Harry Styles may have made wearing skirts all the rage, but actor Graham McTavish has been on trend for decades, and has even based his latest hit TV show around his trademark look.
Graham, known for gritty key roles in ‘Outlander’, ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Creed’ and ‘Aquaman’ is now starring in the series ‘Men in Kilts’ on Starz, alongside ‘Outlander’ co-star Sam Heughan, which is the buddy road trip we all need right now. Following their travels across Scotland sampling the local fare, tossing the hammer, and failing dismally at sword dancing, it’s just two pals sharing adventures and baring their knees.
Here, from his home in New Zealand, Graham shares stories of his tenacious rise to acting success and reveals a love for anything pulchritudinous (don’t worry, he defines below!), as the latest subject of our ‘Who The F*** Are You?’ profile, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are.
Who the f*** are you?
Who am I? What a very deep question. My dad’s family came from Edinburgh. My grandad was in the First World War and after the war, he walked from Edinburgh to Glasgow looking for work. You can’t even begin to imagine it. Just so hard, tough as nails. They ended up in Glasgow, and I’ve still got a place there that I rent out.
Glasgow was the beginning and then, by way of Vancouver and the south of England, I went to university in London. When I was at school, my real passion was writing, so I would write stories. When I was between the ages of 11 and 14, I wrote three full length adventure books. I was very inspired by people like Alistair MacLean, and so that’s what I wanted to be.
The drama teacher at my school would often ask me to be in a play, and I always said no. I had no interest at all in acting, none. Then, on this one occasion, he asked me to be in a production of ‘The Rivals’ by Richard Brinkley Sheridan. It was three days before the show, and one of the main actors had to drop out. So they needed somebody at the last minute and to this day, I honestly cannot remember why I said yes. I suspect it was because there was a girl in the cast that I wanted to impress, or something like that. So, I learnt the lines in three days, went on, and because it was a comedy, people laughed. Then, they applauded and I was like, “This is great, I really rather enjoy this.”
I think a lot about the forks in the road that we take in life, where you end up and what causes them. When I finished school and was in my year off, I remember the local amateur dramatics group, the church hall people, putting flyers through the doors. Of course in those days, that’s the only way you let people know about things. I opened it and it was inviting people to join, because they were particularly short of young actors. I remember looking at it and I showed it to my mum and I said, ‘Do you think I should do this? Do you think I should go?” She just looked and she went, “Yes, I think you should.” And I did.
I went along and I just got more and more into acting. I had my place at university and — I mean, this is the kind of things you do when you’re 19 — I wrote to the principal of RADA and I said to him, “Could you please give me a special audition to see if I’m any good?” Incredible presumptuousness. They wrote back and they said, “Yes, the principal has agreed to give you this special audition.” I’ve still got the letter actually. Then I went in and I did it, and at the end of it, he said, “Well, if you were applying to RADA, you would definitely get through to the next round. Beyond that, it’s difficult to say at the moment. But you’ve got a place at university so my advice is, go to university, do the three years and if you’re still interested, come back.”
So, I was very fortunate to attend Queen Mary’s College, part of the University of London in the East End, in Mile End. My English professor really believed that Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedies, or plays, should all be performed. Not just studied, but performed. Even if you weren’t acting in them, you had to contribute, so we put on loads and loads of plays. I spent three years playing leading roles in Shakespeare and Jacobean drama and modern drama. That really solidified my desire to do it as a job.
Everybody else at my university were going into publishing or advertising. I just couldn’t see myself in those roles. I applied for a post-graduate year at several drama schools, and I got into about six of them. In those days of course, you got a grant to go to university. I’d got a grant but I’d used it, and so they said, “If you want to do a post-graduate, you’re going to have to pay.” At that time, it was just inconceivable, like, “What? You expect me to pay? So I just said, “No, I’m not going to do it.” Instead I did a play by Samuel Beckett called ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’, which is a one man show. I performed that and that’s how I got my equity card. I was around 23.
So, I suppose I’m somebody who’s curious. I’m interested in the world and I love to explore that, not just physically but through meeting people, through art, through enjoying art and really through practicing my own art. I used to be a very passionate artist. I used to draw a lot, along with the writing and the acting. I suppose they’re all things that are just an integral part of my life. I don’t regard them as jobs at all, for instance I’m writing something at the moment, a book, and I just love doing it. I’ve always associated work with things that I love in my life that interest me. That doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated and find there’s limitations within that, but that’s what motivates me, I think.
