Martin Compston

‘For the tape, interview with Martin Compston commenced at 11:20am.’

Okay, it’s an obvious gag, but sitting across the table from Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott, it’s impossible not to feel a little of the electric thrill of those legendary Line of Duty interrogation scenes. 

Thankfully, this time it’s Compston who’s on the receiving end of the inquisition, starting with his role as James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell and third husband to Saoirse Ronan’s titular monarch, in new historical blockbuster Mary Queen of Scots.

‘It’s a story I grew up on, obviously,’ says the Inverclyde-born 34-year-old, ‘and as an actor, having been too young for Braveheart, it was always a dream to be in a Scottish epic – charging about the Highlands on a horse in these amazing costumes.’

For the first two thirds of the film, Bothwell is a man of few words, Compston employing an impressive amount of ‘eye acting’ as the Queen’s watchful protector. ‘That was one of the things Josie [director Josie Rourke] said when she hired me – that she liked my stillness on screen,’ he says.

He also spends a lot of time in the saddle. Is he an experienced horseman? ‘I can be on a horse,’ he laughs. ‘But the horses are so good that, basically, if you can hold on, you’re fine. When somebody calls action, the horse goes where it’s supposed to go. My horse was the Lloyds TSB one. The horse is more famous than me!’

It’s in the final reel that Bothwell’s own ambitions come dramatically to the fore (if you skipped that history class, we won’t spoil it for you) – conforming to a pattern in which both Mary and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) are consistently betrayed and undermined by the men in their lives. 

‘At every turn, they were trying to bring them down and turn them against each other,’ says Compston. ‘They would have been two of the most powerful women in the world at the time, but they still had to fight these battles every day to exert their power.’

Terrific though he is, Compston is only too happy to concede it’s Ronan and Robbie’s powerhouse performances that are the film’s twin engines. ‘They’re both very sweet people but – I usually find this with some of the great actresses I’ve had the pleasure of working with – you wouldn’t want to f*** with them, do you know what I mean? They’ve got an edge to them at times. Saoirse is such a powerful actor. She’s still so young, but the maturity she had on set, and the commanding presence. There was one scene, where she addresses the court – all these great men, these great actors… was intimidated just watching her. But she breezed through it. She just owned the room.’

With its stunning Highland locations, the film is a majestic, widescreen showcase for the beauty of Scotland. It’s certainly a long way from Compston’s first feature, playing a troubled teen in Ken Loach’s social-realist drama Sweet Sixteen (2002), set on the rundown, drug-ravaged housing estates of Greenock.

A working class Greenock boy himself – his dad was a welder on the shipyards, while his mum worked for the local council – Compston only attended the open casting after accidentally catching Loach’s previous film at the cinema.

‘Me and my friend went on a double date, probably to see some blockbuster, and it wasn’t on. So we saw My Name is Joe instead, which was the first time I’d ever heard somebody who spoke like me on the big screen. It changed my whole idea of what films could be. I could relate to those people. When the auditions for Sweet Sixteen came to school, I didn’t know who Ken Loach was, but when people said it was the Kes and My Name is Joe guy, I thought: that’s right up my street.’

At this point, Compston still had his heart set on being a professional footballer, and on leaving school signed for his local team, Greenock Morton. He made two first team appearances – albeit both as substitutes in games in which Morton lost 4-0, shortly before being relegated.

‘I got offered another year, and then the film came out at Cannes,’ he recalls. ‘It was a big decision, but I was never going to get where I wanted to be in football. I wasn’t good enough to play for Celtic, basically.’

Recently, Ken Loach launched an impassioned diatribe against the ‘fake nostalgia’ of period dramas. What does Compston think his old mentor would make of Mary Queen of Scots?

‘I can understand what he’s saying,’ he considers. ‘I think it’s disproportionate, the amount of times Vanity Fair or Wuthering Heights or something will get made, instead of telling original, true stories about today. But with something like this, with gender and women’s rights at the forefront, and two strong female leads and a female director, I think it’s very apt timing.’

Is there also a certain irony in the likes of him and Peter Mullan – cast by Loach for their ability to convey the authentic, working class voice of Scotland – now hanging out together by the pool in LA?

‘No, because I still spend a lot more time in the UK than I do the States,’ says Compston who, since getting married in 2016, has relocated to wife Tianna’s hometown of Las Vegas, following a brief spell living in La-La Land. ‘I’m still a full taxpayer in Scotland. I’ve got a socialist outlook. A lot of actors get paid through companies, which is not something I do. I earn a bit more, so I pay a bit more.

‘I want my kids to be raised in Scotland, closer to my mum and dad, and I’m very lucky I’ve got the support of my wife in that. But I’ve got to say, I like the weather in Vegas. It’s very seductive – even if I haven’t been there for six months. I haven’t seen my dog since August.’

Following the success of Sweet Sixteen (for which he won Most promising Newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards), Compston set about diligently serving his acting apprenticeship, including a regular role in the BBC’s Monarch of the Glen and the lead in Soulboy, Shimmy Marcus’ film about the legendary Wigan Casino nightclub, co-starring Felicity Jones. Then, in 2012, he landed the role of anti-corruption officer Steve Arnott in Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio’s explosive police drama that, over the past seven years, has grown into a bona fide TV phenomenon.

Central to its success are those incredibly tense, cat-and-mouse interview scenes – some clocking it at over 20 minutes, and usually captured in a single take.

‘You really feel like you’ve earned your money that day,’ says Compston. ‘They’re like one-act plays. It’s pretty intense, and that buzzer sound at the beginning – the first time, I remember going, “Why has that got to be there? It’s so annoying.” But it’s such an essential part of them now. It’s like the bell going before a boxing match.’

For Compston, there’s the added complication of delivering all that dense police jargon – all parabellum rounds and exsanguination – in an English accent. To help him, he maintains Arnott’s estuary twang off-screen, too: in fact, with filming on series 5 wrapping shortly after Weekend meets him, Compston says today is the first time in months he’s been able to use his natural speaking voice.

The new run will see Arnott facing a rematch with Stephen Graham as ‘balaclava man’ – who in the last series smashed him in the face with a baseball bat and threw him down the stairs. ‘He’s the most dangerous adversary we’ve ever had,’ says Compston, an old friend of Graham’s. ‘Jez does like putting me through the wringer. I’ve had my fingers in a vice, I’ve been framed for murder, put in a wheelchair…’ 

Indeed, some fans have grumbled about the series gradually moving away from its authentic procedural roots to deliver ever bigger, more crowdpleasing thrills.

‘The thing in my head about acting, is that it’s realistic reactions to unrealistic situations,’ explains Compston. ‘People might go, the stories are getting bigger and wilder, but the way we react to everything is still by police protocol. We still do everything by the book. Everything’s always grounded.’

Of course, there’s also a new kid on the block of in the shape of Mercurio’s latest mega-hit, Bodyguard. Is Line of Duty in danger of being put in the shade by this sexy young upstart? 

‘I owe my career to two people: Ken Loach and Jed Mercurio,’ says Compston. ‘So I’m chuffed to bits for him. It’s the same company, the same team, and Richard’s [Madden] a great lad. So we’re all just really proud of them.

‘But once they get to series five,’ he adds, with a grin, ‘come and talk to me.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 17, 2019

(c) Waitrose Weekend