IT was at the wrap party for the film they had both just completed – a little thing called Sunshine On Leith – that Kevin Guthrie realised he and Peter Mullan would soon be locking horns on screen again. Not only that, but it would be in roles already familiar to them: as the protective father of a feisty daughter, and the dark-haired, twinkle-eyed paramour with romantic designs on the same. If you've seen Guthrie's performance as Ally in Sunshine On Leith, you'll know which of the roles he was to play. If not, just take a look at his face and see if you can work it out. Shouldn’t be hard. Soldiering would feature again too. And singing. But beyond that, comparisons were few because the film in question wasn’t another feel-good sing-along with a Bollywood-style ending shot on the sunlit streets of the capital. Instead it was a slow and statuesque adaptation of one of the most revered novels in the Scottish literary canon – Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, voted Scotland’s favourite book in 2006. In the director’s chair, an arthouse favourite renowned for his singular authorial touch: Terence Davies.

Set a century ago in a rural community in Scotland’s north-east, Sunset Song is a novel about connections – between people and between people and land – and its harrowing climax asks some searching questions about love, war, loyalty and duty.

Guthrie plays ill-fated Ewan Tavendale, the young man who catches the eye of heroine Chris Guthrie but who is torn away from her by the First World War. Mullan is the callous Guthrie patriarch, while the role of the headstrong Chris is taken by model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn.

“We shot Sunshine On Leith first, so I went from Ally to Ewan,” says the 26-year-old, taking up the story as he sips coffee in an Edinburgh hotel. “I had known Peter loosely beforehand through various classes and things, and I’d met him a few times looking for advice on scripts. Then we met and got very close on Sunshine. And it was at the wrap party that we spoke about Sunset Song because we were attached around about the same time.”

Mullan told Guthrie he’d been offered a part by Davies, and asked if Guthrie had seen the script. “And I said, ‘Well I’ve been offered Ewan and I’m attached with Agyness’.”

Like many schoolchildren before and since, Guthrie’s first exposure to Sunset Song came in English lessons, in his case at St Luke’s High School in Barrhead.

“I struggled to make sense of it,” he admits. “For someone of that age it’s challenging to get your head round. But I revisited it at drama school for a grading section where we had to pick a male hero character. I read Alastair Cording’s stage adaptation [commissioned by TAG Theatre in 1993] and revisited the novel when I was working on that.”

And, like everyone else who has read it, he became fascinated by the character of Ewan Tavendale.

“I fell in love with him,” he says. “He’s this kind of enigmatic, cryptic hero. He has a mercurial quality about him. He flashes from zero to 10 almost in an instant. So there’s a kind of primal instinct, a base animalistic energy that he has and that’s rife in the novel. It mentions his cat-like physicality.”

Guthrie didn’t slink round the audition room door and make for a saucer of milk when he was asked to read for Davies. But he brought enough of that understanding and prior knowledge to his performance to impress the veteran director. Invited to take a screen test, he found himself pitted against Deyn for the first time. “Something changed in the room, there was a real energy shift when the scene started,” he recalls. “Something really sparked and I think it’s evident in the film.”

Fifteen minutes after the screen test, he’d been offered the part. “So from that point on, Agyness and I had each other’s back.”

That mutual trust was needed, however. In one of the film’s pivotal (and most shocking) scenes, Ewan returns home on leave from the trenches and brutalises his wife. Is it rape? “I think it is,” says Guthrie. “It’s very explicitly written in the script that Ewan takes Chris against her will, which to me reads like rape.”

It’s certainly filmed that way. Davies shot it in one take and gave each of his actors a single clear objective: Guthrie was to try to pull Deyn off the bed onto the floor, Deyn was to do everything to resist. Everything. She puts up quite a fight. “We were given quite a lot of time to get into that moment. It’s something that demands a lot of you as an actor, it takes a lot of courage. You have to have trust in each other,” says Guthrie. “And once the moment had happened and Terence had called ‘Cut!’ we just embraced each other.”

Two big films, two roles playing battle-scarred Scottish soldiers albeit in conflicts 100 years apart. Nevertheless, those experiences and the research Guthrie conducted have given him cause to think at length about soldiering and its place in Scotland’s culture and psyche.

“I think it’s a sad indictment of where we’re at in society if the best opportunities for certain boys and girls in certain areas is going off and fighting in the army,” he says when we turn to the subject. Later: “I would worry that there’s a certain sort of brainwashing to allow it to become glorified. Now that’s not to say that by the time lads have joined up they don’t entirely believe in what they’re doing.” But, he adds: “I think it’s kind of preying on the vulnerable almost.”

In Ewan Tavendale, he sees a young soldier crippled by fear and buffeted by events he has no control over who ultimately acts out of love. It’s that which redeems him in the eyes of the audience.

“It’s about cowardice and perception and peer pressure. All this trauma and horror came from someone else controlling him and saying, ‘You have no choice but to go and fight in this war’. Ewan leaves to go back for Chris and that in their eyes is an act of cowardice … So his final act in life is done out of love.”

