Scotland on Sunday (Gabriel & Me)
Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2001
Iain Glen on the boy he was and the man he’s become.
As Iain Glen answers a call on his mobile, I grab one of the hotel coffee tables to drag it closer to our sofa but I lose my grip, the trestle legs collapse and the heavy metal top crashes to the floor, two millimeters from his toes. He doesn’t flinch. “Are they insured?” He shakes his head. “I bet your cheekbones are,” I say, Reckoning that when you’ve just come close to crippling your interviewee, a bit of flattery is the best policy.
And at least it is honest flattery – because I really haven’t seen such fine cheekbones since the Russian seamen’s choir last visited Edinburgh Festival. The Shakespeare-to-Tomb Raider actor is every bit as lean, sexy and sculpted in real life as he is on stage and screen. Much as I rated his performance as a sports journalist in the BBC TV drama Glasgow Kiss however, I’m always chary of interviewing thespians – they want to talk craft; I want to get personal. But no such problem with Glen.
He is promoting his latest film Gabriel and Me, in which he plays the cancer-stricken father of 11-year-old Jimmy Spud, a Newcastle lad who wants to become an angel.
In the film, Glen, a smoker, appears as a haggard, sunken-faced shadow of himself: “It was a shocking journey to go on. Part of my research was visiting surgeons and doctors and I vowed that I would give up smoking because the statistics are frightening. I haven’t but I will.”
Shocked by the news of his illness, Jimmy seeks help form the Archangel Gabriel -Billy Connolly- to save his father, a redundant welder, and reclaim the fun, loving relationship they shared before lung cancer was diagnosed.
Although Glen’s childhood was a far cry from the grime and poverty of the North East, where the film is set, his was not without its difficulties. The product of a middle class youth in a leafy corner of the capital, attending fee-paying Edinburgh academy, Glen shatters the suburban idyll with tales of abusive teachers.
“There was a lot of stuff going on that was outrageous. There was abuse of a minor but significant kind – you could get felt up by masters. There was violence in the school as well. You could get seriously punished, the strap and the clachan.
“My Dad worked very hard to get me in there and give me a good education but the honest truth about it was that it was a really dire education at that time. Unluckily, it was the dying vestiges of a Victorian style education.”
Glen is at pains to stress that “it’s a very different school now”, but at the time he and his schoolmates took what revenge they could on the dominies of the Day.
“We used to phone up all these masters and pretend to be different people and they wouldn’t have a clue. The power of speaking to somebody who’d just beat the s**t out of you: ‘Guess who I am?’ We’d psyche them out a bit; stuff like: ‘We’re watching you.’”
As a 40-year-old, Glen winces at how he treated his parents: “In my latter teenage years I rejected everything my parents represented but in a half baked way. I had a real chip on my shoulder about being middle class. I felt I’d been removed from a whole area of Scottishness I wanted to be a part of. I remember going on holiday with them and refusing to eat at the same table as them. I was so horrible.”
Iain Alan Sutherland Glen’s battle for the attention of his brothers (the eldest Hamish is artistic director of Dundee Rep; Graham is “Something in the city”) started at a very early age and moulded his childhood and teens. “I was basically ignored by Hamish so I was always competing in a rather pathetic way to draw attention to myself.” He says it’s unconnected but as a toddler Glen climbed out of the playroom window and crawled along a gutter two storeys up. At eight, he dived from the top board of the Commonwealth Pool to impress his brothers but they pretended they had missed it and Iain went straight back up to do it again. He ended up winding himself so badly that an attendant had to help him from the water. By secondary school, he and his pals were going into the city centre to stage “traumatic experiences” for other people: one boy would bury himself in a mound of leaves, leaving only one arm hanging out, while the others watched the shocked reaction of passers-by. “Hamish was pretty wild as well but I had to top him,” recalls Glen, who even today is still pleased to describe himself as the “most troublesome” of the family.
“Through my childhood years I was pretty difficult. I got in trouble with the police at times. Nothing heavy; it was probably all very tame. I used to steal my parents’ car and I was caught and was up in court with the police. I think I made legal history by getting two endorsements on a license I didn’t possess.”
Later, Iain and his school friend, the DJ Nicky Campbell, would call local radio phone-in shows and indulge in role playing and mimicking: “We’d invent different people. We had it down to a fine art,” recalls Glen. “We’d say: ‘I’m a glue manufacturer and we’ve got this glue that’s completely safe for the kiddies to sniff.’”
After having to repeat his final exams he went to Aberdeen University, ostensibly to study English but embarked on a steep learning curve of another kind.
“I definitely dabbled in most of the drugs that were around at the time. In Aberdeen it was magic mushrooms which were grown everywhere; even the cattle were tripping. The students used to go out harvesting them and then dry them for winter. They were great fun but dangerous. There was a time at University when we’d smoke a joint most days,” he says.
When friends asked him to speak six lines in a drama society production of The Crucible, Glen admits without any hint of irony that it changed his life. “Acting was the thing that sorted me out. Part of the reason for taking drugs is to make the mundane more interesting. Zapping your head. But then when there’s real interest there you don’t need to enliven it with a stimulant.” To the initial dismay of his long-suffering parents, Glen dropped out of university in the second year to pursue a career in acting. By then Hamish – four years his senior who had also studied at Aberdeen – had given up a career in law in favour of theatre. Now widely respected as the artistic director of Dundee Rep, it was Hamish who had the foresight to found the theatre’s acclaimed rep company.
