My name is Peter Mullan: Best actor

Peter Mullan, winner of the best actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has a tale to tell those who wonder if it all might go to his head. It stems from his experience working on Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winner about the exploits of William Wallace.

Mullan remembers watching the director of the second unit pulling up in a car while they were filming the battle scenes, and waving at the assembled cast.
“We waved back in our little costumes,” says Mullan, then this other car drove up behind him and a man jumped out with dark glasses and a grey suit. He had three tickets. This guy gave him these tickets, opened the door, slammed him in and they drove him off.” Mullan found out later that the three tickets were the director’s taxi and hotel vouchers and his plane ticket back to Los Angeles. “Within the space of an hour and a half, he was on his way back. He probably never worked again.”

Sitting in a shady garden in Cannes at the end of last week, dressed in shorts, T-shirt and baseball cap, the soon-to- be-famous lead in Ken Loach’s film My Name is Joe was taking it all in his stride. For Mullan is a wise old head - he had his own film, Orphans, at Cannes as well as appearing in the Loach film.

“You remind yourself of the fact that you meet people from all over the world - today I’ve been able to converse with a Polish team about Wajda, for example - and that’s what I love. The only problem is the Mike Yarwood moment at the end of the night, the moment where you say, `And this is me.’

“The first night we were here, the German producers asked us on to a yacht. There were folk topping up the champers and asking us what the poverty is like in Glasgow, and you’re standing there thinking, `Ah, I don’t know if I’m enjoying this.’”

Mullan’s performance in My Name Is Joe is extraordinary. If a synopsis of the film - a recovering alcoholic and local football team manager falls in love with woman from the other side of tracks - makes it sound like a combination of Twentyfourseven and Nil by Mouth, Mullan’s performance sets it apart. His portrayal of Joe is subtle, layered and nuanced, free from the paraphernalia of the stage drunk, a depiction of a man really struggling to keep his problem under control.

Mullan learnt some of the technique working with the Moscow State theatre, which came to a theatre in Glasgow to do a play called Cinzano. “They employed three Scottish actors and I was one of the lucky ones they chose,” he says. “They asked us to improvise for an hour. We had to reveal that these men were alcoholics, that they couldn’t stop drinking for various emotional reasons, and it was eminently clear to us that it doesn’t mean shit if you can stagger effectively or slur. All they said, constantly, was `Don’t ever think about the alcohol, it’s simply what the alcohol does to you.’”

But the confidence Mullan needed to give such an understated yet powerful performance came largely from Loach. When we see Joe seething with hatred for himself, it’s a shock. Although we are aware that Joe has a violent past, he is, until that point, an engaging, sympathetic character.

“Because Ken is a consummate director, contradictions don’t worry him. Ken is the only one in the world who doesn’t watch when he’s filming you. He sits in the corner, looking away, with his hands over his eyes. He directs with his ear, because he’s skilful enough to know that true emotion doesn’t mean shit, visually. Too many actors are obsessed with facial mannerisms, but Ken knows if the feelings are true it doesn’t matter.”

Some of the performances in Joe and in previous Loach films use a tear stick, and you’d think he’d be really anti that because it’s false. But he doesn’t mind because the physical manifestation of the face is not the point, it’s what is inside. And that to me is why he’s up there in the top 10 film-makers.”

Loach also influenced Mullan as a director. Mullan says he would have made his dark comedy Orphans very differently if it had come after Joe. “We used a clapboard; `Action! was shouted on set. I would have none of that now.

“The bit about Orphans I really hated was that it was this bloody great circus. We took over whole streets. We couldn’t believe they’d given us 2- million to make a film, and we wanted to draw attention to ourselves. Ken is diametrically opposite. He loathes attention, and that’s something I would fight for. There’s an old adage among film-makers: if in doubt, build a track. It gives you two hours to figure out what you want to do. When you bring all that paraphernalia it does affect a film.”

But Mullan, like Loach, has come up against the corporate machine in his efforts to make the film he wanted. Film Four, which financed the film, has dropped it, opting not to try to sell it.

Orphans, so to speak, has been orphaned. “They told me to my face that they really loved it, but that it would be too hard to sell. I think they thought when they read the script that they could make a lot of money out of it. They never interfered with the editing process, but what they hinted at was more of a Trainspotting thing, that we should beef up the soundtrack, stick with the comedy, forget all that long- take nonsense. I think they have to look at themselves and decide exactly where they stand.

“I have no objection to a capitalist with a big cigar saying to me `Look, if you give me X, I can sell it.’ What I have a big problem with is that they will not say that to you. Trainspotting changed every independent film-maker because now we have no place to hide. We can’t say, ah, the reason my film didn’t make any money is because I’m so off- the-wall. All of a sudden 1,5-million makes 80 million. The good that came of that was that they gave me the money to make a film. The ill was that they are deeply disappointed if they suspect they can’t make money out of it. They don’t give a toss about the film-making, all they care about is the box-office, and that will ultimately defeat them.”

Good word-of-mouth for Orphans means it has been picked up by another sales company, and Film Four might just be left with egg on its face. “What I would like to take from Orphans and Joe is that I would like to think I would remain as uncompromising and as principled as Ken is Because I now understand what it is to feel embattled and to think, maybe they are right, maybe I should do what they are asking me to do. I’m sure those questions must have occurred to Ken. I’m sure he must have been thinking, man, you’d better start listening, you’d better start thinking about doing a Gregory’s Girl. I’d like to think that you could hold out.”

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