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Mullan, Peter (1959-)

Actor, Director, Writer

Main image of Mullan, Peter (1959-)

Peter Mullan came late to international recognition after a long, low-key filmography in vivid character roles, but he achieved his breakthrough in grand style. In 1998, aged 39, he was named Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for My Name is Joe (d. Ken Loach) and, months later, won a clutch of awards at the Venice Film Festival for his own first feature as director, Orphans (1997). As an actor, he has specialised in passionate, powerful, ambiguous characters, men whom one either warms to or is deeply unnerved by - sometimes both at once. His three films as a director are all angry, arresting stories of society's dispossessed, yet shot through with a fantastical humour that sets them aside from the mainstream of British realism.

Born in Peterhead, north-east Scotland, on 2 November 1959, the sixth of eight children, Mullan grew up in the Cardonald area of Glasgow where his mother was a nurse and his father a lab technician - and a violent alcoholic, versions of whom were to recur throughout his son's work. Peter joined a street gang in his teens but still managed to win a place at the University of Glasgow to study economic history and drama.

Despite suffering a nervous breakdown in his final year, Mullan graduated, then taught drama at Borstals, prisons and community centres while becoming involved in the leftwing theatre movement that flourished in Scotland in the 1980s. In 1987 he made his professional acting debut with the Wildcat theatre company in a political pantomime.

A flurry of supporting roles on the big and small screen followed, among them The Big Man (d. David Leland, 1990), Your Cheatin' Heart (BBC, 1990), Taggart (ITV, 1985-), Riff-Raff (d. Loach, 1991) and Rab C. Nesbitt (BBC, 1989-99). His profile began to rise with colourful turns in three prominent Scottish-based films: Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), playing a sceptical soldier, and two movies with Danny Boyle, Shallow Grave (1994), as a thug, and Trainspotting (1996), as a drug dealer.

The breakthrough came when Ken Loach, who had earlier passed over Mullan in favour of Robert Carlyle for the lead in Riff-Raff, now handed him a marvellous showcase role. In My Name is Joe (1998), the actor delivered a blistering, Jekyll-and-Hyde performance as a recovering alcoholic whose humanity and warmth mask a frightening capacity for brutality.

Meanwhile Mullan directed three very well-received short films, Close (1993), Good Day for the Bad Guys (1995) and Fridge (1995), all surreal comic dramas set in the Glaswegian working-class world. This vision was refined and developed in Orphans, the savage odyssey of four working-class siblings roving round Glasgow in the 24 hours after their mother dies.

The following year Mullan was characteristically intense as the cynical manservant, Jean, to Saffron Burrows' Miss Julie in Mike Figgis's adaptation of the Strindberg play (UK/US, 1999). After minor turns in The Escort (France/UK, d. Michel Blanc, 1999), Ordinary Decent Criminal (d. Thaddeus O'Sullivan, 2000), and the American independent horror film Session 9 (2001), he played a gold prospector who sells his wife and daughter for a chance to earn a fortune, in The Claim (d. Michael Winterbottom, 2000), a transposition of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge to 1860s California.

In 2002 Mullan directed a second feature, The Magdalene Sisters. Set in Ireland in the early 1060s, it was based on true cases of 'fallen women' who were used and abused as effective slave labour in convent laundries. Despite furious opposition from the Catholic Church, this blistering drama won the Golden Lion in Venice.

Mullan turned down increasingly frequent offers of work in America in favour of British television and cinema, often low-budget productions by first- and second-time directors. In each case, he invested his role with an authority and integrity not always (though sometimes) matched by the project he found himself in.

He played a hospital consultant in the BAFTA award-winning This Little Life (BBC, tx. 19/3/2002), then two working-class cuckolds, a bargee in David Mackenzie's bleak psychodrama Young Adam (2003) and a blind farmer in Blinded (d. Eleanor Yule, 2004). He was an aid worker who helps strangers in far-flung places in order to escape pressures at home in Kiss of Life (d. Emily Young, 2003), a benign wizard in the children's series Shoebox Zoo (BBC, 2004) and an unemployed shipyard worker who salvages his self-esteem by swimming the Channel in On a Clear Day (d. Gaby Dellal, 2005).

He returned briefly to America for a small role as a wealthy businessman in Criminal (2004), a mediocre remake of the hit Argentine thriller Nine Queens, then made his mark back in Britain as an eccentric prison guard in Children of Men (2006), Alfonso Cuaron's film of the dystopian P.D. James novel.

Subsequent roles included a Scottish trawlerman smuggling illegal Chinese immigrants in True North (d. Steve Hudson, 2006), a saturnine Gordon Brown in The Trial of Tony Blair (Channel 4, tx. 15/1/2007), a cameo in the undistinguished sword and sandal epic, The Last Legion (d. Doug Lefler, 2007), a sympathetic social worker in Boy A (Channel 4, tx. 26/11/2007), a gruff father in Stone of Destiny (d. Charles Martin Smith, 2008), a sinister cleric in the bleak Red Riding trilogy (Channel 4, 2009) and a hard-boiled ex-policeman working outside the law in The Fixer (ITV, 2008-9).

In 2010 he directed a third, equally acclaimed feature, Neds. A "personal rather than autobiographical" story (which nonetheless drew heavily on his own life), it was centred on a bright young Scottish lad who, failed by the system, drifts into gang culture.

A brief foray into blockbuster territory, as the villainous Yaxley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts I and II (d. David Yates 2010/11) was followed by the lead role of a bitter drunk in Tyrannosaur (2011), the directorial debut of actor Paddy Considine, and as the father of a boy whose horse is sent off to World War I in Steven Spielberg's film of the hit play War Horse (2011).

Sheila Johnston

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of My Name Is Joe (1998)My Name Is Joe (1998)

Drama about a reformed alcoholic trying to run a failing soccer team.

Thumbnail image of Riff-Raff (1991)Riff-Raff (1991)

Ken Loach tragicomedy set on a London building site

Thumbnail image of Trainspotting (1996)Trainspotting (1996)

Film about Edinburgh junkies that became a cultural phenomenon

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