered me the job. I didn't fancy that because of all the improvising involved. It's really hard to improvise in another accent. In the end, they just thought, To Hell with it, we'll have them both Scottish. That became one of the best things about it.
With regards to the "Caledonian Mafia" (both in-front of, and behind, the camera), it is rare to see two such prominent Scottish characters interacting in an otherwise fairly English show. Do you see this as a form of subversion against typical English regional references, getting a working class, Scottish voice in there?
I don't know if that's part of it. I don't know how accidental it is. I've no idea how deliberate it was on Armando's [Iannucci] part. I think it's just accurate. Scots are successful all over the world. Certainly everywhere you go in London there are Scottish people doing the most surprising things. I think it's great to have two Scots in a show that's based in Westminster. I think it's just true.
Regarding the writing process on the show, I know the swearing goes through Ian Martin, but how much influence do you have over Jamie's dialogue, particularly in relation to Scottish references such as Motherwell Rules?
Motherwell Rules that was me, yeah. You certainly don't have any control over it, but you improvise. It's mostly written and very well structured. We get a basic scene and we improvise around it and then another scene gets written, which includes some of the improv. I'm speaking in the present tense “ this is in the past tense for me.
In the end, the control's entirely in the edit. Armando has what he wants in but, of course, some of the references are our own because we're Scottish and we know.
Do you have a back-story for Jamie in your head, or was one devised?
I don't think there's an official back-story, although somebody put on the BBC website that Jamie trained to be a priest. I don't know where that came from. Peter improvised something about me training to be a priest because he knew that I had trained to be a priest, so that's sort of become part of Jamie's back-story.
In my head, Jamie worked for Malcolm on a Scottish newspaper and then when Malcolm went to work for whichever party it is he works for, which is never named, he brought Jamie down to be his enforcer. As I said, this is entirely in my imagination so that's the story for me “ that he's a print journalist who's gone into it.
With Malcolm Tucker notorious for his foul-mouthed rants, does having Jamie as his "attack dog" perpetuate the myth of the Scottish hardman?
That's the danger, definitely. I think that's probably why people had cold feet about us both being from the West of Scotland. Yeah, because we wouldn't want to do that, at all. There is a danger that it perpetuates that myth “ and it is a myth “ of aggression, toughness, hardness and all that. It's certainly one that doesn't need to be perpetuated. It's perpetuated enough. It's on dodgy ground, but you hope you get away with it.
They're certainly popular enough characters.
Yeah, they are. I don't really understand. People love Jamie. I mean, he's horrible.
"The Best of Jamie MacDonald" compilations are popular on YouTube.
It's amazing. Someone told me about that.
As your character featured strongly in In The Loop, what was the reason for not returning for series three of The Thick Of It?
I don't know. Jamie was cut from the film at one point, before it was made. I think it was felt they'd gone as far as they wanted to with the two crazy Scottish guys, so I wasn't going to be in the film at all.
I don't know the full ins-and-outs of it but obviously there was a change of heart and they put Jamie in the film. He's only really in the second half. There was a version of the film in which Jamie didn't appear, that was something the UK Film Council wanted to try, then they said, Oh, no, put him back! It's always been, for me, just a matter of time before the joke wore a bit thin really.
It was fantastic for me and I loved doing it. It was great and I'm absolutely fine about not doing it anymore. That's cool.
Does it bother you as an actor that you become heavily associated with a particular character?
No, because that's great. It's one of the reasons that some people know who I am. It's fantastic. That and Black Watch, around the same time. No, it doesn't bother me remotely. I don't feel typecast. I did Damascus recently, playing a guy who writes English as a Foreign Language textbooks, who didn't have a trace of aggression in him, which I absolutely loved. Except when we took it to Damascus, where we were loathed. No, I'm not worried.
With the fourth series commissioned, but not yet written, have there been any nods that Jamie might return, even for a brief appearance?
I've absolutely no idea. If you're an actor, you just get used to not knowing what's ahead. You have to be relaxed about that or you'll get cancer and die.
I'm working in the theatre just now, in the National Theatre in London, doing a fantastic play, and a fantastic part and having a great time. I'm writing another play for the National Theatre of Scotland so I'm very busy.
We're obviously aware of the talents involved over here but with In The Loop being Oscar-nominated, did it come as a surprise to see it recognised in America?
