Today (January 4th) is actor Graham McTavish’s birthday – Happy Birthday to him from everyone here at TORn!  Back at the start of December, our favourite tattooed dwarf sat down with TORn staffer greendragon, to chat about The Hobbit, about his latest project (playing Dougal MacKenzie in the Outlander series), and to reveal what it’s like to spend months working with a bunch of sweaty men in fat suits – and even to risk inviting them over for parties! Continuing greendragon’s ‘Inside the Middle-earth Actor’s Studio’ series, McTavish also discussed at length his approach to acting, what he sees as the greatest challenge in creating a role, and how he began his career on the stage. McTavish is an excellent raconteur, and there were many laughs during the conversation – read on to find out all that he had to say.

2013-12-05_17-06-19_368 (2)greendragon: The first and obvious question has to be, are you looking forward to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug European premiere, and what is it like getting back into Hobbit mode?

Graham McTavish: Yes, I am looking forward to the next premiere – very much.  I’ve seen a fair amount of the film through doing the ADR [additional dialogue recording], but in an unfinished state – and even then it looked absolutely amazing! The sequence with Smaug is hairs on the back of your neck stuff, really.  Going back into it – I was thinking about that the other day, because although I only just finished in August, it already seems a very long time ago, because I’ve started this new project doing Outlander.  I’ve been completely immersed in that world – the world of 18th century Highland politics, and charging around in plaid and carrying a sword and a dirk and all of that stuff!  So I’ve not really been in the Hobbit world in my head for a long time.  I think it will take a little bit for me to get back into it, to be honest, when I’m in Berlin.  Last time it almost felt like the premiere came hot on the heels of finishing filming, so everybody was locked in to that zone. This time some of us have gone on to other projects, some haven’t seen each other – so it will be a little strange perhaps.

GD: But you’ll be looking forward to seeing people?

GM: Yeah very much! Though the one who won’t be there in Berlin, whom I would really love to see, is Stephen Hunter.  We became very close, during the pick ups especially, and he’s a great, great guy.

GD: Does Dwalin have a favourite tattoo artist in Middle-earth? Or does he self-tat?

GM: No … I don’t think he does self-tat; though I guess he is used to using both left and right hand with the axes, so he’s fairly ambidextrous. But I think he’s probably got help.  I think there’s a specialist whom Dwalin likes to keep to himself; he’s found the guy and he doesn’t want anyone else to know.  The other dwarves don’t have tats because I’ve never told them where to go to get them.  It’s a common question amongst the dwarves; it was a long journey, and almost every day there was one of them going, ‘Go on, tell us, where did you get your tats?’ – but no, no…

GD: I read about your naming of Dwalin’s axes…

GM: After Emily Brontë’s dogs, yes.  I read a book about the Brontës.  I’d always been interested in them, not just because of what they wrote but the fact that they were women writing at that time, and surmounted these incredible odds to become best-selling writers of their day.  And Emily in particular; she only wrote Wuthering Heights… well, that was the only novel that was published… And she was this tiny woman; but she was incredibly stubborn!  Apparently when she was dying she refused to lie down – so she just walked around and basically died on her feet.  So that gives you an idea of the kind of woman we’re talking about.

She had these two quite sizeable hounds, called Grasper and Keeper.  She was very strict with them, and she wouldn’t allow them to sleep on the bed; but one of them did one day. So she warned him – she said, ‘Don’t do that again!’ – and the next time that he did it, she just knocked him out! Punched him! And she pulled apart two fighting dogs in the street once, when all the men were too frightened to go in and sort it out – she just grabbed them by the scruff of the neck and pulled them apart… She was a pretty amazing woman.  And I’d never forgotten that story, and that she’d named her dogs with such extraordinary names.

So I was talking to Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor; we were talking about weapons, and I was very keen that the axes were very practical weapons.  They weren’t ornate – they were simply tools of business.  We went for that very much in the design of the blades, and the shafts; and then I said, ‘I think he would have names for these axes,’ and I mentioned this story and said that I thought those would be great names.  Really this conversation was simply from a character point of view – that it would inform my portrayal of Dwalin.

GD: That he was secretly a Brontë fan.

