Back in the early 1980s, Scottish cinema underwent something of a renaissance with the arrival of Bill Forsyth and his blend of whimsy, realism and the occasional penguin found in That Sinking Feeling (1980), Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983).
One constant in those three films was John Gordon Sinclair, a young actor whose performance as the gangly Gregory in Gregory’s Girl can still be identified with by anyone who has been a teenager in love.
Following a 30-year career on the stage and screen, Sinclair recently turned his hand to writing a novel, ‘Seventy Times Seven‘, a gritty thriller somewhat at odds with his affable persona. During a recent visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I caught up with Sinclair to discuss his collaborations with Bill Forsyth, his upcoming performance as a Navy Seal in World War Z and his desire to work in Scotland as much as possible.
You began acting at the Glasgow Youth Theatre, what ambitions did you have at the time?
The acting was almost a sideline to what else was going on. When I joined the Youth Theatre it wasn’t to become an actor but because there were a lot of like-minded people there. I was really into this Canadian rock band, Rush, and the very first day I went along there was a guy wearing a Rush t-shirt. Every time I asked anyone else in Glasgow they didn’t know them and here was this guy in this shirt and that could only mean one thing, that he’d been to the concert.
It was a place where people thought like me. It was never the acting, it was to do with being in a group. I was interested in school plays and it wasn’t that I’d watched loads of TV or movies, it was much more organic than that with no real thought process.
I know Bill [Forsyth] wanted to make movies but couldn’t get the money together and he was happy working with a bunch of kids interested in mucking around and theatre.
Although That Sinking Feeling was the first script to be produced, is it correct that the idea for Gregory’s Girl pre-dated it?
The first day I went there they were rehearsing a scene from Gregory, the nurses scene, and I remember going in and standing at the side of the hall and they said “We’re just doing a scene from as film this guy’s writing”. Rab Buchanan, Andy in the film, was playing Gregory.
When did it become obvious you would be Gregory?
It must have become obvious over time. Bill used to come in quite regularly. We used to go on tour every year and Bill would come along and drive the bus to get to know us all a bit better. He had obviously decided by that point who was who.
We used to shout at him. We stopped in Buckie or somewhere like that and we spotted him, he used to wear a wee black beret, we’d shout “Look, there’s that internationally famous film director!” Little did we know…
It sounds like you were mainly doing it for fun.
There was a time when I came through with the Youth Theatre to watch That Sinking Feeling, Bill brought us through to Edinburgh and all of sat in the cinema gobsmacked because we’d just been doing it at weekends and the odd night. We wouldn’t show up for filming because we were playing football or out drinking. Bill would be trying to get a schedule together and we just wouldn’t show up.
We sat in this cinema at the Edinburgh International Film Festival watching the film and we’d no idea it was going to be a proper film, with a story. The drive back was quite interesting: “What happened there?”.
How soon after that did work begin on Gregory’s Girl?
Bill had disappeared for a while down to London trying to scrape enough money together to get Gregory’s Girl going. He then showed up at my door on a Monday night and said “I’ve got the money and wondered if you were interested?”.
It was really weird seeing him out of context. I was used to seeing him at the Youth Theatre and I wondered what he was doing at my front door. Eventually I asked him in, it was all a bit awkward, and when he said he wanted me to be in the film I said I’d need to take time off work and he’d need to pay me.
At the time I was an apprentice electrician. Life at that age is a bit vague, I just fell into these things. When you left school the thing was to get a trade, there was no sort of forethought. Acting was never a career path that the career advisor suggested, neither was university. I don’t know anybody in my school who went to university, it wasn’t an option. It was just accepted that none of us would, so you went out to get a trade.
Did you ever see the US dubbed DVD version of That Sinking Feeling that came out a few years ago?
I didn’t, but funnily enough when Gregory’s Girl was going to the States they did a dub for it and I didn’t know this when I went out to do interviews. One guy said “We understand you really well but the film is hard to understand, did you make any compromises?”.
I said “You’re listening to the dubbed version, that’s the one you’re supposed to understand, not me!”.
Local Hero came along a few years after that and you appeared in a smaller role as a member of the band. How did that come about?
I wasn’t supposed to be in Local Hero, there wasn’t a part, but I think it was kind of a payback thing for Gregory’s Girl, which I got hardly any money at all for. Bill said if I wanted to head up and hang out he’d pay me a wage for 11 weeks, so Peter Capaldi and I hung around and went drinking.
It was the time of the Falklands and we were getting news relayed to us on set, with all sort of disinformation. This guy on set told us they were bringing back the draft and we thought it was our last bout of freedom. We used to hire boats and practice beach landings.
Was there a different feeling on set for Local Hero after the smaller That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl?
It was much more professional, a proper film crew and schedule. It was much more the way films were normally made, it felt a lot more serious. There was also less access to Bill as he was busy all the time. On That Sinking Feeling and Gregory we all just hung out wheras on this it was a bit weird.
Did you meet Burt Lancaster?
I’d met Fulton Mackay before but he was only there for a couple of weeks. Peter Riegert and Denis Lawson were our heroes, everything they said or did we said or did and adopted their mannerisms as we wanted to be sophisticated like them.
Burt Lancaster flew in and out in a helicopter for a few weeks, so he was the big star. They bought him a kilt and had a big ceilidh at the end. Peter and I got up on stage and did a sketch at the end.
Was there a feeling at that time that this was the start of a Scottish film industry?
