This year at New York Comic Con, we had no idea what to expect from Mr. Graham McTavish, who played the role of Dougal MacKenzie in the first two seasons of Outlander. Who we encountered was a supremely humble actor with a long list of projects to his name. When asked about his different roles, he instead chose to share stories about those he had worked with, and downplaying his own clear talent.
Initially we did learn a little bit about the man behind the curtain, learning that he lives in rural New Zealand, brought there by his work on The Hobbit. He was born in Scotland, but lived in a number of countries growing up, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and now New Zealand. His father’s work – first in the RAF and then as a pilot in civil aviation – was the reason he was able to experience so many different countries growing up. After attending the University of London, he has spent the last 32 years pursuing his acting career.
Return to Treasure Island
McTavish spoke about his colleague, Brian Blessed, who played Long John Silver in the film. Apparently Blessed is a very funny man who swears a lot (if you look it up on YouTube – he pointed out – you can find a video of him uttering a long string of swears, which I have not included her since children might read this). In addition to this, he is incredibly strong. Working on both MacBeth and King Lear with Blessed, McTavish described a hug from him as “being held by a bear”. During their work on King Lear, there was a moment when Blessed became upset because people were not paying attention to their work and he flipped the table and had to be convinced to come back to continue.
In college, McTavish was the President of the English Society, which meant he organized pub crawls and guest speakers. Terry Jones (“Monty Python’s Flying Circus”) was one of these guest speakers. He described him as an incredibly generous man, and one who had a huge impact on his start in film. Now, Jones’ mind is going and he can’t write. Even speaking is difficult for him, but through it all he has kept his good humor.
Erik the Viking
This was McTavish’s first proper film role, where he was supposed to be a tiny Viking amidst all the bigger ones. Unfortunately the casting of Tim Robbins threw off the juxtaposition somewhat.
Mr. Toad/Wind in the Willows
McTavish enjoyed playing the drunken weasel in Mr. Toad and still has the teeth he used for the part.
As a kid, he always wanted to play a Roman, and it turned out that he had the opportunity to play 3 in 1 year (the other two being “Rome” and “Empire”). Because of these three consecutive projects, he lived in Rome for nearly a year. He compared the feeling to how he feels playing a cowboy now in Preacher. These weren’t roles he could play as when a kid in Scotland, so now he is able to live out these childhood fantasies of his. He even mentioned how much of a fan he is of Clint Eastwood and how he would fall over if they ever met. (I for one would pay to see that).
What’s New Scooby Doo
Of all his roles, this is the one McTavish has absolutely no recollection of ever doing. He’s not sure if he was drunk or had a seizure, but he has no idea why he can’t remember this role. He did, however, grow up watching the cartoons, and has a great respect for them.
Another animated role, here McTavish played the trickster, Loki, a role he loved playing. He was a fan of the comics growing up, and felt that heroes like Thor were dull without the character of Loki to balance him out. He is a character that you love to hate, and probably the one who would be a lot more fun to hang out with.
McTavish’s first job in America, he argued that the character here was very nuanced, and that it was a highly underrated film. The week after he arrived in the United States, he landed his party in Rambo. He tells this great story of how he met with the casting director, and as he’s waiting in an office for the man, he starts looking around and realizes there are a lot of posters of Sylvester Stallone’s films on the walls. Realizing suddenly that he is in Stallone’s office, he is met with the man himself. Immediately, he is star struck and all he can do is mumble incoherently until Stallone wishes him luck and leaves again.
Not only did Stallone direct this film, but McTavish swears that the man is Rambo, and can do things that no normal man should be able to. At one point during the filming, Stallone had a piece of bamboo go through his bicep and continue working. It made it so that no one else had any room to complain. In fact, McTavish pulled his calf muscle and didn’t feel like he could say anything to Stallone about it.
According to McTavish, Stallone is funny, bright, interesting, and works hard, respecting those who work hard, as well. He kept a journal of his experience filming with Stallone, because there was something nearly every day that was so profound he needed to record it. In fact, McTavish is the only actor to play opposite both the characters of Rambo and Rocky, some pretty big bragging rights.
Initially intended to be two films, McTavish reported that they shot enough to make four. They spent two and a half years working on it, and developed an incredible camaraderie as a result. No one outside of those who worked on this project will every understand what it was like. The costuming added 70 lbs. and he spent at least two hours having his makeup done every day, wearing prosthetics over his entire body. He could never complain, though, because it was an honor for him, after having been a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings series and then getting to walk the carpet as a member of The Hobbit.
When asked about the process, he pointed out the difference from The Lord of the Rings, since this was shot in 3D, therefore eliminating the ability to use the forced perspective popular with the previous series. Instead, they acted on the set, and the cameras were connected through slave motion control to Sir Ian McKellen on a green screen, talking to lights which showed the dwarf or hobbit currently speaking. McTavish called it “a weird dance”, shooting in both locations simultaneously, but very cleverly done.
It was pointed out that his character was the one to survive the longest in the books, dying at the age of 340 years. McTavish felt that his reason for not going on another adventure after that told in the books was because he never really got over the death of Thorin, and just couldn’t cope with that loss.
