Kevin Guthrie on the journey from sitcoms to a summer blockbuster
ONE MINUTE HE’S A BIT-PART PLAYER IN SCOTTISH TV COMEDIES, THE NEXT HE’S APPEARING IN THE BIGGEST WAR FILM OF THE YEAR. LUCK? NOT LIKELY, KEVIN GUTHRIE TELLS BRIAN BEACOM
FRIDAY afternoon in a quiet corner of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in Glasgow, which doesn’t stay quiet for long. Before you can say La Traviata, an operatic voice trills from a nearby room, corridors are awash with dancers wearing tights and highly animated faces, and young people bustle past carrying cello cases. It’s like an episode from Fame. But fame doesn’t interest the 29-year-old former student next to me, despite it rapidly coming his way. Indeed, if offered 10 movie blockbusters a year Kevin Guthrie would be shaking his dark-haired head and rolling his bright green eyes.
“It has never been about fame,” he says, smiling. “It’s not about being recognised. In fact, I like to go under the radar a little. It’s just about me enjoying the work, but the right sort of work.”
Guthrie maintains he wants a range of work that challenges, gives him a real chance to shine. To make this happen, he and his agent have planned the career moves like a couple of chess masters. It’s working. Five minutes ago (or so it seems) the Scot was appearing in small roles in BBC comedy Two Doors Down, or Miller’s Mountain, but now Guthrie is checkmating much of the opposition.
Not only is he set to appear in epic movie Dunkirk, he stars in The Terror (The Walking Dead meets Ravenous), a new TV drama by AMC (the creators of Mad Men and Breaking Bad). It’s based on Dan Simmons’s novel about Captain John Franklin’s two-ship expedition to the Northwest Passage in 1845 and Guthrie is wallowing in the story of starvation,
scurvy, mutiny and cannibalism, and contending with a monster.
“We end up submerged and frozen, and have to farm the ice, which is factual, but then the horror element emerges,” says the actor, smiling, of the production which also stars Ciaran Hinds and Jared Harris.
But if that weren’t enough to suggest a young actor going places, Guthrie will also be in cinemas soon with Edie, starring alongside Sheila Hancock in the tale of an elderly lady’s unlikely friendship with a young Scot, set in the Highlands.
“It’s all about manoeuvring our way towards the next step,” he says of the career moves. “It’s been incredible knowing five or six steps ahead what’s likely to happen.”
This ability to set a course and make the right choices is unusual for an actor – most don’t get to pick and choose anything other than the best fresh veg out of Aldi’s. How did Guthrie find himself in this position?
“It began about four years ago,” he says. “It happened in three stages. I was cast in a film called Restless, I landed the film Sunset Song [with Agyness Deyn], which was special, then came back to do Sunshine on Leith, the Proclaimers movie. That got me talked about. Playing characters with different outlooks let me reveal a range.”
Suddenly, casting directors were on the phone. However, the actor says the determination to make a plan also emerged through the mistakes of the past. “I did stuff I didn’t want to do from the off, where the script or the character didn’t resonate with me, that felt two dimensional, or where I wasn’t passionate about the story.”
Guthrie doesn’t talk about his role in crumbly BBC sitcom Miller’s Mountain, his stint in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Peter Pan that didn’t quite fly or indeed the upcoming Whisky Galore. But that may be coincidence.
YET, in making plans, he maintains size isn’t everything. “I took the role in Fantastic Beasts [of Mr Abernathy], and it’s a small role, but that came about because I adore the director, [David Yates], I love the writer [JK Rowling], and I was a huge Harry Potter fan.”
Guthrie breaks into a wide smile. “We got a phone call saying, ‘David would love to meet you. He loved the film.’ I had to wrack my brain to work out which film he loved that could marry up me with this production. And it turned out to be Sunshine on Leith.”
Guthrie didn’t want to be seen as the Scottish guy who plays soldiers, as he had in Sunshine, although he does play a soldier in Dunkirk. Yet, how could he not take on a film by Christopher Nolan, director of Inception, Batman Begins and Interstellar?
“Exactly,” he says. But little has been revealed of the blockbuster. What’s it about, Kevin? Boats? “Mr Nolan is keeping a tight ship as regards publicity. But what I can say is the event almost happens in real time. It’s incredible.”
Guthrie admits he had to work to land the role. “We did rungs of auditions, and I was aware a whole squad of boys were being seen for it. But at audition we didn’t do scenes from the film. We were just given lines a couple of nights before.”
Robert Carlyle has a backbone that could hold up the Forth Bridge. He’s been steering me through the business
What did he give to his mini performance to land the part? “A lot of people go for the truth, but for me it’s about making a real impact as well as the truth.”
How? “Well, more often than not you’re acting for a casting director who has their head in The Herald. I just take 10 seconds to create space, which creates an energy in the room. They say, ‘When you’re ready,’ to let me know I should start, but I’m thinking, ‘It’s not when you’re ready, it’s when I’m ready.’”