GM: [laughs] Yes.  He was the guy who had his little collection of books, which he took along with him – the collected works of the Brontës.  But I said this to Peter and Richard – that one of the axes grasps your soul, and the other one keeps it – and Peter got very excited about this.  He was going [does excellent PJ impression], ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’d be great – we could have it engraved on the blades in Dwarvish!’  And I went, ‘Yeah, sure, ok…’  And the NEXT day – there they were: the engraved blades of Grasper and Keeper.  Those were the weapons that they very kindly gave to me at the end; they’re at home. The trouble is, you need a Baronial mansion with a massive fireplace to put them above; in a modern home they look a little out of place…

GD: Above the loo, in the downstairs cloakroom…

GM: Actually that’s not a bad idea!  I think that would be quite post modern…  Just stick ’em in the toilet; just as a reminder, for anyone visiting, who they’re dealing with…  Put the lid down, don’t hog all the toilet paper…

GD: I’ve been talking to various actors from the films about their background in theatre and their training in acting. Tell me about your background; how did you learn your craft? 

GM: I suppose the short answer is on the job.  I didn’t train at drama school.  I had no interest in being an actor during the time when most people develop those sort of interests.  I was always very interested in being a writer, and I used to do a lot of writing.  I would write with a friend of mine, and we would do these comic sketches that we only trusted ourselves to perform; so we would perform them for the school, and that kind of stuff.  And the drama teacher at the time – the wonderful Des Margetson – would approach me periodically and ask me to be in the school play.  I always said no, because I had no interest in doing it.  On one occasion, I remember he asked me to be Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night – and I said no. (Weirdly, I went on actually to do that part once, but I didn’t want to at the time.)

GD: Great role.  He has one of my favourite lines in Shakespeare…

GM: ‘I was adored once, too.’

GD: Exactly!

GM: It’s a wonderful line. Anyway, there came a day, at the very end of my time at school, when they were doing a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals, and a guy dropped out three days before they were due to do the single performance  – he was playing Bob Acres.  Des came up to me and said, ‘Listen, we’re in a real bind; this guy’s dropped out, we’re opening in three days – could you do the part?’  And – I’ve said this to many people, but it’s absolutely true – to this day, I’ve no idea why I said yes. I suspect there may have been a female member of the cast that I was interested in – knowing my mind at seventeen, that would have probably been a strong motivation… but I said yes, and incredibly I learned the part in three days, and went on, did the show, and it was a great success – and that was that!

GD: You got a taste for the applause.

DwalinGM: Yeah, I did!  And I took a year off between school and university, and during that year I joined the local amateur dramatics company, ‘The Priory Players’ in the church hall – classic ‘AmDram’, the local bank manager, etc. putting on plays, and I loved doing that.  Then there was a production being done of the Lincoln Cycle of Mystery Plays, in a place called Elvetham in Hampshire. It was done every twenty-five years in Elvetham – it may well still be done every twenty-five years! – and this was a big, big deal for the local amateur dramatic societies.  There were auditions all over the region for this particular show; and I auditioned, and I got the job! – to play the part of Cain and the disciple Philip.  I used to cycle to rehearsals – nine miles there and nine miles back – three times a week!  And that production really solidified my interest in acting. And then I did more and more at university; and I was lucky to have a professor at university who was very interested in drama, as a way of accurately studying the works of Shakespeare particularly, and other dramatists.

GD: You read English Literature at university, correct?

GM: Yes. So his approach was that, even if you weren’t acting, everybody had to participate in the staging of these plays. So I got to play lots of Shakespearean leading roles, and Elizabethan and Jacobean roles, that I wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance to do, especially at that age. In fact, I probably ended up having more practical experience of acting at university than I would have had at drama school. I mean, I was doing four or five complete shows a year when I was at university.  And then after that I was going to go to drama school – I got accepted at a few to do a postgraduate year.  But I’d already used my three years’ grant [government provided funding, to cover education costs], and they wouldn’t give me a further year; so I thought, ‘Ah, I’ll just go out and be an actor.’  And so I did!  I’d done a production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape at university in my final year, and I performed that (as it is a one man show) in pubs all over London, and that’s how I got my Equity card. And from then on I just started working professionally.

