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Good Guy Playing Bad: Peter Mullan in the Spotlight

Good Guy Playing Bad: Peter Mullan in the Spotlight

The Talking City and Wolf’s Clothing

A little over two years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a convention in Glasgow entitled Scottish Students on Screen, an event based around giving young film scholars a better familiarity with the workings of the British Film Industry and general movie making as well as a presentation of their own work. The highlight of this excursion, a series of talks and exhibits inter-cut liberally with group visits to a Wetherspoons chain drinking hole across the street, was the champagne event: an interview and Q&A with Peter Mullan.

To those unfamiliar with Mullan, he is a highly renowned actor and director best known to UK and international film goers as the face of various memorable movie psychos and extreme, flawed anti-heroes. A native of said city, Mullan is regarded as one of the finest acting exports Scotland has ever produced, and is one of the most reliable thespians around, in effect the Glaswegian Robert De Niro. He also has the dubious distinction of being an actor who has twice been forced to turn down Martin Scorcese (for roles in Gangs of New York and The Departed respectively).

After a lengthy one on one witnessed by us novice sorts, in which he spoke amiably and openly about his tough upbringing, the impact of personal trauma on his performances, and the work he was putting into the project he was working on at the time, the semi-autobiographical Neds (a common phrase in the Scottish zeitgeist, an acronym for ‘Non Educated Delinquent’), the audience were invited to ask our own question. My hand reached for the air without preamble of thought, and I was picked out first. Fighting a battle of fortitude, I kept my composure long enough to ask Mullan which Director he has learned the most working with, and who’s style best affected him. He patiently and thoughtfully mused that Ken Loach fit the bill, and I gave my thanks. ‘Star Struck’ doesn’t quite cover it.

When all was said and done, talking over, we retreated from the hall and I took leave for a much needed post-hero encounter cigarette outside. Imagine my surprise when Mullan emerged, surrounded by a clutch of talky blushers, with the same idea in mind. Taking the bull by the horns, I walked over and introduced myself formally, noting with barely concealed delight the smile and nod of recognition. After realizing quickly that I needed a reason to have started a conversation with him, I picked up the idiot ball and queried how it was that, in his brief cameo in Braveheart, he shares his scene with distinctive fellow Scot James McKay, four years before they would lead the show in Loach’s My Name is Joe; literally the first thing that sprang to mind.

Despite the irrelevance of the question, he indulged me and talked at length about the subject, about how it was purely coincidental, but that the two became close friends while filming Joe, and still are to this day. It was a wonderfully human exchange, something to be expected since Glasgow is the ‘talking city’, where standing at the same bus stop is enough reason for strangers to discuss whatever is on their mind. As he was being led away by one of the event managers, I claimed another hand shake, passed on my compliments, and spent the next five minutes trying to subdue the massive and stupid nervous grin plastered on me from ear to ear. I’d just met, in my opinion, a film legend. And it couldn’t have been more pleasant.

Actor, Director, Hero

It’s hardly a stretch of belief that an actor famed for playing bad guys could be friendly and courteous, but it’s still an unnerving phenomenon to encounter it in the flesh, particularly when it comes to low profile character actors. His name may not ring too many bells on the other side of the pond, but Mullan is an award winning actor, claimant of the acting gong at the Venice Film Festival for Joe, an intense screen presence who has worked with Steven Spielberg, Mel Gibson and Danny Boyle (twice), and a talented Director behind three critically well received pieces (along with Neds, The Magadelene Sisters and Orphans). His portfolio ranges from domestic TV work to blockbusters such as Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Most international film-goers will have last seen him as Ted Narracott in the Best Picture nominated War Horse. You wouldn’t have guessed it from casual, down to earth conversation.

One of the other features of the Students on Screen event was the giving of freebies, something I cannot let pass. They came in the form of several DVDs comprised of short films, some from students and a couple of others from professionals. One of said pieces was a 15 minute long story named Dog Altogether made in 2008, starring Mullan and Olivia Colman, about a rage driven man lost in his life. It was an effective, stunning effort, directed by another actor turned auteur, Paddy Considine. Fast forward a year and this short film was being turned into a full length feature. This was Tyrannosaur, one of 2011’s best films, and one of Mullan’s finest performances to date.