He doesn’t believe in walking in the door already in character. “I like to go in and react. I remember I have everything to give, but also nothing to lose. And I tell myself if they don’t want me I wasn’t right for the part anyway and try to shut out the experience.”
Guthrie was absolutely sure about working with Hancock in Edie, a sensitive companion piece about two people who clearly need each other but set off despising each other. “When I read the script I said to my agent, ‘Let’s clear the decks. This is what I want to do.’”
Was it much of a challenge playing a character who is described as ‘sweet-eyed and hilarious’? “A little,” he says, laughing. “But I’d like to think I have quite a light personality anyway. The thing is when you have dark hair and green eyes it says one thing. But there’s an energy I have from where I was brought up.”
That was Neilston in East Renfrewshire, a greenbelt area perfect for aspiring
I love digging to find out what characters are about. I love the excavation
footballers. Guthrie was “a shy boy” whose parents sent him to local drama group PACE hoping to infuse a little Sundaymorning confidence in him. It worked and the schoolboy landed a range of small roles on television, including Still Game. But meantime, young Kevin had become a very confident footballer.
Then his sliding doors moment arrived. One day, a scout came to see the 13-yearold midfielder playing for Neilston Boys Club. But on the same day, Guthrie opted to audition for a film, The Key, directed by David Blair and released in 2003. “That was the turning point,” he reflects. “The experience made me realise I could maybe do this as a career.”
After appearing in a school production of Bugsy Malone, a drama teacher said if he were serious about acting he should go to drama school. And he should go to the RSAMD.
“I wasn’t sure about training to be an actor. I had already worked as an actor and wasn’t convinced I could improve. I felt you either had it or you didn’t.”
But then the scales fell from his eyes. “I realised you may not be able to teach acting but you can open up so many ways and ideas to make someone a better performer and an all-rounder.”
He knew two of his favourite actors, James McAvoy and Robert Carlyle, had gone to the same drama school. “They were both Glasgow boys, both wee and spoke in the same accent as me. So I latched on to that, and felt if they could do it, so could I.”
Guthrie loved his new world. He experienced “an explosion of culture” given the internationalism of the college. He found books. He read “everything”. “Suddenly I had a great platform to express myself. I felt I could open up. Sometimes there were tensions in the class but that was good. There was mutual respect.”
On graduating, Guthrie did four plays back to back. “It exhausts me,” he says of theatre work. “At the end of a run I usually become quite ill. The body gets used to having to expel so much energy, then when it stops it can’t cope. So I try to get back to playing football or going running, just to get the release I’ve been used to.”
Guthrie worked onstage with McAvoy in Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios and played for the X-Men star’s team in London. (“No slide tackles allowed.”) “He’s
a good player,” he says, “and a great actor.”
Guthrie also had the chance to work with his other hero Carlyle in The Legend of Barney Thomson. “When you talk about dark, brooding, vulnerable, vicious, but always with a sensitivity, that is Bobby. And he has a backbone that could hold up the Forth Bridge. I learned a lot from him on the Barney job. He told me how to move, revealed a real slickness, and in doing so he flooded me with confidence.”
Guthrie says Carlyle has been part of his career plan. “We are in touch. He’s been helping me make choices, steering me through the business.”
How does he remain calm when he gets turned down for a role he knows he could phone in? “It always hurts,” he says, “but the more you hear rejection the more it becomes white noise. However, whether by fortune or manoeuvring my agent I can usually work out what is a non-starter or not.”
At 5ft 7in Guthrie, who lives in north London with his girlfriend (“She isn’t in the business”), isn’t tall, and his complexion could be described on paint charts as Milk Bottle. He was never going up against Jon Hamm for the lead in Mad Men, but so what? He wants the character parts. He certainly gives much of himself to the roles. When he appeared in the boxing play Beautiful Burnout he loved the workouts, training with the likes of Charlie Flynn and Ricky Burns. “I took a punch once and it put me down,” he says with a note of pride. “I love to keep digging to find out what characters are about. I love the excavation.” But there’s another reason which suggests Kevin Guthrie will go on to craft a long and successful career, outside of planning and solid graft. He admits he needs the escape his roles can offer. “I talk to my family and my girlfriend about my phobia of everyday life,” he offers, the operatic trill in the background having evaporated. “I’ve come to realise this is what my career gives me. It means I can exist in some sort of alternative reality, and do the things I’ve always wanted to do. To be honest, I’ve always felt I’m not great at being a real person.”
As a teenager growing up in East Renfrewshire Kevin Guthrie faced the choice between pursuing football or acting as a career
Clockwise from above: Guthrie in the title role of the National Theatre of Scotland’s 2010 production of Peter Pan; with Agyness Deyn in Sunset Song; with his Sunshine on Leith co-stars Peter Mullan, Antonia Thomas, Jane Horrocks and George Mackay, director Dexter Fletcher and Charlie and Craig Reid; and after a charity football match at Celtic Park
After the comedy Two Doors Down with such actors as Greg McHugh (below) Guthrie will be seen this summer in war epic Dunkirk