Kevin McKidd Heads North of Hell

by Micah Haley on July 11, 2013

Kevin McKidd

A native of Scotland, Kevin McKidd has directed and starred in Grey’s Anatomy as Dr. Owen Hunt. He is also well known for playing the lead role of Lucius Vorenus in HBO’s Rome, a much lauded landmark television series that chronicled the rise of Caesar Augustus through the eyes of two soldiers. McKidd spent his early summer in New Orleans filming North of Hell, in which he plays a meth-addled biker. We spoke overlooking the Mississippi River at Second Line Stages in New Orleans.

MH: Is this the first time you’ve been down to New Orleans?

KM: It is. I’ve been working a lot, though. I’ll try and see some of it this weekend. It’s a great place and it’s really exciting to see the movie industry here. I drove past the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes set the other day and it’s amazing to see a central city street be given over to a production. That wouldn’t happen in L.A. Giving over a huge central intersection in the middle of the city to a set like that is cool. It must be very exciting for you guys.

MH: Have you had a chance to see any music down here?

KM: I haven’t. I’m going out tonight. I really want to get down to Frenchman Street. I hear the level of musicianship is pretty incredible in this town. Which makes it hard if you’re a musician in this town because the competition to get gigs is way higher. So yeah, I’m excited to hear some music.

MH: There are some truly world-class musicians.

KM: That will be cool. I play every Tuesday night in a Irish/folk music session in L.A. and there’s a big traditional community of Celtic music in L.A. I feel like that really traditional music, the older I get, the more I’m interested in that. I just want to be around that: to hear musicians play because that’s what they do. That’s their life. A lifestyle choice as opposed  to a career choice.

MH: It has been great to see the film and television industry positively affect the lives of local musicians. Some great musicians who were previously only known to locals now travel all over the world.

KM: That’s exciting to hear that shift. That’s cool that the TV and movie industry are game changing in that way.


MH: Let’s talk North of Hell. How have you enjoyed working on the project?

KM: It’s a cool project. I read about it just over a year ago. There’s something about the script that’s so wrong, it just feels right. It’s very dark, very funny. It’s been a blast, man. I’m playing this crazy meth head called Freeman, who’s been a bold player. We made a pretty last-minute decision to make him a completely Scottish character. I was nervous about it, initially, because I always worry about on-set decisions like that. Broad decisions made on set instead of weeks beforehand. But I think, in this instance, this really worked. It has really added this weird element to an already very weird film. We adjusted some dialogue a little bit to explain why Freeman is here. And it’s been a complete bold play. It’s so antithetical to the characters that I’ve been playing recently. I was telling A.J. that I played characters like this a lot in my twenties when I first came out of drama school. I think it’s because of Trainspotting. A lot of the characters I played were these off-beat, left field, messed up, darker characters. Real characters as opposed to lead roles. Then I hit my late twenties, early thirties and that sort of changed. I started getting casted as this more heroic guy. I think it was because of the period dramas and swinging swords. Something shifted. Maybe it was because I started going to the gym at my thirtieth birthday! This role feels nice, like a call back to my earlier career. So I’m having an absolute ball getting to do it. I’ll be honest: being charming or being heroic, those characteristics of a leading guy, you don’t have to worry about that with a character like Freeman. And I really love that.

MH: What kind of research did you do to learn about the world of a meth addict?

KM: There’s this really great National Geographic documentary called World’s Most Dangerous Drug. It’s a pretty intense documentary. There’s a whole bunch of material out there. And some amazing campaigns who are really trying to raise awareness about meth in the younger generations. Showing them how horrific you look before and after. You’ve probably seen these before and after shots of these hot shot track and field kids, the shining light of high schools. Within six months, they look like they’re fifty years old, have no prospects and live in their car. It’s tragic and it’s a really depressing drug. It’s been an eye-opener. I really didn’t know much about it before. It’s been real sobering. I’ve got young kids – eleven and thirteen – and my kids are coming to the age where that drug is around. It’s kinda scary.

MH: It’s scary that they might be exposed to it in a couple of years.

