STEVEN Cree can smile now about his sliding doors moment, a point in his life in which his acting career appeared to be sailing inexorably towards oblivion.

At 36, the Kilmarnock-born actor has a list of career credits that’s longer than election promises. Cree has a pivotal role in this summer’s Churchill biopic and a CV that includes film roles in the likes of 300: Rise Of An Empire and Maleficent, and a decade of high-profile TV parts in dramas from Lip Service to Shetland, from Outlander to Vera and Silent Witness. Yet as we will discover, he almost blew the chance to make his mark in the business before it all really began for him.

But first up, Cree talks about Churchill, a Jonathan Teplitzky-directed historical drama set during the 24 hours before D-Day: the Normandy landings which took place on June 6, 1944.

With Brian Cox in the lead role as Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Cree plays Captain James Stagg, the meteorologist who predicted the crucial time for the D-Day landings. “I had no idea of the impact Stagg, who grew up in Dalkeith, had,” says the actor, “but when I read about him I was fascinated and really excited. Stagg, who was awarded an OBE, was in contact with Eisenhower [the future president who was then supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces] and advised when the weather would break and when to launch. This was a huge part of the landings.”

Cree loved his time on set and on location in Scotland, and working alongside fellow Scot Brian Cox, who looks to be entirely convincing in the film. Cree too looks remarkably like his 1940s character.

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“Yes, it was a shocker to see myself in the mirror, with the 1940s moustache, but also a shock to see the hairline when the hair was gelled back,” he says, grinning. “What made it more challenging was I was getting married two days after filming and looked like a Second World War groom. But at least I seemed clean and tidy.”

Cree is married to successful casting director Kahleen Crawford but leaps in to pre-empt the obvious question. “I have to say she has never hired me. There is no nepotism whatsoever.” Why? Doesn’t she rate her husband? “Maybe not initially,” he laughs.

We’re digressing. Back to Churchill: what was his take on the Conservative wartime Prime Minister, the scourge of the working classes, and indeed the politician who arguably abandoned a Scots regiment at Dunkirk as sacrificial lambs, yet emerged from the war as a statesman?

“I’ve watched most of the Second World War documentaries,” Cree offers. “It’s a period which both fascinated and horrified me. There was certainly more to him than just the great Second World War hero.”

The actor deliberates for a moment: “The film touches on Churchill’s mental state and his relationship with wife Clementine. It raises the idea this was a man who had a lot of doubts and wasn’t as blustering and bombastic as he appeared. I’m sure Churchill had many sides to his character. And he was plagued by some of his decisions. Not to say I agree with all of them.”

He adds: “The stakes were just so high and as a result the drama in the film is great. And Brian was great to work with, chatty and relaxed but so focused when he had to be. He has an amazing presence.”

Did Brian Cox bring a little method to the film's making, become a little Churchillian in the canteen, ordering people around – "Get me a sandwich, boy", that sort of thing? “Not to me,” grins Cree. “He liked hearing another Scots voice on set.”

Steven Cree laughs a lot during our interview. Raised in East Ayrshire and now based in London, he clearly loves his acting life. But he wasn’t born with a desperate need to perform.

“I did the school shows and I liked performing. Did I enjoy the applause? I’m sure that was part of it. But when I was 12 I watched the film of Jesus Christ Superstar and I knew who I wanted to be.” Jesus? “Yes, I wanted to be Jesus – and an actor,” he laughs. “And funny enough, I actually toyed with the idea of religion. I’m not from a religious background but a part of me thought of studying theology at some point. My interest became focused on appearing in musicals.”

Aged 15, the son of a kitchen and bathroom fitter took off to London to see Starlight Express.

By the time he left school, the idea of becoming a minister had evaporated. “I had some idea of wanting to become a West End Wendy but I had never appeared in a musical. I had never even been to youth theatre. So unsure, I went to Langside college in Glasgow for a year, to study theatre arts but I had no idea about really being an actor.”

He adds, laughing: “I kept hearing the voices of my brother and his mates back in Kilmarnock calling me a w***er. As it happened, most of the class were auditioning for RSAMD so I jokingly bet one of the guys in the class I could get in. And I did.”

Cree thought RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) to be incredible. “But it was a huge culture shock. There I was studying Brecht, Moliere, Shakespeare, all the classics. But I had never heard of them. At this time, my only cultural references were the movies of Jean Claude Van Damme.

“And I got the p*** taken out of me by the other students because I loved musical theatre. But I had been obsessed with the idea of moving to London since the Starlight experience.”

The delights of roller skating on stage propelled Cree forward. RSAMD tutors reckoned the teenager to be a real talent. However, it had all arrived a little too easily perhaps.

“In my final year I got a London agent. One day, an actor came in to do the professional chat, and he said a lot of us wouldn’t work at first, we would have to get jobs in bars and stuff. Or even leave the business in a few years. But I knew that wouldn’t apply to me; that I would arrive in London and get an acting job straight off the blocks.”

Cree ended up working in bars and restaurants. “The only performing job I got was as dressing up as Daddy Bear for kids’ parties in a production of Goldilocks. I don’t know whether I was arrogant in the beginning or naïve, but whatever it was, at least it got me to London.”

