From little screen to big screen, highly accomplished actor, James Cosmo, sat down with BAHM Magazine for a short chat about his roles in Highlander, Braveheart, and Game of Thrones, as well as other memorable and iconic works. Through his illustrious career, Cosmo has made himself known as one of the most recognized and most talented actors in the industry today.
You’ve had a long and illustrious career, how did you catch the acting bug and what was your life like landing all those TV roles beginning in the 1960’s?
Well, my father was an actor, so I knew well what the requirements were and the pitfalls and what the life of an actor was like. That was a big advantage because a lot of people come into the business and they don’t understand what it can be like, you know, the good side, the bad side. So I had that advantage and I moved to London and my first ever role was that of a quiet point. I moved on from there, you know, and I was lucky to start working on the movies, which has always been my preferred area within the medium.
What was your first big break into the industry?
It would, it would have to be, I think the Battle of Britain, which was a huge film at the time about the fighter pilots and the Second World War, the famous few, you know, from that Churchill speech, including a lot of Canadians. It was wonderful to portray those absolute heroes, these boys, some of them, you know, 18 years olds expecting to be killed. It was extraordinary. My first big scene in the film was with Canada’s own Christopher Plummer, and he was an absolute joy to work with. He came to me when I was a young, terrified actor. He was just gorgeous. So I will always remember them very, very fondly and I’m glad to see he’s still banging away, making great movies.
How did you approach and prepare for the role of Angus MacLeod in Highlander?
Well, I guess it didn’t take too much, you know, as you can tell from the look of me, I’m from that area of breeding. I was brought up with stories of the Highland in that the way of life and group “warriorship”, if that’s a word. It was very, very clear to me. The movie was ground-breaking in so much that he moved the camera a lot and the rock music playing was something completely new and different.
What was it like to play Campbell in the movie Braveheart?
It was the last movie that really didn’t use CGI, other than a very small amount of very basic CGI or Computer Generated Imagery. You know, Lord of the Rings, is pretty much all CGI. So the last series that is just coming out in November is dark materials that, you know, is months upon months of work on CGI, and in Braveheart we didn’t have any of that. So we actually did have hundreds of extras with 400 horses. It was all real, those were real people. To be charged upon by 400 horses made the ground shake. Just imagine the angle of what those battles must have been like. It must’ve been unbelievable. So that was a great pleasure to be in Braveheart. Obviously it wasn’t by any means historically accurate, but it was still a great piece of cinema for Oscars and whatever. That was wonderful to be involved in something like that.
You played Mr. Renton in the cult classic movie Trainspotting and the sequel T2. What do you think contributed to the success of these features?
I think it came from a terrific book, a great script, and the most important thing was the director Danny Boyle. Again, ground-breaking piece of film all the way to worldwide success. It was great to see that we actually got everyone back to do T2 again. Although, it was just a couple of little scenes, but Danny pulled me in and said, “You know, you’re Renton’s dad in the first one, so we can’t have anyone else play Renton’s dad in T2”.
Of course, most fans will want to know what it was like to play Jeor Mormont in one of the most successful TV series of all times, Game of Thrones. What was it like being a part of this cast and making TV history?
Well, you know, at the time we, we didn’t really know that we were making TV history. I remember being in LA and I said to David Benioff and Dan Whites the two producers and writers, I said, “do you think we’ll get a second season out of this?” And they didn’t know. They had no idea what was going to happen, then boom. You know, it took off and became this phenomenon, which still continues to this day. That’s extraordinary. But, Mormont himself, I thought he was a great character to play. You know, he was a man of integrity, honor, and discipline. It was great to play someone like that, a really noble human being.
One of the world’s biggest tragedies was the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. In the highly acclaimed Chernobyl TV series you played a miner that was essential in tunneling underground and stopping the meltdown. How did this role make you feel, knowing the sacrifice your real-life character made?
Well, although it was a tiny piece, my agents and I thought I should do something on it because we knew it was going to be a very important piece of television. And I was lucky enough to film in the Ukraine in Kiev. I just finished reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago. So I knew how dreadfully the Ukrainians had been treated by the Soviets, something not talked about very much. So I think that the miners that give the most weren’t surprised, that something like that had happened and that their lives were actually of no consequence to the state. The Soviet State never cared for people. But I was very glad to be part of it.
You’ve been in dozens of hit TV shows throughout your great career. Which TV series is your favourite and stands out in your memories?
Oh, I’ve done so many. Most of them are good in places, so you take away fond memories of lots of different shows and the wonderful places that I’ve been to. If I hadn’t become an actor, I don’t suppose I’d ever have visited so many places. It’s just not meeting actors particularly, but that traveling throughout the world and meeting the people from different parts of the world that’s been a huge pleasure too.
Which movie is your favourite?
I guess Braveheart would have to be right up there. You know, it changed my career enormously, but it was a joy. My oldest boy had just been born and we were filming in Ireland. It was hard work, but so enjoyable. Mel was great fun, a wonderful sense of humor and very generous with his time. And he’s a good actor and director. He is an actor, so he knows how actors feel. And he brought that to his job as a director. Made it very, very easy for everyone.
When did you start doing voice over acting for video games and how did that come about?
Well, the opportunity just came along, you may gain some notoriety as an actor and then people ask you to do video voice, video games, or audio books or whatever, and it’s a great way to earn the living. You know, you don’t have to shave or your hair can be a mess, you just roll up to the sound studio, get in the booth, and nobody knows what you look like.
Your extremely successful career in movies and TV spans over 50 years. What advice would you give to someone just starting out as an aspiring actor?
I would say “stickability” is a great asset, just don’t give up, get used to rejection, and don’t take the rejection personally. It’s probably because you didn’t look right for them. Wrong height, the wrong sex, the wrong color, you were the wrong this or the wrong that. It’s not about you as an actor, it’s about how do you fit into that film. So if you can get through that outset, that’s a great asset and never be afraid to grow. Pump gas or do anything to keep yourself going, but you’re still an actor. Use all that time that you have to observe people and that’s part of your armory as an actor, just watching people because one day you might use that. Don’t be ashamed to go out and do what you need to do to keep yourself going, there’s no shame in that.
What’s next for James Cosmo? Where can fans expect to see you again?
I’m starting a Bollywood movie, which we’re shooting in London, India, and Abu Dhabi. I’m doing a terrific role of an east-end gangster which will be a lot of fun. Then I’m doing a second season of a show called The Bay, so that’ll take me up to Christmas and that’s as far as I want to look ahead.