Will success spoil Peter Mullan? Not likely, says the writer-director-actor who won the Best Actor award at Cannes last year for Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe (opening this week) in addition to accolades for his feature directorial debut, Orphans. “I’m a filmmaker first and foremost, so any capacity— acting, writing, directing— if I can make a living and do what I want to do, then I’m happy. I’ve never thought of myself as this sort of three parts in the one fuckin’ body. Just because now it’s more high-profile, I don’t see it changing.”
After a series of solid supporting roles in films such as Trainspotting and Braveheart, Mullan played— in soccer parlance— out of his skin in the title role of a recovering alcoholic in My Name Is Joe. Only days after winning the award at Cannes, though, he learned that film, like soccer, is a game of two halves.
“I went from the hallowed ground of the competition— red carpet, people treating me like a god— to the marketplace four days later with Orphans, where it was dog-eat-dog. All of a sudden these very same people who are courting you three days previously realize that they’ve got the power, they can fuckin’ destroy you just by getting up and walking out of your film. I was devastated that four people walked out, but it was good for me, because if you walk about like some fragile artist, people are going to fuckin’ annihilate you.”
Mullan hardly fits the image of fragile artist or, at 37, grumbling old codger. But he becomes noticeably outraged when he talks about the “chic nihilism” in many scripts. “You know, you’ve got some 25-year-old, just sitting there, encouraging man’s inhumanity to man so he can write a fuckin’ film script. The biggest challenge we’ve got as filmmakers— and that’s the whole film community, from critics to makers and producers— is the breakthrough grown-up film. The challenge is to make basic human intelligence hip again because, along with the nihilism, ignorance has become deified.”
As Joe, Mullan plays the archetypal Loach protagonist, up against the odds— in this case, a money-
lending heroin baron who has backed Joe’s young friend Liam (David McKay) into a corner. Joe’s naive crusade for Liam causes him to jeopardize his relationship with Sarah (Louise Dowdall), the most stable element in his reformed life. Working with England’s master of social realism, Mullan honed his acting and directing skills. “Ken’s only satisfied when he thinks he’s heard your performance from your soul. That means it doesn’t matter how it physically manifests itself in your face, but what matters is, was it true in your gut? And that is the consummate naturalistic means of directing.” Loach’s unobtrusive, small-scale crew left Mullan assured and unselfconscious about his acting. “Apart from [Loach’s] Riff Raff [in which he had a small part], I’d never been on a set with a director where it was so relaxed and nonfilmic. It really did feel like you were doing it for real because the camera was using these huge fuckin’ lenses and was
never allowed near you.”
Born in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, but based in Glasgow, Mullan has been acting full-time for only the past eight years. After getting a degree in English and political history at Glasgow University, where he started acting, he spent most of the ’80s working in community theater and writing workshops while critics and the public took note of his stage work.
After directing some TV and shorts, Mullan made Orphans, which has already won a “Grand Slam” of Best First Feature awards at Berlin, Cannes, and Venice. Still without a U.S. distributor, it’s a bleakly comic tale of the collapse and painful piecing together of a Glasgow family over the course of a night. Drawing on the rage he felt after his mother’s death and the revulsion that coursed through Scotland after the Dunblane massacre, Mullan’s film steers the characters through a series of random incidents to the brink of anarchy. As the film follows the family members into ever more desperate situations, there are uproarious moments and a glimpse of normality’s second coming.
Most recently, Mullan has starred in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Dublin gangster drama, Ordinary Decent Criminal, which, like The General, is based on the life of Irish gangster Martin Cahill. Mullan plays loose cannon Stevie in a gang led by chief hood Kevin Spacey. “Thaddeus is another director who knows how to work well with actors,” says Mullan. “He knows what he has to do and what we have to do, so there’s no ‘notes for actors’ or any of that sort of thing. . . . [Plus] the film was basically a one-man show— Spacey was incredible— and the rest of us— Linda Fiorentino, Stephen Dillane, Helen Baxendale— were very much in supporting roles.”
For his future directing projects— of which he has several on the boil— Mullan plans to continue his no-nonsense approach. “You’ve got to fight for a production to be simple because there are so many people in this racket who want to overcomplicate what is essentially a fairly straightforward art form. If I may paraphrase Bill Shankley [legendary manager of English soccer club Liverpool] who said, ‘Football is a simple game, complicated by idiots,’ I think the same applies to film.”