Cameron Jack is best known for playing the role of thugs and villains. With credits including: Outlander, Patrick Melrose, Silent Witness, Emmerdale, Batman: Dark Knight Rises, Calibre, What Happened to Monday, an extensive stage career in West End musical theatre and directing, he does however occasionally play a good guy. We had a great conversation about his early life in Glasgow, acting, all things Outlander (he played Overseer Byrnes in season 4), Benedict Cumberbatch, Danny Trejo, Gary Oldman, tattoos, kilts, music and far more besides.
DB: If we went right back to your early years, could you tell me about the town you were born in and what it was like there when you were a kid?
CJ: I was born in a place called Partick, Glasgow, a very working class area (it’s where Billy Connelly’s from). Billy Connolly jokingly calls it “a wee fishing village on the Clyde” – it does sit on the Clyde, but it’s not a fishing village. My dad was a welder in the shipyards and my mum was an auxiliary nurse – no actors in the family. My brother went into the shipyards and my sister, she was more interested in the dance side of things; she’s five years older than me, my brother was ten years older.
Probably the first time I was in an audience, watching people on stage, would have been watching my sister dancing and it piqued my interest, you know. I must have been four or five.
I wasn’t academic and I hated school from the first day of primary school to the last day of secondary school. I wouldn’t say every minute of it but I hated the feeling of having to be in a specific place at a specific time, wearing a uniform, having to adhere to the bell ringing. I never had an authority issue, it was more structure and uniformity.
I must have been about eight years old and I entered a talent competition, doing stand-up comedy, I won a little brown, plastic radio, and that was it, that was me hooked. Another lad got up to do his act, I deliberately sat in the front row, and every time he got to a punch line I shouted the punch line out.
DB: You sabotaged him!
CJ: Yeah, he was funnier than me as well (David Swan) I used to laugh at him a lot. I had everything, the competitive streak, I loved being up there. I went on to do some school shows and then I went into work like everybody else. I started doing amateur dramatics, and I was thinking, ‘There has to be a better life than this.’ I wasn’t desperate to get out of Glasgow, I was just desperate to get out of the rut of the low-paid work I was doing. I was a bed salesman, worked in a bar, an office, but none of the jobs were very satisfying. I just thought, ‘I’ll go to drama school,’ and somebody said to me, ‘You need to try,’ to get in.
At the time, there were no actors in the family or actors in our immediate group, but I heard about this Mountview Theatre School. I was very into the musical theatre side of things. I went [for an audition] and got in the same day, then I got a scholarship. I didn’t go anywhere else; I didn’t consider that there were other choices.
The first year I was very homesick and struggled with the competitive nature of it, despite the fact that I’ve got a competitive nature myself. I found the bitchiness difficult and I think it was being around people who sometimes had a negative energy. I wasn’t sure that I was going to go back for the second year because I found it kind of overwhelming but my folks persuaded me to go back. I had a really nice teacher, Jeff Coleman, who said, ‘Just give it a few months in your second year,’ and then I settled in. By the time I got to the third year and got on stage, trying to get an agent and do it all, it clicked. It wasn’t an easy journey and I had a lot of struggles on the way with anxiety and nerves, the uncertainty of it, worrying what people would think that I’d left Glasgow to become an actor.
DB: Because you haven’t exactly got the traditional background, at all.
CJ: No, absolutely not. Like I say I was a bit of a random one. One important thing is, I was one of those typical kids, class clown, doing voices, impersonating teachers and then, when I got to my late teens/early twenties I discovered that I could sing and that kept me going for a few years. I would get free entry to nightclubs because I used to sing in the queue.
The weird thing was that by the time I got to Mountview and started training in musical theatre I was much more interested in the drama side of things. As time went on I realised that I love being in front of the camera. I’ve done West End shows, Shakespeare, contemporary drama – nothing beats being in front of a camera. I love the medium, the tension, the budgets, the timeline, the pressure; I thrive on it, I love it. I also have an awareness when I’m on screen that if I make a mistake I can go back and do a better version of it, that doesn’t happen on stage – I found that quite overwhelming at times. In shows like Les Mis and We Will Rock You, it’s pretty relentless, 2 or 3 hours of dancing, singing. I think what took me away from it was that I did struggle with the repetition; I was one of those actors that bucked against doing the same thing every night. I did a tour of South Pacific and turned 40 on it. That was the job that made me go, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t want to do big scale musical shows, I certainly don’t want to tour around the country. I want to go down a different path, see if I can crack the telly side of things, and the film.’
I didn’t do a film until I was 39, which was the The Dark Knight Rises. I think there’s a certain time where you almost convince yourself that maybe it’s passed you by and I was getting to that point where I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. You never know if, and when, it’s going to happen, which is exhilarating but also a crazy way to live. I’ve probably done 13-14 films and I suppose the aim, for me, would be that the parts would get more substantial.
