Positive Profile: Graham, star of Outlander, hails Scotland’s acting talent

Scottish actor Graham McTavish might not live in his homeland any more but he’s always happy to come back to his roots, especially when it involves travelling back in time to play a fierce role like bloodthirsty Highland warrior chief Dougal MacKenzie in Outlander. Graham, who hails from Dennistoun, Glasgow, and is now based in New Zealand with his young family, was less recognisable as dwarf Dwalin in the film version of JRR Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, and he has also had parts in Rambo, 24 and Red Dwarf. The 56-year-old is currently starring in Preacher, a new US show based on a cult series of graphic novels.

Are you a naturally cheerful person?

Yes I would say I am, on the whole. Sometimes I don’t look very cheerful but on the inside I am [laughs].

As you get older, do you think your outlook on life gets more or less positive?

I try to be more positive. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I find it difficult, seeing the world as we live in now – the information we are given and have access to is so relentless, I think my way of remaining positive about the future is to ration that, to be someone who sees the world from what I see in front of me as much as possible and the people I encounter, and make my judgments and thoughts based on that, rather than anything else.

Now I have children, and when you have children that is something that instantly makes you more positive about the world. Mine are young – 10 and five – and when you look at them and listen to them, it reminds you very much of your own life as a child, and it’s the most wonderful form of time travel really – it can’t help but keep you positive about the future.

You live in New Zealand now – what age were you when you left Scotland for good?

The first time I was very young, I was about four. Then I went back when I was about 10, and then I left again when I was about 14 – we moved around a lot – and then I moved back again after I left university in my 20s.

Did you feel like it was coming back to your roots by playing Dougal in Outlander?

Yes, very much so. Apart from my upbringing and the family, I’d really done all my early acting work – all my on-the-job training – in Scotland, so when I came back I was lucky enough to work with a lot of the same people. Gary Lewis and I were friends from back in the early ’90s, when we used to hang out and have drinks, so it was great – it was a great little homecoming.

What did you enjoy most about the role?

I think the fact that Dougal is a very complicated character. He isn’t a wholly good person by any means, he is manipulative, very cunning and very impatient, and all the rest of it. But he isn’t a wholly bad person either, he is very loyal and passionate, and he feels very deeply about the things he believes in. I found that balance, in terms of trying to portray him, very interesting. I think that just naturally makes a character more enjoyable to play and hopefully to watch.

Did you find it easy to slip into the strong Scottish brogue or did you need some help with that?

No, it was fine. The Gaelic however, was a little more of a challenge. We all had some help there. I dearly wish I could speak it fluently, it is such a beautiful language.

You worked closely with Sam Heughan… are you impressed by the fresh Scottish talent coming out on such well-known TV  shows right now?

Yes! I have long been an advocate of talent that’s in Scotland. When I was doing theatre in Scotland, I felt very lucky – I moved back to Scotland in the ’80s because I had fallen in love with a Scottish actress, unfortunately that didn’t last but I stayed and it was the best thing that could have happened to me really because it gave me the opportunity to work with an amazing group of Scottish actors and actresses. I’ve always said that there is nowhere in the world that can beat Scotland for acting talent. There is such strength and depth.

I would go as far as to say particularly among actresses there is incredible talent. I remember there was a production called Bondagers at the Traverse Theatre years ago – it was an all-female cast of 12 actresses, and my girlfriend at the time was one of them, and it was amazing. They showed it all over the world. When you think Scotland is a country of only about five million, to have that background in acting is great, and it’s great the younger talent is coming through as well.

My only sadness with Scottish theatre now is that there are not as many independent theatre companies as there were when I was doing theatre. Funding has meant that a lot of those have had to go to the wall, and that’s a great shame.

We’ve previously spoken to Scott Kyle (who played Ross in Outlander) and he’s doing great work at Bathgate Regal Community Theatre.

Yes he is, that’s very true! It is fantastic that that is happening. That guy has got energy to burn, it’s wonderful and good luck to him! It takes someone like that to be able to push through independent theatre in an environment that is not favourable, and it’s wonderful he’s doing that.

How did acting become your profession?

Well, I suppose like a lot of things in life, by complete accident! I was at school and I was about 17, and this drama teacher was always asking me to be in plays because I used to write and perform in my own comic sketches with a friend of mine – we didn’t trust anyone else to perform them. But I had no interest in acting, I wanted to be a writer.

He spoke to me one day and said a guy had dropped out of his show because he was ill, and the performance was on in three days so he asked if I would do it. And to this day I have no idea why I agreed. I think there might have been a girl in the cast I was keen on, and wanted to impress or something like that –  it would have been something that sad [laughs]. But I did it, I learned the lines in three days and went on… it was a comedy called The Rivals, and people laughed, and at the end of it people applauded!

