AKA James Cosmo, the prolific Scottish actor known for his roles in Highlander, Braveheart, Trainspotting, Troy, Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy, enjoys Scottish tapas on the cigar terrace, at Boisdale of Belgravia
HO: We should probably mention Game of Thrones. I haven’t actually watched it.
JC: Fortunately I have. They took me out for the Hollywood premier of season three. It’s not really my thing but I can understand why people get into it. It’s all there. If you want sex, there’s tons of it; action, tons of it; political intrigue, tons of it. It’s just tick, tick, tick.
RM: And no character is sacred; you knew you were going to die presumably?
JC: It’s funny; I go fly fishing in Washington State and Oregon. I’ve got an old friend called Bo who’s retired and lives on the banks of the Columbia. I didn’t realise Bo could read because I never saw a book in his house. Anyway, I told him I was doing one season of Game of Thrones and he said, ‘Oh, Jeez, I’m going to buy the book, James’. He goes off and we’re fishing away before he said, ‘I finished the book, if they do another series you’re alright, your character is still there. He’s still head of the Night Watch, what a fucking guy he is!’ So that’s all great and I go over the next year, we’re fishing away and he says, ‘Hey James, I finished book two, you’re still there with the crow and the little guy and the iron man, you’re doing great’. Third season comes along, we go fishing and he says, ‘James, I finished book three’. I said, ‘Well done Bo’. He said, ‘Yeah… they’re drinking beer out of your skull’.
HO: What was it like doing Troy?
JC: It was great I really loved it, great film. They filmed that in Shepperton, Malta and Mexico. It was extraordinary, because I got to work with Peter O’Toole who was a great drinking friend of my father’s.
HO: That moment where Brad Pitt is brought out against the giant and he runs, jumps and thrusts a sword into him – an amazing moment.
JC: His name is Nathan Jones and he’s an Australian. I believe he works in American wrestling, he was 7ft tall. I went to the gym, wandering through to see if anyone was there wanting to go for a drink and he would be there with a barbell, with every weight he could find in the gym, just playing with it. He was enormous and a lovely, gentle guy all muscle, not an ounce of fat on him.
RM: Do you hold any strong political opinions?
JC: Yes I do, but they are varied and radical. I’m reading a terrific book by PJ O’Rourke, you know the American libertarian writer. It’s called ‘On The Wealth of Nations’. I’ve read the book so you don’t have to! Just very succinctly he explains everything about Adam Smith and his philosophy, which I find absolutely fascinating, on the button.
RM: And where do you stand on Sturgeon and Independence?
JC: I don’t think separation is a particularly good idea.
RM: There are attractions.
JC: There certainly are and I think security and immigration are unaddressed problems which will have to be faced at some point. But we don’t have the politicians at the moment; we don’t have people with the nerve.
HO: Did you begin on stage?
JC: No, I hate the stage. I’ve only done one stage play. I started off in movies that’s where I felt comfortable, Battle of Britain was my first movie, so you tend to gravitate to where you feel good. I was 18 then. I’ve spent my life in film, everything about it, it’s just part of me, I feel more at home on a film set than I do anywhere else.
HO: I’ve met a lot of actors recently who are dying to get to the stage.
JC: Oh no. If we do go to the theatre my wife insists that I wear a tie because when I fall asleep my head goes back and she can pull me forwards. It happens so quickly, the curtain comes up, they start talking and I feel sleepy. I love the intimacy of film, you can see emotion in someone’s eyes, it’s so subtle, it’s hardly there.
RM: It’s just something rather lovely, if you want to immerse yourself in another world.
JC: I can appreciate that some people love the theatre, love the experience but for me it’s a social occasion, each to their own. What sort of stuff do you read?
RM: At the moment I’m reading Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath for the first time.
JC: My favourite author, Steinbeck. I was having lunch with an American actor in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California and he said, ‘Have you read Blood Meridian? It’s a Cormac McCarthy book’. I hadn’t heard of it and the next day he slipped me this really well-thumbed paperback like it was drugs or something. Big thick book, it’s the best book I’ve read, oh, my goodness. McCarthy wrote The Road that they made into a movie and No Country For Old Men and those are great books but Blood Meridian is his masterwork, it’s just an extraordinary piece of writing. You read a sentence that goes on for half a page and it’s like a Van Gogh flourish; it’s just beautiful and descriptive, extraordinary.
HO: What it’s been like to work with Brad Pitt?
JC: Brad is a remarkable guy, he’s very, very intelligent, very interested in architecture. I met him on the set of Emma because he was with Gwyneth Paltrow at the time that she was playing Emma. Brad came down to visit her in the West Country where we were filming. I got introduced to him there and he’s such a lovely young man. It was sad to hear that he and Angelina Jolie had broken up because he’s such a level-headed guy.
