He has starred in A-list movies for decades but Scots actor James Cosmo puts building a dual carriageway on the banks of the Clyde as one of his greatest roles

James Cosmo’s favourite part is three and a half miles long and four lanes wide. “I know people can romanticise physical labour,” recalls the 76-year-old Glasgow actor, whose screen career is entering its 56th year, “but my goodness, when you’ve worked hard physically all day it’s a lovely thing to go to sleep and not worry about anything.”

Cosmo has earned the right to look back on his years of toil since he began working as a 17 year old and when he does, the view includes the stretch of the dual carriageway on the north bank of the river Clyde. “I like to say I built the Clydeside Expressway,” he says. “I was labouring out there then I got promoted to driving a dumper truck. I just loved it. I did that for nine months in the 1970s. Falling into bed happy and knackered every night.
“That’s something that rarely comes with acting. You can get a sense of satisfaction, and you can get emotionally tired from acting, but rarely physically tired. Getting physically tired is a good thing, whereas getting emotionally tired is less beneficial.”

Cosmo’s work ethic is Clyde-built. The son of High Road actor James Copeland, his early career was augmented by less glamorous jobs, a lesson learned from his old man.
“My dad was a good actor and a lovely poet too. But he couldn’t help me particularly. I came to acting not looking through rose-coloured glasses because I remember seeing my dad worried sick about a tax bill or not getting the job he thought he was going to get and so on. So, I knew acting wasn’t a bed of roses, and that was a big help actually, because when the hard times came, I knew what that thing was, and I knew just to get on with it, go out and get a job digging roads or working behind a bar or whatever.”

The need for the Clydebank-raised actor to pull a shift lifting empty tumblers these days is perhaps less pressing. This year alone, he’ll appear in a major new BBC drama and an Irish horror movie, and in the last decade he’s had parts in Game of Thrones, His Dark Materials and Jack Ryan (to say nothing of the ubiquitous Bank of Scotland ads in which he played a financial sage in the wilderness, somewhere between Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf and Limmy’s Falconhoof).
“I don’t think acting gives you up, you don’t give up acting,” says the father of two. “There’ll come a time when people say: ‘He was an okay actor but he’s past it now’ and it will gradually tail off. And I’ll be perfectly happy with that.”

This year, Cosmo will feature in much-anticipated BBC network drama Nightsleeper, and in Belfast director Colum Eastwood’s feature-length flick, Celtic horror The Morrigan, with Toby Stephens and Saffron Burrows. He’ll also embark on a live Q&A tour around the country, beginning at Pitlochry’s Festival Theatre as part of its Winter Words Festival, featuring the likes of author Allan Radcliffe, poet Jackie Kay and broadcaster and dementia charity Playlist for Life CEO Sally Magnusson.

“I’ve had a very long career,” he says. “Sixty years. So, there are a lot of stories from my slow progression up the greasy pole of acting and hopefully people might be interested in them.
“I’m at a point in my life when I want to tell those stories now. My career hasn’t slowed down, but the time for reflection comes when you get older, and you have a different take on what your understanding of success is.”

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A working life spanning seven decades and including titanic projects like Game of Thrones, Highlander, Braveheart and Trainspotting has inevitably yielded a lot of stories. One of those roles might be considered career-defining, let alone all of them. Cosmo’s definition of success is inevitably different from the one he held as a younger man. “As a young actor, I guess fame and notoriety and getting the big part was important to me, and so it should be as a young actor,” he says. But as you get older you realise you’re not going to be a huge film star, but you might have a chance at becoming a good actor, and to do that you should be willing to play all sizes and types of parts in all sorts of productions. I definitely don’t want to be a ‘film star’. I’ve worked for film stars, I know film stars, and that’s not something I yearn after.

“I can walk through the supermarket and people nod at me and think I’m the neighbour from a few doors down. They know what a film star looks like. It’s a very happy situation where people sort of know you, but your head isn’t above the parapet the whole time, which is very unenviable. Fame is a real double-edged sword.”

When he saw how people reacted to Mel Gibson in a small Irish town, his determination to be an actor who flew under the celebrity radar was cemented. He recalls: “We were filming Braveheart, and my wife and I were out with our baby in the town of Dalkey, outside Dublin. 
“Mel Gibson and his wife and kids pulled up and went into a Chinese restaurant, and by the time we’d walked back down the street there were 40 people staring through the window at them trying to order their dinner. The next thing they were out and away. That’s my idea of hell.”

Among the names to feature in the anecdotes he’ll share on tour are the directors from two of his most memorable turns in cinema history, as ill-fated Campbell in Braveheart, and as Ewan McGregor’s dad in Trainspotting. “Mel was so generous as a director,” he says, of his time on the 1990s blockbuster about Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, a film Gibson famously directed and starred in. “I remember when we were filming my death scene, he came up to me on set and said, ‘You know what the cheapest thing on this set is? The film in those cameras. Use as much of it as you like.’ That’s really psychologically clever. It helps an actor relax.”
For Boyle, with whom he worked on the original Trainspotting and its 2017 sequel, he finds his unique qualities less-easily definable.

“When I heard they were doing the second one, I thought all these years on, Renton’s dad would be gone. Somehow, he got my phone number, and called me up, said: ‘It’s Danny, we’re doing T2, and there’s one wee scene with Ewan when he goes back, his mum’s dead and his dad’s still alive.’
“I was there right away. It’s such an extraordinary experience to work with him. He’s one of the finest directors Britain has produced. I can’t put my finger on it. He manages to get brilliant performances out of people, and I’d walk across broken glass to work with him again, on anything.”

On Nightsleeper, a network UK drama set to transmit later this year, he joins Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole and fellow Scots Katie Leung, Alex Ferns, Sharon Small and Sharon Rooney on the London-Glasgow sleeper. “It’s all to do with AI, hacking and high-speed transport, and it all gets messy very easily,” he says. “You can see those problems coming down the road in many different forms.”

Transport was much simpler back when James Cosmo was laying the motorways, and even this far down the road he still checks himself in the rear view mirror.
“With a good following wind and facing downhill I could call myself a decent actor,” says the man who built the Expressway. “But like a lot of us in this game, we think we’ve been getting away with it for years. I think we all feel like we’re winging it.”

James Cosmo, Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words Festival, 10 February. Q&A tour: Beacon, Greenock 24 April; Perth Concert Hall 27 April; Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 3 May; Ayr Gaiety Theatre 10 may. Nightsleeper will be on BBC later in the year.