I worked with John Challis, who plays Boycie in Only Fools and Horses, on my first job out of drama school (Regent’s Park, Richard lll, Brian Cox directed); John and I got on very well and are still in touch to this day. John said to me that drama schools always discourage actors from getting typecast but, ‘It can be one of the best things that happens to you,’ and that was certainly true for me. I get the odd thing where I’m not a thug but that’s generally not how I’m seen, and that’s fine, as long as I’m in their thoughts for something then I’m doing something right. I play to my strengths. I train at the gym six days a week which helps my mental state and the physical side of things, and because I know that generally for something round the corner it’ll probably be a villain, so you have to look threatening.
I had a strategy and played to those strengths, and I think a lot of actors don’t do that, I think they have a vague sense of being able to play everything but there’s probably one Gary Oldman, one Daniel Day Lewis in every 200,000 actors and it’s silly to think otherwise. You do get your odd actor who plays a range of characters but for most all of us it’s not like that, it’s a narrow path for most people.
I did Trainspotting in 1996 [on stage] I was Begbie, Gerard Butler was Renton – and I knew then, at 26, that that’s how people perceive me. The other thing that some actors have a problem with is that if you speak in a certain way you’re going to be considered to be a certain “thing”. I know many a Scottish actor who came to London and started speaking in a Received Pronunciation accent and I baulked against that very early at drama school. I thought, ‘No way! I’ll do it for a part but I’m not speaking like that in the pub, because when I go home, I’ll get lynched.’ That would have happened (Laughs) I just wouldn’t have got away with that. I never understood that, anything that makes you a little bit different, you hang onto it.
DB: And it’s so much part of who we are if you lose it it’s like losing a part of yourself because language is so much part of the culture that you’re brought up in.
CJ: Absolutely. It reflects your history but I think some actors think that losing your accent makes you a better actor and, actually, the opposite is true. I left at a time when Scots were popular and a lot of agents used to sit in the audience at showcases looking for the next big Scottish or Irish actor. That stood me in good stead and I was very adamant with the director at my showcase that any acting I would do would be in my own accent, a wise choice. You know what as well? When you do get occasionally to do an accent, there’s a joy in that, but the truth is 90% of the time you speak in your own voice because that’s what makes you interesting.
DB: You are also in the film, What Happened to Monday, with Noomi Rapace.
CJ: Spoiler alert! The nature of playing a villain is that I get killed a lot. I was killed in that, I was killed in Silent Witness, I went to prison for life in He Kills Coppers, they’ve spoken about me twice as being dead on Emmerdale. Unfortunately for villains sometimes your shelf life is quite short within a project.
What Happened to Monday was an amazing job, extremely physical, basically three weeks of fighting, which was a challenge for me. About a year before I had taken up kickboxing. I say to younger actors, ‘Get your driving licence, learn to ride a horse and go and learn kickboxing,’ because a lot of actors, when they throw a punch or aim a kick, they look extremely uncomfortable. I went to this Romanian kickboxer, who was extremely hard on me – we became great friends but I used to get a lot of slaps – he taught me everything I needed to know and then I ended up getting this action film, at 42.
Noomi Rapace plays seven different sisters [Monday-Sunday] it took so long to film because you would do one shot with her and then she would have to go off, get another costume and wig on, and come back as another character for the next shot. It was basically a three-week fight sequence but I think that got me a bit of a reputation as a kind of physical bad guy.
I shot it in Romania; I went back out last year to do Dragonheart Vengeance, it’s a lovely country, I really like the people, and I would happily go there every year and do a film – beautiful place. I’ve filmed in Romania, Bulgaria it’s just cheaper to film there. The quality’s no less because the crews and talent out there are huge. The stuntmen and women that I worked with on a Whatever Happened to Monday and Death Race: Beyond Anarchy, are just phenomenal. I’m in awe of stunt people – they’re crazy but also incredible. Out in Eastern Europe there are some really fantastic stunt people but they’re also inherently tough, they can take a few knocks and they’ll keep getting up. They really put their heart and soul into it and you don’t always see that on a film set. They are very passionate about it and that rubs off on you as well, because you have to keep up with them. I would say, certainly on fight choreography, they rehearse a lot more, a lot of British actors will say, ‘We’ll rehearse when we get there,’ where over there it’s, ‘Let’s go through it, let’s go through it,’ so that by the time you get to film it just looks incredible.
DB: I assume they start off slow until it’s in your muscle memory and then increase pace?
CJ: Yeah, 20-30% pace until it’s in your muscles. I’ve got a very good friend who’s a stunt performer, and going onto that project I was petrified because it was so physical. He said, ‘Two things: if the stunt coordinator taps your shoulder, it’s for you to go out and a stuntman to go in to replace you, don’t argue with him because it will make you look better; the second thing is do everything at about 70 or 80% of the pace that you would do it naturally.’ When it’s filmed it just looks at natural speed and it’s safer because you’re not doing it full pelt. I’ve been on a few sets where I’ve seen some accidents because actors aren’t focused, they’re going too quickly, not making eye contact. You have got to look after each other, you’ve got another person’s safety in your hands, so blagging it or doing your own thing just doesn’t work.
