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James Cosmo on visiting Pitlochry, Game of Thrones and how Braveheart changed his life

James Cosmo landed his first acting job in the 1960s and has made his name playing iconic 'burly' roles since.

Actor James Cosmo is being hosted by Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Image: Cristian Solimen
Actor James Cosmo is being hosted by Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Image: Cristian Solimen

James Cosmo has starred in over 130 films and TV shows including Trainspotting, Braveheart and Highlander.

The Game of Thrones and His Dark Materials star has a reputation for playing burly authority figures, including Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones and Lieutenant Colonel Philip Drysdale, Commanding Officer of The King’s Fusiliers, in ‘90s TV drama Soldier Soldier.

However, it was his real life appointment as Honorary Colonel of Army Battalion, the Perth-based 7th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (7 SCOTS) in 2020, that gave him the opportunity to experience the beauty of Perth and Perthshire.

A long-time supporter of the military, James has not long retired from the prestigious post.

James Cosmo in ITV’s Soldier, Soldier in 1995. Image: Shutterstock

The figurehead role involved “supporting the troops and just doing a bit to raise the profile of the good stuff that the army do that not many people know about.”

Now, as he prepares to visit Pitlochry Festival Theatre for the first time when it hosts An Evening with James Cosmo as part of this year’s Winter Words Festival, he hopes the trip will give him the chance to spend a bit more time exploring the area.

The self-confessed fly-fishing fanatic hopes to cast a few lines on Perthshire’s “beautiful” rivers.

“It’s such a beautiful area – I hope to spend a wee bit of time up there,” explains James, speaking by phone from Surrey where he’s enjoying breakfast with friends.

“I’ve never been to Pitlochry before, although I’m sort of familiar.

James Cosmo is a fanatical fly fisherman. Image: Susie Lowe

“It was lovely to become honorary colonel of 7 Scots up in Perth.

“I’ve had quite a long association with the military just through various charities and things.

“I always feel very comfortable around them,” he says, adding that the ‘Evening With’ event will be an evening of reminiscences and stories.

“If people are interested in my career and what I’ve done and where I came from, hopefully it’ll be of some interest to them.”

James Cosmo has enjoyed a distinguished acting career since the 1960s

Born James Ronald Gordon Copeland in Dumbarton and raised between Clydebank and Highgate, north London, the now 76-year-old has left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry, captivating audiences with his commanding presence and memorable performances.

The son of a jobbing actor James Copeland, he left school at 15 to work in the Arnott Young shipbreakers’ yard at Dalmuir, getting brass off engines with oxy-acetylene burners.

He also “worked on the roads and things”.

But while he could easily have followed a path into heavy industry, he soon made the “lifestyle choice” to try his luck as an actor instead.

Eileen Nicholas, James Cosmo, Ewan McGregor in 1996 film Trainspotting. Image: Shutterstock

“My father was just an ordinary jobbing actor,” says James, who’s told previously how as a boy he played cricket with Sean Connery on Hampstead Heath while his dad was in the pub with Peter O’Toole.

“I didn’t really watch him act.

“I think as a little boy I went to see them when they were filming The Maggie (in 1954) and that sort of thing.

“But the one help that he was, was that I realised when you became an actor, it wasn’t a bed of roses. It was tough.

“There were lots of times when you were out of work.

“With that advantage, I went in there with my eyes open, you know?”

Relocating to England, James eventually got his first TV role in Doctor Finlay’s Casebook playing a choir boy.

When he got a part in the 1969 film Battle of Britain playing a young Hurricane pilot, he was “on the way”, adding: “I’ve just made my way ever since.”

Bit parts in various films and TV shows followed.

He starred as Alex Geddes in Scottish soap opera Take The High Road in the early 1980s.

He has “terrific” memories of playing Angus MacLeod in iconic 1986 movie Highlander, alongside Sean Connery.

“It was a very different movie,” he recalls, finding it “scary” that the film is almost 40 years old.

“Russell Mulcahy, the director, had come from music videos.

“He was moving the camera a lot obviously with the music of Queen and things.

“It was really a sort of ground breaking genre.

“It was terrific to be involved in that.”

But the one that “changed everything”, admits James, was Braveheart where he played Campbell, one of William Wallace’s loyal allies.

How did Braveheart ‘change everything’?

The 1995 film, directed by and starring Mel Gibson as Wallace, catapulted Cosmo’s profile onto the international stage and changed the type of role he was offered.

“I’ve never chased all that sort of stuff,” he says modestly.

“But just being associated and being in a film like that does raise your profile and people want you to be in different things then.

