GLEN OF TRANQUILITY
There can be a certain predictability about meeting square-jawed, handsome actors. They are either so far into themselves on some wavelength that couldn’t be picked up on a Geiger counter, or they are so charming, so self-deprecating and so desperate not to appear idiots that they give away little. Not Iain Glen. He is different from the usual thespian mental patient. Oh yes. He doesn’t have temperament. He thinks there is no reason why an actor should be more temperamental than a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or a preacher. Being the focus of press attention is a burden he accepts gratefully but hasn’t quite got accustomed to.
With those piercing, soulful eyes, impeccable manners and an air of inner strength, this man was born to be a romantic lead. Which is why he is being interviewed today, Edinburgh-born glen has starring roles in two totally absorbing six-part dramas upcoming on television: in Glasgow Kiss, for BBC1, a love story about a top sports reporter smitten with the hard-nosed company executive who arrives to swing the axe at his terminally ailing Scottish evening newspaper and in Anchor Me, for ITV, a meticulously detailed, almost painfully analytical script about family life and the fractured relationship between two brothers.
He puts in a platinum-class performance as the husband and father whose previously secure middle-class existence is suddenly threatened by the dreaded doldrums of a midlife crisis. Glen is a serious actor, who is seriously good in both parts.
We had arranged to meet up during a preview night at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. The event is a real wine-and-canapés luvvie night at its most self-congratulatory, involving a serial army, the ranks of which are largely made up of the cast and crew from Anchor Me, along with members of the Academy. In the crowded cocktail bar there’s lots of meeting and greeting, the usual cheek-to-cheek air-kissing stuff. Glen arrives 30 minutes late, cursing the London traffic. But the Glen charisma is very much in evidence today. The look he’s wearing – leather jacket, silk shirt, dark slacks – is more eighties than new millennium man. For this chat he is ushered into the tranquil setting of the preview theatre. Bathed in the glow of a single spotlight, which accentuates cheekbones high enough for snow, he is perched on the edge of a seat in the back row and proceeds to light up a filter cigarette. It’s easy to see why director Sam Mendes, since an Oscar winner for American Beauty, picked him to share the stage with a nude Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room. He’s such a virtuoso in his job that there’s not an actor he can’t go into a scene with and be absolutely confident that he can do it.
He has a reputation for being quite intense, though always charming, and, we’re rather sternly forewarned, he has no deep interest in discussing his private life.
Glen is married to House of Cards actress Susannah Harker, whom he met 15 years ago. The pair have a four-year-old son Finlay, and live in London. And you immediately wonder: considering the hormone-cranking caliber of this guy’s leading ladies – Sigourney Weaver, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Charlotte Rampling, Helen Mirren, Mrs Tom Cruise etc – does Susannah have to pin a St Christopher medal to the pyjamas she has packed in his overnight bag when he goes on location? But whoa, not so blunt, we’re supposed to be aware of where the boundaries lie here.
So, with stealth we attempt to tip-toe into the subject of his personal life simply by suggesting that he might identity with his screen character, Nathan, in Anchor Me. Experiencing one of the gawdawful “where do I cone from, where am I going and how long have I got” type mid-life scenarios. Nathan is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Sarah (Julia Ford) and decides to seek a trial separation.
He must also undertake the onerous task of informing his teenage son of their mutual decision to split. The way Iain plays the scene it is as if someone has taken a sword and drawn it through his gut. Could Iain, a loving husband and devoted father, etc, possibly ever have entertained such thoughts in real life? It’s at this point that a usually guarded actor spouts off the clichéd response received acidly – “I don’t want to go into any depth about this” or “I have no interest in discussing my private life”. But Glen decides to broach the issue with a straight-from-the heart reply. He says: “Yes. I have been there at times. I mean, I am in a 15-year-old relationship.
“In any long-term relationship, unless you are incredibly lucky or you are a better person than I am, you go through periods where you contemplate having had enough. Ideas fling about your head. How do we deal with that? How do we cope with that? How do you extricate yourself from this situation? You feel binded. Then next week you are okay and you are not entertaining those thoughts. There is no right or wrong to it. Whatever you do, as long as you do it with care and love. Nathan, this character, finds it very difficult. I think he is typical of a certain kind of male. I think he wants to say, well, it is tough enough to make that decision that I think we should separate. And so his wife is left to deal with all the fall-out”
So, Mr Glen seems to be a bit of a rarity then – a Scottish male who is at least in touch with his emotional side. He explains: “It is a lot to do with my profession and the job that I do. In a very simple sense the notion of acting is the notion of expelling emotion through the vehicle of another person. You are pretending to be someone else and going through all those emotions, whether it’s anger or love or hatred. That’s your food on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Shakespeare or TV writing. You have got writers dealing with human nature and how people behave and, of course, if things ring bells you think: ‘This could be so true of me’. That is one of the beauties of acting. It does teach you things about yourself all the time and you just hope that you live and learn a little bit along the way.”
In Glasgow Kiss, Glen’s performance as the hot-shot sports scribe, Stuart Morrison, a widower and lone parent, is as different from middle-class Nathan as chalk from parmigiano. There is a great line where Morrison spouts this interior monologue, spoken in sportswriter argot, about creating a balance in life: “Work and home – that is your striking partnership. They have got to complement each other. Otherwise, you just end up a loser.” Likewise, Glen’s job takes him away from home a lot. On Glasgow Kiss, he was working 12 hours a day, six days a week for many months. Having a young family has its problems, especially when your partner’s in the same business.