DB: That Death Race film is just bonkers isn’t it.
CJ: It’s insane! It was sold as unrated and unhinged, I mean it’s called Beyond Anarchy, so you know what you’re getting. On that particular gig, being the warden in the prison, it’s just lines, standing around one room not going anywhere, that was a different challenge. When I went in for that audition I did read for one of the crazy racers but somehow ended up playing the warden, which actually was a better part. That would be one exception where a director’s looked at me and gone, ‘There’s an authority figure, not a thug.’
The thing is, if you go in for a show or movie that you know and love you inevitably put more pressure on yourself because you know that you’re up for something that is potentially career changing – that’s what we all want, that one job that just elevates you up a rung. I’ve learned over the years that you’ve just got to let your natural personality shine through and when it comes to the point where you actually do the scenes you’ve just got to show that you can do the work, and the rest is up to them. You learn that it’s not personal, and in the end it doesn’t really matter because if you do the work, go in and do your best, what else can you do? There’s definitely more pressure when you’re in for something that you love and the actors in it you’ve got the highest regard for.
DB: Death Race Anarchy has got Danny Trejo and Danny Glover in it.
CJ: Danny Trejo is incredible. You know I’m short, 5 feet 7, we were in the Hilton Hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria, I was going down in the lift, the lift opened and Danny was standing in front of me to get in, and he’s shorter than me – he must be 5 feet 6. Yet, when I watch him on screen he seems like a giant! He is gracious, fun, highly respectful of everybody around him, extremely popular and very much loved.
DB: In the film Calibre, which is set in Scotland, you all look like you’re freezing.
CJ: We went up and shot Calibre, I think late November early December. We were doing night shoots in woods outside Edinburgh. I think it was -9 one night and then the snow decided to join us, nowhere was warm, you couldn’t get warm until you got back to your hotel. There was such a good atmosphere about it and I was so lucky on that job, I ended up with three or four of my best mates – I know Tony Curran, Cal MacAninch, Ian Pirie very well – so it felt like a bit of a holiday rather than a job, to be honest – but demanding conditions. None of us saw the amount of awards that film would win or thought it would be a top-5 film for 2018, so it was a pleasant surprise for everybody and a really nice thing to be part of.
I’ve got a film coming out called Lyrebird, it’s set post Second World War, and has got Claes Bangs in it (who is now playing Dracula).
DB: He’s so good, I’ve seen him in a few things.
CJ: This sounds so sycophantic but what a lovely, lovely man. He’s an absolute gentleman, lead actor on the film and so nice to everybody. I went back in January to do a reshoot, just me and Claes, I asked him what he was up to and he said, ‘I’m doing Dracula, it’s the Sherlock team,’ and I was like, ‘That sounds amazing!’ You do have a little bit of jealousy when somebody is that good and that lovely.
I had to do Dutch accent. They said, ‘Don’t worry because it’s a soft Dutch accent.’ I said, ‘Well let’s just look at what that is…’ I’ve only got a few lines in that film but when I was doing the accent I was like, ‘This doesn’t quite sound right,’ but that’s what the dialect coaches are for and they get the big money.
That was a lovely project, we shot it in Amsterdam and Portsmouth, with a good budget which just makes everything easier. It’s a very interesting film about art forgery, Guy Pearce plays a forger, and I’m not sure that there’s been anything like it, so it could be an awards film, it had that feel about it.
DB: You’ve been in a few soaps over the years.
CJ: Yeah, I’ve done them all except Coronation Street; I’ve done EastEnders, Hollyoaks, Doctors. Emmerdale came up, that was a lovely stint. I think I was only meant to do five or six episodes and then they got me back for a few more. I sound very showbizzy but my God, what a lovely place to work! I had always heard really positive things about it. Faye Styring (the casting director) and Matt Hilton (who directed my first episodes) were just so lovely in the audition and it was one of those rare occasions where I left and thought, ‘That might be my job, you’d have to go some to take that part away.’ I was just perfect for it: he was just horrible, warped, black-hearted. I’m not dead, so I might go back, it’s up to them. It’s the people that make Emmerdale and, I’m not just saying it because I was on it, but the quality of actor on it is insane. I do think they’ve got the best child and teenage actors, out of all the soaps.
DB: How does it differ on a soap from when you are a guest on another show?
