The last time that Celtic Life International spoke with Graham McTavish (February 2015) he had just jumped into a cab in Philadelphia on a frigid winter morning.
“Ah yes, I remember,” says the ruggedly handsome Scottish thespian. “We were filming Creed (part of the ageless Rocky Balboa saga), and it was bitterly cold as I recall.”
I remind him that he is only one of two actors – the other being Sylvester Stallone – who has appeared in both the Rocky and Rambo film franchises.
“Yes, yes,” he chuckles. “I suppose that is one of my claims to fame. I truly enjoyed working with Sly, and I still speak with him on occasion. He is a great guy and a highly underrated talent, and we have had a wonderful time working together. Perhaps the only unpleasantry was having to deal with the weather. I have never been good with the cold, and I am still not I’m afraid.”
Speaking via Zoom from his (warm) hotel room in London – where he has been working on location for the past while – McTavish is relaxed, at peace with himself and his profession, even during the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has certainly been a difficult time for most people; locking down at home, the restrictions on travel, and with so many challenges to the economy. I consider myself quite fortunate to have been able to continue working through all of this. In fact, I have never been busier.”
Having just celebrated his 60th birthday, McTavish is indeed enjoying a very productive mid-life; along with a variety of roles in London and elsewhere, the Glasgow native is excited for a possible return for the 6th season of the smash STARZ television series Outlander. In addition, he and his Outlander co-star Sam Heughan have just released their first book, Clanlands, a recounting of the dynamic duo’s madcap adventures criss-crossing their native homeland.
“I think what amazed me the most, aside from actually writing a book, was seeing how very little I knew of my own country.”
McTavish can be forgiven his unfamiliarity with Scotland. Although born and bred in Glasgow, he has resided in a number of other locales over the years, including England, the USA, Canada, and New Zealand, where he currently resides full-time when he is not away on location.
However, it was in Scotland where he first cut his teeth as an actor – writing and performing skits and sketches in school. Later, after studying English literature at Queen Mary University in London, he picked up a number of roles in regional theatrical productions. Since then, he has savoured success with stints on television, in cinema, doing voice-over work for animated films and video games, and more.
“Really, the only thing that I have never done is radio, which is rather odd as so many people have told me that I have a good voice for radio. I suppose that is their roundabout way of implying that I have a good face for radio also.”
All joking aside, McTavish inched closer to the old-school, on-air medium when he and Heughan began discussing Clanlands.
“The original idea was simply to produce a regular podcast with the aim of exploring the history, culture and people of Scotland. However, and as so often happens with Sam, a few drinks later and we are planning a book and a full-on television series. Funny how these big, outlandish ideas for world domination always seem to occur when he and I are together and there is a bottle or two involved. Perhaps I should have known better – right from the get-go, the possibility of disaster, of the whole project going horribly wrong, was quite high. Nonetheless, we prevailed.”
Though daunting at times, piecing together the book – which is subtitled Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other – came fairly easily to the pair.
“There was no big secret to it really,” muses McTavish. “Each day, I would make some time to get my bits down on paper, and Sam would do the same. Often, I would write something, send it along to him, and he would send his parts back to me fairly quickly. It was a lot like having this dialogue, this conversation, going back and forth between us. We got into a nice routine with it, and then one day it was done – almost out of nowhere.”
Editing the tome was another matter altogether.
“The real challenge came with figuring out which parts we wanted to keep and which to discard. There were so many great stories in there that we wanted to tell, and there simply was not enough room to fit it all in. If we had kept everything then the book would have been thousands of pages. And, even after we had brought the book down to what we thought was proper scale, the publisher’s editing team had a go at it and reduced it even more.”
Still, both he and Heughan were satisfied with the final draft.
“Oh yes, we were quite pleased with the end result. Thankfully, the last revisions were placed in the hands of professionals and they did their due diligence to make some sense out of what we were trying to say. Without them the book may have come across as incomprehensible; the drunken ramblings of two University frat boys on a long-distance road trip – sort of a Rick Steeves meets Jack Kerouac kind of thing.”
Since its release in November, Clanlands has received both critical and popular acclaim, topping bestseller charts around the world.
“The response has been a bit surprising to be honest,” shares McTavish. “Although, given how popular Outlander has been, I suppose it should come as no surprise at all really. Perhaps the most rewarding part of it all, however, has been reading the online reviews from readers. They have been most generous and favourable, and many offer insights into the book that neither Sam nor I had considered.”
Outlander author Diana Gabaldon provided the book’s forward.
“Diana is a lovely, lovely woman and she was so kind to have offered that. Having the great fortune to have worked closely with her over the last few years I am always impressed with, and inspired by, her tremendous work ethic. She is so energetic and enthusiastic about everything she does. It really is amazing when I consider how long it took Sam and I to write one book, and how much effort went into it, knowing that she has produced so many of these epic narratives.”
Some of the material that did not make Clanlands final format does appear in the new STARZ companion television series Men in Kilts.
“Well, as the saying goes, that was an entirely whole other ball of wax,” laughs McTavish, adding that seeing the pair’s (mis) adventures on film helped to jog his memory. Let’s just say that we may have enjoyed a wee dram or two here and there.
