Prince of darkness
An actor brings frightening authenticity to his role in Top of the Lake, writes Darren Devlyn
PETER Mullan is like an undetonated explosive. Blisteringly intense, he pushes his way through a crowded pub in Glenorchy, New Zealand.
When the beer-swilling mob realises he’s found his way to a microphone, there’s an instant, eerie silence.
It becomes easy to see why Mullan, a Scot who has appeared in films including War Horse and Trainspotting, is regarded as one of the most powerful, intuitive character actors of his generation.
In Top of the Lake, a miniseries co-directed and cowritten by Jane Campion, he brings a frightening authenticity to the role of drug lord Matt Mitcham, who in the pub scene addresses the locals about the disappearance of his pregnant 12-year-old daughter Tui (Jacqueline Joe).
‘‘ We’re a small town, we know no-one can hide anything,’’ a brooding Mitcham tells the gathering.
‘‘ We all know that someone here knows something. I look at the mountains and hills and like to think my little one is hunting rabbit and deer to survive, being free and looking after herself. What I can’t bear is the thought that someone has her chained up against a wall, holding my little one captive. So if someone wants to come forward, it’s your last chance. If you are that person and you are holding something back, quite frankly you deserve to f------ die.’’
There’s nothing intimidat- ing about Mullan when he later sits for a chat in a break from filming. He wins you over with ebullience and a streak of larrikin, explaining why he relates well to characters from the wrong side of the tracks.
One of eight children, Mullan, 53, grew up near shipyards in Cardonald.
He lived on Moss Park Boulevard, a street nowhere near as grand as it sounds.
The house looked nice enough from the outside, but there was little inside because the family was dirt poor. Mullan once described this domestic situation as ‘‘ a coat and no knickers’’.
It was an unhappy upbringing partly because Mullan’s father had come home from World War II psychologically traumatised, with no idea how to relate to his wife or children.
He was a bright kid, but Mullan began running with a knife-carrying street gang.
‘‘ The turning point for me was as a teenager who had lost the plot for a year or so,’’ Mullan says.
‘‘ It was realising that going around hurting people was not something that I wanted to do. So I went back to school and got into uni (studying economic history and drama).
‘‘ Acting is the best job in the world because you get to do things with impunity. As an actor, you can do the most horrible things to people. Someone will jump up (from a beating) and say, ‘ that was great, you were so bloody horrible. Let’s do it again,’’’ Mullan says, bursting into a laugh that sounds laced with gravel.
‘‘ Acting is such good fun, ridiculously stupid. You come in, say some lines without hitting the furniture, and then you f--- off.
‘‘ But you do have to humble yourself as an actor because you can make such a tit of yourself. You don’t want to let anyone down to the point where they think you’re s---. Actors are always looking for some kind of validation.’’
Mullan has plumbed the depths of darkness in films including The Fear (set in Brighton’s criminal underworld), Tyrannosaur, My Name is Joe and Braveheart.
The man who has also appeared in Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows says he leapt at Top of the Lake because it was a chance to work with Campion and a star-studded Powerhouse: Peter Mullan (below) costars with Thomas Wright, Elisabeth Moss and David Wenham (above).
Acting is the best job in the world . . . youcando the most horrible things to people
cast including David Wenham and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss.
Top of the Lake begins with Tui wading into the depths of an icy alpine lake. She is rescued and discovered to be five months pregnant but won’t say who the father is.
When she disappears, police including Robin Griffin (Moss) and Al Parker (Wenham) take on the case, which includes investigating a tribe of disillusioned women (led by Holly Hunter) who have set up a commune to try to fix their broken lives.
Mitcham is furious about the women occupying the land because he’s adamant it belongs to him.
‘‘ Matt Mitcham is one of these d---s who, if you look at him the wrong way, you could lose your teeth,’’ Mullan says.
Asked if his own experiences have informed his approach to the psychotic Mitcham in Top of the Lake, Mullan says it’s important to remember that operating in a gang or as a criminal is ‘‘ acting by another means’’.
‘‘ I don’t get to play the toff, that kind of passed me by,’’ Mullan says with a smile.
‘‘ For something like this (Mitcham), emotionally you can connect with someone who is f----d up.
‘‘ The other thing is, this (New Zealand) is so like Scotland it’s unbelievable. I live in Glasgow and Kiwis are so like Scots, so many hang-ups. They hate the Aussies, we hate the English — all that s---.’’ Top of the Lake, UKTV, Sunday, 8.30pm