How are you feeling right now?
Gosh, that’s a good question. I would say a number of things. In my work, I’m feeling very positive and fulfilled, I’m looking forward to several things that I’ve got coming up, so that’s great.
In my personal life, with my children, with Garance [Doré, Graham’s girlfriend], it’s great, all of those core things like family, home. I guess New Zealand is my home. It’s always something I’ve struggled with, identifying where home is, because I’ve spent so much time away in different places. I often feel that I’m just about to step out of wherever I am at that moment, into somewhere else. That’s the kind of way I’ve lived my life for so long, I don’t know how I’d feel if I wasn’t doing that.
In a much broader sense, I’m worried about the world. I think we’re slipping into a very dangerous, dark period in our history. I’m a great studier of history, and I see so many echoes of the polarization of society, the real hatred and anger that people have towards each other. The dangers of ideologies that can just take over people’s thinking and actions, I find that very worrying. Because I’m interested in history, I look back at how people used to talk to each other, and we’ve lost so much of it. I think we’re living in a very fearful time, and I don’t mean just because people are afraid of viruses or whatever. I think we’re living in a time of fear and that fear causes us to often not express ourselves and not engage in meaningful and helpful conversations.
So, on a personal level, feeling pretty good, but on a macro level, feeling a little concerned. The most concerned I’ve felt in my lifetime, that’s for sure.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
Well, most of my memories of growing up are in Canada and England. My years in Canada, I would definitely characterize as the happiest of my childhood. It was just utterly idyllic, I loved it so much. I went over there in 1968, from aged 7 until about 10, to Vancouver. My dad was a pilot. He was in the RAF in the war and then, like a lot of people from the war who were pilots, he went into civil aviation. They formed the backbone of the emerging civil aviation world. We went over to Canada to join him, he was flying for a company called Pacific Western. It no longer exists as is the case with most of the airlines my dad flew with, none of them are around now.
I just loved Canada and I had some really good friends, I loved the lifestyle. I think it was just at that time in my life, that I was really able to expand. Then I came back to England, and I loved the area I grew up in. It was very countrified. Unlike a lot of kids nowadays, I spent my days, just miles away from home, we would just go off. If you were out of earshot, they would just say, “You’ve got to be back by dinner.” You would know when dinner was, like 5.30pm. I have no memory of having a watch at that age, but we just knew when to come home and it was fine. My overall view of my childhood was a very good one actually. I definitely had a happy childhood.
What excites you?
I guess new experiences, being exposed to things that I’ve not encountered before, that really excites me. Starting new projects, I get nervous, but I’m also excited. Seeing my children growing up, I find very exciting. When I see how quickly they’re growing up, I’m so aware of time just jumping by, leaping by.
What scares you?
Things like earthquakes don’t scare me. If I’m honest, and I think it would be true of most parents, is that you fear for your children. I remember that feeling when my first daughter was born, I remember sitting with my then wife and suddenly becoming aware that my horizon had changed. That I used to be the person on the horizon, it was me and there was nothing beyond me. That’s all I was worried about, “What’s going to happen to me? I don’t want to die”. Then, your horizon shifts and it’s the people beyond the horizon, who are your children, that you really start to think about in those terms.
I’m not, by nature, a fearful person. I like trying to challenge fears as much as possible, I do it in ‘Men in Kilts’, actually, we go abseiling at one point. Bloody terrifying.
So yeah, anything happening to my children, in a nutshell.
What is your proudest achievement?
There’s probably the slightly trite, obvious answer, which is my children. I am very proud of that, having them in my life.
But also, I wrote a play about Vincent Van Gogh when I was in my twenties, with another actor friend of mine. We toured that around the world, we did it at the National Gallery in London, which was the first time they’d ever put a play on. We staged it there in 1986 and it was this huge success. We only did it as a way for people to see us act, we didn’t have any ambitions for it at all, but a lot of Americans came to see the show. Because they were Americans, they weren’t shy about coming backstage and talking to you, going, “This is fantastic.” They said, “You should bring this to America.”
