Why Iain Glen is proud of supernatural North Sea thriller The Rig
How the oil industry drama helped the Edinburgh actor rediscover his home city
Game of Thrones star Iain Glen is delighted to be back in Edinburgh as he talks about his new six part thriller The Rig. Filmed entirely in Scotland at Leith’s FirstStage Studios and offshore, it kicks off as an action drama based on a North Sea oil rig and quickly dives into chiller, supernatural territory when a mysterious fog sweeps in and the rig is hit by tremors. With all communication lines down and mysterious forces unleashed from the depths, it’s down to the crew of Kinloch Bravo to fight for survival, led by Glen as the Offshore Installation Manager Magnus MacMillan.
Written by David Macpherson whose father worked on the rigs, directed by John Strickland as well as Alex Holmes, alongside Glen The Rig stars Schitt’s Creek’s Emily Hampshire, Martin Compston and Mark Bonnar.
For 61-year-old Glen who lives in London with his actor wife Charlotte Emmerson and three children Finlay, Mary and Juliet, it was an opportunity to return home, catch up with his mum and dad and rediscover his home city. He sits down with The Scotsman before the show launches on Amazon Prime Video on Friday. [6 January]
IT’S A SUPERNATURAL THRILLER WITH MYSTERIOUS FOGS, TREMORS, LOSS OF COMMUNICATION, WHAT IS GOING ON?
Well without giving too much away, there is a theme running through The Rig which is we should start questioning what we are doing to planet Earth. There are lots of things happening in the world currently that suggest that we may be putting nature off balance and that comes to pass during the course of this drama.
It is a supernatural thriller but the supernatural element is borne of the planet beginning to bite back and ask us is it right to be drilling huge holes in this unknown territory, the ocean bed? It has a relevance, a pertinence, to issues today, probably the most important issue facing humanity broadly just now and something that we’re far too slowly awakening ourselves to and so there’s a very, very strong message. But it’s not didactic and it’s not trying to educate in the wrong way. The supernatural element has an awful tangible plausibility which makes it particularly strong and scary.
FILMING WAS A MASSIVE UNDERTAKING WITH HUGE SETS BUILT IN THE STUDIO AND IMPRESSIVE SPECIAL EFFECTS, ARE YOU PLEASED WITH THE FINAL CUT?
Yes, there was a prolonged post post production period because of the VFX effects so you come back to it all that time later with fresh eyes, so I was delighted and excited to see the way it had all come together.
The vast majority was shot in the studio in Leith but we also bled outside. We were in the water at Leith, in the North Sea and they were using drones. And the special effects are done brilliantly – I was there and I find it very hard to discern what is VFX and what isn’t.
WHAT WAS THE SET THEY BUILT LIKE?
Almost triple storey The height of the studio was vast. Half the time we were kind of suspended mid level so were able to look down and it allowed shooting at all sort of different angles and got the scale of a rig.
Over three or four months we began in the control room, the most complex set, then as we shot another set would emerge; the medical facility, dining area, corridors, all forming around us. Even without Covid, I can’t imagine any other way of shooting because it’s completely impractical to get a cast and crew onto a rig for any length of time and the majority of the time out in the middle of the North Sea you don’t want to spend too much time outside unless your job dictates you need to.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ON AN OIL RIG?
I have not. But the research they gave us was very powerful – documentaries, not least Fire in the Night about the Piper Alpha disaster – and literature and people coming to speak to us and the writer David Macpherson had first hand knowledge through his father.
My main reference point was Derek Anderson who is a recently retired OIM (Offshore Installation Manager) which is what I was playing. He read the script and highlighted anything he felt inconsistent or implausible and it was reassuring that he was very happy and there while we shot.
THE RIG TALKS ABOUT DECOMMISSIONING AND THE WAY FORWARD WITH THE NORTH SEA.
Yeah, I think part of the beauty of the writing is that David manages within 20 minutes of the first episode to establish a kind of the normal life in a rig, the interaction between the staff and we understand who everyone is, what they’re up to and maybe their primary character traits. That’s really elegant writing. And we do need to care about people before the shit hits the fan and things start to go off kilter. During the course of the series we get to know these people in extremis.