CJ: It’s just quicker. I think the best way to define it to a layman is to explain that if you go onto something say Silent Witness or Call the Midwife the production, time, budget determines you might get four maybe five takes on something. That tends not to happen very much on soaps, you’ll get a couple of takes, maybe three, and then you move on and it’s really important that you know your lines because everything moves at a quicker pace. The lower the budget the more frantic it is, so you’ll get more time on Emmerdale than you would on Doctors. That is why some soap actors go on to have amazing careers because if you can do that as an actor you can cope in any environment. Also for somebody who’s a regular in a soap you might have bereavement, an affair, some comedy or playing an abuse storyline, you ride the whole gamut of emotions.
DB: You were also in Patrick Melrose which stars Benedict Cumberbatch.
CJ: Yes, I was. Nina Gold’s an incredible casting director (Star Wars, Game of Thrones) she was casting Patrick Melrose and there’s a couple of scenes in a treatment centre when Patrick goes onto rehab, and they were looking for a Scottish drug addict. They were having a conversation in the office and I believe two of her associates came up with my name. I went in, read for it and had a couple of days on that.
Benedict Cumberbatch is just an incredible actor. I’ve never seen an actor that gracious, with that much talent. He said hello to all the extras, he came and introduced himself to all the people who were around for a day or two, was extremely caring, very compassionate. I very rarely sit opposite somebody in a scene and think, ‘Wow!’ It’s only happened to me twice, once was Benedict and the other was Gary Oldman on The Dark Knight Rises, where I’ve thought, ‘I think I’m in the presence of genius here.’ Most of us there’s a little bit of blagging, a little bit of talent, a little bit of charm and all those things that come together but I sat there at the read through, watched him and I thought, ‘I completely understand why you’re a star.’ He just oozes charisma, he’s intense, got great comedy timing, emotional, interesting to look at – he’s just got everything. Just to share a couple of scenes with him was brilliant but again… a drug addict. (Both laugh)
DB: With your tattoos and your vest.
CJ: Ah listen, this is funny, and has happened to me probably half a dozen times… Sometimes I go to costume fittings for jobs – and Patrick Melrose was one of them – and they’ll say to me, ‘Come in a tracksuit or something you would wear normally or bring some clothes that you would wear, so that we can look at it, but we’re not probably going to use your clothes because we’ve got a budget and we’ll buy you some stuff.’ On Patrick Melrose they said, ‘That’s what you’re wearing,’ so not only do I sound like a drug dealer, I also look like one! (Both laugh) I wore a vest and tracksuit. That was a lovely job and these things are nice because they’re so prestigious and just to be just a small part of it is a great thing.
DB: Did you have a backstory in your own mind for him?
CJ: I don’t work like that Davina; I’m one of those actors, I trust my instincts. If a director asks me to provide a backstory I will go away and write pages of stuff, come up with objectives and all that. I think part of the reason I get used a fair amount is that when I go in I don’t play too far away from what I am, I’m very rarely putting on a voice or a different physicality, so they know what they’re getting and they know that quite often I will know what that environment is, what those people are like.
I realised, probably about five or six years after leaving drama school, that sometimes you can trip yourself up by over-researching, over-thinking and over-analysing. I thought, ‘They just want a version of me, let’s go in and offer them that.’ Sometimes that’s a different accent or you might have to shave but it’s never that far removed from what you are, really. You carry a certain energy and I just found that I did all that in drama school – Stanislavsky, Method, Meisner – and I loved it, but when you get to my age all you worry about is remembering your lines! (Both laugh)
I say to younger actors, students, that some teachers and actors kind of mystify the process of screen acting, and actually it’s very often about stillness, just being present in the moment and if you can do those two things you’re doing a lot right.
DB: I’ve spoken to actors that have been told not to do any training to avoid ruining their natural talent.
CJ: There’s been a real shift over the last four or five years that some casting directors are preferring non-trained actors coming off the street who are a bit more raw. I think part of the reason I’ve kept working is that I’ve kept that raw quality; I don’t think I’ve made a conscious decision to keep it, it’s just there. I’ve noticed that the training’s not necessarily what they’re looking for now, and that’s fine because there’s room for everybody.
DB: How did you get cast in the role of Overseer Byrnes in Outlander?
CJ: I auditioned for it: I taped once for it and then had a general casting. They’ve got lovely casting directors up in Scotland called Simone Pereira Hinds and Anna Dawson. I was up making Calibre and phoned my agent and said, ‘I’ve auditioned for it down here [London], is there any chance I might just be able to see Simone, just to get a different outlook on it?’ (I hadn’t seen Simone for years) I went in, had a chit chat and she said that there was something suitable but it had been cast literally earlier that day. About six months to a year later they asked, ‘Do you want to read for this Overseer Byrnes part?’
