It was 25 years ago that James Cosmo ended the glittering celebrations for the premiere of Braveheart at Stirling Castle with a secret night-time flight – carrying a human heart.
No, it wasn’t a grisly trophy from the final scenes of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace epic. It was part of a race against time to get the donated organ to a transplant patient in England.
The mercy dash drama unfolded after Cosmo nearly missed the premiere of the Oscar-winning movie – celebrating its 25th anniversary this year – as he was needed on set for a film he was shooting in the south of the country the morning after.
The acclaimed actor said: “On the side, I phoned my wife and we hired a light aircraft and flew up then flew back down at four o’clock in the morning from Glasgow to an airport in the south of England.
“As we were driving from Stirling Castle, where the after-premiere party was, in this big limo, the driver said ‘there’s a phone call for you’. It was the police and they said ‘we believe you have an aircraft flying down south tonight… would you mind taking something with you’.
“I said ‘what’s that?’ and they said ‘it’s a human heart for transplantation’. Police outriders joined us and got us straight on to the tarmac. We flew down, my wife and I, with this box in between us with a human heart in it.
“When we arrived there was an ambulance and police outriders ready to escort the heart, and it went flying off. I often wonder who that helped.”
As for filming the next morning…
“I turned up on the set on time and they never knew I had been away”.
It was a dramatic end to a night that Cosmo describes as the outstanding moment of his career. It was also the beginning of a hugely successful chapter for the actor, which saw him land roles in iconic films such as Trainspotting and Troy. He also starred in TV series including His Dark Materials and the global phenomenon Game Of Thrones.
But Cosmo credits Roughnecks, a BBC TV series about North Sea oil workers filmed in Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland, with landing him his breakthrough part in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, as clan leader Campbell.
“Roughnecks brought attention to me,” he said. “Mel watched a bit of it and enjoyed it and that’s when he decided to offer me the part. So I owe a lot to Roughnecks.”
And Dumbarton-born Cosmo has another good reason for remembering his time on Roughnecks, which last aired 25 years ago.
“The most outstanding memory was that my eldest son was born when I was on a rig, filming,” he said. “It was all pretty basic then and I had to go out to the radio shack at the end of a long walk and on to a satellite phone when my wife phoned me from London. It was amazing.”
The actor said being on a rig was a real experience.
“It was a lot more basic in those days. We went out and we filmed for about two weeks on a semi-submersible, way out there. There were lots of great things. The food was wonderful, the maintenance crew that worked on the rig were terrific blokes,” he said.
“We were all very excited, because it was a new series and was going to be all about that world nobody really knew about up in the north-east of Scotland. We were bringing it to a national audience, how tough it was for those guys and their story.”
As well as being shot offshore, Roughnecks – which only ran for two series – was filmed around Aberdeen and in Stonehaven. It’s a part of the world that the actor loved.
“Hamish McDonald, who was a friend of mine, was the safety officer on the series and his offices were in Stonehaven. Hamish and I spent a couple of days fly-fishing for salmon, which was very nice.”
The actor still makes an annual trip to Speyside for salmon fishing. It’s a return to his roots as his paternal great-grandfather was from Boat of Garten, while his maternal grandmother was from Brora.
“So, genetically I’m part of the scenery up there,” he said, laughing.
Cosmo was saddened that Roughnecks only lasted two seasons, as viewer demand of the day dwindled.
“Funnily enough, we were getting seven or eight million (viewers) and they thought it was a failure,” he said. “If any programme got seven or eight million now, it would be a raging success.”
It was, of course, a leap from playing an oil worker to a clan chief, but Cosmo enjoyed filming Braveheart and working with Mel Gibson on the movie, which garnered five Oscars including best picture and best director for Gibson.
“It was extraordinary. It was such a massive film at the time and I felt very privileged to be telling an albeit dramatised version of Scottish history. I enjoyed it a great deal.”
Cosmo, who now lives in Surrey, credits his role in the film with the high-profile parts that followed, making him one of the most instantly recognisable Scottish actors in the world. Think of almost any big blockbuster production from the past quarter of a century and there’s a good chance he’ll be in it.
“It’s just a matter of circumstance,” said the actor. “When you are in a film like that, which does so incredibly well, you tend to be favoured and people want to use you in their films. Your profile goes way up.
“It’s nothing to do with what kind of actor you are – it’s almost logistics. They work out, ‘if this guy’s been in a successful film, maybe if we have him in it, our film will be a little bit successful, too’.
“I’d love to say it was down to my astonishing talent and good looks, but I’m afraid that’s not the case. It’s more like a great deal of luck and I have been blessed.”
Troy was one of James Cosmo’s favourite jobs, starring alongside Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. Of all of his jobs, the one he enjoyed working on most was Troy, the swords-and-sandals epic that starred Hollywood heavyweights such as Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean and Peter O’Toole.