“Again, we were thrilled with the way it worked out. I feel that it successfully captured and conveyed the story, and the stories, that we wanted and needed to tell; about the country we love, and the wonderful people we met. The whole thing was quite an experience, and perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime event for both of us.”
The biggest challenge, he notes, was getting “out of the way.”
“It would have been all-too-easy to make the series all about Sam and I – our relationship, our frat-boy shenanigans, and so forth. That, to me, is a secondary story – a side story if you will. Our focus was primarily to better understand where we came from as a people, where we are today, and where we are going.”
Ultimately, that past, present and future would be uncovered in the lives of everyday people that they encountered along the way.
“Everyone has a story to tell, and so very many of them were incredibly fascinating and enlightening. And to think that all of these conversations began with a single question – “tell us about yourself.” I recall filming one episode where we sat down with a gentleman named Richard from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Along from getting schooled on our national beverage, Sam and I were rather taken aback, in a good way, by the man himself. And I think that is what the audience will connect with the most with both Clanlands and Men in Kilts – other people; specifically, their experiences, their thoughts and feelings, their perspectives, and their opinions. Really, at day’s end, in any aspect of the arts, we are all looking for that connection, that conversation, that relationship to – and with – one another.”
McTavish’s own bond with Heughan – his long-time “partner in crime” – was illuminated as well.
“When you spend that much time in close quarters with someone you get to know them pretty well – perhaps even more than you wished to know.”
Traveling by a myriad of modes, including tandem bike, boat, motorcycle (with sidecar!) and camper van, provided the pair with ample opportunity to grow their friendship.
“The camper van was a little cramped at times – both Sam and I are over 6’, so leg room was at a premium. And there were occasions when we got on each other’s nerves for sure, but mostly we got on quite well. However, as with anytime you put two boys together for any length of time, things could get a little, er…odorous?
“One thing that I didn’t know about Sam was that he only earned his driving license at the age of 30. So, knowing that he only had ten years of road experience under his belt was a little unnerving at first – not that I let that on at the time – but obviously, as I am here talking with you now, I somehow survived.”
McTavish is confident that audiences will enjoy the duo’s on-camera dynamic.
“I hope we don’t burst anyone’s bubble,” he smiles. “And by that, I mean that people are so used to seeing us in our roles on Outlander – in the kilts, with the armour, in a different time and setting – that they may get put off completely when they realize that we are your common, run-of-the-mill, everyday guys – or worse; that we are really nothing more than two overgrown boys on some sort of ridiculous drunken escapade.”
More poignantly, he is hopeful that the book and series may encourage and entice more people to visit his home country.
“Scotland has so much going for at right now. Of course, there is our history and our landscape and our people, but we also have tremendous cuisine and a really vibrant arts scene. Every time that one of our people takes center stage – perhaps a chef or a musician or an actor – audiences see for themselves what this country can bring to the table.”
That table is a little less full these days, given the recent passing of the legendary Sir Sean Connery.
“Ah, Sean,” sighs McTavish. “What a huge loss for us here at home and for the world. A brilliant man who left his mark on an entire world of film lovers. He really was, and will forever remain, a generational icon whose impact is simply beyond words. All of us are still reeling from the news, and I have no doubt that his death will be felt for many years to come. He did more for this country than most people will ever realize – his political stance, his philanthropic efforts with so many non-profit organizations, and his generosity of time supporting creative cultural endeavours. Actors like Sam and I would have never had the opportunity to enjoy the kinds of careers that we do today without him.”
Those shoes, he adds, will forever be too big to fill.
“As Sean proved, an actor’s goal is not only to be successful in one’s vocation but to try and have some significance as well. Both Sam and I – and I believe this to be true of many of us who have been involved with Outlander and other projects – would like to share our experiences with younger people looking for a career in the performing arts, and support them in whatever way possible. If anything, maybe we can tell them what not to do.
“My advice for those people would be quite simple, actually,” he continues. “Do what you love and love what you do and never give up. When you think about it, that is good advice for anything in life, really.”
McTavish, it appears, has taken his own counsel.
“Like any career, acting has its ups and downs and there are some days when it can feel like work and it isn’t as enjoyable and then there are the other days that leave you smiling and satisfied. Thankfully, for me, those are the majority. So, I have no complaints, really, and I am grateful each and every day to be in a position to pursue my passion.”
As such, he is enthusiastic about the long-awaited sixth season of Outlander.
“As you can imagine, a few things are still up in the air given the current situation with COVID-19, but my understanding is that the plan is to put it out into the world sooner than later. I feel like we still have a lot to offer our viewers – that we have yet to reach our creative peak yand that there remains a huge amount of storyline left to tell. And I can say the same for Clanlands and Men in Kilts – really, we have only just started to scratch the surface of Scotland with these. Certainly, if it promises to be as much fun as the first one, then there could be sequels.”
For the time being, however, he is content to stay safe and warm.
“I have a trip to Scotland planned shortly, and after that I will be heading home to New Zealand for a while to spend time with my family and ride out the pandemic. While Scotland will always be my homeland, the weather is significantly better in the southern hemisphere.”