Growing up in a family and community full of story-tellers inspired Steven Robertson to take up acting. Back in the isles as one of the guests of honour at the Screenplay film festival he tells ADAM GUEST why that grounding was so important and why playing a Shetland policeman was such an enjoyable role.
“I’ve always liked telling stories,” says Lunnasting lad Steven Robertson.
The TV and film star known by many as Sandy Wilson from BBC crime drama Shetland, was speaking at a question and answer session after the screening of the 2004 film Inside I’m Dancing on Saturday night.
The Shetland “boy-done-good” plays the role of Michael Connolly a 24-year-old with cerebral palsy and a long-term resident of the Carrigmore Residential Home for the Disabled.
After meeting the rebellious Rory O’Shea (James McAvoy) who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Michael discovers a new lease of life, one with greater independence, love and laughter outside of Carrigmore.
It’s powerful stuff – following the wheelchair-bound characters and challenging the viewer’s perception of disability, with awkward viewing at times – as prejudices unfold on screen.
But there’s interjections of comedy and “laugh-out-loud” moments too.
Robertson’s performance is captivating, moving and questions the viewer throughout.
Speaking to The Shetland Times, he explained the detail that went in to the film, from his own in-depth research of cerebral palsy and independent living, to the difficulty Michael has in brushing his teeth, using a pay card in a public telephone rather than coins, and even how the film was shot.
The film is recorded in anamorphic widescreen, “which nobody notices, which I think is kind of brilliant,” he said.
“One of the whole things about the film is to try and get the chair to disappear and for people to see the people more, and stop looking at the chair,” he said.
“And actually that simple thought … to make the screen lower and wider, it suddenly becomes less of an issue that you have got two chaps sat down, it opens up the frame.”
Inside I’m Dancing was Robertson’s first acting role on the silver screen and he admitted it was “a bit weird” watching the film with the audience 10 years on.
The former Anderson High School pupil spoke about his interest in storytelling and how that sparked his acting career – telling stories at concerts and enjoying the stories in country music.
According to one colleague in The Shetland Times newsroom, Robertson can do a mean Elvis impersonation too.
Robertson said he learnt many stories from the late Shetland poet Rhoda Bulter, who spent a lot of her summers on a croft owned by Robertson’s family.
“She just used to tell me old Shetland stories and a lot of them are based in Vidlin,” he said.
“I learnt to remember the details and then by telling the stories that’s how you either remember the gaps or fill in the gaps.”
His English teacher George P.S. Peterson used to tell him stories too, as did his uncle Willie and his grandad – often telling trow tales.
“Just to have great storytellers in your family, even if it’s just a long joke, it doesn’t matter, it still has a narrative and it’s still going somewhere. Shetland has got lots of that,” he said.
“They used to muse a whole evening away with telling stories or reminiscing or whatever, and that had a huge amount to do with me getting into this [acting]. Because that’s what’s interesting about it [acting] everything else is bells and whistles.”
Robertson has most recently been seen as Sandy Wilson in Shetland. It was originally a two-part pilot of Ann Cleeves’ Red Bones, and Robertson said he really wanted the part when he auditioned.
“It’s an extraordinary thing that such a proper number one, nine o’clock, BBC One show, would be shot for the vast majority of the exteriors, this far away from any major or even passable studio,” he said.
“I mean it is a proper show. People can love it or hate it that’s entirely up to them.
“But it’s got quality written all over it and I thought … as a working Shetland actor… why the hell wouldn’t I be in it? I’d’ve been gutted if I didn’t get the part.”
And as a local lad Robertson said he takes a lot of pride in the role.
“One of the things I’m proudest of with the part of Sandy and one of things I liked most about the role, both in the pilot and if I’ve influenced this in any regard throughout the series as well, is that he’s a normal person,” he said.
“I like the extreme parts and I get a lot out of them but I like a mix,” he added.
The Screenplay festival continues this week and Robertson agreed it was an important thing for Shetland and hailed the venue at Mareel.
Earlier on Saturday he went to the screening of Ebb Tide – a collection of six short films by Shetland film-makers inspired by an artefact or story with a link to a Commonwealth country and Shetland.
He said the technical elements of the films were great and predicted the likes of CGI would become a mainstay of film-making in future.
“I’ve being doing film and television professionally for only 10 years, but I already feel like I come from a different era,” he said.
“When I started out, whenever they sent you a script, mine would come around on a motorcycle and they would hand you the script. Now everything is just emailed to you.”
“I already feel like a dinosaur,” he joked.
• Robertson’s appearance in First World War tale Joyeux Nöel, depicting the story of the Christmas truce, is also shown on Thursday as part of Screenplay.