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River City actor Frank Gilhooley opens up on playing incestual rapist as he takes emotional masterclass across country

Frank Gilhooley stumbled into acting in 2001 and has landed roles in Outlander, Guardians of the Galaxy, Still Game and more.

Frank Gilhooley brought his Emotions In Performance masterclass to V&A Dundee. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson.
Frank Gilhooley brought his Emotions In Performance masterclass to V&A Dundee. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson.

I open my eyes and to my horror, I’m crying.

A stranger’s perfume, thick with vanilla, fills my nose as my face is crushed to someone’s shoulder. It reminds me of my best friend, and I cry a bit more.

My jaw struggles to set itself against the wave of emotion, because I do not cry in public. I never let strangers touch me, and now I’m enveloped by a crowd of them.

The warmth of foreign bodies feels stifling.

I resist the urge to recoil, determined to immerse myself in the experience. Pretend I’m at a club, a gig, a rave.

But I’m not. I’m a weird little room in the bowels of a museum, and it’s barely gone 9am on a Friday morning. So why am I crying in a tangle of strangers’ limbs?

“Tears are a release of negative energy,” actor Frank Gilhooley assures me in his low, rumbling voice, which has brought to life characters such as Torin the ringmaker from hit series Outlander and Mark the Barman in Scottish cult sitcom, Still Game.

“And hugs make you trust.”

Frank Gilhooley as Torin the Ringmaker in Outlander. Image courtesy of Frank Gilhooley.

Hmm, I think. I’m not sure about that, but that could be my trust issues talking.

I’m here at Frank’s ‘Emotions In Performance’ masterclass at V&A Dundee along with seven other people, to get a taste of what the Loanhead-born actor has learned in his 22 years on screen.

But this class isn’t just for performers – combining acting skills and self-help, it’s for anyone who wants to get in touch with their emotions, and alter their approach to life.

Masterclass turns strangers into support

“This class helps joiners just as much as it helps actors,” insists Frank, 52.

“It just so happens that actors face massive negativity – constant auditions, being told ‘too short’, ‘too fat’, ‘wrong colour of hair’, all this.

“What I do is I take people through the deepest emotional exercises they could ever experience, in a controlled environment that’s full of love and understand and zero judgement.”

If all that sounds a bit abstract, picture this – eight strangers, each of different ages, genders and localities. Actors, teachers, fitness instructors, holistic therapists and writers, sitting in a tight semi-circle, pens poised, smiles small and polite.

Participants take notes as Frank Gilhooley introduces his masterclass at V&A Dundee.  Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson.
A guided imaginative exercise reduced Rebecca and other participants to tears. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson.

Fast forward an hour, you have those same eight people, no longer strangers, relaxed, wrung out, and propping one another up after an intense guided imaginative exercise which expert storyteller Frank has crafted seemingly just to make us all start greeting.

It’s utterly bizarre, and unfathomably deep, somewhere between meditation, hypnosis and corporate team building.

Even for someone with little idea of what to expect, the workshop is unexpected, with a heavy does of mortality-facing and blind-spot-erasing to boot.

I can get down with some woo-woo ‘self love’ practices, but this class isn’t about feeling good, it’s about getting real.

Independently of one another, each person who did the full two days says the course “pushed me out my comfort zone”.

And when I leave after the first morning session (one of four sessions across the two-day course), I am a mixture of relieved to be going and regretful to not be seeing it through.

But more than anything, I’m fascinated by the idea that pretending and performing can lead the way to being more authentic in ‘real’ life.

Baby loss saw Frank turn to theatre

“It’s a performance.” explains Frank in a one-to-one interview separate from the masterclass.

“I say at the start of the whole thing that I’m the director, and you imagine we’re making a movie. I want you to bring your experience, your life, everything that makes you unique.

“When people leave the class, if they’ve immersed themselves, they leave with a whole new love for life. It takes them on a journey which ends up in this incredibly bright and beautiful place, which is their true reality.”

For Frank, acting didn’t just let him experience other lives – it helped him change the way he lived his own.

“I got into acting quite late, when I was 30 years old,” reveals Frank, who formerly made a living from his landscape gardening business, which he still runs today.

“My wife and I were trying to have kids and it was just all going wrong,” he continues, embodying the kind of radical openness he preaches.

“We did IVF, it wasn’t working – then it finally did work, she fell pregnant, and then miscarried.

“We were just devastated. So I got involved in a theatre workshop in Edinburgh just for something to do, to get my head out of the crap. And Ange, my wife, got involved in the costume department.

“I just loved it.”

‘Sometimes fate lays out a red carpet’

On that first play, he snagged the male lead in wartime drama Wave Me Goodbye, which shocked him.

