The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine
‘Growing up I never thought anybody would want a picture or my autograph’
a fire extinguisher going off.’ Kids fought each other in battles that ‘must have looked like Braveheart, but it wasn’t really that bad’.
As a teenager his first love was football. He played professionally for his home side Greenock Morton, before signing for Aberdeen, but he longed to play for Celtic. He was also ‘book-smart’ and good at English with a self-conscious love of performance, fostered by a teacher who encouraged him to read out loud in class. But it wasn’t until he was 15 and he saw Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe on a double date at the local cinema, that he imagined becoming an actor. ‘It was people who spoke like me. I didn’t know we could be on the screen… I was thinking, “I could do that.”’
Incredibly, shortly after, Loach came to Greenock looking for an unknown to cast as a troubled working-class teenager in Sweet Sixteen – a film shot on Greenock’s council estates. Compston’s teacher encouraged him to try out. At the auditions, he saw other kids in blazers, doing vocal warmups, and thought, ‘What the f—k are you doing? People from here don’t do vocal warm-ups.’ He remembers ‘acting hard’, intimidating people ‘because I knew they weren’t from where I was from. It was surreal. It just felt really natural,’ he says modestly of his electrifying performance. ‘I’m so lucky that he [Loach] was casting a film. At that time. When I was that age. I’ll be forever grateful to him.’
The role won Compston most promising newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards in 2002, and made him the toast of Cannes Film Festival. He then decided to give up professional football, despite being encouraged not to by Loach. ‘He said, “You can have all the talent in the world in this job, but unless people take a chance on you…” I think he realised it’s quite cut-throat.’
Unlike children from acting dynasties who breeze into plum roles, it was ‘definitely a slog’ for Compston. Initially he battled preconceptions: ‘People thought I was that kid [from Sweet Sixteen]. So that was pretty tough.’ He never went to drama school, but saw his role in Monarch of the Glen (2003-2005) as an opportunity to learn on the job from actors such as Tom Baker and Susan Hampshire.
He feels there have been positives to fighting for what he’s got. ‘When I lose that chip, I’ll lose an edge. While I keep thinking, “You’re working class, you’re a wee short arse, you shouldn’t be here,” as long as I don’t think I belong, then there’s going to be a bit of an edge to me. When I go on to most jobs, I feel like I’ve got something to prove. And it keeps me ticking over.’
Did he ever regret leaving football? ‘Not the way Scotland played,’ he laughs of their performance in the Euros, before pointing out that as a footballer he’d be retired by now. ‘I still feel like a young actor, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I completely made the right decision.’ He cherishes his career for giving him the opportunity to travel and meet his wife. ‘All that kind of stuff would never have happened.’
As we’re wrapping up, it’s time for my Line of Duty questions. ‘No comment, no comment, no comment!’ he laughs. After six series working with Vicky Mcclure (DI Kate Fleming), Adrian Dunbar (Superintendent Ted Hastings) and writer Jed Mercurio, ‘the four of us will be pals for life’. He has no idea if the show will return, but points out that Mercurio always takes a couple of years between series to recalibrate his plot.
He’s picked up so much from working with all of them. From Dunbar he’s learnt that ‘life begins at 60. He’s got a zest for life – he’s infectious to be around.’ Mcclure is ‘one of my best mates, somebody who I go to for advice, we speak probably every other day’. Mercurio, he laughs, ‘loves torturing Steve slash me… Every year I say to him, “What’s next? Am I getting framed for murder or am I being thrown over the stairs?”’ In the last series, Mercurio slid a joke into the script about Compston and Stephen Graham’s heights, calling them ‘short arses’. ‘That made me laugh,’ says Compston, revealing Mercurio removed it at one point ‘because he thought I was p—sed off!’ But Compston is goodhumoured enough to have put it back in.
On social media some fans were disappointed by the sixth series’ undramatic ending. ‘People have invested so much time in it, they’re more than entitled to their opinion,’ he says, admitting that, as Arnott, his pride was dented at having missed the culprit, the blundering Buckells, who was the ‘fourth man’, ‘H’, who’d been under Arnott’s nose all along. ‘How does that make us look?’
Incredibly, Compston almost missed out on playing Arnott. He was offered the role just as he was cast in The Wee Man, about John Burns, a character Compston grew up knowing about and was desperate to play. He told his agent to turn down Arnott if the timing clashed. ‘Luckily my agent managed some wizardry because, God, if I’d turned down Steve Arnott… that would have been rough… I get the fear now and again thinking how close I was to not doing it.’ I start to get the fear too, as he says it, and wonder if he hadn’t taken the role, would it have been worse for him – or us?
Vigil starts on BBC One and BBC iplayer at 9pm on Sunday 29 August, with episode two on bank-holiday Monday, 30 August, at 9pm