Film: A frank tale of an everyday Joe

Scottish actor Peter Mullan stormed Cannes in Ken Loach's new film. And his next project? Subvert Hollywood
Click to follow
There was one certainty in Cannes this year: that little-known Scot, Peter Mullan, would walk away with Best Actor for his role as the eponymous alcoholic in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe. A certainty, that is, for all but Peter Mullan. Recalling the night of the ceremony, he remembers being phased upon receiving his prize from a personal hero, Cannes Jury President, Martin Scorsese. "Him saying my name, and putting Best Actor before it, not in a million years..." he says, trailing off. He puffs with pride and tells me he is the sole owner of a Celtic strip signed by the director; "a cheeky dream" to show off to the boys at his next Martin Scorsese Celtic Supporters' Club meeting, no doubt.

It fits well with the person. My first glimpse of Mullan was in the gardens of a Cannes hotel, his 14-month-old boy, Paddy, on his knee as he basked in the sunshine. That he looks like Joe in appearance, a man ready to do a hard day's graft, comes as no great shock. At 38, his prematurely greying hair and rough-hewn face tell the stor: father, fan, and film- maker.

At peace with his roots, Mullan is fiercely proud of his country, admitting he "felt like a little hero for a day or so" upon returning to his native Glasgow after Cannes. I point out that Scotland - from the Figment Films team that brought us Trainspotting and Shallow Grave (both of which featured Mullan) to the forthcoming Acid House Trilogy - is a haven for uncompromising urban cinema. Not before time, according to Mullan."More and more Scots were angry that they never saw anything on screen they could relate to. But we've been let out of the dog house. They've let us off the fuckin' leash, and they're not going to put us back on again. It's very true of My Name Is Joe - we will not dilute. That creates a whole set of other problems. We'll never see the days now where we go back to consumer-friendly Scots cinema."

The only actor considered for the role of Joe - a rarity for Loach, who even auditioned widely for Carla's Song before selecting Robert Carlyle - Mullan also joins Carlyle and Ricky Tomlinson as the only actors ever to be used twice by the director (he appears briefly in Riff Raff). The story of an unemployed drinker who falls for a social worker (played by Louise Goodall), the experience left Mullan full of praise for the man who once gave him the "nicest knock-back I've ever had" for a part in Raining Stones. Stroking his chin as he impersonates the director, Mullan credits Loach for coaxing such a deliberately ordinary and humane performance from him. Confronted by the dignity of those he met at AA meetings, Mullan will also admit to being humbled throughout the shoot: "There were quite a lot of middle-class people at those meetings. You ask yourself: 'What are my drinking habits? Could I be one? Am I one?' I also thought: 'Is it genetic?' My father was alcoholic - and various memories came back. The poison of alcohol is not about where they stagger, or vomit, or pass out. It's about where their mind is at."

At this point, he adds a disclaimer: "I'm not Joe, I'm nothing like him. Joe has more to worry about than I have," but the words resonate. Mullan's upbringing in Peterhead, Glasgow, would be alien to Joe, and yet parallels lie. One of eight children (father a tool-maker, mother an auxiliary nurse), Mullan studied drama at university, before spending two years teaching it. Moving to the Glasgow comedy circuit, Mullan performed political cabaret (the Redheads) as well as community theatre. Despite directing several short films, his career a decade ago - the time he met his partner Anne - was going nowhere. "I'd been skint for about a year and I thought 'I really better get off the brew, or I'll be in big trouble'." Turning himself around (that included snagging a role in Braveheart), Mullan's persistence has come to fruition, the actor recently directing his debut feature.

Written in light of the death of hismother and the Dunblane tragedy, Orphans is a surreal tragi-comic ride, as compelling as it is difficult to watch. We're lucky to be seeing it at all. Mullan was advised against taking the lead in Loach's film by the then-head of Film Four, David Aukin, who was unhappy with him "editing Orphans while shooting Joe". He was shown who was in charge when the co-financing channel backed out, dropping his film for distribution. "I'm convinced there was an element of punishment with what happened with Channel 4. The 'We told you there'd be trouble if you did Joe...' And they made damn certain there was," he mutters.

On my suggesting he'd made a film too hard to sell, with no star name, Mullan becomes animated. "Distributors see no niche for Orphans to go into. It's too complex to be just black comedy, too tragic to be just a comedy. It shows a distinct lack of courage on the part of distributors, and a lack of foresight. The problem with the English film industry is that it's far too deferential to Hollywood: they want the very things repeated that gave Trainspotting and The Full Monty their originality."

With an alternative distributor in place, Mullan can relax, the next pay cheque assured. About to play "the Judas figure" opposite Kevin Spacey in Ordinary Decent Criminal, he seems destined for a wider audience. His stressing of the need for "as little compromise as possible" in his work suggests he's up to something. Hollywood subversion, at a guess.

'My Name Is Joe' opens on 6 November. 'Orphans' will be released next year