In the telling of that, it all sounds like this seamless, well thought-out plan – but of course it wasn’t a plan at all!  It was just stumbling, really, from one thing to the next, and hoping for the best!

In terms of my approach to acting: I think because I haven’t had formal training, my approach has always been… well, text-based, because of my background at university, but also instinctual. I’m not a method actor, for instance – or what one would imagine a method actor to be.  I’m not going to be the guy walking around ‘being’ Dwalin when he’s not on camera…

GD: You didn’t sleep with your axes? 

GM: No! And I know that Viggo, for example, did sleep with his sword – or certainly had it in his hotel room…

GD: But we’ve already established that Grasper and Keeper weren’t allowed to sleep on the bed…

GM: Good point, good point! So my approach has always been, as I say, text-based, instinctual; I’m not agonizing over the background, necessarily.  The only way I do background research is from a curious point of view, rather than ‘I need to know this in order to play the part’. So I love doing research; I’m playing a Highlander in the 18th century now [for Starz’s Outlander series.] I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading all about that period, finding out what those people were like; and I guess those things seep in to your performance, they inform you to some extent… But the other thing to remember – and I’ve always tried to remember this – is that everybody that you portray is human like you are. You’re tied to a way of behaving that is human, and isn’t specific to a certain time; yes there are certain things that you wore and carried around with you, and there were diseases that you suffered from that you don’t get now, but behaviour is behaviour, and one thing that history teaches you really is that nothing changes very much! So while I do historical research, for a role like Dougal MacKenzie in Outlander, I’m not slavish to that research. At the end of the day, what you have is the text – the script that you’ve been given – and that’s all.

GD: I read an interview with Ian McKellen, where he was asked how much research he did, and he said, ‘None – I just read the script! The rest of it is the director’s job.’

GM: Absolutely! It’s true – I did a stage production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion once; I played Captain Wentworth. And I remember there was a Q&A session after one of the shows, and somebody was very interested to know how reading the book had informed my performance, and I said, ‘Well I didn’t read the book! I had no interested in reading the book – I’m doing the play!’ I think sometimes reading source material like that – especially if it’s an adaptation – can interfere with finding the truth in the script, because they’re different – they’re different media.

GD: So did you read The Hobbit

GM: I did read The Hobbit, yeah.

GD: Because we are all pretty aware that Peter Jackson is going quite a way away from the book! But there’s not a lot to discover about your character in the book; just what colour hood he wears!

GM: No, there’s very little to discover. Most of the dwarves in The Hobbit are barely described – very sketchy. Really with the exception of Thorin, and maybe a bit of Balin…

GD: They all play an instrument and they all have a different coloured tassel and hood. And we’ve already seen Dwalin play his instrument [in An Unexpected Journey].

GM: Indeed! Obviously which I learnt to a level which was…

GD: A degree of virtuosity?

GM: Yes, of expertise! It was extraordinary; it was quite embarrassing to the others who played musical instruments, that they were so poor in comparison, but… [laughs]

GD: Thorin didn’t seem to have his harp, though…

GM: Well, maybe he’d left that outside the door of Bag End, because it was a bit big to get through the door? And as we were leaving, I would have probably said to him, ‘Didn’t you bring a harp? What happened to the harp?’ And we had to go the whole journey without his harp – which is probably why a lot of us were quite bad-tempered…

GD: A mouth organ would be more convenient on such a journey – or a Jew’s Harp.

GM: Yes!  I think somebody wanted to play one of those actually. It was probably Jed Brophy – that’s the kind of thing he would ask for… [laughs]

But going back to the text – for me, it’s really the be all and end all of understanding what you’re supposed to be doing. I know, for instance, having worked with Richard [Armitage] and having heard subsequently what he’s said about the subject, that he liked to be left on his own, to be in that headspace…

GD: Yes, he said that he felt that he got a reputation for being anti-social, because he was ‘the weirdo in the corner’…

GM: His words, not mine! [Laughs] But my approach has always been to find almost the opposite emotion to the one that I’m going to be portraying in the scene that I’m about to do. I once did a play about Vincent Van Gogh, that I’d written, and really it was an hour of angst – not a lot of laughs. But before each show, the other actor and I would always be cracking jokes up til the moment we walked on. And I always found that really helpful – because I think it frees you to being able to react in the moment.  I think that the greatest challenge that acting presents to you, (other than the technical challenges that you have to be able to do, especially with camera, and onstage, knowing where people are in relation to the audience, etc – all of those things, which are very important), the greatest challenge is to find the truth in any given moment that you’re portraying.