“It’s just the luck of the draw, and I happened to be lucky on that one.”

James says most actors are “typecast to a degree”.

James Cosmo with Mel Gibson in 1995 film Braveheart. Image: Shutterstock

As a “big lad” who was “very fit, Iiked horses and could do all the fighting stuff”, he says it was natural for him to be “funnelled” into certain roles.

“The good thing as an actor is, the older you get there are other parts there for you, so that works out quite well,” he adds.

But one of the defining characteristics of James Cosmo’s career is his ability to seamlessly transition between various genres and roles.

From historical epics to contemporary dramas, and from intense character studies to light-hearted comedies, Cosmo’s talent covers many areas.

He memorably played Crieff actor Ewan McGregor’s dad in Trainspotting.

James Cosmo and Game of Thrones

Beyond his work in blockbuster films, Cosmo has also made significant contributions to television.

James Cosmo in<br />Game Of Thrones, 2011. Image: Shutterstock

His portrayal of Jeor Mormont in the critically acclaimed series Game of Thrones (2011-2013) further solidified his status as a respected actor.

Cosmo brought a commanding presence to the role of the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, a character with a complex mix of authority and compassion.

His work on Game of Thrones earned him widespread praise and added a new generation of fans to his dedicated following.

Meanwhile, he’s just finished a Celtic thriller film in Ireland called The Morrigan and has a series coming out on the BBC soon called Nightsleeper – a “terrific thriller” about the hacking of a sleeper train travelling from Glasgow to London, and a government agency’s frantic efforts to intervene in the rapidly-escalating events on-board.

What does James Cosmo think of the pressures facing cinemas?

James appreciates these are “very very very difficult” times for cinemas with changing demographics and changing viewing habits.

“It’s very hard to entice people out,” he says, fondly recalling his trips to the “fleapit” Regal cinema in Dalmuir as a boy where he was inspired by “every single western that John Ford ever made” and “tried to walk like John Wayne” when he left.

“It’s a shame because the communal experience of watching film together – it actually enhances the experience, and it’s a shame if that disappears. It’s a bit like live theatre – we’re meant to be entertained together.”

Yet at the same time he says the opportunities streaming platforms have provided for new writers, actors and directors have been “tremendous”.

Reflecting on his career, he’s been “privileged” to work with some very famous people.

Game of Thrones star James Cosmo and Lord of the Rings actor Bernard Hill were guests at Capital Sci-Fi Con in Edinburgh in 2023. Image: Dave Johnston

He remembers standing next to people like Peter O’Toole and feeling star struck.

However, he quickly discovered “they are just ordinary people as well”.

While he loves working with younger actors today, he hopes they’d never feel star struck in his presence – because he’s just an “ordinary person” too.

“I would want to make them realise that I’m just another guy working at a job and there’s no difference,” he says. “Just age and luck, that’s all!”

“I enjoy working with young actors like maybe low budget and things, because their energy and their excitement and their enthusiasm – I sort of take heart from that and enjoy that. It’s lovely. It gives me a bit more enthusiasm.”

James Cosmo was awarded MBE

Ordinary person or not, James’ services to drama were recognised in 2018 when he was “surprised and honoured” to be awarded the MBE.

“I was lucky enough to be presented by the late Queen at Holyrood which was fantastic,” he says.

Actor James Cosmo after receiving his MBE

“It was a wonderful experience”.

His profile has also helped him support various charities including Chance for Childhood – which exists to ensure that every child in Africa can thrive from their early years through to adulthood – and the Great Big Breakfast campaign, which aims to eliminate child hunger in Scotland.

“I’m a great believer in nurturing the family unit as a whole,” he says.

“And well obviously, while children are our future, we’ve got to look after them both physically and mentally and make sure they are fit and strong for a very difficult world ahead of them.”

James Cosmo has launched a whisky brand

Something else James will be talking about in Pitlochry is his partnership with Annandale Distillery to create a blended Scotch whisky, called Storyman.

They’ve been working on it for nearly four years now and it’s just come to market in the last four months.

James Cosmo is being hosted by Pitlochry Festival Theatre where he will talk about his career and his new Storyman whisky. Image: Pitlochry Festival Theatre

“It’s a very nice blend of whisky,” he says.

“It’s not a peaty whisky. There’s a little bit of back taste there. A wee bit of smoke.

“But just enough that it’s so smooth – it’s proper sipping whisky if you want to sit around your fire and chat to people and tell stories.”

An Evening with James Cosmo, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 7-8.30pm, Saturday February 10,