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The Herald (The Rig)

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Iain Glen on The Rig: ‘There was the odd mishap. I fell off a crane’

Iain Glen is telling a story about a hairy moment while filming The Rig, the much-anticipated sci-fi thriller set on a North Sea oil platform – shot entirely in Scotland and featuring a stellar cast – that has newly arrived on Prime Video.

“There was the odd mishap along the way,” says the Edinburgh-born actor, with wry understatement. “I managed to fall off this crane, which was quite high, having been slightly dismissive of the fact that they wanted to attach safety harnesses to me …”

Glen, 61, known for his roles in Game of Thrones, Titans and the Resident Evil films, plays offshore installation manager Magnus MacMillan in the six-part Amazon Original series set on the fictional Kinloch Bravo rig.

He was shooting a scene with Line of Duty and Mayflies star Martin Compston when the crane incident happened. “I was working with Martin and trying to look after him and I did fall from it,” he recalls, continuing the tale. “Thank God, I was wearing the harness.”

Although, says a slightly sheepish Glen, as they prepared to shoot, he had boldly insisted that a safety harness felt like overkill. “I kept on and on and on about it,” he admits. “They said, ‘Shut up, Iain. Just put it on. You need to. It is higher than you think. The mattress won’t break your fall.’ There were the usual crash mats that the stunt department uses.

“I was very blase. But as I leapt from it, having lost my balance, and dangled, I was very glad that they had managed to persuade me. There was a collective gasp.” I bet Compston, looking on, let loose with a few expletives too? “Oh yeah, definitely,” confirms Glen, laughing.

It is little wonder. As Glen tumbled from the crane, there came a heart-stopping moment when the safety mechanism on the harness took its time to kick in. “It only caught me inches away from hitting the ground,” he says. “I fell quite far before then.”

Talk about dedication to your craft. Nor was Glen alone in this vein. By the time the four-month shoot at FirstStage Studios in Leith, Edinburgh, wrapped, the cast had a few war stories to tell.

Compston has revealed that he was set on fire for a stunt during filming and ended up with “a bit of a tan” when the licking flames got slightly too close for comfort, while Canadian actor Emily Hampshire of Schitt’s Creek fame suffered a black eye from walking into part of the set.

Guilt star Mark Bonnar experienced what he described as “pre-hypothermia” when his body temperature dipped perilously low after being repeatedly drenched with water for a scene.

Their toil is testament to the high-stakes drama that viewers will see unfold on screen. Proceedings open with the oil rig crew preparing to return to the mainland when an eerie fog sweeps in.

Communications go down and all hell breaks loose. Trapped miles offshore, tension and claustrophobia build as a series of unexplained and seemingly supernatural events occur.

While The Rig is binge-worthy entertainment, the show’s creator and writer David Macpherson – who has a masters in environmental studies – has deftly woven themes about climate change and humankind’s thorny relationship with nature into the gripping storyline.

This aspect of the script was something that Glen strongly connected to. “It all feels very pertinent and relevant,” he says. “The issues thematically that this thriller carries are, in a nutshell, what are we doing to the planet?

“Should we be reassessing our relationship with it? How can we nurture it, look after it and not abuse it in the way that we have done, particularly over the last few decades?

“I am proud to be part of something that has a message that is worth hearing without it being didactic or getting bogged down in a way that destroys it from being a powerful and thrilling piece of drama.”

Glen has high praise for Macpherson, who grew up close to Alness on the Cromarty Firth. Macpherson drew inspiration from the “strange things” that his father, who built rigs at nearby Nigg and later worked offshore, would tell him stories about.

“He’s a fantastic writer,” says Glen. “I think he is going to have a stunning career and he deserves it. He is a very gentle soul. Deep thinking. He knew about the rigs because of his father and it was a perfect fit with his interest in geology and the history of the planet.

“David has a great facility with dialogue. Within 15 to 20 minutes of the first episode, you have pretty much got familiar with everyone and without a hint of exposition. That is fine writing.”

It is a Tuesday afternoon in early December, and we are ensconced in an airy meeting room at the Gleneagles Townhouse on St Andrews Square in Edinburgh. The hubbub of the pre-festive bustle and occasional melodic chime of passing trams drifts in through an open window.

Filming The Rig, says Glen, allowed him to spend quality time with his parents who still live in the city. “For it to be shot in Edinburgh which, of course, is where I was born and bred, and be close to my mum and dad who are still here, it was just perfect. I had the happiest time doing it.”

Did he get to see a lot of his folks, then? “I did, yeah,” he says, smiling. “My dad is in a [nursing] home. He lives around the corner from where my mum lives. I used to go see both of them on a daily basis, whenever I could, every weekend.

“That was a treat because it is different when you are there for four months, day in, day out. I would pop in for a meal or bring dad round to mum and vice versa. I cherished it.

“It was also perfect timing. My dad had only recently moved into the nursing home and it was a real difficult wrench for my mother. I was able to bridge that a little bit for them both. It felt very fortuitous that it happened that way. I kind of rediscovered the city as well.”

Glen, who lives in London with his wife and three children, embraced the opportunity to revisit some of his old stomping grounds, even if he did find the Scottish capital to be a markedly different place to that he once knew.