There are certain jobs that carry prestige and Outlander’s one of them – as a Scottish actor everybody wants to be in Outlander. The role itself wasn’t that chunky, it was a little pivotal part in a couple of scenes, so I knew when I was going up that I wasn’t going to be shaking any trees, but it was an amazing job. I know everybody says this, and it sounds like an absolute cliché, but they made me really welcome, made me feel very important – they were lovely. I think the atmosphere of a show is dependent upon the producers and the lead actors. Sam and I have some mutual friends, he is a joy, and Caitriona was lovely as well, they kind of set the bar for the on-set vibe really. My only regret with it is that I just wasn’t there longer but some jobs are like that, and you’ve got to weigh it up as an actor: do I say no to the fact that it’s a smaller part, and perhaps never do Outlander, and wait for a bigger part to come along in maybe a year or two, four years, down the line? With Outlander what made me make the decision was I don’t want, in a few years time, not to have it on my CV, so let’s just go, do it now and then move onto the next thing, which has always been my attitude.
DB: Everyone I’ve spoken to has said the same, it’s basically a really happy ship.
CJ: And it has to be because they film in challenging conditions: South Africa in blistering heat, in Scotland the weather’s so changeable – I mean it’s beautiful, but it can be challenging – so you need a positive energy around the place.
DB: You filmed in Scotland, for how long were you actually filming?
CJ: I did yeah, I think I was on there four or five days. It’s difficult as a guest because, as welcome as everybody makes you, you don’t have the benefit of knowing everybody’s names or having that feeling of having your feet under the table. I filmed it in late summer near Perth, in the most beautiful locations. I played a racist overseer bloke, I’d strung this black kid from the tree and ripped his intestines out because he had cut my ear off – so again it was a lovely comedy scene, one of those lovely characters.
I suppose a badge of honour on Outlander is to have a scene with Caitriona and Sam, so one lovely benefit was that scene with those two. In a show like Outlander you should be aware of where you are in the food chain, and I was aware that I wasn’t going to be around very long, so soak it up, make the most of it, enjoy it and take it for what it was, a cameo I suppose.
DB: And the costuming?
CJ: Amazing! Amazing! They put me in the Costume Department and into the clothes and I was just like, ‘There’s no expense spared here, this looks unbelievable.’ I found the Costume Department to be so specific about what the characters are wearing, and not just what they’re wearing but how they’re wearing it, how you hold yourself. When you’ve got a costume like that on and you step out on a location you just feel a million dollars because you know that you’re going to look great – they put so much love, effort, and expense, into it.
I did a low-budget, short film last year, called Boys Night (it is winning awards) which was done on, I think, £10,000 (which is nothing). We shot it over a week in November/December and it’s just a different kind of pressure because you know with a project like that, it’s going to look raw and edgy and real, but with the production values on Outlander every episode looks like a movie, it looks phenomenal, it’s beautiful. The production values are so high you feel like a part of something really special.
DB: In Outlander they’ve got the poor slave strung up on a hook: how did they work that out?
CJ: Actors are spoiled rotten. I’ve said this to a couple of young actors that I’ve worked with, and I’ve seen them get a little bit lippy: the crew, stunt performers, makeup and hair people, they’re all there hours before we are, and not in a cosy trailer getting coffee every ten to fifteen minutes. By the time I get on set everything is done, so you don’t get to see the magic of it but with most hanging scenes – I’ve been involved in a couple – the actor’s generally on a harness because the main thing is safety first. Of course with the quality of makeup on Outlander, the production design, the stunt guys, everything just looks so realistic. You know when you go on set you’re part of the story but you’re looking at the dude hanging there with his intestines coming out and you’re shocked by it, and you know that the audience are going to be ten times more shocked because they don’t have the benefit of being there on the day, they’re watching it and believing it. Your job is to just to stand there, say your lines and react off of everybody else.
DB: You play a lot of thug roles.
CJ: Loads, about 80% would be those sort of parts, I think.
DB: If you’re playing a part, like Byrnes, who is particularly repulsive, how do you wash that away at the end of the day?
CJ: I’ve always found it quite easy. I think it’s probably harder in the theatre. When I played Begbie in Trainspotting I was a lot younger and you do carry the energy off stage – maybe for 30 minutes to an hour afterwards you’re still a little bit wired – but I’ve always had an inherent awareness that it’s “playing” not real. Glaswegians have got a real gallows humour and I’ve found that’s stood me in good stead, that when things get a bit dark we come out with a little quip, just to lighten the mood. The truth is, I think Alan Rickman said it, “the villains’ parts are the best parts”.
DB: Oh definitely.
CJ: When I’m there I’m having fun. I’ve always said I’m getting paid to be there and I’ve always felt very blessed, so I think that’s another reason it’s easy to switch off. I know that this is intrinsically quite a fickle business, so make the most of it, enjoy it and move on to the next one.
I teach a lot, actually we’ve [Jack and his fiancée Maisey] just opened our own school in Essex, The Essex School of Screen Acting, and I teach there and at the Performers College in Corringham, Tiffany Theatre College, all over the country. Young actors hear the same thing all the time ‘It’s hard, it’s tough, it’s difficult’ so I try to teach from a very positive perspective, that if you can stick it and have even a relatively small degree of success, there is nothing like it, it’s an amazing job.
