ADAM Robertson spoke with Scottish actor and Outlander star Graham McTavish on the 10 things that changed his life for the Sunday National. 

1. Not going to drama school

I THOUGHT it was important to do this because that’s what you’re told to do or you're not really an actor. I’d become interested in acting just before I left school and around that time, I’d got a place at university to read English literature.

My parents were very keen on that, and they said acting was great but to get a degree because you need something to fall back on. I actually contacted the principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1979. It’s a feature of my life doing things like that because I don’t know any better. I just thought well, I need to find out about acting so who should I ask?

His secretary wrote back and the principal agreed to give me a “special audition” and let me know what they think of me as an actor. I still have the letter. I did the audition and it went well and was told I would get to the next stage but to go to university first, and if I was still keen, to come back after. That was all I needed to make me go "I’m okay at this".

READ MORE: James Cosmo on the 10 things that changed his life

It came to leaving university and I was going to go, and I got into about five drama schools. They said we’d love you to come but this is how much it costs, while I’d been at university with a free grant.

I wasn’t going to pay so I didn’t go and that was a great thing because though it didn’t feel like it at the time, but it forced me into doing my own one-man show and I ended up learning on the job from other actors.

Listen, it’s good for some people but not for me and I have to say that one of the guys I was at university with who was a great actor went to drama school and lost the very thing that made him so unique. He just became a factory model of that drama school.

2. Moving to America

I WAS meant to be in a musical version of Lord of the Rings in London's West End. I got cast as Saruman. It was due to start in February 2007 and this was like November 2006 but I was just to come on and be evil without singing or anything. They told me I’d have time off to do other things.

At this point, I’d been exploring America. I had an agent and a manager. I went up for a film called Rendition that Jake Gyllenhaal went on to make and they offered me a small part filming for two weeks in Morocco.

I contacted my agent and asked if I could get the two weeks off during that rehearsal period. They wrote back and said the people doing the musical had agreed to it on this occasion but that left me a bit confused because they had said before that I could have time off to do other things.

I’ve never forgotten this. I got a letter being told I was getting a lot of money for doing very little so I would be grateful if I were you. It just made me realise that this musical didn’t feel right so I got my agent to get me out of it. In my gut, I knew this wasn’t good so I moved to America and within a week of arriving, I got cast in Rambo and that was the start of a big change in my career.

3. Having children

THIS isn’t often a decision. Even if you say you’d like to have children, you never decide exactly when. Life sort of gets back to you on when this will happen. Your life is like a series of rooms. You go and visit some and you might go back to others depending on what's in them. 

I always tell people thinking of having kids that it’s like walking along a corridor and you find one room you haven’t been in, you step inside and it’s the room of having a child. You look around and think it’s exciting but when you go to leave, there’s no handle on the inside of the door. Once you’re in, you’re in and your life changes completely. It’s definitely the best thing I’ve ever done.

4. The Hobbit

I’M actually watching The Hobbit with my youngest daughter as she’s never seen it. It’s now 13 years since we started filming. I was in America and they brought me in to read for the part of Dwalin.

This doesn’t always happen but there are roles you go up for that you really feel, "this is mine". I felt it with Rambo and when I first went in for this. I got called back and did the second meeting and then a third which all went well.

But then there was a wait because it hadn’t actually been green-lit. There were all sorts of issues about The Hobbit at that time - Guillermo Del Toro was going to do it and then Peter Jackson took over.

READ MORE: Two Doors Down actor Kieran Hodgson on 10 things that changed his life

That was July 2010 and I waited two months. I remember I used to take my daughter and stand on our balcony and look at this star and we would wish on the star that The Hobbit would work out. And on September 8, 2010 at 3pm, I got the call that I had got the job. I phoned my wife but then I phoned a personal trainer because I knew I had to get really fit for that job.

5. New Zealand

THE Hobbit was life-changing because we shot it in New Zealand and I’m still here. My children have grown up here.

It’s been great but it’s also had its challenges. I don't spend most of my working life in New Zealand, so I have to commute between the two places on Earth that are so far away.

6. Doing Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Dundee Rep

IT’S a great, great play. I did that with David Tennant and Edith MacArthur. It’s a family drama and was directed by a wonderful guy called Richard Baron. I happened to be doing it at the same time as Brian Cox (below) was performing The Master Builder at the same theatre.

