A bit of rough

He's played a junkie in Trainspotting, a gang leader in Small Faces and now a skinhead. Kevin McKidd tells Skye Sherwin why he can't resist acting the brute

Tuesday July 27, 2004

The Guardian

As big breaks go, Trainspotting is one mother of a calling card. But for Scottish actor Kevin McKidd, the film has cast a long shadow. He was only 21 when he played Tommy, the good-hearted health fanatic turned heroin casualty. Unsure of his next move, McKidd opted out of the global spotlight and famously missed the photocall for the film's iconic poster because, for the first time in his life, he had taken a holiday abroad. "It wasn't premeditated. Every molecule in my body kept pulling away from it. Now it's just so boring, you know? Here we go again, let's dredge that one up."

Eight years on, McKidd is a redheaded, pale-skinned, raw hulk of a man, turning heads in a film world overrun with boyish waifs. He is a straight-talking sort of bloke: a ham-sandwich-and-packet-of-crisps man, which is his lunch order at the fancy country house hotel in Bedfordshire where we meet. The venue is McKidd's choice, but he doesn't seem too impressed with the clientele. At another table an elderly lady discusses the Queen, while a city boy arrives in his own private helicopter. "T-wat!" mutters McKidd under his breath. "I wouldn't have the brass neck to land at a hotel in a fucking helicopter. Even if I flew by helicopter, I would land at the bottom of the grounds so nobody would see that it was me." He gives a low chuckle. "Hee, hee, hee".

The genteel southern flash of the hotel is certainly far from the world with which McKidd has been associated since his early roles, in Trainspotting and Small Faces, where he played a Glaswegian gang leader. In the past nine years he has developed his presence across a range of gutsy British films. This month sees the release of two idiosyncratic, and very different, Scottish films. In 16 Years of Alcohol and in Afterlife he plays a macho soul-searcher: in the first a reformed skinhead, and the second a hard-nosed tabloid journalist looking after his teenage sister, who has Down's syndrome.

Both movies attempt to bring Scottish film out of the urban grime: the former is a lyrical vision of Edinburgh's punk and skinhead subculture in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the latter is a rural tragicomedy about family bonds. "I think a few years ago, after Trainspotting, there was too much confidence and there was a lot of money wasted," says McKidd. "Everybody was slapping themselves on the back and it all went tits up because of it. When FilmFour went under, that was a big wake-up call from those hedonistic few years. I think that's why people have gone back to basics again, doing lower-budget stuff to get grassroots people going. It's less of an in-club than it used to be."

McKidd is heading the queue, using his talent to open doors for new directors. Written and directed by former Skids frontman Richard Jobson, 16 Years of Alcohol has a lead character, Frankie Mac, who combines elements of Jobson himself and of his brother. This kind of identity-forming, macho brutality was the stuff of myth to McKidd, who as a teenager was a self-confessed hippy-throwback-cum-heavy-metal-head. "Kevin had never even been in a fight before, never mind having to do something as revolting as smashing a hammer into somebody's head," says Jobson. "He wanted to know every detail about the more dangerous things."

On screen, McKidd's performance transcends the character's autobiographical roots. His poetic voiceover carries the material with an exquisite, bruising authenticity. "I thought Mac looked like a guy," says Jobson. "A lot of British actors don't really look like men to me, and I wanted an old-fashioned, masculine, powerful force: a Robert Mitchum/ Lee Marvin type, a real brute male, who had a lot of subtlety."

In contrast, Afterlife, directed by Alison Peebles, is an intimate story written by Andrea Gibb for her sister, who has Down's syndrome. Again, McKidd was the leading man they had imagined from day one. As an unscrupulous tabloid snake rediscovering his family, McKidd tunes his performance to harmonise with an equally forceful and charismatic actor, Paula Sage, who plays his sister. Gibb and Peebles fought hard to cast an actor with Down's syndrome, resisting pressure to rewrite the part to fit a "prettier disability", as McKidd explains.

"None of us knew what Paula would be capable of," he says. "Even she didn't know whether she'd freeze or rise to the attention, but she became a real diva in the best possible sense. She loved the fact that all the men were asking her if she'd like a cup of tea, what clothes she'd like to wear, and what props. Paula likes her boys."

Now McKidd is making a name for himself internationally. There have been prestigious career highs, such as his lead in Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy-Turvy, and another musical role in the Cole Porter biopic De Lovely, with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. He has just wrapped the Ridley Scott crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven, and is currently shooting Rome, an equally lavish historical piece for the American cable channel HBO.

Yet it is the personal, low-budget projects that he is drawn to - the unknown quantities that most actors wouldn't bother to look at. In addition to his Scottish films, the cult horror Dog Soldiers is a prime example of McKidd's fearlessness. The script found its way to the actor in a brown paper envelope left outside his dressing room one night, when he was performing in a Caryl Churchill play directed by Stephen Daldry in London's West End. Two weeks later, the highbrow play over, McKidd wentoff to shoot a werewolf film. "Dog Soldiers was a blast," he says. "I didn't actually enjoy the shoot of Trainspotting. I felt like a fish out of water."

It's ironic that an actor such as McKidd, with such a distinctive identity, should still be tied to one movie. Now aged 30, he says he wants to do bigger projects and take control. "If I'd tried to chase it nine years ago, I might have got burned by it all. I feel ready for it now."

Not that he's selling out his scene. There are two more Scottish films with Jobson in the pipeline: a skateboarding/kung-fu kids' film called The Purifiers, and Woman in Winter, a sci-fi romance set in Edinburgh. "We've really bonded, me and Richard," he says fondly. While he and Jobson come from the Scottish east coast, both now live in the south of England - coincidentally, only a few minutes away from each other.

He laughs off the way the media won't let go of his decision to decamp south. "They always find their own way of getting round to that question. It's like, for God's sake, give it up, you know? That and talking about Trainspotting. Is it ever going to stop?"

· 16 Years of Alcohol is released on Friday. Afterlife is released on August 13.