Master of His Craft
Whether he is starring as a hardy dwarf in The Hobbit trilogy, a fierce warrior chieftain in Outlander, or writing a New York Times best-selling book, one cannot fault Graham McTavish's versatility, talent, and on-screen presence. His hilarious travel series Men in Kilts with fellow Outlander star Sam Heughan, which has just wrapped up filming its second season, showcases his deep love for his Scottish roots, as well as his wry sense of humour.
Whiskeria caught up with Graham at The National Gallery in London - the place where he first caught the acting bug - to discuss what his favourite whiskies are at the moment, what "The Outlander Effect" is, and how Scotland, and the UK, is seen around the world.
The second season of Men in Kilts has just wrapped up filming in New Zealand. What made you shoot a show about Scotland there? Did you find many overlapping cultural connections?
I did! I believe 20% of New Zealanders have Scottish descent, when you go into the South Island you find that there's more McTavish's in Otago than anywhere else. They all just got on boats and went as far away from Scotland as they could, and then essentially landed up in another Scotland. You go to the South Island, and you could be in the Highlands. They brought the culture with them too, which is why we have a shared fascination with each other.
What's the secret to making great television?
Good writing helps - that's pretty important. The saying that truth is stranger than fiction is true, and because of that I always try to find a way of expressing something without emoting too much. That's the kind of thing I like watching, where subtlety, nuance, what is "unsaid" is as important as what is said. I think it's important not to over-emphasise everything and let people draw their own connections.
You play a lot of Scottish characters in movies and television; do you approach it differently nowadays compared to when you started your career?
Well, there was a very strong Scottish identity in theatre back in the 80s, and I don't know if there is as much of it as there used to be. That's a real shame, as I think the culture's been slightly homogenised. There's a great interest in independence but at the same time there's this sort of disconnect with the ways Scotland projects itself culturally, to a great degree. The ability to have a Scottish voice was much greater then than now, ironically. Outlander is an interesting example. It's obviously raised awareness of Scotland internationally, in the United States particularly. And the tourism numbers - I mean, there was some ridiculous increase in tourism in Scotland since Outlander - but because there is a romanticisation of Scotland, especially from people outside of it, I think Scotland has struggled a little bit with its identity. On the outside, they view it as this kind of wonderful Rob Roy, shortbread world. The reality of Scotland is very different, it has always been much more complicated. Even the idea that Scotland was this backwater that nobody knew about, the connections with mainland Europe were huge! And continue to be so. That is still often overlooked. For example, in the Highlands I don't think there was a strong sense of a "Scottish" identity - there was a sense of being a MacLeod, there was a sense of being a McTavish, and they were constantly fighting each other and hated each other. It wasn't a sense of "Well, let's all get together and help each other out already!"
Do you consider yourself Scottish?
Definitely. It's a strange thing. I think it comes from many, many things and not just where you were physically born. Identity is very interesting, and where we draw our identity from. Whether it be the cultural influences on us, our ancestry, the individuals who have really affected us or influenced interests in our lives, it just so happens that all of those were really Scottish for me. My Grandfather was born in Edinburgh and walked to Glasgow looking for work, hoping there was work at the end of it. "I'll just walk to Glasgow," what, 40 miles? Just a totally different breed of people! I don't know if that's "Scottish", but I think that attitude has deeply influenced me.
Your profile has risen dramatically over the last ten years. What are the best things and worst things about fame, and how has that affected your attitude?
Well, I get to do more of the things I have wanted to do, I've been able to write two books with Sam and I've always wanted to be a writer, so that was a dream come true. I just get to be active. When I started, this was not a profession you went into to become well known or anything. I would say I enjoyed doing ten years of theatre in Scotland as much as I've enjoyed the last ten years of doing film and television. I don't get it in the same way that a lot of other people would, I think that there is a level of that kind of recognition where you end up a prisoner in your own life. I don't think that's very healthy at all. I remember performing a Samuel Beckett play to one person in an Irish pub in north London, it's just about doing that which I enjoy. I only have the memories of those experiences to sustain me in terms of a narrative in my career, so I'm more interested in that.
Many of the characters that you play are neither good nor bad, but somewhere in between. Do you think morally ambiguous characters are becoming harder to love?