Yeah, I was very surprised. That's great for them. Fantastic. It's always a surprise when you know something is nominated. You just don't expect it.
Has its success lead to any offers from the US?
No. It's very hard to tell; stuff comes up. We did Black Watch in New York and LA. There was stuff that came up then, we went to see casting directors and out on to Warner Brothers and stuff like that. You never know why people are interested in you. Occasionally people will say, I saw that thing and you'll know that that's why they got you in.
You featured in Red Road, are you back for any of the other Advance Party films, such as Donkeys, which is showing at EIFF?
I did a little bit in the second one but I think that was only so that they could be true to that brief. I don't know. I've no idea what's happening with that. In fact, I'm not in it any more. I got a nice letter from the director saying that that scene had gone. I completely understand that, that's fair enough. Lots of stuff in The Thick Of It or In The Loop never makes it. That's what DVD extras and websites are for, I suppose.
How was Andrea Arnold to work with?
Great. She was terrific to work with. That was like In The Loop and The Thick Of It. That style of doing things is very lively. You haven't got an enormous crew and lights and ˜you have to go and stand there'. There's room for manoeuvre. It's handheld and you can be alive in the scene and not positioned exactly.
Sometimes when you're filming they'll say, "Can you turn your head ten degrees that way?" and it can look great but nothing's really happening. Once you're being controlled that tightly, it's very hard to make anything really happen. Andrea's great for that. There was lots of freedom to just do the scene.
How were your experiences on No Holds Bard, which was a bit of a deviation from the typical Scottish comedy?
We had a great time on that, a fantastic time, it was really funny. We had a laugh and the crew all thought it was funny. Maybe it wasn't as funny as we thought it was! It was a fantastic cast and it was great working with Brian Kelly, the director. That was a real pleasure from beginning to end, that job. I'd like to do more of that.
As you said, you were in the original staging of Black Watch, which was a huge success for Scottish theatre. What did its success mean for Scottish theatre and, in particular the National Theatre of Scotland?
Well, I think it was great for the National Theatre of Scotland because it was so early in their existence and it really catapulted them to international renown within a few months of being up-and-running. It was great for them.
I went to New York and LA with it and then I left, but it went all over the world and then back to New York. A lot of people I meet who work in the theatre saw it and say how great it was. It was great for the National Theatre of Scotland, great for Scotland's theatrical reputation. It's a great idea for a national theatre, to roam about and not have a theatre building. I think it's just a really, really exciting company to work for.
You did your first play as a writer there; Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us. How did that go down?
It went fantastically well and we were trying to put it back on again at the Tron and we had trouble with people's dates. So, it's been really hard to get everyone together to do it again but it went really well.
It was funny. My biggest problem with getting it on in the first place was people thought it wasn't funny because the subject matter's not funny, but all of the audiences found it funny. That was the big breakthrough for me, to prove that even the horrible character of the father is the villain, but he's hilarious. He's a bit like Jamie, people like him!
Certainly Jamie is energetic, maybe people connect with that?
People wish they could behave like that, don't they? Certainly in the theatre, people want to see on stage what they would like to do themselves but don't quite have the nerve.
Is theatre your first love? You've done some TV writing in the past¦
A tiny little bit, yeah, quite a long time ago.
You wrote episodes of Table 12 which was quite a theatrical series of shorts at around the same time as the similarly-themed Black Cab, written by your wife. Did you influence each other?
I can't remember. I remember at the time I knew they were doing Table 12. Amelia told me about it and I sent in two little treatments and they went for it. It wasn't that happy an experience; the writing process.
I think it's really hard to write for television. You get a lot of people, a lot of people, saying how they think it should be. I think it doesn't happen in the theatre so much. Of course people do give you their opinion but in television they tend to be asking you to make it more like other things that are on television. In the theatre, they're more likely to ask you to make it less like other things that are on in the theatre. It's less formulaic.
I do like writing for the theatre and I love acting in the theatre. I do love it, not because it's the theatre but because it's live and I love live performance. I love it musically as well. There's a lot of music that I don't particularly want to listen to CDs of it but if I can go to a concert I will go, because that's the real thing for me. I love live stuff.
What do you see as the differences between writing as an actor and interpreting someone else's work as an actor?
