Peter Mullan does intimidating very, very well. For proof, you need only to consult fantastic heavy-duty small screen dramas such as Top Of The Lake and The Fear, as well as such equally heavy-duty big screen offerings as his own 2010 directorial debut Neds, and Paddy Considine’s superb Tyrannosaur. But don’t be fooled. While he might maintain strong Marxist values and often look genuinely terrifying on camera, he loves a laugh and, as his latest turn in musical Sunshine On Leith attests, he’s very fond of a song and a dance. Especially if it’s to The Proclaimers.
Sunshine On Leith is a musical about two young soldiers returning from Afghanistan, set to songs by The Proclaimers. You play one of their dads. It’s quite a departure from your usual stuff…
I wouldn’t have done it if it had been just anyone’s music. I don’t mind playing the dad – it’s only natural – but it’s just scary how old the actors are that play my kids now.
Can you hold a tune?
I hope I can, but I have no idea. The boys had to spontaneously burst into song, which must have been hard. My song has an emotional context, so I was more insulated. I’m just serenading my wife.
Are you a fan of The Proclaimers?
I was first introduced to their music about 30 years ago. It was a bootleg and I was just blown away by their mix of folk and post-punk. I’d never heard anything like it. And their lyrics make me laugh.
Many of the characters you play are pretty imposing, but we hear you’re a bit of a joker on set…
I enjoy my job and I just want to have a laugh. But as soon as the camera’s rolling, I’m back. On Tyrannosaur, myself, Paddy [Considine] and Olivia [Colman] had such a laugh. People say they couldn’t see that from the film, which I suppose was the point, but between takes we were falling about.
Did you give Paddy any tips for his directorial debut?
I would never cross that line, I’m happy with just acting. Paddy was quoted as saying if anyone offered him advice on where to put his camera, he’d tell them exactly where he was going to put it. I love that. Directing is 24/7 – you never stop thinking about it. With acting, I know it’s bad, but I literally never think about it.
You were a bouncer before you started acting. Did you ever have to get hands-on?
Well, I’m 5ft 8in, so I just had to act the part. I never actually had to fight. People think that, because I’m not a big guy, I must have been some sort of black belt or mixed martial-arts nutter. But all I had was a bow tie and a hired suit.
That suggested air of ‘nutter’ must be quite useful when it comes to more sinister roles, such as Matt in Top Of The Lake?
He’s just a dad! Nah, he’s off his rocker. It’s great to just be able to explode like that. Acting is the only job where you get to do these things and no one gets hurt. You kill someone, and they bounce back up and say, “You killed me well!” It’s so much fun.
You had to strip off quite a bit for the show. How did you feel about doing that at 53?
I look like a middle-aged man, but that’s as it should be. I don’t like the gymnasium, that’s bollocks. In New Zealand [where the show was filmed], I went for lots of long walks. My kids were trying to talk me into bungee jumping, but I told them what I always tell them when I don’t want to go on a scary ride at the fair: “The insurance won’t cover it.”
You’re very into politics – do you still consider yourself a Marxist?
Oh yes. I’m for Scottish independence. I’ve got nothing against the English at all, but I don’t want Westminster ruling my country. I want neighbours, not masters. I think the way they are penalising the working and lower middle classes is bollocks.
You bookended small, independent films Tyrannosaur and Neds with appearances in two Harry Potter instalments. What was that like?
I didn’t even read the script for Harry Potter, I just said yes. I said I’d make the tea if they let my kids meet Daniel [Radcliffe]. The Potter films are like a Who’s Who of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh actors, so it was nice to be up there. Sometimes you’ve got to be able to pay the rent.
What do you make of Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who? Would you have fancied it?
No, I couldn’t learn all the scientific lines [laughs]. I love having another Scottish Doctor; Matt Smith was great, but it was so wonderful to see David [Tennant] as this swashbuckling, romantic Doctor. Peter will give it a comedy edge. I think the best Doctors have their tongue in their cheek a bit. He’ll have a blast.
Finally, one of your first film appearances was in Braveheart. Any Mel Gibson memories?
Poor Mel. He was actually very respectful of the cast, no matter what role you were playing. I was just a glorified spear-bearer. The newspapers said there were loads of injuries on the set, but it was mostly the Irish Guard – who made up a lot of the extras – passing out from dehydration or the sight of the fake blood. These are men who are supposed to go to war, fainting as soon as they got the ketchup out.
Sunshine On Leith is at cinemas nationwide from 4 October
(Image: Rex Features)