This is a strange one. I’m proud of the fact that we toured it all over the world, but I’m not necessarily proud of how we first managed to do it. We’d converted a lecture space in the National Gallery into a theater. Within that lecture space was just a normal lighting booth. The National Gallery had a system of internal phones and external phones, but they’d had an issue with nighttime security guards, who would get on the phone and call home. This would be costing the National Gallery a fortune, so they blocked every phone in the National Gallery from being able to dial outside, apart from the phone in the lighting booth.
We wrote a load of letters on National Gallery headed notepaper to virtually every art institution in America. My friend’s girlfriend worked in the post room at the National Gallery so she franked all the letters with National Gallery, and we sent them to all these places. We put the direct number to the lighting booth on, and then we sat there in the booth and waited for the phone to ring, and it rang. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York booked us for a month.
What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Anybody that’s involved in the arts, there’s obviously ups and downs and disappointments and all that stuff. And obviously I’ve lost both my parents but just really from old age, it wasn’t from anything terrible.
I think, if I’m honest, the hardest thing that I’ve experienced was a girlfriend I had whose father was murdered. The hardest part about that was obviously being with her and her family at the hospital. I remember we were sitting in the hospital and we were all waiting for news, he was in intensive care. The doctor came in and said, “Okay, so Angus’ injuries are not compatible with survival.” It took us a moment, we were really listening to him like, “What does that mean? Not compatible with survival?” I remember so clearly that moment of understanding that somebody you cared about was definitely going to die, very soon. I was so shocked and angry and upset. We were there for hours and eventually they called us in and said, “You need to come now because he hasn’t got long.” We went in and we were there when he died. That was the hardest thing.
Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
Gosh, that’s good. Greatest mentor… I think I’ve been fortunate to have a few people who’ve really taken me under their wing. My English Literature professor at university for sure, Nigel Alexander. He was very supportive, very encouraging of me and really inspired me, especially with Shakespeare. Hugely significant.
Since then, the late Terry Jones of Monty Python. I got to know him when I was at university, we became friends and were friends for the rest of his life. He really opened my mind to the possibilities of life. He lived life in a really full way. His dinner parties were just amazing, always filled with really interesting people from all walks of life. He would do all the cooking and I would watch. He was like a renaissance man. I thought, “This is how you can live your life, you can do this, you can manifest this around you.” He was hugely important to me.
And the actor Brian Cox, as well. He really helped me a lot.
Who are your fictional and real life heroes?
Fictional heroes? Well, he’s a terrible anti-hero actually. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the ‘Flashman’ novels, but George MacDonald Fraser wrote them and they’re based on a character that was in [the Thomas Hughes novel] ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’. Flashman was the school bully, and the concept that Fraser came up with was that Flashman had kept diaries and he discovered all the diaries. So, the books were basically just transcripts of Flashman’s diaries. He placed Flashman in every significant historical event that happened from the mid to late 19th century. He was everywhere — at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa, in the Afghan war — but he was a complete coward. An utter and complete coward and a complete bastard, but it’s so funny. I don’t think they could possibly ever make them into a television show because they’re so politically incorrect, but he is so great. So, he’s a great anti-hero that you can’t help loving.
Real-life heroes, I’m reading a book at the moment about the Blitz and Winston Churchill. I know a lot about Churchill, everybody who grows up in Britain knows about Churchill. This has really opened my eyes to the contradictory nature of his character and how really, by force of will, he galvanized Britain into fighting back. They were ready to fold really, that was it, game over. And he was a very funny man, very loving, but given to enormous rages of temper. I’ve always found, personally, with both fictional and non fictional heroes, my favorites are the ones that are complicated, so that they don’t necessarily conform. They’re not just marvelous, they have flaws, and I think that’s interesting.
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
I mean, yeah, I’ve got a few kilts! Garance really makes fun of me because I have quite an extensive wardrobe. I’ve got a few suits, I’ve got nice shirts and pants and all that stuff, but I basically only wear the same small number of clothes all the time.
It’s just shorts in the summer and t-shirts. I think my favorite is a suit that I had made for ‘The Hobbit’ premier in London. It was by a tailor called Thom Sweeney in Mayfair.
What music did you love age 13 — and do you still love it now?
