Vidlin-raised actor Steven Robertson has ensured the presence of a distinctive Shetland brogue in cinemas across the UK over the past few weeks thanks to his appearance in Neds, director Peter Mullan’s powerful and acclaimed film about knife-wielding gangs in 1970s Glasgow.
Robertson, 34, plays the character of Mr Bonetti, a Latin teacher at one of the city’s schools, who appears in several scenes. He says getting to work with Mullan, an esteemed actor whose previous directorial efforts include The Magdalene Sisters, was a true honour.
Speaking to The Shetland Times from London on Monday, Robertson came across as a warm, friendly and down-to-earth individual for whom thoughts of Shetland are never too far away, even a decade after leaving to pursue acting in the UK capital.
He has performed in a variety of film and television roles in recent years, having made his big-screen breakthrough with an outstanding portrayal of a man with cerebral palsy in the 2004 film Inside I’m Dancing.
Neds has received some unwanted publicity this week, with ushers at one Glasgow cinema complaining that gangs of present-day neds (non-educated delinquents) have been pitching up at screenings looking for trouble, chucking around popcorn, spraying beer, wine and cider around and generally causing havoc.
Leaving that aside, the angry yet compelling and authentic-feeling drama has been well received by critics and cinema-goers alike. It is a simultaneously brutal and compassionate film tracing the adolescence of John McGill, a bright but conceited young Catholic boy initially determined to avoid the pitfalls which destroyed his alcoholic father (played by Mullan) and his violent brother. McGill has a habit of enraging his teachers, including Mr Bonetti, with frequent displays of insolence.
Shot in the summer of 2009 at various locations around Glasgow, Robertson described it as a joy to be part of the project.
“It’s a tremendous film and a very important film because of what it deals with,” he said. “A lot of folk have this idea nowadays that violence wasn’t like it is today when they were young – the truth of the matter is it’s been going on for years, all the way back to Shakespeare’s time and before, and it still goes on to this day.
“The look of the film, the costumes and locations . . . are quite remarkable. One of the things I love about it is it’s like looking at a photo from that time. It doesn’t look like a film, but exactly like how you saw photos of your family in the ‘70s, exactly what people were wearing, the cars they were driving.”
Director Mullan has clocked up a bundle of major box office hits as an actor, including Trainspotting, Braveheart and the last two Harry Potter movies, as well as highly-rated smaller films including Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, and Robertson described his previous directorial work as “stunning”.
He said: “I’ve been lucky enough to work with Peter before as an actor and I really, really admire him as an actor and a director. He’s a total joy to work with. You learn so much from being around him, never mind playing a scene with him. He’s genuinely one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”
Robertson studied drama for two years at Fife College in Kirkcaldy, before returning home briefly to clip sheep and mend fences to help fund his place at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1999.
The character Michael in Inside I’m Dancing was his first lead role, and he followed that by playing a Scottish soldier grieving for his dead brother in Joyeux Noel, which covered the unofficial amnesty between opposing First World War troops in December 1914.
He took a prominent part as an investigative journalist in the ITV series He Kills Coppers in 2008 and also had a briefer outing on the small screen as the father of gangster Paddy Maguire in an episode of Channel Four’s popular long-running drama Shameless 18 months ago.
Robertson said: “That was a curious one, a really enjoyable job. David Threlfall [who plays the show’s notorious rogue of a main character, Frank Gallagher] directed that one.
“To get to play somebody’s psychotic fantasy of who their father was – how often are you going to get asked to play that, and to sing Danny Boy?
“It was like working with a big Manchester family. A lot of them have been doing it for a long time together, and it was great being amongst them all for a few days.”
Hot on the heels of Neds, Robertson also has a few scenes in another cinematic depiction of gang/knife culture. In a new adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic novel Brighton Rock, which was released in UK cinemas last Friday, he plays protection mob boss Colleoni’s closest lieutenant.
Does he enjoy watching films he appears in?
“Yes and no. It’s the nature of what you do for a living – if I put up agricultural fences for a living, and I did a lot of that work at home in Shetland, you drive by that fence every day and think ‘oh, I should have done such and such’. You always notice something wrong in your own work.”
Partly down to the nature of a career which involves frequent auditions – often at short notice – he stays in Woking, just south of London, with his girlfriend of over a decade, the actress Charlotte Allen. The two met while training at the Guildhall.
The pattern of his working life makes it to get home as often as he would like, but he says many of his best friends remain those he made in Lunnasting as a schoolboy.
“I wish I could divide my time up with a few more trips home. When you’re first away, you have to be slightly more mindful – the first then I always get at an audition is ‘that’s an unusual accent’. Part of me never really left [and is] probably still in Lunnasting.”