The rig is just the perfect setting: if you take this gigantic structure totally isolated in the middle of the North Sea, it’s like a cauldron atmosphere with high intensity, high danger work, even on a normal day and when things go wrong in that environment they go seriously wrong, so it makes for perfect drama.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE MAGNUS MACMILLAN?
Level-headed. His motto is that he’ll get everyone home safe. He’s made huge sacrifices and had huge loss in his personal life which has meant that the life on the rig has become his family so he cares a great deal about the people he’s looking after. They will always come first. But you’re in an unenviable position as an off-shore installation manager in that you are the voice of the company. He is party to information that will affect the crew but is legally obliged not to reveal it, so that’s in the ether as well and he’s under immense pressure. His level-headedness is tested to its limit and goes beyond its limit. One of the reasons I was attracted to the role was that the qualities we see in him are always polar opposites; you see one person and then you see the underbelly, you see what’s made him the way he is.
MAGNUS MACMILLAN SAYS ‘ON THE BRAVO WE STICK TO PROCEDURE BECAUSE WHEN WE DON’T PEOPLE DIE.’ THAT IS CALLED INTO QUESTION ISN’T IT?
Yes. There are myriad protocols you’re supposed to follow but there are a whole bunch of variables that hit that they have never encountered before and then you’re in virgin territory and it’s the qualities of the people there and how they can react. So Magnus has leadership qualities, the ability to handle personnel and try to keep everyone sweet but he’s forced into a very, very unfamiliar situation and therein lies the drama.
IT’S QUITE A DIFFERENT KIND OF DRAMA.
It is. There is this supernatural element but it is grounded in the world in which it takes place. I also think that it is quite sure-footed. Extraordinary things happen but it’s not afraid to pause and ask for attention to the detail of the geology that’s going on. We’re very attached to our present, but if you think of the life of the planet going back millennia, aeons, there have been ice ages, extinctions throughout the life of the planet at a scale at time impossible for us to hold in our minds. But that’s what the drama gets into, that the planet is speaking in a way that echoes right back to when it was formed.
So there’s a richness to it and an ecological message but it doesn’t get bogged down in it; it remains a fast-moving, epic kind of supernatural thriller. It’s not just an action piece, or something that’s got no basis in reality, it feels like it carries an important message.
IT WAS NICE TO SEE EMILY HAMPSHIRE IN SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TO SCHITT’S CREEK, DID YOU WATCH THAT?
Yeah, I did watch Schitt’s Creek. She’s lovely and I think she does it very, very well. I think we have a really strong British cast along with Emily and you get that lovely mix on a rig because they’re often owned by American/Canadian companies and it’s not unusual for a woman to be in the role she plays so nothing’s twisted out of shape to try and accommodate a drama. We all got on very well and I think we have fond memories of it. It’s definitely one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever done.
DO YOU THINK THERE WILL BE ANOTHER SERIES?
We’ll just have to wait and see. It’s definitely possible.
WHAT WAS THE BEST THING ABOUT FILMING IN SCOTLAND?
Being close to my mum and dad in Edinburgh. I always come back and see my folks, but I can count on one hand the work I’ve done here.
I studied English in Aberdeen for a couple of years and we took plays to the Edinburgh Fringe and at the end of my second year I missed a sociology resit to perform in Bent by Martin Sherman. It was a bit of a crossroads. Then I was lucky enough to get offered a place at RADA soon after so went down to London.
The thing that got me going as an actor was a feature called Silent Scream which was about Larry Winters, a contemporary of Jimmy Boyle’s in Barlinnie [Directed by David Hayman and also Robert Carlyle’s debut film], and then I did the Scottish play with Michael Boyd at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow and a series called Glasgow Kiss, then a couple of bits of theatre like The Seagull in Edinburgh at the Festival, but not enough over the course of 30 plus years. So I was really happy to get back here for The Rig and be able to pop in and see mum and dad whenever. Much as I love the series, I really loved the proximity of being here and being back in the city for that length of time because it’s great.
DID YOU REDISCOVER EDINBURGH?