To be absolutely honest with you, my interest in music really didn’t come until I was more like 15, so really it was punk. Punk was the thing that really caught my attention, and up to that point I kind of overheard my sister’s music. Simon and Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, they’d all be in the background, but I was a kid. When I was 13, I was still very much a child. I used to play with little soldiers and all this stuff, and I remember when I was 14, getting them out to play, setting them all up. I remember looking at them and this moment, I’ve never forgotten it, and just thought, “They’re just bits of plastic.” I could no longer believe in them and so it was a sad moment actually.
I’ve regained it with my children though, because they get them out now and I can time travel back.
What is the most inspiring book you have ever read?
It’s the same for a lot of people, I think, a book that you read when you were a child that really signified a beginning of a real relationship with the written word. While I used to have books read to me as a child, the first book I really read myself, multiple times, was ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame.
It’s a magical, magical book and you are just transported. It’s an adventure story and I’ve read it to my children and I would say that that’s the one that really got me into fiction.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
There are a few, but I remember particularly the events. I went to see ‘Alien’ with my friend when we were in London. We were just there for the day and we were a bit bored, in Leicester Square, and there was the poster, “In space no one can hear you scream.” There it was, just a big egg. We knew nothing about this film. We went in to watch that and it was possibly the most terrifying two hours of my life. I sat there and all I remember so clearly is at the end of that movie when she’s trying to get rid of it out of the air lock, the audience, all of them just screaming, “Kill it! Kill it!” 1,000 people. We came out and we were shaking. It was the middle of the afternoon. I’ve never forgotten that.
What is your favorite word or saying?
Oh dear, that’s so hard. I’ve recently discovered a word, well, I’d heard of it before but I never really understood it properly. Pulchritudinous.
Beautiful, basically. Something that is very beautiful. What I love about that word is that it doesn’t sound like a word that describes beauty at all, it sounds like a medical condition. I’m sorry but I’m suffering from Pulchritudinous-ness.
I love words that are just really surprising, I suppose.
A phrase though, that’s very hard. I’ve always used a toast that my father used to do at dinner. I think it’s a Burns’ quote actually, and it’s, “Here’s tae us. Wha’s like us? Gey few, and they’re a’ deid.” Which translates as, “Here’s to us, who’s like us? Damn few, and they’re all dead.”
I just love it. It’s like, there’s so few of us left like this and it’s such an inclusive kind of bonding moment. It always makes me think of my dad.
What do you want people to say at your funeral?
Just uproarious laughter! I don’t know. I guess, I made them laugh, I kept their lives interesting. One of the nicest things was when my father died — he died before my mother — and we went to visit him in the funeral home. We all had our time with him on our own and it was my mother’s turn to go in. She had a little bit of time with him on her own and when she came out, my sister and I and my brother said, “Do you mind if we ask, what did you say? Did you say anything? What was it like?” She said, “I looked at him, and I said, ‘You promised me a life of adventure and you gave me one.’”
If anybody says that to you, you’re lucky. It gets me every time.
And finally, a quickfire five favorites…
1970 Aston Martin DBS. I used to love a show called ‘The Persuaders!’ with Roger Moore. It’s the Aston Martin he drives.
I have to say, the only thing that really gets me going is watching England play football. It’s been a trail of tears. I get involved in other sports, I’m a Scottish rugby fan, but an English football fan, which is weird. English football, 1990, I still vividly remember every moment of that game against Germany. It still haunts me to this day.
Probably have to start with oysters, I developed a great love for oysters quite late in life in my 30s. I don’t particularly like really elaborate food. I enjoy well cooked fish, it’s pretty boring actually, with steamed vegetables. Pudding, however, pudding would be a toss up between pavlova, which I love, or my mum’s sherry trifle. So good.
I have a lot of grooming products, I just don’t use them as much as I should. Garance is always just gently saying, “You know, you’re not grooming,” because I have quite unruly eyebrows.
The only thing that I have is my beard, because I lost my hair quite young, so I do like occasionally using some beard balm to sort of just tease it around a bit. So beard oil.
I’ve got a few John Varvatos jackets. I like the fit, because not everything fits me very well. I like more of a European cut on clothes, suits in America tend to be a bit boxier. I love Anderson & Sheppard on Savile Row.