There were quite a few Daddy Bear moments. Not surprisingly, Cree’s confidence finally crashed. He came back to Scotland to regain his nerve.

Back on home turf, now aged 26, Cree landed a succession of theatre roles. “But I knew I hadn’t given it everything so far. My lifestyle was a bit wild. I had to get that out of my system.”

In 2004, he hit his nadir while appearing in a play, Fierce, at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. It was a very good play but Cree’s attitude was very, very bad. One day he woke up in Newcastle with just half an hour to get to the theatre for an afternoon performance.

“I had been at a wedding in Aberdeen the night before, got on the train the next morning – and being the worse for wear, he woke up in Newcastle.

“Thirteen years on I can smile. But at the time it was a real wake up. I was devastated. And to make the story worse, another actor in the play took over my part as well and won a Herald award.

“Sometimes," he adds, "things happen for a reason. I learned from that. I began to focus.”

The Daddy Bear period and the train episode had played their part. It made him realise how badly he wanted to be an actor.

Cree returned to London and work came in, gradually. “Meantime, I worked in Carluccio’s Restaurant, which was a great place to work except you have to wear a wee daft hat, and while there I went up for an audition for Cabaret in the West End. I got a recall on the Saturday morning and waited to hear how it went. I knew if I didn’t get the part I was headed for a Monday morning shift in Carluccio's, wearing the wee daft hat and all.”

With no musical experience whatsoever, he had no chance. Yet he got the part. The male lead, in fact. “This was incredible. The thing I’d dreamt about since Starlight days. The guy I replaced was the American actor, Michael Hagan, who was a hero of mine.

“I called my mother that morning and she burst out crying. And now I felt I could go on and make a living in the business.”

Cree had demonstrated that he was prepared to graft – and work began to pour in. He landed a part in Brave, the Pixar film. “It was a random thing. I’d gone in to do background voices and while I was in I was asked to play Young Macintosh. I thought I was just giving an example, but they used it.”

Is being Scottish an advantage in the business these days? “In some ways. The successes of James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor and Gerry Butler have all helped. When you have a Scots accent you can get great comments the world over. But sometimes in voiceovers I get asked, ‘Can you be 50 per cent less Scottish?’”

On the Angelina Jolie film Maleficent, he says: “I auditioned for an English part in the movie and got it. Then I was told I had to play a Scot, which was great. But I kept getting notes from the dialect coach on my accent. After a while of taking this I finally had to say to her, ‘By the way, I’m actually Scottish'.”

In the hit time-travelling series Outlander, Cree plays the amiable Ian Murray. “The accents are soft, and I probably sound like I’m putting on a Scots accent,” he laughs.

“In fact, I had no idea what the show was when I landed the part, or that it had a worldwide following. But I was excited by the challenge of playing this character, the peacemaker, a man who bears the scars of his efforts.”

Playing Murray, a former Jacobite soldier who's lost a leg, has made him appreciate having both limbs. “I got the wooden leg home with me for a couple of weeks to practise with it before filming, but walking across floorboards a few feet was nothing like wearing it on filming, along cobbled streets. It was so demanding. I didn’t know how I’d be able to walk and talk at the same time, but the fact I was struggling gave the character a real believability.”

Despite the series's success, Cree doesn't get recognised in the street or even at Outlander conventions. “Because I wear a wig and have a wooden leg I meet people who are fans of the show but they don’t recognise me,” he says.

Movie fans will recognise Cree in September when he appears in The Titan, alongside Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson and Taylor Schilling. It’s a sci-fi adventure, set in the dystopian future where the world’s resources are running out, global war is crushing humanity and answers are being sought through genetic experimentation and space exploration.

“I loved filming it,” says Cree of his role as Major Tom Pike. “It was great to work with the likes of Tom, who had a great attitude; just get on with it.”

But it’s when he speaks about a small film project that the passion level rises in the actor’s voice. Cree has written the film, The Little Princess, and has been raising production money via crowdfunding.

“I tweeted a link to it and 18 hours later had smashed the 10 grand mark we had hoped for,” he says. “I’m not saying it was all fans of Outlander who donated but I’d guess about 95 per cent. It was very humbling.”

The Little Princess features a depressive man who meets a child who reminds him of life’s beauty. Was it partly autobiographical? “Not really, but it was inspired by hanging out with my friend and her daughter. You see, children demand you stay in the moment, demand your attention.

“It made me realise as an adult I find it hard to be present with so much going on. But kids keep you right and I wanted to write about this idea. The film is sweet and unapologetically redemptive."

Does fatherhood figure in his plans? “Yes, it’s part of the plan,” he says. “Meantime, I have a cat, Hush Puppy, who is incredibly popular on Twitter and gets a thousand likes each time I post a photo.”

Cree laughs at the fact an actor’s cat can get more social media attention than the actor. It’s reassuring he now takes the work very seriously, but not himself.

So what did his brother say when he heard about the Little Princess idea: did he ask if Cree were playing the lead role? “If he didn’t then someone else from Kilmarnock will have,” laughs the actor. “And you know, whenever I get a good part I still hear my brother’s voice in my head telling me I’m a f***y. But I’m glad because it’s pretty grounding.”

“He doesn’t say as much," he adds softly, "but at the same time I get the feeling he’s secretly proud.”

Churchill is released on June 16