Martin Compston is the award-winning Scottish actor probably best known for his work in the BBC’s Line Of Duty. He has also been working steadily, in film and television, since 2002, when he answered an open casting call for the Ken Loach film, Sweet Sixteen, having never acted before. This year will see him in a BBC thriller by the makers of Bodyguard, as well as the BBC five-part series, The Nest, an emotional thriller set in Glasgow, in a part written especially for him.
We spoke with Compston just before the realities of Covid-19 took hold, and before most of us appreciated how quickly things would escalate. The old-world charm of the Stafford London, tucked away in a corner of the city most of us forget is even there, provided a welcome escape. The staff is attentive and friendly, with an equal dose of humility and humour, an oasis of understated London hospitality.
TDH: I didn’t realise Line of Duty was filmed in Belfast; it’s a great city, great people.
MC: I’m from the west coast of Scotland, it’s twenty-five minutes across the sea, so very similar. I’ve worked there a lot and it’s amazing to see what’s been happening in the place. I think one of the great things too is that our industry is a great equalizer; you’ve got everyone from every background and they just get on with it. And the restaurants, they’re phenomenal. For actors, eating’s a big thing, because you finish a day’s work and you can’t really go out drinking because you’ve got work in the morning, so dinner’s always a big thing for us. It’s a great thing to be able to talk with everyone too. And Belfast is great for that. And it’s great when a city centre is walkable. I like being around people, just seeing stuff going on, especially if you’ve been working all day. If you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere it’s nice because it’s quiet, but at the same time you kind of get lost and end up thinking about work.
TDH: You must have a good team after all these years.
MC: We do, and it’s been the job of a lifetime, I can’t believe ten years later we’re still going. But it just seems to be getting bigger and bigger every year, going from strength to strength. I’m really excited about this series, particularly because – I love them all, but my favourite series have been 1 – 3, when we were on BB2, on a Wednesday night, and we could be a lot more subtle, less flash. But when we switched to BBC1 Sunday nights…
TDH: Different expectations?
MC: Yes, so we get bigger, there’s more bangs, more machine guns – but that’s made the show what it is. But now that we’ve done two of those (seasons) I feel like we’re solid enough that we’re going back to our core. The scripts this year are so great – there’s still the odd set-piece, that will be big, but all the drama is back in these massive interview scenes and dark alleys.
TDH: I’ve just watched the first episode of The Nest, and that was very well done, a real thriller.
MC: You liked it?
TDH: I can’t wait for the rest now! Can you tell me a bit about how it came about?
MC: I’m really proud of it. As an actor, you hear this quite a lot, that someone’s writing something for you. But Nicole (Taylor), the lovely force of nature that is Nicole, said she was writing something and was writing a character with me in mind and all of a sudden these scripts started dropping into my email inbox and she’s like, here it is, do you want to do it?
But it landed at a very hectic time in my personal life and I didn’t think we were going to make it work. But I’ve got the most incredibly supportive wife who said, “We’ll make it work”. And then everything started to fall into place.
I think because Nicole had written that part for me, I was first on board, so I was watching it unfold; watching these cast members come along and thinking wow, everyone is solid. Then you’ve got this little fireball newcomer, Mirren Mack (who plays Kaya), who’s a superstar and mature far beyond her years. She’s really great at her craft already, just out of drama school. But full of enthusiasm and me and Sophie (Rundle, who plays Compston’s wife in the series, Emily) were laughing at it quite a lot, thinking that’s what we used to be like. And you kind of wish you were, ‘cause the older you get, you can get more cynical about your days. You know you’re going to be waiting for hours, you’re moaning about call times or wondering what time lunch is – whereas when you’re young you’re just excited to be on set – all you care about is the acting.
TDH: That’s amazing.
MC: It really is, and so I think that rubbed off on us a bit. We were a great team.
TDH: There’s a real edge to the characters, especially her role.
MC: Nothing is as it seems with the characters… the great thing about the writing, and you find that with several of the characters, is the shift in your sympathies as it goes on is incredible and you really don’t know whose side you’re on.
Nicole is from that part of the world, and she’s earned the right to have a big say in how her stories are portrayed. She was so insistent on it being authentic and for the people to be authentic and how we spoke to be authentic. She made it clear, we’re not clipping it, it’s not going to be posher; this is how these people talk. And if they talk to each other it’s going to get even stronger (the dialect). Because that’s what people do in real life. She really fought for that. That was one of the things she wanted to come across: when I speak to Emily it’s different to how I speak when I’m with Kaya. And it’s really liberating to be on set with someone like that.
TDH: And like your character, you’re an ex-footballer?
MC: A long, long time ago.
TDH: I’m sure you’re still a fan.
MC: Oh yeah, big Celtic fan. I think when Nicole was writing it for me, there’s a few references to Celtic, and the character gets to wear a Celtic strip, so I think that was kind of a nudge. Got to do it!
TDH: You grew up not far from where this series is set?
MC: It was a beautiful thing for me, I think it’s the beginning of episode 3, there’s a moment of me on a bench in Greenock where I grew up, that was literally around the corner from my mum and dad’s house. So my mum came up with a cup of tea. But there’s a bench where I do a scene and it’s the same bench I was on in Sweet Sixteen, which was my first film. And I didn’t even tell them, the location scouts. But for me it’s like coming full circle.
