Once In A Lifetime
We hurriedly reorganise. The scheduled interview for Ayrshire Magazine is brought forward a day so he can catch a late flight to London. Just as it grows dark on a wild and wet night in February, we act fast, and agree to meet in Rivergate Mall, Irvine. Growing up in Ayr, and then Kilmarnock, and now living in London, actor James Robinson laughs off the frenzied panic and mix-up. Like an understated, darkly, comic moment from a Coen Brothers movie we end up in different Costa Coffee shops, each waiting for the other to arrive. You can imagine the deserted tables, the piped music.
When we meet, he is tall, handsome and friendly. Talks passionately about his career, mentions working in Budapest, Hungary, flying to and from New York, discussing projects in Los Angeles, USA. Throws in chatting to Mel Gibson, his friendship with Ian Bannen. It’s not arrogance, this is simply what he does, and I soon realise this is normal for the Ayrshire-born actor.
“It was a big moment…when I did a TV show that Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Trance, et al) directed,” he said matter-of-fact. “Babylon, it aired in 2015. To be in the room with the guy, and to be working collaboratively with someone I admire so much. But, these are just ordinary people who are working…the same job as you, just trying to get the best product out of a script, out of a TV programme, whatever they are working on. And, you realise you can be in the same room…working with these guys. It’s inspiring, it’s hard work but one thing can lead to another.”
As evidence, Robinson recalls one of his proudest moments : touring with the National Theatre of Scotland. A journey that started with learning to play a brass instrument at school. The ability to play brass landed him the Ewan McGregor part of ‘Andy’ in the stage version of Brassed Off. While touring with Brassed Off he was talent spotted at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and invited to audition for the National Theatre of Scotland’s ‘In Time O’ Strife’. He landed the part.
“It’s like life just completely connects,” he smiles and stares out from the Mall Costa shop to the river below. “I made a choice when I was younger and that put me on a path that I am on just now. People say do you regret not making another choice? Absolutely not it has put me where I am and given me the life experiences I have had.”
In the micro-pause that follows Robinson lets his slice of ‘interconnected’ philosophy float in the weightlessness of a dark, rainy night in Irvine. He lifts his black Americano to his lips, no sugar or milk, but doesn’t drink. His busy mind chasing connections of an acting career that effectively started with a part in an Oscar winning movie.
“My big cousin, Andrew Weir, went to Ayr Youth Theatre,” Robinson laughs at how he secured a part in the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Braveheart’. “Casting directors Patsy Pollock and Jina Jay were searching for one young lad to play the young William Wallace and he needed dark hair and blue eyes. They came to Ayr Youth Theatre, lined up the boys and said…nobody’s quite right, and it was two weeks until filming started. Andrew told them I had dark hair but (he said) ‘I don’t know if he has got blue eyes’.”
Andrew phoned to ask if James had blue eyes. When Robinson said he had, a meeting was quickly arranged with the casting directors and a video of James and Andrew skimming stones by a river made. Next day Mrs Robinson received a phone call.
“Could James get Monday off School to come down to Shepperton studios to meet Mel Gibson?”, his mum was asked. “We got flown down first class to meet Mel Gibson. After a 15 minute chat he said ‘we want you to be in the film’. I said ‘yeah,’ I didn’t know what it meant…I was ten years old, but I knew it was…an adventure. Quite lovely being that age and having that kind of innocence and naivety not to be overwhelmed. It was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.”
The movie had a budget of $72 million, took $210.4 million at the box office, and, at the 68th Academy Awards in 1995, won five Oscars including best picture and best director (Mel Gibson). ‘Braveheart’ became THE iconic Scottish movie. Reportedly, there was fighting in cinemas where it was first shown, and it is reputed to have driven devolution and the parliament at Holyrood, and then the Yes campaign for Independence.
Meanwhile James moved on with his life, and in the wake of such glittering success received many offers from down south.
“After Braveheart, mum and dad had a lot of interest from…London,” Robinson reflects. “They said I’d been working pretty much like an adult for the last two months, so they decided to treat me like an adult with the decisions that were being made.”
He wasn’t pushed to go to London by his parents and James Robinson admits to being immensely proud of the way his mum and dad guided him. He stayed in Scotland, had a happy childhood, played football with his friends and completed his education.
“They said yeah we’ll put him back to school,” he remembered. “Then when he’s old enough to make his own decisions we’ll back him all the way.”
It wasn’t long, however, before Hollywood was seeking out the young James Robinson again.
“George Lucas was interested in me for Anakin Skywalker, the original Darth Vader,” Robinson confided. “So, I was 12 years old at the time, and it wasn’t cuthroat… they were really nice. I met up with them about two or three times had a discussion…and they genuinely did want me to be part of it. They had storyboards based on my face, you can see them on the internet. But I had grown too much and I had shaved my head.”
Robinson was now too tall for the part, and Lucas eventually gave it to another young actor.
“It was a nice indication of rejection, I didn’t get that job in Star Wars,” he said nodding. “I ended up doing normal jobs…paper run, and working in an ice cream shop in Kilmarnock, (Varani’s) Forum Cafe. One of the things I remember was when the Phantom Menace came out, Pepsi cans had the face of the young Anakin ( Jake Lloyd) on it.
I was selling people in Kilmarnock these Pepsi cans thinking, wow, that could have been me. But I didn’t dwell on it.”
The experience didn’t deter James and he took time to finish school, and finally decide that he wanted to pursue a career in acting.
“Someone said there was a course in Ayr, an acting course,” he explained. “But I didn’t want to be that guy that said right I did a film eight years ago I demand I should be getting these parts. ‘Naw’, I’ve done one job I need to learn the ropes. So I went to Ayr College and luckily there were some great tutors, Donald Stewart, who was, incidentally, my tutor on Braveheart, Lorna Penney, she came down from Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Scottish Conservatoire). She instilled a lot of discipline – that I had already – but it needed to be nurtured.”
From Ayr College, Robinson auditioned for the RSAMD, was unsuccessful and though he was made offers by other higher education establishments, decided to move south to London and Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.
“I am always positive about the future,” Robinson added checking his watch. “My career is actually very young, I am under ten years in the game, there have been ups and downs but I’ve worked solid since I came out of drama school, I’ve had some really nice parts, I’ve worked with some amazing directors, I’ve done some great theatre work.”
To date, he has appeared in many TV shows, movies, and stage productions including : Doctors, Casualty, Braveheart, Babylon, Brassed Off and In Time O’ Strife.
James, in an aside, mentions a major project he is not at liberty to discuss at the moment. I am curious but no amount of pressing can persuade the actor with the engaging smile and infectious laugh to reveal anything.
Robinson’s life is a rush hour of travel, connections and speed. His, as we have discovered, is a superfast interconnected existence, but he is positive and philosophical. He checks his watch again, mouths ‘I have to go’.
He disappears into the crowds of people in the Rivergate Mall, and heads back to Glasgow airport for his flight to London and I can’t help thinking about his positivity. His acceptance that despite early pedigree there are going to be disappointments, despite his obvious talent there will be rejections. His insistence that you have to keep going and that failure and success are the same imposters (apologies to Rudyard Kipling) is appealing. There is a lot to like about James Robinson.
Written By, Sergio Burns