I really honestly did. I rediscovered it walking and on a bike. There are so many brilliant trails around here. I’m a keen cyclist and I really got to know the city that way, along the canals and walkways and footpaths because they intersect everywhere, north, south, east, west.
It is different if you’re not here for just a weekend or snatched week, but living, buying your food and staying here. I had an apartment close to St Andrew Square and all the cast were in the same place. Yeah, I kind of got to know it again.
WHERE’S YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE TO EAT IN EDINBURGH?
You’re spoiled for choice around St Andrew Square but my favourite is still my mum’s food. Her roast chicken, roast potatoes and bread sauce.
THE RIG HAS A SCI-FI ELEMENT. YOU’VE BEEN IN OTHER SCI-FI PRODUCTIONS RECENTLY, SUCH AS TIDES (FILM) AND WOOL (TV). DO YOU LIKE THIS GENRE?
Absolutely. Drama’s great at breaking open the possibilities of the world in which we live and trying to suggest things beyond our ken and it’s always dramatically interesting to go to those places. I’ve always enjoyed them, but when they have a resonance, a plausibility about them, then it’s the most powerful. Game of Thrones also has a kind of beyond our ken, supernatural element to it, but again it’s woven in very subtly and doesn’t overpower it ever.
IS GAME OF THRONES WHAT PEOPLE MOST RECOGNISE YOU FROM?
Yeah for sure. It’s always nice when people say I saw you playing Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company but nine times out of ten it’s Game of Thrones. Because it was globally such a massive hit it doesn’t matter if it’s Edinburgh or Timbuktu, you’re as likely to get recognition, which on the whole is a lovely thing.
YOU’VE ALSO DONE MUSICALS, PERIOD DRAMAS AND A LOT OF THEATRE. IF THERE’S ONE THING YOU WOULD LIKE PEOPLE TO HAVE SEEN YOU ACT IN WOULD IT BE HENRY V?
No, no it wouldn’t. I’ve been incredibly lucky. There are just different chapters in a career. When I left RADA I thought theatre would dominate and there were periods when it did and periods when it didn’t but I’m happy for anyone to have seen anything as long as they enjoyed it. And recognition is sweet on the whole, because random strangers complimenting you, who wouldn’t like that?
WHAT DO YOU STILL WANT TO DO?
Honestly, more of the same. I don’t covet anything I’ve not done because that’s a recipe for disappointment. The last job I did was a feature set in the First World War, but prior to that I was in Australia doing a comedy for Disney Plus called The Last Days of the Space Age and comedy’s always fun. I used to do a lot more on stage and always enjoyed it. It’s not necessarily something people associate me with so yes, if anything, a bit more comedy.
WHAT SKILLS HAVE YOU LEARNT IN ACTING THAT YOU USE IN OTHER PARTS OF YOUR LIFE?
I suppose drama’s good for presentation, just being comfortable in your skin. It is a process. You never get to the end of it. But to most people it’s a really alien thing, pretending to be somebody else and having a camera stuck in your face. It’s fairly odd and disconcerting so it takes a particular type I suppose. I’m not a particularly confident person, I’m quite a shy person, but if I’m given lines I believe in or can inhabit something that makes sense to me then I’m desperate to show it to others. If I’m working on something and I don’t, then acting remains agony, you just think ‘oh god, why do I have to wander on stage saying this because I don’t quite believe myself’. That’s why I admire writers more than anyone because they give actors their worlds.
YOU STUDIED LITERATURE, MAYBE THAT’S WHY YOU APPRECIATE THE WRITING?
Maybe. I was quite dyslexic as a child and at the time it really wasn’t highlighted. I’m not sure how severe it was but certainly the formal academic route was not something that suited me particularly. You just feel you’re not keeping up and you’re made to feel a bit stupid.
But I always enjoyed stories and pretend, so I felt lucky to accidentally fall into acting. I still haven’t lost the joy of that. I love acting as much as I ever did, I feel very blessed, lucky to have found the thing that ticks for me. I’ve no idea if there are other worlds that I could have occupied and been as content and fired up to do the best that I can but, if I look back over the decades I’m as enthused now as I ever was.
Iain Glen stars in The Rig on Amazon Prime Video from 6 January.
– Interview with Janet Christie