TDH: Tell me how you got the (lead) role in Sweet Sixteen?
MC: It was a mad time. I was always interested in acting, a real film fanatic growing up. It was funny, my mum said this in an interview, and I didn’t believe her, but she said I refused to answer to any name other than Indy as a kid, because I was obsessed with Indiana Jones. And I was thinking, she’s made this up. But then a picture comes up of me with my hat and my whip and my little jacket, so you know the way everything comes flooding back, and I thought, Jesus, I did. And so all that kind of thing, that sense of adventure, the sense of being somewhere else, being someone else, that was always there. And now, we’re just playing – my bread and butter, as well as the job of a lifetime on Line of Duty – it’s really cops and robbers, running around arresting bad guys!
Something that did change my life, was a film My Name is Joe, a Ken Loach movie. I can’t remember what we were going to see, but it was a with a friend of mine and we were going on a double date, I think we were like 15, and we’d gone to see whatever the blockbuster was but we’d missed it, and that was the only other movie on. And it just blew my mind. Because I didn’t know people could be on that screen and speak like me. I didn’t know that cinema existed. And then by chance, the director of that, Ken Loach, was holding open auditions at my school about a year later. And I didn’t know who Ken Loach was per se but I knew from the movie, and it’d had such an impact on me. So I went for the auditions.
TDH: Had you acted at all before?
MC: A bit, but not even in school plays, just what we did in English class. I had really good English teachers because I was always a bit cocky at school but that’s where I’m from too, you need to have, what we would say, a bit about ya’, a bit of swagger to survive.
If you ask me to fix something, or change a light, I’m useless, but I’ve always been book smart. So I was hanging out with all the rough kids, but I was in the top classes. And my teachers were really great, they would kind of let me tread a line of being cheeky, but also gave me room… like if they just said get up and read in front of the class, I couldn’t do that, cause word would spread. But the teachers would make it into like a warning system. So we had the stages, and the final stage was detention, so they would give me enough warnings so I would have to front up and go, oh, I’ve got to do it.
TDH: We need more teachers like that.
MC: We do! They were amazing, because I’d go up and read and I loved it.
TDH: You must have had a bit of confidence though, to put yourself forward for the role.
MC: I have always had a bit of confidence, but compared to people at my school, they were the extroverts. But what I’ve found is it’s whether you can be confident when it matters, like in front of the camera. When the cameras and crews are around, a lot of people fold. It’s a lot of pressure. You can see people being emotional and all that, but can you do that when there’s a makeup brush in your face and the lights are on you – can you deliver when it needs to be delivered? And that’s the skill and the art form too.
Monarch of the Glen, which I loved and came after Sweet Sixteen, was my acting school. Hit your mark, learn your lines, different directors. Camera angles. It was amazing for me, that job.
TDH: Have you worked in America?
MC: I did one movie, but I’m very proud of it, A Guide to Recognising Your Saints, with Shia LeBeouf, Robert Downey Jr., Channing Tatum, so many. I’m the ‘Irish’ one, with blond hair! It was crazy. I was twenty-one years old, filming in New York, with Trudy Styler putting me up. It’s not that they couldn’t afford me, they couldn’t afford a foreign actor, so Trudy paid everything for me and got me my own little apartment right in the middle of Manhattan; it was just mental, surreal. I was so interested in exploring New York I was often just out on my own, hanging out, kicking about with New Yorkers, thinking this is the mecca!
At the time they had these open-air cinemas on the pier, a movie on nearly every other night. So I would go down early, get a good spot and lay out my mat. Then the place would fill up, and people would see you had a good spot, and say, hey do you mind, and before you knew it, you’d be sitting there with them and cracking open a couple of beers.
TDH: Is there any role or project in particular that you would like to do in the future?
MC: There is something, it may never come to fruition, but there’s a part I feel I was born to play and it’s not been played yet. And I feel like, with each job I’m getting closer to being able to say, this is what I want to do.
TDH: Has the story been told?
MC: No, and I don’t understand why. There have been stories from around the time, and what impression one is left with, the legacy. But there’s been nothing told about him, nothing major, and that’s exciting, knowing that part is there to be played. Writing is such a discipline, a responsibility, but directing is something I would be interested in. I know how to best layout a scene, how to make shots work, all the technical bits about filming – I’ve been doing it for 15 years now.
TDH: What is something that surprised you when you first started making films?
MC: Shooting out of sequence! Because my first film with Ken (Loach) was shot in sequence. So I just assumed that’s how it was. And of course, the first thing I did after that, we shot the ending first.
When Compston originally left Scotland and came down to London, he remembers the feeling of being able to be whoever he wanted to be, wear whatever he wanted to wear (a high collared jacket as worn by the band the Libertines, as it turns out). The young book smart lad found it incredibly liberating, at a time when he was still unsure of his place in the world, and what version of himself he could be. As it turned out, that version was an award-winning actor, and one of the nicest actors in the business.
The Nest is on BBC One Sundays at 9pm GMT
(catch up on BBC iPlayer at the link below)