“It was so weird,” he laughs. “I’d never seen a stage before!

Then at the wrap party for Wave Me Goodbye, a castmate told Frank he should audition for Up N Under, John Godber’s rugby play – and it was a mix-up at this casting call which would change his life forever.

“You know, sometimes fate lays a carpet out for you,” he reflects. “The chances of me getting into this were extraordinarily slim. But the day I auditioned, it was so hot, I could see the steam coming off the road, so I put my sandals on.

Frank Gilhooley plays mean barman Mark in Still Game. Image courtesy of Frank Gilhooley.

“I’ve never worn sandals in this country – they sit in a cupboard and come out when I’m on holiday. But I thought ‘that’ll be quite funny, wearing them – a rugby guy in sandals’.

“So I went in, did my audition, and left – only to be offered a cracking role of Frank Rowley, the butcher – who is so hard, he plays rugby in his sandals.

“They thought I had researched the part!”

From there, Frank was catapulted into the acting world – often playing villains.

He’s landed roles in more than 30 mainstream TV shows and movies, including major Hollywood projects like Guardians of the Galaxy, where he played henchman Rat, as well as a recurring role on popular soap opera River City as incestual rapist John Maclean.

Frank AKA Rat welcoming Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to her cell in Guardians Of The Galaxy. Image courtesy of Frank Gilhooley .

And he reckons that getting under the skin of evil characters took him to new levels of compassion.

Frank ‘loved’ playing River City rapist

“I’m very much a lover, not a fighter,” says Frank. “So it’s escapism, playing these roles.

“It’s funny, it sounds terrible but I really did love playing John MacLean in River City,” he continues. “Because you’re on a soap, you’ve got the time to bring out the character’s flaws. And you have to love the flaws, because he’s your character. You leave yourself behind.

“John was a hard part to play. The night before I left the show, I drove back to my hotel and cried my eyes out. Because I knew that what I was going to be doing the next day would be completely demonising my character – he was going to be caught, he was going to be punched and ejected from society.

Frank with River City co-star Kath Howden at the end of an emotional shoot, where he played incestual rapist John Maclean. Image courtesy of Frank Gilhooley.

“And I felt to so sorry for my character, which is bizarre.”

The way that a fictional performance affected real lives across the country convinced Frank of the power of connection through acting.

“I’ve had so many people, particularly women, come up to me and hug me in the last few years, thanking me for doing that incestual rapist story in River City because it’s been part of what destroyed their family,” he solemnly.

“And they’re actually talking about it now, because it’s been on the telly.”

Hollywood acting coach saw Frank’s talent

Throughout his acting journey, Frank has been mentored by world-renowned Hollywood acting coach Bernie Hiller, whose past students have included Cameron Diaz, Lindsay Lohan and Jeff Goldblum.

And this was the final piece of the puzzle which allowed Frank to turn acting and performing from a craft into a way of life.

“Somebody that was close to me in my life, that I looked up to, was very rigid – very duty orientated,” he reflects.

“And once I met Bernie, I couldn’t believe it – I looked at my previous existence like I was a brick wall, or a piece of cardboard. The way I was organising my life, the way I reacted, this whole ‘tears as a sign of weakness thing’ – it was so, so wrong.

Frank Gilhooley’s masterclass sees strangers getting intimate. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson.

“So what I’ve loved about this, about acting and learning from Bernie, is that I’m a completely different person to who I used to be. I literally surrendered to the universe. I was not prepared to worry anymore, about anything.

“My attitude now is: I will do my best, but what will be will be. And it’s amazing how, if you follow your heart instead of listening to your brain, things change.”

Landscaping business keeps Frank grounded

Nowadays, Eddleston-based Frank lives a star-studded double life, rubbing shoulders with stars like Dave Batista (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Jason Isaacs (Case Histories) one day, getting his hands dirty in landscaping projects the next.

“I’ve been blessed to work with so many people. It’s mad, when I think about the world-famous people I’m acting with sometimes, and then today I’m here in the sunshine developing somebody’s garden.

“It really does keep me grounded.”

Frank Gilhooley (third from right) invited Rebecca (second from left) to experience his masterclass. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson.

And he hopes that through his workshops, which teach Hiller’s method and vary from two-day to five-day courses, he can help other people carve out a life which feels authentic to them.

“I think I get a big kick out of seeing people grow,” he smiles. “As I get older, I find myself having satisfied a lot of my needs in life.

“So I get really big kick out of seeing others grow and become the most powerful version of themselves.”

Frank Gilhooley’s next Emotions In Performance masterclass takes place in Glasgow next month. Frank most recently appeared in sci-fi drama Mrs Davis as ‘Horns’.