His favorite scene was the barrel scene, which was filmed across multiple locations for several weeks. One of the locations was an actual river. He equates their involvement in that scene as being “lambs lead to the slaughter”. He was under the impression that the stunt doubles would be doing the scene, but instead they were left to swim for their lives. He reported that two had to be pursued by speed boat before going out to sea, and that Armitage almost drowned. They weren’t trained, just actors in prosthetics, costumes, and make up. They had buoyant tires around the barrels, and during one take, the guy next to him sprung a leak in his tire. There was an artificial river as one location, as well, set up inside an old tire factory. It was 150 yards and they would spin through it in about 25-30 seconds. One guy – he wouldn’t name who, of course – ended up urinating in his wet suit…more than once. At a mountain location, they were in full costume and actually had to escape the mountain before the fog set in and left them all stranded. All in all, he much prefers filming on location (some of which could not be reached except by helicopter) than on a set.
As expected, most of those in attendance were there because of his role as Dougal MacKenzie, the uncle of our beloved Jamie Fraser. The first person to be cast in the project was Sam Heughan (Jamie), so he auditioned in a chemistry test for the part of Dougal. To the delight of many, he noted that Sam is one of the nicest people he has ever met, and is very like the character he plays in that way, and that they got along right from the start. Of course, Caitriona Balfe (Claire) was cast much later.
As with previous projects, they went through a series of “boot camps” prior to the start of filming – a fact he joked about not understanding since it’s called “acting” for a reason – where they learned material that would help them with their parts. It took months for them to work through these “boot camps” on subjects like sword fighting, riding horses, and putting on kilts – a feat that involves laying down on them to do it properly.
Inspired by his talk about the “boot camps”, McTavish recalled one he went through for his first film, Life Force, a film about vampires from space. They spent time learning how to move a certain way, but then when filming came, they had to adapt in order to catch the extras – who apparently had not also been instructed on the vampires’ movement techniques.
McTavish’s current work is another that he was a huge fan of before signing on. He reports being a follower of the books when they first came out, and was desperate to be a part of it when he heard about their work to make it a TV show. He created a self tape while working on Outlander, and then had a video conference with Seth Rogen and others from his flat in Edinburgh, in order to land the part. This is a new experience for him, playing a part with guns and is by far some of the most enjoyable work he has done to date. In January, they will start filming in New Orleans.
After talking briefly about each of his projects, he answered some questions from the audience.
When asked if he finds it difficult playing the darker characters, he insisted that we all have a “dark side”, which is much more interesting to explore. For instance, with the character of Dougal, he is complex, not evil. As an actor, he wants these roles, he said. Of course he gets angry and passionate – and can be a passionate ranter about certain topics – but he’s not violent. For these parts, he is able to access that part of him, though, and this exploration of our suppressed parts are fun to him.
McTavish also made the argument that there are no small parts in a film. He doesn’t view parts by their size, but rather approaches all parts with the same process, by inhabiting the character. For instance, by playing the “Saint of Killers” he has learned the benefit of stillness and silence, because he feels this is how the character would be. He takes the same approach with live theatre. He has met people who are incredibly violent, and they are the still, quiet, composed, and disconcerting people, which is what he tries to do with his character from Preacher.
Addressing his longevity and diversity as an actor, he said he has no idea why, and has no real secrets to share there. He was told once by his producer that there is talent, luck, and perseverance, and you need two of these in order to be successful. Sylvester Stallone, on a similar topic, told him that the best actors are those you’ll never see, because success has nothing to do with how popular something or someone is. For McTavish, he believes his strength is perseverance. He has developed a thick skin which helps him deal with the constant rejection, even after landing different roles. He has learned to take criticism, because it is inevitable that people will judge you and your work. He also doesn’t take anything for granted, always tries to be the best he can in any given role, and he treats all roles and projects the same.
The craziest role he has ever held was in a “fringe” show “When Nights were Bold,” which was related to “The Canterbury Tales”. It had been a previous hit, but the reboot he was involved with turned out to be terrible. He talked about having to play the part for weeks, and didn’t even want people to clap at the end, knowing how awful the show was.
Another part McTavish played was that of Dante in a video game. He enthused about the fantastic work done on the game, and the motion capture process. Working on it was a combination of film and theatre, griping over how no one looks good in the motion capture suits, because you can’t hide any thing. The character of Dante was extraordinary, though, and he even has a little action figure at home, which he refuses to take out of the box, despite protests from his children.
As expected, he admitted that he always wants to redo his parts so that he can do them better. He has never had the feeling that he has “nailed” a part, and it is almost a form of self-torture to think about, or watch himself in these roles. In theatre, every time you do the show, you have a chance to do it all over and get it right, but it’s also like riding a wave, inhabiting a zen-like space as you act. But then the wave breaks and you have no idea what made it good or how to recreate it.
My final impressions of Graham McTavish are that he is a funny, witty, incredibly humble man who was an absolute pleasure to sit and listen to, and would probably be even more entertaining to converse with. If you have a chance to see him in person and speak with him at length, I highly recommend doing so!