Cosmo, who played Trojan general Glaucus, said: “That was terribly enjoyable because we were over in Mexico filming and my family was with me, which made a big difference. So Troy was the nicest time.”
The actor reckons, though, his best work was for a one-man film he made about six years ago called The Pyramid Texts, about a ferocious veteran boxer trying to reconcile with his estranged son.
“It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience, but it was the performance which I thought was the best I could possibly give. It drew deeply on deep emotions. You had to plumb depths in your character which you would probably rather not do, but it was for a good reason. I was very pleased with the outcome of the film. It was a wonderful script by Geoff Thompson.”
However, the actor has no doubt which role has brought him the biggest reaction from fans.
“It’s got to be Game Of Thrones,” said Cosmo, who played Jeor Mormont, the ill-fated Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in the series that captured the attention of the world.
“Nobody ever realised when we first started that it was going to be such a global phenomenon. It was extraordinary. You suddenly realised that people know your face in countries you couldn’t spell. It’s nuts. It’s slightly concerning in a way that the globalisation of the entertainment industry means you are suddenly famous everywhere. It’s a bit unnerving sometimes.
“I was in a little mini-supermarket in Lithuania and somebody started shouting ‘Lord Mormont, Lord Mormont’. It was in the back of beyond in a little town where I was filming. They shouldn’t even have televisions but there I was.”
Of course, the series was one of the biggest events in TV history – particularly the controversial last season, which drew the ire of many fans. Did he think that criticism was justified?
“To be honest, I very seldom watch anything I am in and I have to include Game Of Thrones in that. I didn’t watch any of it I was in and it was a bit pointless for me to try to catch up after I left. So, I shall leave that to the public.
“But I think they were on a hiding to nothing by the way they ended the series. You are always going to offend some people. Everyone had their own idea of how they wanted it to end, but that was up to the guys,” said Cosmo, who also starred in the ’80s cult classic film, Highlander.
The actor admits he can’t remember the iconic oath for the Night’s Watch. “But I’m sure there are several million people who will be able to remind me.”
The role of Mormont was a far cry from Cosmo’s first outing in a big film. He played a young Hurricane pilot in the thrilling wartime drama Battle Of Britain – which is particularly apt in this 80th anniversary year of the actual battle.
“It was one of the first jobs I had and at the time it was the most expensive film made,” said Cosmo. “It is a privilege to portray extraordinary people and the people who were in the Battle of Britain were truly extraordinary. It was a wonderful privilege to meet Ginger Lacey, who was one of the Aces, and different people, the real heroes. That’s something I will always remember, as we all should.”
In many ways, you might imagine that Cosmo was almost destined to be an actor. His father was James Copeland, the Scottish actor who featured in iconic films such as Rockets Galore! and The 39 Steps as well as numerous TV appearances.
While working in London, Copeland was firm friends with such luminaries of the time as Peter O’Toole.
Cosmo said: “When we lived in London, when I was between eight and 11 years old, they used to drink up at The Flask in Hampstead. My mum used to make a curry on a Sunday and all sorts of people would come over to Highgate where we lived. They would all go to the pub then roll back to my mum’s house and she would feed them all. Sean (Connery) turned up there and somewhere I have an old photograph of Sean playing cricket with us.”
But the actor said he “sort of fell in” to the industry.
“I was 17 and I hitchhiked down to London from Glasgow to meet my father who was rehearsing something. I met him in the pub at lunchtime where they all went. We were having a bottle of Guinness together and the director of the piece he was doing asked if if was an actor and I said ‘yes’ – which surprised my father no end.”
That resulted in an invite to read for a part and Cosmo landing his first role in Dr Finlay’s Casebook.
Happenstance or not, it’s a decision that has stood him in good stead with a career spanning more than half a century. And he’s still going strong, still seeking new experiences as an actor – including just completing his first Bollywood film in India.
“I had never been in a Bollywood film. I had no idea what it was like. I thought, I’ll give it a go and it was an extraordinary experience. It’s a completely different way of making movies and thinking about movies and it was terribly enjoyable,” said Cosmo, adding that he plays a “horrible gangster”.
Cosmo has many stories to tell and he tells them well. So it is only natural his next project is a planned tour across the UK to share his experiences and anecdotes in an “audience with” event.
“Obviously things have taken a bit of a jolt with this dreadful virus, but when and if things get back to normal, I’m going to be taking myself on the road and if people want to come along, especially in Scotland, we can have an evening together. I’m looking forward to that.”
It is obvious, then, that even at 72, the actor has no intention of retiring any time soon.
“No. My fly-fishing is taking a greater amount of time than it used to, but I am, thank God, very fit and healthy and enjoying life. I still get a buzz out of walking on to a set.
“It’s my home and for 55 years it has been my home. I don’t see myself giving it up. Why give up something you love?”