That's a good question. Someone like Dougal Mackenzie in Outlander, people are always telling me "He's so villainous!" He's a complicated character: he's manipulative; he's cheating on his wife; he has thing that you could criticise him for, but he's human. The problem with the more popular genres now is that everything is becoming very black and white, you have superheroes, and you have supervillains. There's nothing seriously bad about the heroes, and there's nothing great about the villains. But the whole point of tragedy is that they must be great for the fall to be profound and interesting. We're in a period of history where nuance isn't very important to people. You either agree with what I say, or you're going to be ignored, or potentially vilified. It's very binary, the way people look at the world, and that's not the way I think the world is. I spent my 20s and 30s in a pub arguing with my friends about everything, and now I feel like it's a dangerous thing to do.
What's a hill you would die on?
I think something that I've learnt about myself is how much I value freedom. That's an old-fashioned concept, I suppose. With the obvious exception of my children, that is something I'd die to protect. Freedom is something I think that is always in danger of being eroded in our lives, and once it's gone it's difficult to get back.
Do you think 22-year-old Graham McTavish would recognise the Graham McTavish today?
Totally! I mean I have learnt some things; I've changed in certain ways. But fundamentally I'm exactly the same, in some ways I'm tapped as a 12-year-old. I think anybody that goes into something like the arts has to be in touch with the very childish side to themselves. You look at a child playing - they can instantly become whatever it is they want to become because their minds are so fluid, they can move between fiction and reality very, very easily and I think as an actor you have to try and hold onto that, and resist the cynicism that comes with age, the resistance to play. You do a scene with Sylvester Stallone, this hugely well-known figure, and find out he loves improvisation. Loves it! We improvised most of our dialogue in Rambo. He loved to play around and come up with new things. I thought that was amazing, it's an interesting approach to life. He said to me that he never wanted to be in action movies. He was a serious actor, he wanted to do serious work, then he became these iconic characters. At the same time, he's a very good businessman.
How comfortable are you with the "business" side when it comes to selling yourself?
I think I approach all of it the same really. I like telling stories, just like the ones I've been telling you! I like talking about things to do with me and stories that have nothing to do with me. It's all part and parcel of the same thing, I love communicating with people about potentially interesting things. I wrote a treatment for Men in Kilts in 1990, I only resurrected the idea after Outlander. I suppose it is selling myself to some degree. Sam Heughan is a great example, he's taken his passions: whisky, outdoor pursuits, Scotland, and has made those interests into a business. It's rarely been a thing where I'm looking to "cash in."
How did you become the first person to ever put on a play in The National Gallery, and what was the story about what you did to promote it?
Yes! It was called "Letters from the Yellow Chair", we had done a two-man show in Edinburgh to begin with. A lady showed us a book based on the letters between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. Normally, we would have just gone to the pub. But had we not gone to the book shop immediately that day, I wouldn't have written that play. We presented it to the National Gallery and in a moment of complete madness on their part they agreed to do it, and so we did it in the summer of 1986. Then we did this thing where we wrote letters on National Gallery-headed notepaper, giving the impression that we were writing on behalf of the National Gallery, recommending ourselves to all these amazing art institutions in America. I joke that my friend was like my first wife because we ended up going places that you would only go with somebody you were in love with. I'm just glad I went to the bookshop first, before celebrating!
What occasion justifies spending a lot of money of a single bottle for you?
Celebrations, marking something, passing something on to people. But also, because it's a great pleasure to enjoy something that's really, really good. And that doesn't mean it has to be expensive, but unfortunately that tends to be the case.
What is your preference when it comes to whisky?
I've sort of slowly developed a little bit of an understanding with it. Like a lot of people, I started out with "let's get peaty!" For a lot of Americans I know, it can't be peaty enough, they want that peat floating around in the glass! The first whisky I would have been introduced to would have had a Speyside style, that would have been by my father's influence. Since then, what I've found out is that I've come to really like a region that, I'm ashamed to say, I didn't really know existed, which is the Campbeltown region. Springbank is a big one... I'm pretty sure that Sam Heughan had me try some Glen Scotia? Blending those Highland and island flavours, it somehow takes the edge off of both. That is just a really unique flavour, I'm always really into that. I have very Catholic tastes when it comes to whisky, there's not many that I would go "Oh, no, no, no!" That's one of the great things you do, you bring attention to styles, regions you would not know otherwise. I've kind of given up on beer altogether.
Do you have a good toast to share with our readers?
Oh, absolutely - "Here's tae us. Wha's like us? Damn few, and they're a'deid." The one that my father used to do, with pretty much every dinner we ever had. I remember quoting it in America and they were like "they're all dead? Isn't that creepy?" You're missing the point, they're not glad that they're all dead! Well, what can you do?
The original feature is from the Summer 2022 edition of Whiskeria, delivered to the door of W Club subscribers and also free with any Whisky Shop purchase in store or online. Click here to read the full Summer 2022 issue of Whiskeria online for free.