Michael Alexander speaks to Dundee born and bred Outlaw King actor Stephen McMillan and local film director Bonnie MacRae about giving young males a voice in the face of Dundee’s male suicide crisis.
Having recently worked together on an award winning short film depicting the reality of male suicide in Dundee, young writer and director Bonnie MacRae and Dundee born and bred Outlaw King actor Stephen McMillan laugh when Bonnie says her dad thinks they could become the “Scorsese and De Niro of Dundee”!
But as the short film Mind Yersel features as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival from May 3, Stephen reveals that when Bonnie first sent him the script, which she wrote in reaction to the city being named Scotland’s ‘suicide capital’, it reduced him to tears.
“It was the start of 2020 when I got a message from Bonnie asking if I’d be involved in the project,” says Stephen, 21.
“She sent me the script and as soon as I read it I was taken aback.
“She’d written down my life story point-for-point, word-for-word. I was crying and sh*t.
“It’s a very complicated thing to capture the young male mind – especially in today’s society, because I’m not sure if we even know what the f*ck is going on.
“After I read it, I said ‘I’m involved 100%’. I knew straight away.
“I hadn’t met Bonnie before. But we arranged to meet up in a place in Glasgow and have a coffee. We just clicked straight away. We knew it was going to be something very special.”
Dundee’s high male suicide rate impacted Bonnie MacRae
Bonnie, 22, a former pupil of Dundee’s Harris Academy who won a scholarship to Columbia University in New York through the Sutton Trust social mobility charity, was inspired to make Mind Yersel through her own experiences of mental health and after she came across an article about Dundee having the highest male suicide rate in Scotland.
She couldn’t stop thinking about it and when she wrote a script and visualised the whole thing on screen, she reached out to Stephen as an “authentic Dundonian” having heard about his role in the $120 million historical action drama Outlaw King.
The new friends made Mind Yersel in a day with no budget, thinking it might simply be viewed on social media by family and friends, to raise awareness of young male suicide.
Yet vary quickly the film took off online and has gone on to be officially selected by four film festivals and to pick up three awards – winner of the Who You Know Creative Festival 2021, the Audience Award at the Hebden Bridge Film Festival in Yorkshire and winner of the Community Award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.
“It was very important for me to make something that is realistic, and I was very keen to work with someone who had a strong Dundonian accent who also understood the issues,” says Bonnie.
“Right now if a young person were to scroll on Instagram or Facebook and come across something that’s geared towards helping them mentally, a lot of time it’s either not made by people who are that age or it doesn’t reflect how young people are feeling. They can’t really see themselves.
“The whole ‘It’s ok not to be ok’ hashtag – I just think people have become quite immune to that now. What I wanted was to make something young people would stop to watch as opposed to continuing to scroll.”
‘Insane’ Outlaw King acting experience
As a first time teenage actor just out of college, Stephen hit the big time when he played the part of Squire Drew Forfar in 2018’s Outlaw King which starred Hollywood actor Chris Pine as King Robert the Bruce.
Reminiscing about the “f*cking insane 15 hour days in the Scottish Highlands wearing chainmail in the rain”, Stephen laughs when he says: “I was thrown into this environment with Chris Pine walking past and James Cosmo and sh*t. I was like what is going on?”
Any doubts he had about acting being “too hard” evaporated when he attended Outlaw King’s glitzy red carpet premier in Edinburgh where he “got pished on free bevvy” and tried to comprehend the scale of the project he’d been involved with.
Still just 21, he’s gone on to play the lead role in a movie filmed in Ukraine – where shooting had to be suspended due to Covid – and has also been working on other projects including a BBC series due out later this year.
But Stephen, whose other acting credits include Boiling Point and The North Water, didn’t always want to be an actor and reveals he “wasn’t a happy person” at school.
When Bonnie got in touch with the script of Mind Yersel, the sometimes painful journey he’d experienced growing up in Dundee alongside others his own age was all too raw.
A former pupil of St Luke’s & St Matthew’s RC Primary and St Paul’s RC Academy, he used to think he wanted to be a footballer until he “lost the passion” for it.
By the time he was 14/15, he had “no idea whatsoever” what he wanted to do.
Getting to the point at high school where he felt he “wasn’t being taught anything I thought I could use” , he left school two weeks before his exams – much to the concern of his teachers and parents – telling them: “Don’t worry I’ll find something!”
It was his sister who suggested acting. He thought he’d give it a go – enrolling in a course at Dundee College and securing the role in Outlaw King after someone drew his attention to auditions.
Yet Stephen still feels strongly about the challenges of growing up in a city where he feels not enough is being done to support the mental health of young people – particularly in the schemes – and where other societal pressures in general give an unrealistic and confusing impression of what it means to be a ‘man’ in 2021.
“It’s something I’ve thought about for a very long time,” he reflects.
“I saw it in my school every day.
“I had friends who were amazing painters, or had amazing talent, but because it wasn’t ‘cool’ to do that, they got picked on (by fellow pupils) and got made fun of and sh*t.
“Folk would say ‘it’s not a manly thing to do’. I’d be like ‘who gives a f*ck!’
“I’d get angry and always get into arguments at school with teachers because they were saying stupid things. I just knew early on there was something wrong.
“Dundee isn’t a small town but it’s got a small town mentality.
“I was watching a lot of friends making a lot of wrong choices and it impacted on me.
“But I was in a situation where I couldn’t really help anyone because I was finding it difficult to help myself.”
After reading Bonnie’s script, Stephen says he was “just so inspired” and thought “we can make change”.
He’s delighted the film and the issues are being talked about.
“I’ve had messages from boys who are 12 or 14 saying ‘thank you for making this’,” he says.
“I’m like ‘it’s alright, you are welcome. But thank Bonnie. She has parted the Red Sea so to speak’. It’s being spoken about.”
What Stephen would like to see, however, is more support for young people in general.
What needs to change?
While many of the issues are relevant everywhere – as reflected in the feedback to the film from far and wide – he believes there are particular issues in Dundee that the powers-that-be should address.
“I think there’s a lot of factors like peoples’ ability to secure jobs and apprenticeships,” he says.
“But I just kind of feel like a lot of things are set in place so people can’t express themselves.
“If you go to the city centre and stuff it’s a very multi-cultural place, but if you go to the schemes it’s the complete f*cking opposite.
“I feel like there’s not really any changes being made to help those parts of the city.
“They are focusing all the cash on the waterfront – they are not really helping the kids out-with that part of the city.
“When boys can’t find a way to express themselves, that’s when they start to act ‘cool’ and people start fighting.
“People get picked on and stuff. At school it’s football or you get picked on for the smallest things.
“Personally I don’t think the schools help enough. But at the same time they have 1000s of kids every single day so you can’t really blame them that much. Something needs to change though.”
Bonnie, who has also done work for BBC Studios and Be Charlotte, adds: “Dundee is a small place, so even if you don’t know someone who has committed suicide, your pal knows someone who has or you live next to someone who knows someone.
“I’ve never dealt with it immediately but knowing people who have that I’m close to, I was very wary of doing it right for them and doing it justice because obviously it obviously is difficult for them to even think about let alone watch.”
To watch Mind Yersel go to youtube.com/watch?v=A0-aZShVS-Y
The Samaritans freephone helpline 116123 offers support 24 hours a day