KM: I don’t think it’s as big in big cities like Los Angeles, but certainly in more rural areas. It’s a drug that is more popular in the rural states. Doing a comedy film, I didn’t expect to get this sobering information about this drug. It kind of rots you from the inside. There’s nothing natural about it. Like in Trainspotting, even with something as serious as heroin, people can be perfectly functioning individuals and operate being heroin addicts for years, sometimes decades. With meth, it’s like putting poison into your body, literally. At one point [in North of Hell], Patrick Wilson has to snort some to prove that he’s loyal and he says, “It burns.” And I say, “Yeah, I know, because it’s cut with Tide and peyote.”

Interestingly, when we did Trainspotting, we learned that heroin overdoses happened when a person who was a heroin addict got used to a certain type of heroin that had been cut with something, and suddenly they would get a change of dealers or a different batch would come in. It would actually be pure heroin and he would take the same amount as he always has, but because there was nothing cut into it, it would kill the guy.

Meth started as a mom and pop business in America. It started as something you cooked up at home. Then the government slammed down controls on Sudafed, which is one of the main components of meth. Then, the Mexican meth labs, the sort of super kitchens were built, and that’s when crystal meth came into existence. It became this much stronger, much more potent, much more dangerous drug.

MH: How have you enjoyed working with director Anthony Burns?

KM: Anthony is great. He’s that great mix of being very specific about what he knows he wants, but very loose about how you get there. He gives you a lot of latitude, and you feel like he trusts you. Not all directors have that quality. He wants you to do your thing. Some directors want to just put the quarter in the slot and do what they tell you to do and Tony’s not like that at all. He’s very collaborative and very passionate about what he’s doing.

MH: I love HBO’s Rome, where you played the historical Lucius Vorenus. How did you become a part of that project?

KM:I was doing a period drama about Mary, Queen of Scots. We were in Romania. I was in Elizabethan-type, big, long leather boots and a swashbuckling outfit. And as I was walking down the corridor, I heard these American voices coming at me and it was John Milius, Bruno Heller and Michael Apted. They were all racking that studio there to potentially shoot Rome there. This is about a year and a half before they even started casting. They recognized me from a few things I’ve done and I said, “Look, how long are you around?” They were there for two days. So, I got the director to cue up some dailies because there’s a lot of horse riding and sword swinging in this period drama we were doing. So the director, a friend of mine, cued up a fifteen minute montage of my stuff and they came into my dressing room and watched it. They said, “Oh great, that was fantastic. We’ll keep you in mind.”

A year and a half later, I eventually get this call. They wanted me to read for Mark Antony, initially, and then Brutus. I read for every role other than Lucius Vorenus. And I kept going to Nina Gold, a fantastic casting director in London, and saying, “Nina, I really think I want to – I need to – read for this Lucius Vorenus role.” And she was like, “No, we really see you as this character. You should read this.” And I would go, “Okay, alright. But I’m telling you, I would really like to have a shot at Lucius Vorenus.” As soon as I read, they were like, “Oh yeah! Why didn’t we think of that?” Sometimes actors just know. Just telling the casting directors out there! Sometimes the actor knows best.

I did a final screen test with me and Ray Stevenson and that was it. Ray and I had known each other socially before this. We went in to do a final screen test and there were a couple of other actors screen testing. Ray had been casted at that point. And that was it.

The interesting twist: I was doing Ridley Scotts’ King of Heaven at the time in Spain and hanging out with Liam Neeson. At the time, I was this British actor who loved doing independent films and I didn’t know who HBO was. I had never heard of HBO, to be honest. We have The Sopranos over there, but it’s aired on a different network in the UK so it didn’t have the same weight. I was ignorant to the significance of HBO at the time.

I called my agent and said, “You know, I’ve got these two other independent films I’m attached to. I don’t think I can bail on them, so I think I’m gonna pass. She was like, “Oh, really? Alright then. I’ll let them know.” I told a few guys on set in Spain what was going on and they were looking at me like I was nuts. Nobody was talking.

Somebody got word to Liam Neeson that I had turned HBO down. He’s really good friends with Ciarán Hinds, who, about a week earlier, had also turned HBO down for Rome. Basically, Liam took him to the back of the bait sheds and gave him a stern talking to. He said, “This is the biggest mistake of your life, Ciarán.”