“It has changed,” he says. “There is no street front that feels the same. Everything has evolved. But I got to know it by foot and bicycle. There are fantastic bicycle paths and footpaths all over Edinburgh. When I had time off, I would set off and cycle everywhere – half the time not quite knowing where I was going.

“I’d end up at Portobello or somewhere, then have to turn around and find my way back. I loved that. I think it is the most beautiful city architecturally in the whole of the UK. I am very fond of it and always will be.”

The youngest of three sons, Glen spent his formative years in Edinburgh. His father worked as a chartered accountant for the Scottish Investment Trust and his mother was an NHS occupational therapist.

We return to talking about acting and how what began as a student hobby has grown into a hugely successful and high-profile career. Glen’s face lights up as he joyfully reminisces about those early days treading the boards in amateur productions, including a small part in The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

“Ironically enough, I ended up playing the main role for the Royal Shakespeare Company, 20 years later, after that first performance at Aberdeen University,” he says. “Something buzzed in my mind and people were positive about it. And then, I was off. I didn’t look back.”

When it comes to favourite highlights from the vaults, Glen reels off a list of stage productions that remain close to his heart: Road at The Royal Court in London; Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic; and Macbeth at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow.

Since the late 1980s, he has become a familiar face on screens big and small, racking up a body of work that includes everything from a memorable turn as John Hanning Speke in Mountains of the Moon to appearing as Dr Alexander Isaacs in the Resident Evil horror film series.

Among his recent TV roles are the award-winning South African crime thriller Reyka, newly commissioned for a second run, and playing Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne in Titans. Then there is the job that cemented Glen as a household name: playing Ser Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones.

Glen has no hesitation when asked what he gets recognised for most. “Game of Thrones because it was such a massive global hit,” he says. “I can be literally anywhere in the world and will get stopped by people.”

Do fans ever give him a hard time about the show’s polarising ending? “They don’t on the whole,” says Glen. “It happens occasionally but mainly it is disappointment that there is not more of it. I think partly the problem came because people didn’t want it to finish. It was so popular.

“So, yes, it is still Game of Thrones. I am always pleasantly surprised when people say, ‘Oh, I saw you do some play at Chichester …’”

With this weekend marking the premiere of The Rig in 240 countries and territories worldwide, chances are he may soon find himself being recognised for that too.

The cast is a glorious mash-up of Line of Duty, Game of Thrones and Guilt alumni, with Glen, Compston, Bonnar and their co-stars Emun Elliott, Rochenda Sandall, Owen Teale and Mark Addy all having had roles in one – or more – of this trio of TV shows.

When I interviewed writer/creator David Macpherson during filming in 2021, he described the line-up as being akin to “the Scottish Avengers”. Glen chuckles at this nickname. “Yes, exactly,” he says. “We all got on from the word go. We got on tremendously.

“We were all staying in the same place, which is not always the case because sometimes you can be in various accommodations all over. There was fun on and off the set.

“A really great bunch of actors and, like on a rig in the North Sea, it would be predominantly Scottish, but you would get voices from all over. You would often have the company rep, the role that Emily [Hampshire] plays, from America or Canada. That is not uncommon at all.

“The mix of actors was very organic and lent itself well to the story. Sometimes you feel when you read these things, ‘Oh, they are just trying to get in that American element to tick a box …’ But this was absolutely integral to it which was good.”

Glen got to know the oil industry a bit during his stint at university in Aberdeen. “I was definitely aware of these crews that came off the rigs,” he says. “It was two weeks on, two weeks off. They would hit Aberdeen with their pockets full of money.

“But that being said, the script was a real eye-opener to me. All the various research we did brought home the reality of that world. It is a fascinating, remote and dangerous world which, unless you are inside it or part of it, is alien and unfamiliar to people.”

Did he and his castmates embrace that work hard, play hard spirit in their own downtime? “I can’t rock and roll it quite to the degree I used to,” laments Glen. “It is hard to keep up with Martin sometimes. He is a legend. Because he can bounce back, that’s the thing.

“Emily was funny. She is quite retiring. It would be difficult to get Emily out. It was a running joke with her. But she is fun and such a giggle. Owen Teale, I have worked with a few times before; Rochenda, Mark and Emun, we all, at various times, hung out a lot.”

Some of his latest projects have taken Glen to Australia (Last Days of the Space Age), Iceland (Operation Napoleon) and South Africa (Reyka). Filming in Scotland has been a rare treat, he says, and something he hasn’t got to do enough in his globe-trotting career.

“I was always disappointed that I hadn’t worked more in Scotland to be honest,” says Glen. “I have been very lucky that my career has taken me all over the place, but I always kept an eye. Ten or 20 years ago there wasn’t enough being done here.”

The Rig felt like the perfect vehicle. “It is a Scots story and a Scots production and benefits because of that,” he says. “For me, personally, it felt overdue to come back to work here. I couldn’t think of a better job to do that with.”

The Rig is available to watch exclusively on Prime Video now.

– Interview with Susan Swarbrick. A version of this interview was originally published in The Herald.