I tell them three things: one is to have some sort of strategy, don’t just sit there waiting on the phone ringing. Want to do musical theatre? Seek out an agent that is going to get you those auditions. Want to do TV and films? Do student films, low-budget, shorts, music videos, but not necessarily for money (that’s how I started). Strategy’s one thing, and the hunger, if you don’t have a hunger and love it, you’ll be dead in the water. That sounds very harsh but you have to need to do it, not just want to do it, it’s an inherent need.
DB: A bit like a painter has to paint or a musician make music or they’ll be bitterly unhappy.
CJ: Sport’s quite similar as well. The third thing, which is probably the most important thing is have other things that you do because financially it’s incredibly difficult to have a decent quality of life on an acting income alone. It’s probably the same sort of statistic as it was when I was starting but I think there’s only 15% of actors, in Equity, that are working at any one time. Teach, direct, do voiceovers, write, work in a bar, work in a theatre, but find something that affords you a reasonable quality of life when the acting work is not there in front of you.
If you want to be a TV or film actor, just the very nature of that is that you will be out of that for a few months of the year because you’re waiting for specific things to happen. I trained in musical theatre, so I did long contracts, so there’s career stability there. It is wonderful to be on a film in any way, shape or form whether you’re a day player or an extra, but it’s very difficult to break that, to go from a supporting actor to a lead, so any time I’m on a set I’m always very appreciative of the fact that I’ve been chosen to be there. You do see some actors walking about with a face like a slapped arse, and you just think… I did a big ITV drama back in 1998, Taggart, and there were a couple of actors on that (they shall remain nameless) and by God they could moan! I thought, ‘You’re getting well-paid, a car from your flat to the set and back, three hot meals a day, on one of the biggest shows on telly, if you’re going to moan about that, you’re going to moan about everything!’ I was probably two or three years out of drama school and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’ and I’ve managed to by-pass that kind of attitude. Lovely blokes but just bitter, you know.
In the last week I’ve just been cast in two massive feature films, two of the biggest films of next year, so after a very quiet year [we had a baby in March] I’ve got some days in November, December and January on one and I’m just awaiting dates on another. It’s a crazy business!
I’ve directed maybe 12 or 13 plays, pantos and musicals. I was in the Broadway Theatre, Catford, a residency post at the theatre there but I found that some actors were very difficult to work with because they got to their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and hadn’t, in their minds, “cracked it”. One of the reasons I stepped back from directing was that, just too much negative energy to suck up on a daily basis. For me, I can’t be around people like that.
DB: Do you think that’s because they’re setting their sights at a destination rather than a journey?
CJ: That’s very true, they aim for a destination and not taking each stop as it comes, but I think more so some people have a very inflated sense of where they’re at. I always realised from a young age what sort of actor I was: I knew I was going to play a lot of villains, thugs, drug dealers and at 5 feet 7, looking like me, choosing to get covered in tattoos, you’re never going to be the romantic lead or carry a film. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen because you’ve got Ray Winstone, Robert Carlisle, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, Ricky Tomlinson but they’re in an elite bracket and they’re also supremely gifted. If you’re thinking you belong in that bracket and it doesn’t happen for you, you’re just buying yourself a world of bitterness.
DB: The Essex School of Screen Acting, that’s quite an unusual thing, you get lots of general drama schools but…
CJ: The UK’s populated with schools doing musical theatre and we mentioned earlier that casting directors are looking for actors that aren’t necessarily off the back of a 1-3 year training, so we wanted to offer something different. We decided there was probably a market just to study screen acting. Over the course of the term they’ll cover: soaps, US drama, auditioning for adverts, auditioning on tape, accents you for specific areas of TV and film drama, period drama. We don’t touch on the theatre or put on a dance show.
We’re hoping the school will grow, we’ve got 10-12 students at the moment with a lot of interest in next term. I think what’s important for anybody who’s doing a screen acting training is that they’re being taught by somebody (and that’s true of both Maisey and I) that knows what it’s like to be on a TV show or a movie because there’s a lot of teachers out there who can talk about it but have never done it. I also think, if you’re going to train with somebody, it’s probably an advantage that the person you’re training with is still going out each week to audition.
DB: What strikes me is that nowadays it’s not that unusual with other jobs to be asked to send in a self-tape.
CJ: We didn’t necessarily just want actors in the room, we were interested in seeing people that were curious about what screen acting was or felt that they were nervous public speakers or wanted to put themselves under pressure in a different way. Hopefully it will continue to grow and offer something a bit different and it gives us something else to be passionate about when the phone’s not ringing.
DB: Completely changing tack, who would you say has been the most influential person, or people, in your life and how have they been influential?