Sure enough, I’m sitting in the bar that night and Liam Neeson walks in and says, “You. I need to have a word with you.” And I’m like, “Okay.” He’s a big intimidating guy! A lovely, brilliant guy, but you don’t mess with him and I thought I had done something to piss him off. We’re in this tiny little village north of Spain in a mountain town at this crappy little hotel we’re all staying at. And he took me out back! We’re in this cobbled street, I remember there was snowfall, and he’s going, “I’ve heard you’ve turned down this Rome show.” He said, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life. I told my pal Ciarán and I’m telling you right now. Have they moved on? Do you know if they’ve moved on from you?” I said, “I don’t know, I told them about eight hours ago.” And Liam said, “I suggest you run – don’t walk – to a phone and call your agent. Tell them you’ve reconsidered.” And luckily, they hadn’t moved on at that point. I think my agent knew that I might reconsider.

Rome HBO DVD Polly Walker Kerry Condon Kevin McKidd Ray Stevenson James Purefoy

MH: And they hadn’t moved on to another actor?

KM: Luckily, they hadn’t moved on, but I do kinda owe Liam Neesen quite a lot.

MH: It’s understandable that you didn’t quite know the profile of HBO. For a long time, they were primarily known for sports. And in the 90s they broke narrative ground with Oz, which was very contained – almost a one set drama, albeit a great one. The Sopranos really defined them as a premier place for narrative television. But really, it wasn’t until Carnivale and Rome that they matched excellent storytelling with cinematic production values. Rome was really right at the beginning of HBO doing these character driven epics. Now, of course, Game of Thrones matches and even exceeds the quality of many theatrically released feature films.

KM: There were two independent films that, if I pulled out, they would probably run into trouble. So, I felt loyalty to them. I didn’t think I needed to put a hold on everything else to go and sign over six years of my life, potentially, to this show. But I’m glad I changed my plan. I’m glad Liam Neeson pulled me by the ear out into the street that day.

MH: How much research did you do about the historical period?

KM: We did a lot. We read a lot of books. There’s Tom Holland’s book Rubicon, a fantastic source for that period. We had an amazing historical expert named Jonathan Stamp, who’s the most amazing guy to sit and have a beer with. He has this encyclopedic brain. He specializes in Roman history. An unbelievable guy, lovely and really good fun. The whole point of Rome is that it wasn’t just big stuff: look at the foot soldiers and how his wife lived, what he actually ate, and how they threw out trash. It was kind of a buddy movie, really. These two friends at odds, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. How they lived and how they rose, accidently rubbing up against these huge events in history. That was always the concept.

MH: You are also a big part of Grey’s Anatomy. Every woman in my life is jealous that I’m talking to you right now.

KM: Basically if a guy comes up to me and says, “Hey, you’re that guy from…” I’m pretty certain they’re gonna say Rome. And if it’s a woman, they’ll say, “You’re that guy from Grey’s Anatomy.” Kind of got the demographics covered in that sense.

MH: And from a career standpoint, that’s exactly what you want to do: build a diverse audience.

KM: I’ve never thought about it like that. Wish I’d planned it that way. I probably just lucked out. It’s been great. Grey’s is a very specific show. You know, I direct that show now. I’ve done five episodes. It’s actually a very tough show to direct and to write because it’s very much a dramedy. It’s very heavy medical, and it’s got this soap opera element, but you have to be careful with that. It’s kind of dipping into three or four pools of genres, really. It’s blending those four elements in each episode to make it feel like Grey’s. And that’s tough, actually, instead of it being a straight procedural or a straight comedy.

MH: It is a very specific tone. People file it away under ‘medical drama,’ but it’s very different than House or ER.

KM: It’s a much more blended form, I think, and it’s fun. I directed one episode that was very medical heavy, another episode I directed was very personal drama, which was completely comedic and silly, frothy and fun. AJ knows if you’re on a show for a long time, the tone can become monotonous after a while. Not for the watchers, but for the actors. So we’re kind of lucky our tone shifts on that show.


MH: How did you come to direct on Grey’s?

KM: It was a mixture of things. I was on the second season, and I had been a journeyman actor for a long time, living out of suitcases. And suddenly, being in one city and looking at a five year commitment started to scare the hell out of me. I knew I’d always want to try directing, so I thought, “Well, maybe this is fate telling me this is the time.”