“Hamish will probably dispute this – he’s wrong – but I got into acting before he started to do anything in the theatre,” says his brother mischievously. ‘Hamish fibbed that he was in the drama society and ran it but he never went anywhere near the drama society when he was at university. I’m probably blowing all his gaffes now – he’s probably still got it on his CV.”
Somberly, he adds: “We had quite a major falling out during university where we just didn’t get on for a couple of years which was really because we’re very similar. My brother Graham was always the sweetest of the three brothers; always very liked. I was fighting for air space and Hamish was being bullyish, probably. Then we got it back together and I completely adore the guy and think he’s great, what he’s done at Dundee, all the work he does in Scotland but irrespective of all that, as a guy, I just think he’s fantastic and we’re the best of friends.”
Indeed, it was a one-man play directed by his brother, which got Glen an agent and an equity card and provided him with the speech for his successful RADA audition. Having used up his entitlement to a student grant, his parents agreed to pay his drama school fees, where his friends included Ralph Fiennes, Alex Kingston, Jane Horrocks and Imogen Stubbs.
Fiennes and Kingston are now divorced but in drama school days, Glen recalls, they were inseparable: “Ralph was just so in love with Alex and they would sit and long for each other’s eyes, like lovebirds.”
Having found his vocation in drama, Glen is one of the fortunate few actors who is constantly working. As he tucks into smoked salmon and cheese sandwiches – with chips on the side – I ask him about accepting parts at any price, such as those that would involve performing a live sex act. Glen, who once cartwheeled naked across a stage with Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room and whose actress wife Susannah Harker has a role in the controversial film Intimacy, is ambivalent on the use of explicit sex scenes.
“Very fundamental to that story was the central thing which they got up to which was having sex. It lent itself to being quite graphic because it was very much the heart of what they were doing to the point where they didn’t communicate with each other. All they did was have physical contact.”
In the film Susannah (Jane Bennett in Pride and Prejudice) gets to keep her clothes on as the wife of an adulterous husband (played by Mark Rylance) who embarks on a passionate affair with Kerry Fox (partner of journalist Alexander Linklater).
It is one thing being naked on stage and another having sex with a woman who is not your wife. Would he do it? “I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t necessarily be put off from the role. Probably nine out of 10 films in which I might be asked to do a scene in which my penis would be sucked I would probably say ‘no’ because the chances are they wouldn’t be terribly good films.”
Given the column inches male (and female) theatre critics devoted to writing about Kidman’s body, one could easily be forgiven for forgetting that her co-star was also textile-free but Glen shouldn’t be put off – it is to be expected.
What he took from doing the play in London and New York that seems to matter almost more to Glen than any accolades, is a close family friendship with Kidman and, until the break-up, Tom Cruise.
The two families saw in the new millennium together in Sydney but since the divorce there has been a change. “Nic was always the person who I really got to know because we were doing this play together so we established a really, really good friendship. I’ve only ever seen Tom through Nic so now Tom and Nic are not together I’m less likely to see Tom.
“We used to play golf or go out with the kids and stuff. Nic is a good friend and I’ll always be there for her as a friend if she needs me. When you’re going through separation stuff you feel like you want the feeling of support from friends around you so that’s all I’ve tried to do.”
In showbiz terms, Glen and Susannah have been together for a long time – 15 years, married for eight. Their main home is a terraced house in south London but they also have a farmhouse in France, which Glen, his brothers and their parents bought together, where they escape to as often as possible. With another film on the horizon for Glen, (as Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in the movie My name is Sabine Spielreen) they have been too busy with work commitments to spend much time there.
One senses, though, that Glen’s not quite finished with Gabriel and Me. At the press conference following the Edinburgh preview, Connolly – his Archangel Gabriel sports gold eyeshadow and gold painted toenails – pooh-poohed the idea of celestial fixers: ” I have trouble with religion and things flying around. Belief in God is one thing but I get tired of people who believe in angels. It’s a bit in the aromatherapy field for me; a bit hocus-pocus.” But Glen is less dismissive and wants to follow up the point.
“In the same way that Billy is very wary of saying ‘I believe in angels’ because it’s got a slightly voodoo-herbal number to it, I get wary of people saying ‘I don’t believe in angels’ – angels being symbolic of a whole spiritual craving within us and if we lose sight of that and lose sight of a sense of the unknown and inexplicable then the world shrinks in a very mundane way. So I believe in angels in the sense of wishing and believing the world is a very complex, wonderful place that I will never really get to understand.”
Does he believe in Religion?
“In its simplest sense, not to do with the buildings, or the books or God as an entity – maybe I dilute it to the point where it becomes not religion but something else – I believe in the heart of it, the wish of it and the spirituality which is really just about a lovingness between people, altruism, the idea of prayer and thinking about other people and wishing good for other people.”
Back to reality, the mobile call Glen received was from his mother and he has to go. While he has been as patient as any interviewer could wish, Finlay has come north with him and he is keen to spend as much time with his family as possible. Not so keen that, just before saying ‘goodbye’, he does the very actory thing – they never lose their sense of insecurity – of saying that he hopes he will come across as ‘intelligent and likeable’ in the finished piece. Happily I’m able to reassure him that that won’t be difficult at all.
– Lennox Morrison