An intimidating and electrifying presence, Mullan may not be destined for any form of stardom on the world stage, and based on my impression of meeting him and chit chatting irrelevantly, this isn’t the way he’d want it. What can be guaranteed, however, is that he rightly holds the rapt attention of students of film, fans of cinema and the unwitting mass of movie casuals, and also that the day I met him was one of the best of my brief life.

In an effort to bring the spotlight round to one of my country’s most prized artistic souls, here are five of his greatest performances, varying in range and type, and often worth watching for his presence alone.


Having already put in a brief but impressive shift for director Danny Boyle, as a heavy in Shallow Grave, Mullan was again called into work by the future Oscar winner, to play heroin dealer Mother Superior in the adaptation of Irving Welsh’s cult novel.

Though again short of screen time, and still building towards more significant roles, Mullan here succeeds in providing a wistful, unpredictable quality to the addict, bantering and whimsical yet potentially dangerous and unhinged. His character is always a shade away from becoming a psycho, a thin cover of charm barely sufficient.

Red Riding: 1983

After having an unclear degree of significance in the first two segments, David Peace’s blood soaked Red Riding trilogy concludes a tale of debauchery, corruption and human horror shows by clearly establishing Mullan’s Reverend Laws as a crux of the shady conspiracy hidden in plain site within West Yorkshire.

Previously a caring and fatherly influence in short appearances, here Mullan ramps up the sinister, oozing perverse relish for his activities and displaying an unhinged constitution in protecting his ‘flock’. A sleeper before, one who’s every inflection and pause for thought provoked questions and wonderings, Laws comes into his own, and through Mullan’s brevity becomes the dark heart of a unsavory, gripping story.

Children of Men

Heading towards eccentricity and double take inducing 3rd person speech patterns, Mullan is the morally skewed Syd, a goldbricking internment camp guard, in Alfonso Cuaron’s rousing, color drained near future drama thriller.

Arriving at a decisive moment within the plot, the appearance of Mullan’s humorous, unconventional character adds a curve ball to the pacing and mood of the story, and in short order he leaves a distinct, memorable impression, another striking component in a visceral, impacting and harshly overlooked film.


Prior mentioned as one of the highlights of 2011, Paddy Considine’s first foray into full length feature film direction is an unconditional triumph, a somber and brooding story of loneliness and self destruction elevated into a hopeful, almost inspiring parable by the pathos of a tight, astonishing ensemble.

Leading the pack and carrying much of the film’s heavy and dark weight, Mullan dazzles and grips in a sizzling, emotionally heavyweight turn as Joseph, a dispirit widower taken to bouts of uncontrolled fury and bitterness that are slowly draining what remains of his life from tense, overwhelmed shoulders. From the opening stages, where the rage that powers him emanates from every pore, he smacks of authenticity, and every dynamite scene adds further layers a protagonist fully realized, baleful and tragic, somehow and despite everything sympathetic. It is truly a tour de force.

My Name is Joe

The cream of the crop, Ken Loach’s bluntly honest and tentatively optimistic 1999 drama tells the story of Mullan’s Joe, a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild his life after too many wasted years spent in bad company. But all he striving to be is slowly taken from him by the demons of the past, and the desperate, hopeless effort he undertakes to save a young friend from the darker side of humanity.
While previously and since highly adept at walking the tightrope between settled and psychotic, Mullan’s performance here is something very far apart. He is an amiable, honest and realistic figure, beaten down by sins past but fighting his battles with quiet dignity, a man worthy of respect and hugely empathetic. It is impossible not to be taken in by his cause, and to root for his salvation, for his soulful journey to reach a good end. Far from the villains and the loosely restrained evil of his trademark roles, Joe is good of heart and intent, in a world of bad. A complex, torn and ultimately unforgettable performance.


Scott Patterson