CJ: It’s the stock answer, my mum and dad. No actors in the family, so when your youngest child turns rounds and decides they want to throw caution to the wind and go off to London like Dick Whittington… My mum and dad were cautious at first but financially, spiritually – whatever way – they could not have been any more supportive, it’s very difficult to be an actor without having friends and family around you that don’t have faith in you. When the rent couldn’t be paid, they were there, they turned up at every single performance.
My brother and sister as well, and I’ve got an amazing group of friends, some I was at primary school with, they’ve been incredibly supportive.
I had a teacher at Mountview, who passed away a couple of years ago, Simon Dunmore. He was fantastic because he championed the whole Scottish thing for me; he made me realise that I was interesting enough to go out and work. He was like, ‘You’re enough, just keep studying, training and keep interested.’ Simon was a massive influence.
You do meet actors who inspire you. I worked with Gary Oldman, who is my hero (as an actor) and I told him when I worked with him – he was very flattered. You’ve got to aim high and be lucky as well, have people around you who are supporting you and full of positive energy. I’ve been very lucky. I tell younger actors to stay away from people who have a negative energy, don’t get in it because it’s a hard enough game without people telling you that you’re not good enough or that you’ll going to struggle – we know all that.
Now it’s Maisey and we’ve got this beautiful little girl and she is the reason now that we do it, you know. It’s shifted now because to be an actor I think you have to be quite selfish, but now I’ve got this beautiful little girl to worry about and she’s going to be the single most important reason. She’s the reason we do it now, there’s no other reason really.
DB: I was going to ask you how becoming a parent has changed you, especially in relation to your profession.
CJ: I think, not to be flippant, but in the grand scheme of things you realise that it’s not the most important thing anymore. It’s always been incredibly important to me, my work, building that CV up, but since she’s turned up it’s just dropped down my list of priorities. The bizarre thing is maybe that’s what it will take for the absolute life-changing job to come, it’ll be because it’s for her and it’s not for me anymore. I want her to be comfortable, to be proud of us. There’s not a lot of stuff that I’ve done that she could watch but maybe further down the line we could do some kids’ films or something. She’s the guiding light now, she’s changed my life beyond recognition, it’s frightening. Her name is Alba, it was Maisey’s idea, it means Scotland in Gaelic, it suits her perfectly and she’s a force of nature.
DB: Tell me about your tattoos and what was the first one you got?
CJ: There’s 18 now. I got a thistle on my back when I was 23 and then I kind of built them up. Tattoos are funny because some of them seem like a good idea at the time and then you realise a few years later that they’re not; I’ve got a couple that I’ll be glad to see the back of, so they’ll be getting lasered soon and then covered with something that I like. 80% of them have got a Scottish theme, there’s “Scotland the Brave” lyrics, the lyrics to “Caledonia” tattooed on my rib, this [pointing] means Scotland forever, there’s Alba’s name, Made in Scotland. I’ve got my mum and dad one as a little tribute to them; I lost my dad in 2016 and I’ve got a tattoo of my dad and his date of death. There’s no theme with me it’s just what I fancy.
DB: When was the last time you wore a kilt?
CJ: I own a kilt. When I was younger I played competitively in pipe bands to a decent level (we were World Champions in 1991 at Grade 4) so every week I would wear a kilt, it’s not something to me that’s unusual. Burns Supper – that was the last time I wore it, it would be January. I love owning one, because they’re so expensive to hire; I got one a long time ago and it’s beautiful, it sits in the wardrobe. I generally wear it to weddings, sometimes for work, I wore it at the Calibre premiere, so special occasions and when Scotland are playing football. I’m so used to wearing it that it’s second nature whereas some people hardly ever wear it, so when they put it on they feel odd. I feel very proud when I wear it. I’m very patriotic as you can see [pointing to tattoos], it’s etched in me. (Laughs)
DB: What clan tartan do you wear?
CJ: It is Ancient Hunting Fraser, which is an adopted tartan from one of the bands that I use to play in, it’s a green, light brown, blue and white, a beautiful tartan. My original one was Wallace.
DB: When you aren’t working, what do you do to relax?
CJ: Gym, I’ll train maybe six days a week; I try to get a couple of hours in every day. I spend a lot of time with the girls. I take Alba and our French bulldog, Melvin, to the park every morning. I think, since Alba came, we just realised the importance of spending time together as a family. Maisey and I loved going to the cinema together but you know… we got a babysitter last week and went to see The Joker which is unbelievably good. Melvin is 12 now, I got him when French bulldogs were very rare. I understand why people get them, they’re very easy little dogs to have around, brilliant, so lazy; he’s the laziest dog I’ve ever had. I love dogs! I’ve got a real passion for them; I do some charity work for a charity called Futures for Dogs and judge their shows.