The National: Brian Cox appearing on Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg (Jeff Overs/BBC)

He was there, and I didn’t know him at all. I had no connection with him, I think I maybe bumped into him in the theatre when he was performing.

We did our play and it was a great production and he came to see it. Afterwards, I went to the bar and he found me, he came up and he said it was the greatest production of this play he had ever seen. He was very complimentary about my performance and said he really wanted to work with me.

He brought me down to London in 1994. I’d done loads of theatre in Scotland but I went to do Richard III in Regent’s Park in 1995 and that was a huge change. That changed the way I perceived myself and it gave me so many opportunities.

7. Writing my own play

I WROTE my own play about Vincent Van Gogh with my friend Nick Pace. We did it for the National Gallery in London and in a moment of complete madness, they agreed to let us perform this. A lot of Americans came to see it and we managed to organise a tour of America by subverting the entire gallery’s postal system for our own benefit.

READ MORE: Lynn Ferguson: 10 things that changed my life​

At the time, there was a little theatre called the Trafalgar Theatre in the gallery and it was often used for lectures but we did the play there. Within the phone system, they had blocked external lines because security staff - a lot of whom were from Mauritius - were calling home and racking up these giant bills.

You had to go through the switchboard apart from this one phone in the lighting booth of the Trafalgar Theatre.

We wrote to pretty much every art institution in America with the National Gallery-headed notepaper and put the direct line to the lighting booth. As far as they were concerned, this was coming directly from the National Gallery so we booked this massive tour. We’d sit there and say: “Oh yes, National Gallery, how can I help you?”

8. Outlander

IT doesn’t matter where I am in the world, a day doesn’t go by without someone talking to me about Outlander. It’s had a massive effect on people, they love that show. When I joined them, that was a big deal because I remember I had been cast in a film about Vikings and they wanted me for Outlander. This was just after The Hobbit.

My manager said to me that it wasn't going to work out, the dates clash. It’s a bit like the Lord of the Rings musical story. I asked if we had signed the contract on the Vikings thing because I thought Outlander was going to be great.

The National:

For Sam Heughan (above), it was really his first big TV job and all of us – the Highlanders, we were called – did all our training together. The horse riding, the sword training, Gaelic. We were thrown in at the deep end but we didn’t know if it was going to be any good. You don’t when you’re in the bubble of doing all this.

We all had a great time doing it and I remember when we were filming and one of the producers came on to say we’d been renewed. We felt a responsibility for doing this because these books are so beloved by the fandom and it worked.

9. Men In Kilts

THIS was a great decision. It was something I wanted to do for a long time. I had written something called Clanlands in 1991 and nobody was interested but I talked to Sam about doing a documentary in Scotland and my interest in history.

Nobody was paying us to do this at first but we got enough material together to show Starz and they liked it so we went on to make it. It’s funny, it’s the same with writing the Clanlands books - the first one was written before we filmed the main body of the first season of Men In Kilts (below).

The National:

We started writing it during lockdown and we’d write on a shared Google document. Covid obviously wasn’t a decision but it pushed us in the direction of doing this.

10. Bourbon

ONE of the things that characterises some of the decisions I’ve made is that I went into them with no real knowledge of what I was doing. Writing a book, becoming an actor, moving to America – I had no idea. And it’s the same with the bourbon.

I had the typical Scottish view that bourbon is just like American scotch so they just call it bourbon. I was very prejudiced about the whole thing. But then I was given some at a dinner party by my friend and it just blew me away, and I became really guilty because I thought I was cheating on Scotland but became a closeted fan.

I met Connor and Paul when they approached me about doing the McTavish Bourbon - and I love it. It’s been a rollercoaster, I’d never been involved in a business before McTavish Spirits but it’s been nuts because it’s given me an appreciation of what it involves to run a business.

READ MORE: Lynn Ferguson: 10 things that changed my life

We go into our favourite coffee shop and just expect it to be there but when you actually run this, you realise all the things that have to work and it’s the same with bourbon with the supply chains and the bottling.

It’s a great decision and I suppose if I was to sum up the reasoning behind the decisions I’ve described is that I like a challenge, I like adventure and throwing myself into things that I will learn about while I’m doing them.