I asked them if I could shadow direct, which is every actor’s root into directing. I shadowed a couple of the directors on the show, David Aaron Cohen and Tony Phelan, and just as I was finishing up my shadowing, they were doing a commission to do five episodes of a webisode series spin-off thing sponsored by Carmex. Every webisode, I had to show somebody using or looking at or talking about Carmex in it. They were looking around, saying, “Who are we going to get to direct it? Oh you. You go and do these webisodes. Here’s your budget.” Which was like two pound fifty and a bag of crisps. And I did it, and I prepped the hell out of it cause I knew that this was my audition. And if I blew it, that would be it. You just don’t get asked back.

Later when a director dropped out, I was in the right place at the right time, they literally went, “You get in, you’re on.” Because they were in a bind. And again, I just worked my ass off. I didn’t sleep for like two weeks, working and panicking and pulling my hair prepping to direct.

MH: How big was your character’s presence in that first episode you directed?

KM: It was light. They took pity and sent my character to the dentist for the day. Gave me a tooth ache and said, “You have to go to the dentist.” I literally had one scene, and I’m going out to the dentist. They haven’t done that since. They are like, “You can do it now.” So, the last three episodes my character was in there a lot.

MH: In the future, are you interested in directing more television or features?

KM: I definitely want to. The next thing I want to do is direct a couple of different shows that I’m not on. Again, as part of my director training. I still feel like I’m at school. Once I’ve done that, I want to start looking at independent movie ideas. I think episodic TV directors do amazing work. I just know it’s not for me and I love acting too much. If you get on that treadmill [of directing TV] it’s a circuit. Your whole year disappears. I think my ceiling will hopefully be a couple more shows to get my chops up, just looking at different styles of shooting, and then look at some independent stuff.

MH: You had two characters in Disney’s animated feature Brave. Please tell me about totally incomprehensible  dialect of the son.

KM: He’s called Young McGuffin. It’s amazing working for Pixar. It takes about five years to do it because they’ll animate for nine months, then you’ll come in for a session, then they’ll animate for another year. I did that film for four years and initially they said, “For this character, we’ve got this great idea that you can’t understand a word he says. You just make up gobbledygook crazy Scottish words.” I tried that for a session and it just felt weird.

The town that I’m from is a place called Elgin, in Burgess in the Highlands. There’s a local dialect that my grandfather and grandmother used to speak called Doric which is like a rural old dialect. It’s not its own language but it’s close. It’s almost Norwegian. Look it up on YouTube. There’s some YouTube clips of some of these guys back in the 50s speaking it. And so, I did that for Pixar and they all just fell out and were saying, “This is real? This is actually real? You didn’t make that up?” And I was like, “No, it’s real.”

MH: Is it a dialect of English?

KM: Oh yeah, it’s all English. But some words are completely replaced and it’s a crazy language. Just beautiful to listen to in a weird way. And so it stuck and they had the flag up the flag pole, it got to John Lasseter and he was like, “I love it.” I sent them all these YouTube clips. That’s what’s great about working for a company like Pixar. You don’t just feel like you’re a cog in a machine. They ask for your input, you give it, and if it’s good, they’ll use it. I feel pretty proud that I managed to get my hometown dialect that pretty much nobody has heard, even in Glasgow. Even in Scotland, it is a pretty unknown dialect and I managed to get it in a pretty big Pixar movie.

MH: Even now, hearing you speak it, none of it registers as English. It almost registers as hearing English spoken backwards.

KM: And that’s all real stuff, man. I’m glad you liked it.

MH: Visually, Brave was beautiful. Scotland is beautiful in reality and it was great to see it portrayed in animation.

KM: I like to say that Pixar actually managed to improve Scotland.

MH: Tell me about your work with Save the Children.

KM: I do a lot of stuff with Save the Children. I released an album last year with old Scottish traditional music. About two years ago, a bunch of musician friends and me had a house in the Highlands for a week. I got these phenomenal musicians from my local area together with a sound engineer and we recorded all the old, old, old tunes and songs from our upbringing. It’s this really lovely, very passionionate album. It was all one-take stuff. We set up the house like a recording studio, a bit like what Springsteen did with The Seeger Sessions. It’s that kind of feel, so there’s no overdubbing. We didn’t polish anything. If somebody’s mandolin was slightly out of tune, it just had to stay. So it’s almost like a live album of songs. It’s called the The Speyside Sessions and that really raised a lot of money. All proceeds from that went to Save the Children. I do a lot of work with them because I think they are just a great charity. They’re non-religious, non-political. It’s just about getting money to needy kids.