In many ways, I think acting is very simple – because most of our lives are spent in truthful moments. Of course there are moments when we present a character to people, if you’re serving the public, etc.; but we generally live in truthful moments. We’re not questioning those moments as they’re happening – we’re just experiencing them and reacting accordingly. And that’s the challenge of acting; because you know what those moments are going to be in advance, it’s difficult to hold on to that spontaneity. I find that allowing my mind to be free of what I’m about to do, before I do it, helps that happen.

GD: That’s very interesting. I’ve been reading Cicely Berry’s book Voice and the Actor, and thinking about trust and freedom in acting; being free and not relying on vocal tricks, or even what’s been successful in the past…

GM: Well, we all have our tricks – everyone I’ve worked with, myself included, has that little bag of tricks that has served us well in the past. The challenge is always to fight against using them; to try and keep those tricks away from you, because I think they should be the last resort.

GD: How much of yourself, or your own personal experience, do you use in any given role? We’re talking about the need to find spontaneity in any given moment, but you also have to know what that moment is about, as it’s not a real experience. So say if you’re playing someone suffering grief, you have to have some understanding, through your own life experience, or through observation, literature, etc. of what grief means to the human condition. And then do you have to find a way to access that ‘memory’ in the moment when you’re portraying it?

GM: Well I suppose that is the argument of someone like Stanislavski, I think – though obviously I’ve never read Stanislavski because I’m that kind of actor! [Laughs] I’ve always suffered from the superstition that if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it; so I’ve always been loathe to over-analyse how I get to a certain point. But in terms of memory, there are many, many things that I’ve done on stage and film that I’ve never experienced.

GD: I would hope so!

GM: Yes – most obviously, killing people, dying… And while I’ve witnessed death myself, in my later life, the actor’s greatest tool, I believe, is not his memory but his imagination. When, for instance, you’re portraying grief – I have experienced grief, so I have the memory of it, but I also find it useful to imagine grief; imagine situations that have not happened – and hopefully will not happen! – that make you feel a certain way.  Because memory is a strange thing; it’s sort of snapshots of experiences, whereas I think your imagination can be a more solid, reliable reflection.

GD: Yes – memory is not always true. What you remember about how you felt is not necessarily what actually happened at the time.

GM: Yes – and I think you can imagine something fully, in a way that you cannot remember something fully.  So I rely more on my imagination than on my memory.

McTavish with greendragon
McTavish with greendragon

GD: So how is it going with Outlander? Is it fun?

GM: Oh yes, great fun!  No prosthetics! NO prosthetics!  I can’t tell you – we all fantasized about that, when we were doing The Hobbit.

GD: Yes, I read an interview with Stephen Hunter, where he said, ‘They told me I could afford to buy a house with the money I’d get for this film – they didn’t tell me I’d have to be wearing it!’

GM: [Laughs] Classic Hunter!

GD: So you’re liberated.

GM: Yeah. You know, I’ve got my own beard – so great! Other than that – the character [in Outlander] is different, and he’s given the opportunity to develop over sixteen hours, which is even longer than the three Hobbit films!

GD: And is this just the first book, that the first season is based on? So potentially there are seven or so more seasons….?

GM: Yeah – she’s [Diana Gabaldon] just writing her eighth one.

GD: But does Dougal survive into book eight…?