I don’t think any of us had any expectations. Bill was offered a huge deal to go off to sign a five picture deal in Hollywood with Sam Goldwyn which he turned down because he wanted to stay at home.
When we came to make Gregory’s Two Girls it was as if we’d stirred up a hornets next and it was only then we realised what people thought of Gregory’s Girl, because I had no concept of it. People telling us what it could and couldn’t be. It hit Bill as well, I don’t think he realised how deeply it had entered the psyche. There was no expectation it was the start of an industry and we’d be doing it the rest of our life.
I think with better planning and management it probably should have kept going, but he was kind of pioneering without realising it. When it came to do Being Human, which cost around $30 million, a big amount at the time, it kind of got out of control for him and I don’t think he liked that. It’s not his style of filmmaking either.
Originally Gregory’s Two Girls was going to be a TV show, at what point did it turn into a film?
The producers, Clive Parsons and Davina Belling, approached Bill to say they they were thinking of turning it into a TV project. Bill didn’t fancy it but that thought there was perhaps a film in it.
It was great to work with Bill again and being in that environment, but it didn’t really work. It was trying to be all things to all people and it kind of lost its way a bit. Initially I didn’t want to do it but when Bill told me his ideas it sounded great. It also meant I’d be working with him again for three months back in Scotland, so it started to seem like a good idea.
Has there been any discussion about a third installment?
There will never be a third one. I don’t think Bill would write it and I certainly wouldn’t be in it.
You also starred in the 1986 BBC drama, Raspberry Ripple, acting opposite Faye Dunaway. What was she like to work with?
People ask who I’ve worked with and I say Faye Dunaway and they say “What?!”. It was a cracking idea. It didn’t get onto people’s radar.
It was based on Guys and Dolls and I used to sit in the make-up bus and read scenes with Faye Dunaway. She was really nice to me, though apparently terrible to the make-up and costume departments, but I was like a puppy dog sitting staring at her thinking “I really want to kiss you”, I think she felt sorry for me. She had these really gorgeous lips.
One day we were sitting in the canteen and I thought “I could just lean forward and snog her and see what happens”. I kind of wish I’d done it as it would be a much better story.
She was doing a theatre show at the time so she’d go off, so we’d film her reverses before a certain time, but she always asked if I wanted her to read in for me. There was one day when I said it was OK, I’d just use the cross and she said “would you rather have the cross than me?”.
You also turned up as the replacement lighthouse keeper on Fraggle Rock in the late 80s. How did that come about?
One of the producers, Duncan Kenworthy, approached my agent. I don’t quite remember how the conversation went about doing it, I’m sure it had a lot do with money. You did about 50 programmes in three weeks or something.
It wasn’t a major part of your life? Did you meet Jim Henson?
It wasn’t a major part of my life but it paid for a major part of my life. I was down at the Creature Workshop, I think they were working on something like Baron Munchausen, but I didn’t meet Jim Henson. It was just a gig that meant I didn’t have to work for a couple of years if I didn’t want to. It was pretty extraordinary.
They filmed some of World War Z in Glasgow recently, did you come back for that?
I filmed all over Britain apart from Glasgow, perversely, to the point that my friends thought I wasn’t in it at all. I was in Falmouth, Oxford, Dunsfold, Chelmsford, all over the place. I play a US Navy Seal Commander and I kept pinching myself. It started as a two week gig but grew to five weeks, which will only end up as a few minutes on screen.
There were five of us in this section, a French guy, two Amerians, me and Brad Pitt. Every day you’d go to work and Brad would be there saying “Hi John”.
People think I’m being coy when I say my agent called to say they want to see you for a couple of scenes with Brad Pitt. I didn’t know anything about the movie but I went in to see them and they said it was for a Navy Seal officer in a few scenes with Brad, so I did it. When I left I called my agent to say I thought they’d asked me to read for the wrong part and that I didn’t think she’d be hearing from them. Me a Navy Seal officer? These are the elite of the elite.
That was on the Friday and I got a call on the Monday to say I was to go down to Falmouth on the Friday to see the military guys. You just never know what’s coming.
Will you continue to mix the acting with the writing?
Writing is much more me, it suits my personality. I enjoy the act of acting just not the stuff that goes around it. It just depends on the project as I have kids now and I want to be home with them. I nearly went to the RSC at the end of the year this year but too many dates conflicted. I’d like to have that on the CV and tick off that box. I find that’s what I’m doing now, ticking boxes as I go along.
Do you keep an eye on what’s happening in Scottish film and TV?
I hardly ever work in Scotland and I kind of regret that, I wish someone would offer me something so I can hang out up here. I tend to say yes to things I get offered in Scotland, there was a radio comedy I did a few years ago so I could hang out in Glasgow for a week every six months. So yes, I’d like to work up here more.
I don’t keep my eye on the industry at all, I feel like such an outsider, I don’t read the trade papers or anything like that. I’m happy to leave it to my agent to phone me up with things.
My next book is set in Glasgow deliberatly so that if they ever make a film there are so many great places to shoot. It’s Glasgow and Dumfries, as well as Niagra Falls and Kosovo.
Would you like to be in it?
I’d be happy to step away from it. I know too many people who have been frustrated by it, including Bill Forsyth when he made Being Human. The studio interfered with what he wanted to do, and you think the guy’s made films before that work, why would you interfere with that and not just give him the money to make his film?
I don’t have the stomach for all the battles. I’ve done my bit and the book exists, that’s my interpretation of the story and if someone else wants to interpret it their way that’s fine.