I thought, “This is fun, I enjoyed that”, and then I joined an amateur theatre company just before I went to university. It’s a strange thing in life, these little forks in the road that you don’t realise at the time are forks in the road, and you do something and then 35 years later there you are, doing it professionally [laughs].

How are you enjoying starring in Preacher?

It is great fun. It’s a series of books I was a great fan of before it became a TV series, so to get involved in it is a dream come true for me. It is a very different experience from Outlander in terms of the story and all the rest of it, but there are also similarities – I travel in time! It is wild, and we are having a great time doing it.

Did you feel honoured to be the 17th Grand Marshall of New York City’s Tartan Day Parade?

Oh absolutely. I just thought of my father – if he had been alive, he would have been very proud. That was an amazing feeling, I will never forget it, walking up 6th Avenue with all those people behind me, and all the people watching. It was a beautiful day and it was incredible. It was something I never, ever expected to happen in my life, but I was very honoured to do it.

Even though you live in New Zealand now, are you still proud of your Scottish roots?

Oh yes, hugely. The thing about New Zealand is it is essentially the Scotland of the southern hemisphere. It was mainly settled in by Scots, the people are very similar, the landscape is similar, especially the more south you go…so I kind of feel at home there but I do miss Scotland very much. I’ve still got a place in Glasgow but I don’t get back to Scotland nearly as much as I would like to.

I’m a very keen cyclist and my friend and I are planning to do a cycle tour of the north of Scotland for about 10 days, and we’re in the process of negotiating a deal to film this and do a show based around it, so with any luck I will be back again to do that.

Your roles have required you to be very fit…how important do you rate fitness in your overall wellbeing, physically and mentally?

I’ve always taken that side of things very seriously, I have always been interested in keeping fit and doing stuff in the outdoors. I upped my level when I came to do The Hobbit because I knew that was going to be a physically demanding job spread over a very long period of time, so I wanted to make sure I was very fit for that. To be honest I don’t think I have ever been fitter than when I trained for The Hobbit. I trained for three months in America before I left and I trained for a further three months once we got there and we needed it, we really did.

I think exercise is terribly important and I think it’s something we all need to take a lot more seriously, because the temptations and distractions nowadays for not exercising are greater than ever. It’s something we really need to fight against as a species to make sure we remain healthy. You just feel better doing it, you have more energy.

What do you do when you need cheering up?

I have two things I always fall back on. Cycling is very meditative. You don’t need to go for a big cycle, even just half an hour, it soothes your brain, soothes your mind and takes you to a different place mentally. Also reading – I’ve always got a book with me, so I’ve always got another world to look at, other than the world I’m in. I always find that really interesting, I love the way that books can transport you, I always have done. Those are the two things I really rely on to keep me sane.

Do you find writing therapeutic too?

Yes! I have always kept a diary and sometimes when you re-read them it is just so embarrassing! My diary as a 14-year-old is just so appalling really, but I’ve always kept one and I believe really strongly in the power of handwriting, not just a diary but anything at all. There is a therapeutic nature to handwriting –  it’s a different process from hitting a keyboard and it engages your brain differently, and I am a great believer in that. I think it’s really sad that a lot of schools are phasing out handwriting as part of their teaching and I think potentially it’s a terrible thing to do.

What do you like doing to relax?

If I’m away somewhere I have not been to before – like now, I am in New Orleans – I like exploring the city. I like to walk around it and I like to just follow my nose and see what I can discover. I have never really been disappointed with that tactic because you don’t plan it too much, you just say you are going to head off in a direction and see what you find. That’s one of the main things I do to relax.

When you’re back in Scotland, do you have a favourite spot you like to go to? 

There are a lot! When I’m in Edinburgh, where I was based when we were doing Outlander, I was staying near the castle and I  would love to walk down into Stockbridge and go to the farmers’ market down there, I always found that incredibly relaxing.

I remember when I finished filming Rambo in the jungle in Thailand, it was the last night doing a shoot and people were saying, “What are you going to do now? We leave tomorrow.” I said “I’m going to  a place called Pitlochry,” and they all asked “Where’s that?” I just had a real need to reconnect with that landscape. So I flew straight from Thailand to Scotland and went up to Pitlochry, and spent three or four days up there just walking around, and it was great. So that’s a favourite spot.

What do you miss most about Scotland?

The people. The humour. You can take everything else away really, but that is the thing I absolutely miss the most. Just the banter, the laughter. When I used to come back to Glasgow particularly, I would get off the train and hear just that back and forth, even between strangers in bars. It’s such a welcoming city.

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