HO: So, whose company have you really enjoyed on set?
JC: Mel Gibson was great.
HO: Did you go for a drink with Mel?
JC: I didn’t, as he was completely off it then, we did play poker though. He had just finished Maverick about a gambler. I got a call from his assistant and he said, ‘Hey Jimmy, you know Mel can’t go out at night, would you like to come and play poker?’ I said, ‘I don’t really play poker but I’ll come along’. He said, ‘don’t worry, it’s £100, if you lose £100 you’re out of the game’ and it was wonderful because I found out that Mel was a worse poker player than I was. But he looked fantastic, he had the waistcoat and everything, I think he’d stolen the waistcoat from the set of Maverick, so he looked the business, but was really bad at poker. I remember leaving one night and there were about six of us and I won the pot at the end and Mel said to me, ‘Are you leaving with all my money?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m just leaving with a tiny little bit of it!’
HO: Like you, he’s embraced a strong beard…
JC: Yes he has! It’s been really interesting to see his career develop. I’m not a particularly religious person. I’m an agnostic and believe more in science than anything. So I didn’t really want to see the Passion of Christ, but he couldn’t get it financed in America at all, by anyone, so he paid for it himself.
HO: He obviously felt very strongly about making it.
JC: Absolutely, he’s a very committed Roman Catholic and he made, I’m told, something from that. Then obviously came his problems, falling off the wagon, saying things that upset a lot of people.
HO: We mentioned Brad Pitt, who also seems prone to a drink, is it an actor’s curse or are there just huge moments of down-time on set, where you get together and simply have a beer?
JC: I was surprised by that because he always seemed so fit. There’s a very good piece of work called In Praise of Actors, I’ve got it framed in my house. It mentions that actors, to do their jobs properly, have to be voracious in their appetite of life because that’s what they are portraying. They’re sort of gourmands of life, have it all, see it all, do it all and when an actor is successful you can’t blame him for feeling so wonderful and so fulfilled. Of course he wants to drink, he wants to quaff to the end. But on the other end, if an actor isn’t successful, can you blame him when he wants to drink because he isn’t successful? Acting is one of the few professions where you need an audience. If you can play the piano and nobody likes you, you can still partake in the passion… but if you’re an actor, you need someone there; you need an audience of some kind. And if that is not available to you, what do you do? There’s a huge frustration and sadness when you can’t fulfil something that is your passion. So, both sides of success and failure can maybe be blamed.
HO: Is that a conundrum?
JC: Yes and also, to be a good actor you must be able to tap into emotions of all kinds very easily, you can’t be a rock, you’ve got to be a sponge and a mirror so all those emotions are at play.
HO: Presumably you don’t think about this anymore because with experience, you are now subconsciously ‘acting’?
JC: My dad always told me, ‘Acting is the longest apprenticeship in the world, one day you will learn not to act’. That was the best advice that anyone could give me. Don’t act, just be it, just be that character.
RM: Have you ever been overawed by meeting someone or acting alongside someone?
JC: Just once, I was about 25 and I got a call, they were casting for the Mackintosh Man and it was going to be directed by John Huston, the most extraordinary director, writer and actor. He was a bit like Teddy Roosevelt, he loved the bull fights, he was really a man’s man and hugely talented. I went up to some swanky hotel and was sent up to his suite. I knocked at the door and this man opened it with a wonderful wide, very open mouth and he said ‘Good afternoon young man, come in’ and I walked in and said, ‘nice to meet you’ and he said, ‘James, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine, Paul Newman’. Paul Newman was standing at the window!
JC: He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. He wasn’t a big man but he was stunningly beautiful, his skin was like bronze alabaster and his eyes were the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. Cut to 30 years later and we’re filming Braveheart. I’m not required, so I went to my Winnebago in my costume having finished a charity event for a charity called Hole in the Wall Gang, for terminally ill children. They have a home just outside Dublin. At 2 o’clock in the morning there’s a knock at the door. It’s one of the AD’s who said, “you’re needed on set.” I thought, I’m not in this scene? Anyway, the AD said, “Can you just go over there” and I walked over and Mel’s there and he said, ‘Hey, Jimmy’. I looked up and there’s Paul Newman. He said, ‘Hi’ and I didn’t realise that the Hole in the Wall Gang was part of his charity. He just said, ‘Thank you for organising the whole thing’, it was great. I said, ‘We’ve met before’ and he said, ‘Really?’ I said ‘It was with John Huston, when he did a film called The Mackintosh and I met you at Claridge’s. I didn’t get the part.’ He said, ‘Boy you were lucky – that was one terrible film!’