Powerful performances in powerful roles are what makes young actors stand proud on the horizon, and in that regard Kevin Guthrie is fast becoming a landmark. I’m not surprised to learn, then, that he has already been 20 years at the acting game.

Born in Neilston in Renfrewshire to an electrician father and a mother who works as a nurse, Guthrie is the youngest of three children. Aged just six, he followed the example of his two sisters and enrolled at Paisley’s highly-regarded PACE Youth Theatre, though for no other reason than to make him a little more outgoing. Initially, anyway.

“In all honestly, my parents thought it would be a good idea because I was painfully shy as a kid and struggled a little bit with group scenarios,” he says. “I think mum and dad recognised that I needed to get a bit of confidence.”

But with PACE an acknowledged theatrical nursery, it wasn’t long before Guthrie found himself being offered small parts in films and television dramas. He was in 2003 TV series The Key and in the same year was cast in David Mackenzie’s adaptation of another venerated Scottish novel, Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam. Peter Mullan was in that too, alongside Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton. Four years earlier Guthrie had appeared in Lynne Ramsay’s Cannes hit, Ratcatcher, one of a series of 1990s films – My Name Is Joe was another – which announced Scotland’s cinematic renaissance to the world.

Those films also announced to the world that Scotland had an apparently inexhaustible pool of male acting talent. By the turn of the century Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Peter Mullan were already stars, but hard on their heels came Dougray Scott, Douglas Henshall, Kevin McKidd and James McAvoy to name just four. Guthrie is part of a third wave. Or it could be a fourth. Anyway, who’s counting?

Alongside his PACE activities he began acting at school and – it’s almost a cliché, but it’s true – was encouraged by one of those inspiring teachers you hear about to apply to drama school. He did, and won a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. It was while he was there, in 2010, that he landed the title role in a National Theatre of Scotland production of Peter Pan. Adapted by David Greig to mark the 150th anniversary of JM Barrie’s birth, it was directed by John Tiffany of Black Watch fame – the man behind the upcoming West End stage version of Harry Potter.

“I left college to do Peter Pan and then did four plays back to back,” says Guthrie. “So while I should have been training I was able to get that theatre apprenticeship, to learn that work ethic and the stamina it requires.”

Inspiration didn’t just come from parents, tutors and teachers, however. As that first generation of Scottish actors swept into Cannes and Hollywood, Guthrie was paying close attention. Three in particular fired his admiration: Peter Mullan himself, Robert Carlyle and James McAvoy,

“Seeing Bobby really sparked my interest in acting, and I also remember watching My Name Is Joe. One of the dinner ladies at my school was in it so I remember people were really talking about it. But Peter’s performance in that is, I think, one of the greatest Scottish screen performances ever. It’s so wonderful and heartfelt – and tough.”

McAvoy, another PACE kid, is now a close friend of Guthrie’s after they acted together in a London stage production of Macbeth. Guthrie has worked with Carlyle now too after the actor saw him in Sunshine On Leith and cast him alongside Ray Winstone and Emma Thompson in his directorial debut, The Legend Of Barney Thomson. It opened this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.

“I remember having a pint with a mate and he said, ‘Can you imagine that in the space of less than five years after graduating you’ve worked with the three guys that got you into acting?’ So I’m very, very lucky to have had those experiences. But I think I’ve been around to capitalise on them as well. You have to make the most of these opportunities and it’s a quality that each of the three of them have.”

Adding more ballast to Guthrie’s star-in-the-making reputation is his next film, an adaptation by Small Faces director Gillies MacKinnon of Whisky Galore. Unlike Sunset Song, which has remained defiantly un-filmed until now, Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel was given the Ealing Studios treatment in 1949. An acknowledged classic, it’s still screened regularly. There’s a lot to live up to in other words.

Guthrie acknowledges the challenge. “It seems to be a running theme,” he says. “Every film I go onto it seems to be a question of how you match expectation. But again it comes round to the fact that I don’t over-think it.”

Shot in Portsoy in Aberdeenshire in July and August – there were only two days of rain, would you believe? – it stars James Cosmo, Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard and, as the object of Guthrie’s affections, Ellie Kendrick (Meera in Game Of Thrones). Guthrie plays George, the role taken by Gordon Jackson in the 1949 version.

“I saw the original film when I was very young, so I only had a semblance of it in my head,” Guthrie says. “I really enjoyed the script and it didn’t remind me a lot of the film that I saw back in the day.”

Instead, MacKinnon’s take on it reads more like a Tintin adventure, he thinks – with added folk music and, yes, more singing.

As for George, well “he has his own thing to deal with. He has the overbearing mother, he’s got the rites of passage thing as a young man – and he has to fight for his love for the girl”.

This time, however, there’s no Peter Mullan looking over his shoulder. This time Kevin Guthrie is striking out on his own.

Sunset Song is released on Friday