I’ve just registered to run the Edinburgh marathon, I’m not going to do it for charity – I’ve done a lot of runs for charity and I don’t want to keep asking people for money, so I’ll let a couple of years pass and then I’ll do some charity runs, maybe for dogs. I’m passionate about dogs, family and work – I still love working. I think the ideal job for me would be something where I’m surrounded by dogs; I’m a bit jealous of Paul O’Grady.
DB: Touching onto some music: if you can cast your mind back, what is your earliest musical memory?
CJ: I can tell you right away, there’s a very Glaswegian thing: we used to go to my grannie’s on New Year’s Eve for the clock striking midnight, everybody would get drunk and have to do a song. So my earliest musical memory is everybody singing at my grannie’s house, just sitting in her tiny front room and whether you were a guest or a friend of the family, everybody had to do a “turn”.
DB: What was the first single or album you ever bought with your own money?
CJ: No Parlez by Paul Young, 1983, I would have been 11 and I bought the album. I think the first single I bought might have been Blancmange “Don’t Tell Me” maybe ’82.
My sister Lorna had a very quirky taste, she liked things like The Cure. She’s the first person that I ever heard listen to Culture Club and Boy George, so I, on her coat tails, developed the same sort of taste; she was the first person that played U2 to me. My brother was more Frank Sinatra, Soul. I’ve got a very eclectic taste
DB: If you were going on a road trip what sort of music would you have on your playlist?
CJ: ‘80s. There’s not a modern song that would knock my favourite ‘80s songs off the list. I’m very passionate about ‘80s music; I love the music I grew up with. Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Nik Kershaw, The Thompson Twins, Howard Jones, Go West, some Pet Shop Boys all typical ‘80s bands. If I had one last album to play it would be Sowing the Seeds of Love by Tears for Fears and my favourite song of all time is “Head Over Heels” which is not on that album.
DB: Did you use to (because you’ve got the baby now) go to see live music very often?
CJ: Occasionally, I went to see Tears for Fears in February. I love the band called Hue and Cry, they’re brilliant, I saw them not long before that. I think Maisey and I need to go to more gigs but it’s difficult now with the little one. I’ve been to a lot of gigs, when I was younger: Simple Minds, Crowded House, Texas – all those Scottish bands – but Tears for Fears was my bucket list one, so I’ve done that. Duran Duran next, I’ve got to see them.
DB: If there’s a party and music is playing will you just get up and dance, or do you have to be dragged up?
CJ: Dragged up! When it’s your job – I must have done about 12 or 13 musicals over the years – I’ll do it either for money or if I’m dragged up, if I’m dragged up and I’ve had a lot to drink. Even at a family party I’m a reluctant dancer.
DB: What about singing then?
CJ: I used to love singing but I’ve kind of got out of the habit of it. That passion I had twenty years ago, for musicals, that’s coming back a little, there’s a couple of shows I would really like to do. I would love to play Bill Sykes in Oliver! There’s also a musical called Assassins, which Stephen Sondheim wrote, which I’ve been listening to in the gym and there’s a couple of parts in that that I’d really like to do. I think the singing is something that I might revisit next year but I need a good singing teacher to get this voice back because it’s the muscle, like any instrument if you don’t use it… My other half has got an incredible voice, so in this house, when you hear her singing, you don’t want to open your mouth. (Laughs) She’s just done Doctor Zhivago – there’s a new musical version of it – she’s incredible, so I let her do that now. When I sing to Alba I’m not sure she’s that impressed, so I definitely need some lessons.
DB: Imagine it’s your final meal on planet Earth, what would you choose to feast upon and what would be your preferred drink to go along with that?
CJ: The drink is the bottle of Budweiser, has to be a bottle, not a can. To feast on hot and sour soup and chicken chow mein with fresh chilli from the Pearl Dragon in Southend. Love it! They’ve made a few quid since we’ve been here.
DB: Could you tell me about the book or books that you are currently reading?
CJ: I’m reading scripts right now: I’ve got one film script that’s been sent tonight that I’m about to read and then I’m reading three episodes of this cop show that I’m in for. However, I’m a massive Jack Reacher fan, Lee Child’s next book is out, I think it’s tomorrow, so that’ll be the next thing I read. I love Ian Rankin; I can pick up a James Patterson. I got out of reading, I need to read a little bit more, I think. I was a voracious reader when I was studying but just the news, newspapers on line, social media probably takes you away from sitting down with a book, it’s a shame because there’s a lot to be gained by reading a good book.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
CJ: That would just be taking the dog and baby for a walk in the morning, maybe breakfast with Maisey and Alba, a quick trip to the gym in the afternoon. Then probably something as simple as a bit of playtime with Alba in the afternoon, potter around the garden, put Alba in the bath and then bed, then dinner with Maisey and a good Netflix boxset. It’s a lot more simple than it used to be, if you’d asked me this a few years ago there would have been parties and beers involved but not anymore, no. Very simple tastes now.
You can find Cameron @
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.