GM: [shrugs] You see, having already explained that I don’t read these things, I wouldn’t know! [Laughing] So it’s a process of discovery for me as well!  So when I get the script that says, ‘And Dougal falls to his knees and dies,’ I’ll know!  – and approach it accordingly! But that’s a great gift, which actually television does uniquely – it allows you to explore a character over a great period of time. So yeah, I’m thoroughly enjoying it!  We’ve been very lucky with the cast that we’ve been given; to a man and to a woman, they are just thoroughly nice, interesting, different kinds of people. Good sense of humour – that’s very important. That was one of the real benefits of the guys on The Hobbit as well; you need a sense of humour. If you haven’t got a sense of humour – I mean, it’s true of anything, but especially if you’re locked together for a long period of time – if you’re in each other’s company continually, you’re going to be in situations that are difficult, sometimes boring, sometimes frightening, you need to be with people that you really like. And you grow to care about them; so, on something like The Hobbit, certainly we developed a very, very strong bond. One of the things that Richard used to say – and he was so right – was that nobody but us will ever know what it was like to be those characters, to do that job, to wear what we wore, and to carry that around with us for such a long period of time.

GD: Yes – working on the other side of things, with, I realise that there are so many fans who are so invested in this and feel a very strong sense of ownership for Tolkien, for the films, and for the cast – there’s a sort of protectiveness from the fans, and they feel very involved with the whole journey – which is as it should be. But then you realise, talking to people like yourself, that actually the experience of the people who actually made the film is totally different from anything that any of us are seeing from the outside.

GM: Sure – it is. I think the ‘Behind the Scenes’ pieces which Michael Pellerin has put together – and continues to put together, for the next two films as well – are setting the standard for that kind of thing, and he’s done an absolutely incredible job. But they only show snapshots – extended snapshots, but nevertheless only snapshots – of what people went through. I think just the fact that, when I was standing opposite Richard, I was standing opposite somebody who was, like me, encased in all of this stuff – we knew how that felt for each other. And when we were being asked to go that extra mile in a scene, by Pete, we would be able to look at each other for the support that we would need to be able to do that. Because sometimes – you know, I’m not comparing it to a lot of things which are very, very physically demanding that people do every day – but there were times when you were just out of gas, you were done. But Pete would need it again, and we would look to each other to be able to go, ‘Yep, we can do this, we’ll do it!’  And people like – well, everybody, but really people that stand out for me are Richard, Jed, Stephen – such rocks of guys that were there to just… if you were bent over, nearly puking, or if somebody had fallen down or injured themselves or anything, we were there to go, ‘Come on, it’s ok, get up – we can do it!’ That’s a fantastic thing – and I feel that about the people on Outlander as well; it’s a very supportive cast.

GD: So it’s a camaraderie in real life, which reflects the camaraderie of the characters on the screen.

GM: Yeah! I think it’s essential. I think when you’re spending that amount of time with somebody… well, it’s possible to act opposite somebody that you don’t like. I have done it; and I’m sure people have done it with me…

GD: Never let it be said!

GM: Thank you; that is the correct response!  [laughs] But it just makes the whole job a lot more difficult – and you don’t look forward to it. Whereas I looked forward to doing scenes with Richard, I looked forward to doing scenes with Stephen and Jed and Adam – and all the guys. We would always find something funny, in every scene, every single one!

GD: So my final question to you – which you may or may not know, but which has been intriguing fans… Last year at the New Zealand premiere, Ian McKellen wasn’t there but sent a recorded message, and he said, ‘Love to my favourite dwarf!’ So who is Ian McKellen’s favourite dwarf – do you know?

GM: Well… yes, I do… but I just feel it would be a shame to spoil that… All I can say is, it wasn’t me! Now that doesn’t mean that Ian and I didn’t get on – we did! But Ian would take great delight in coming up to various people, me included, and saying [does excellent Ian McKellen impression], ‘I do like you; I think you’re lovely. You’re lovely! But you’re not my favourite dwarf. You know who that is, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes Ian, yes…’ And he’d go, ‘Well it’s true – I just can’t help it…’

So he did have a favourite. But you know, he was very close to a lot of us. We spent a lot of time with him; he was very hospitable when it came to parties.

GD: I’ve heard that he throws a good party.

GM: Yes! You know, a lot of us threw parties.

GD: That’s a risk, having the dwarves over for a party when you’ve seen what they did to Bag End!

GM: Well, yes – I mean, I did have to burn my house down after the last one. Especially the bathroom – the bathroom was just destroyed…