“One thing the nature of this game gives you is taking you to different places, through film and television particularly. You have to be very careful not to become too isolated. There is something fundamentally isolating about acting. It is something that you do on your own and you refer to yourself as you do it. You need isolation. You need to be alone. But certainly nowadays – maybe not true of 10 years ago – when I work, I work and when I don’t, I really don’t want to think about it. The moment I walk off a film set, my head is somewhere else. I want to be with family. I want to be at home. I think if you can escape from work – it depends on the nature of what it is that you are doing – you come back to it with fresh eyes. Anyway, you are spoilt on the film set. You have a spoiled lifestyle. They are petrified you are going to walk under a bus so they look after you. When your wife is an actress, too, there is a bit of co-ordination needed. I think I am right in saying there’s been no time when Finlay has not been with one or other with us.”
Fatherhood was important to him. It helped things fit in terms of the jigsaw puzzle of life. “It just thrust a completely new perspective on things. Your priorities change. More than anything else what a child brings is an altruistic love, which feels like the first time it has been in your heart if you were really brutally honest with yourself. You love adult partners but with provisos and with conditions. A child doesn’t allow you to do that. They don’t think that way. So basically it’s instinctive. It feels like an altruistic love. You are giving without any sense of return. You get a huge return but that is not why you give. You don’t give for that return but it is just there on a day-by-day basis. Prior to fatherhood it was the last thing in the world that I could have imagined, and if I did imagine it I would think I would be terrible at it. It was very hard to project ahead and think of it. But the moment there is a third being, this extra one, I couldn’t possibly imagine not being a father.”
Here are some facts about Iain Glen. He is 39. Over 6ft tall. He was born and brought up in a fairly middle-class background. His mum and dad, Alison and Hamish, enjoyed country dancing. Two years into an English course at Aberdeen University, he left for RADA after getting rave reviews for a performance in Bent at the Edinburgh Festival. Fellow actors Ralph Fiennes, Jane Horrocks, Alex Kingston, and Imogen Stubbs were in the same year. A good group of people he avows. The tutors seemed to have high hopes for them. “We were a really tight group of people. We weren’t that serious. Ralph was quite serious. He was madly in love with Alex. We had our wild days. A nucleus of naughtiness.”
Early on in his career, Iain won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his portrayal of doomed Barlinnie lifer Larry Winters in Silent Scream. His RSC work has won him comparisons with Kenneth Branagh. Yet the blockbuster success has been denied him. Some put it down to the choices he has made. Others emphasize Glen’s own tendency to put quality over quantity or any burning desire for fame. He merits nary a mention when critics run out their spurious list of usual suspects in the so-called Jock Pack.
“You are at he mercy of what is there,” he says. “I have a degree of choice which I value. Anyone who is a part of this Jock Pack is not there out of choice. It is just something that has come along called The Full Monty or Trainspotting and it has transformed things for them. I’d be at the mercy of that if something came along that ended up being the most popular British comedy, for example. Then the world will perceive you in a different way because of that piece of work.”
And working with Nicole Kidman? Performing with a superstar, does that necessarily decree there must be a pecking order?
“Definitely not. You are two actors. You have both got a tricky job on your hands. You don’t want to trip or make an arse of yourself. You are there to help each other out. That’s really what it is about. Now, if one of us was different, or if we hadn’t gelled, then maybe that sort of thing could come into it. I hate all that. Any sense of status. I never want to impose a status on another actor or a group of people and I never want them to impose their status on me. I have got no time for it. Whatever the world is saying, at the end of the day you have got you, you have got them, and you have got a director and you are just trying to put it together.”
Being married to an actress can make the relationship strained – but for him it was the only choice. “I could say that it’s a gift being with somebody who is in the business, because so many of your neuroses, or your concerns, or your hopes, or your failures or your successes can be shared. I think to non-actors it can all seem very, very silly. The way that you can spend energy or focus on tiny minute things. I don’t know, perhaps it would be very hard for people outside to understand. The gift is that it gives you a shared passion which is wonderful.”
But what about the competitive element – the professional jealousies? “I don’t think there is competition, but one would be lying if one didn’t say that it can be hard. If someone is less busy, those things can change and sway. A piece of really good news is great and you are really pleased because you love them, but perhaps you think: ‘Oh God, I wish I could have some good news.’ That’s not competitive that’s just human nature.”
He will be 40 on his next birthday. The Big Four Oh. “In my healthier moments I don’t give a shit,” he laughs.
“Statisticians and mathematicians can tell you your average life expectancy. I think it is all unnecessary. I know how I feel and I feel roughly in the middle of life somehow, I don’t really care whether I’m 42 or 38. I have done a hell of a lot in my career. I want to do more. There’s always things that you could wish for that you don’t have. Just constantly being offered fantastic scripts in film. But I spread myself thin across the mediums. There’s good writing and there’s bad writing in all the different areas, so if you spread yourself thin then you are more likely to pick up satisfying work all over. You make connections and things will come back. But the last thing I would want Sam (Mendes) to be feeling when we meet is that I’ve got a look in my eye that says: “What are you up to? Is there a part in it for me?”
“If the right thing came along then he would, I hope, offer me something. We had a lot of fun working together. It is just a waste of mind space thinking about what you could be doing that you are not. It is just not worth it. You just do what you have as best as you can. I don’t regret much either. I don’t regret decisions that I’ve made and things that I’ve done. If the next 10 years were like the last 10 years then I’ll be a happy bunny.”
But you only have to take one look at the Glen physiognomy to realize that nature is going to be very kind to him. What you see on screen as the manifestation of a sex symbol actually looks even more handsome in the flesh. Oh lucky man. He says: “I feel about six inside. That’s why I can relate to my son as well as I can. I can’t take it seriously. Have a giggle.
“Being an actor in the first place is such an absurd thing to do, really. It’s a thing in which you play about with realities. When I’m old I would like to be sort of as irreverent and careless about things as I am now. I can’t see why old age needs to bring you down or make you earnest.”
– By Gavin Docherty