I think there's a big overlap. You're thinking all the time as an actor, Why am I saying this? Why am I saying this now? What am I trying to do? As a writer, you're thinking exactly the same thing: What does he say next? Why would he say that? What's the thing that guy would say? So it's the same process, I think.
The only extra thing you have on top of it as a writer is to get the plot right; the structure “ which actors don't have to worry about quite so much. I find it very similar. This play that I'm working on just now, the one that I'm acting in at the National [The White Guard], is an adaptation and Andrew Upton, who adapted it, was in rehearsals for a bit. Those were all my questions to him: "Why this? Why now?" Some things were changed.
Is there anything specific that attracted you to that role?
I'd worked with the director before and I did a reading of the play so that Andrew could hear it and work on it more. After that I was offered the part and it's a fantastic play. It's a crazy play. Absolutely crazy. It's got loads of different styles, it's kind of farcical, it's got sort of Chekovian domestic scenes, except they're not Chekovian, they break into huge rows which then everyone forgets about and they're friends again. There's a lot of drinking and then there are these battle scenes which are almost farcical, almost like the Marx Brothers.
The play just goes all over the place and it works. It holds together. The audiences have gone mad for it and, I'm told, the critics have gone mad for it. Like I say, it's live, and I can walk to work, which I love; being at home with my family.
You've not looked at the reviews but, knowing it is a success, do you act differently knowing how it is being regarded?
That's the reason I don't read reviews as it can affect your performance or your confidence. Good reviews can be bad for you as well. You want to go on and do the work that you rehearsed, do the things that you all agreed that you're gonna do. I don't want any interference with that. I also don't want to read any bad things about my colleagues. I think it's rotten for an actor to come to work one day thinking, Oh, everyone else has read some bad thing about me in the paper. My thing is that I haven't read it. I haven't read anything about myself or anyone else.
I'm very happy to see it's got five stars “ great. That doesn't tell you anything except they liked it, but it's so unspecific. People say, "Oh, great review in the Telegraph" or "great review" and I think, "Oh, fine" and I'm happy not to know the rest of it. The reviews are really to get people in. I suppose they could affect the director. A director might read something and think, "Oh, God, that's right!" and they could change it maybe. Apart from that, I'm there to do the work that we've all agreed between us is the work of the play and not to let anything else in, and just to do it for the audience that's there that night.
So far, the audiences have loved it and you can feel that they're with it all the time. That's the thing if you're doing a live performance is, if you can relax, you can connect to the audience. You can really feel how things are going and whether you need to speed up or slow down. It's going great.
Is your own play next up?
I'll still be doing The White Guard until July but I'll have finished the first draft of my own play earlier. So, then I'll get my notes on that and I'll work on the second draft. Yeah, that's the next thing. I don't need any more on the horizon. I've got a few other possibilities but it's actually quite early days for me now. Things that are going to be made in August-September, they're not casting them yet. It'll be the school holidays and all that. I really have no idea.
I often see people online complaining about need for subtitles for Scottish films such as Red Road. While you can obviously do other accents, is a natural Scottish accent ever a problem or issue?
That is swings and roundabouts, isn't it? There's a lot of work I get because I'm Scottish so I think I can't really complain about the work I don't get because I'm Scottish. I do work in other accents and I'm not too worried. I don't really have ambitions to go to America and work. When I say I want to live in New York, I'd love to go to New York and do theatre.
Actually, I just want to do good work. I've had my fill of not-good work and it's a real buzz when you're doing something you really believe in and you really think is good. I've had several of those in the last few years and that's all I'm bothered about.
Do you actually like being termed a Scottish actor, not just an actor?
No, I suppose I'm both. The part I'm playing at The National, I could have any accent; they're Russians. I'm on stage with Irish guys, English people; it doesn't matter where we come from. We just all use our own accents and it could have been an English guy playing my part. I just got that part because they wanted me for it.
Do you have favourite Scottish film?
I love Local Hero.
Who'd have thought that twenty-odd years later the young, fresh-faced Peter Capaldi would be standing in front of you giving someone a bollocking?
That's right! I did No Holds Bard with Denis Lawson too. That was great. I don't see enough films actually. That's another thing about having kids. I can talk to you about Toy Story for quite a long time¦
Thanks to Paul for his time.
The White Guard runs in rep at the Lyttelton Theatre in London until 7 July. Tickets can be booked from the National Theatre website.
In The Loop is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Optimum Releasing.