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“People perceive me as the older gruffer authoritarian figure” – James Cosmo talks Skylines [The FH Interview]

6 min read

Perhaps best known for menacing poor Jon Snow atop that wall in Game of Thrones Scottish actor James Cosmo is the definition of a character actor. An actor of formidable presence and even more intense looks, he’s no stranger to historical epics or fantasy blockbusters. Cosmo’s new film, Skylines, is the third part of the science fiction invasion series, which sees him as a gruff survivor helping other people outlive an alien virus that turns human-alien hybrids against mankind.

In Skylines you’re playing a pretty gruff, no-nonsense character – Grant. It feels like a very James Cosmo role, a stern authority figure, are you drawn to authoritarian roles?

I think actors, throughout their career, to a certain extent typecast. When I was young I was a big lump, and I was very physical so I played that stuff. So, I guess now people perceive me as the older gruffer authoritarian figure. I’m quite happy to go along with that.

In the film you’re required to fight against some aliens, you yourself look like you can handle yourself in a fight, are you a fan of doing stunts or fights?

In my younger days you did a lot. When I was younger it was a bit more loose. Actors could do a lot more fighting stuff, but now there’s insurance and all sorts of things. But I did enjoy it, and I’ve lost a couple of teeth and split my head thanks to a couple of stuntmen, but those were the earlier days. Now I just ride horses and that’s enough for me.

You wear an eyepatch in this film, do you find it impedes your ability to walk and fight?

Oh, absolutely it does. Hugely. Having just monocular vision is very disconcerting. I love watching boxing and you see if someone gets a cut on their eye and blood starts to impair their vision, you just know it’s really bad news. So, it certainly does.

You’re often cast in big historical films or in fantasy genres, do you enjoy these genres or are these just the roles you’ve been offered?

No, I do enjoy them. I do. Probably because the characters by the nature of the film are much bigger, much broader, stronger characters to play. More reality-based things to play are a different level. I’ve always enjoyed the physicality of acting, charging around on horses and pretending to be grave, all of that sort of stuff. I am drawn to it more, you know if someone says “this is a film about a dysfunctional family” you go “yeah” and then someone says “this is a film about a band of outlaw warriors” I always go for the horses. I’ll go there, thanks.

In that regard, you’re definitely a recognisable what Americans call “character actor”, do you ever get approached in the street, and if so what are the roles they want to talk to you about?

I do get approached. Obviously, it’s Game of Thrones because of the world wide phenomenon that it became, a lot of people identify Lord Mormont with me. Which is absolutely fine, you know a lot of people enjoy that and want to talk to me about that, which I’m happy to do. And Father Christmas, especially at this time of year. I played Father Christmas in Narnia which was a real joy. So, very very different characters.

They couldn’t be more different, but generally, your more iconic roles are very stern figures. Do you ever think “I’d like to do a rom-com”?

It’s funny, I’ve been an actor for fifty-six years or something like that, and two years ago was my first on-screen kiss. Two years ago. So, whether I like the idea or not I don’t think it’s going to arrive.

Obviously, it’s Christmas and you mentioned playing Father Christmas, it also feels appropriate to mention The Christmas Candle which gets heavy rotation in my family around Christmas.

Does it really? That’s fantastic. Tonight I’m going to be watching a movie called The Devil and Daniel Webster with Walter Huston. Great movie, I was just saying to my wife this morning, I think we’ll watch that this evening because it’s a terrific film. 

Recently you’ve appeared in His Dark Materials [as Farder Coram] which is aimed slightly younger than your usual work which is aimed more towards an adult audience. Do you have a desire to have work that is more accessible to a younger audience or was it just something that was offered to you and you thought it might be fun?

I really enjoyed doing His Dark Materials, and to work with Dafne [Keen who plays hero Lyra]. She’s just fantastic, a really really talented kid. She’s gonna go far, I think she’s going to become a director. Anyway, it was a real pleasure, I had a great time working on it. Yes, I would love to do some work geared towards a more younger audience, I’d love that.

Circling back to Skylines, science fiction and fantasy are big genres, when you take a role in a Skylines or Game of Thrones is your methodology the same as when you’re doing a historical story based in fact?

I think the story and the characters, however fantastical the story is, the characters have to be based in reality to have any real strength. You’ve got to play that absolutely down the line so people can identify as a human how that person is reacting, so your performance has got to be based in truth as far as you can get there.

As we’ve mentioned, would you ever consider reprising your role as Father Christmas?

Only if it was at Harrods. 

I’ll tell you a funny story after I made Narnia, it had been out, and I was at a supermarket in London. I remember I was at the cheese counter, and I was looking at different cheeses, and I sensed a little girl standing next to me. She was about seven, or eight, and she was staring at me. She was on her own, her mum must have been somewhere, so I looked down and smiled at her. And she looked at me and said in a very quiet voice “you’re Father Christmas, aren’t you?” And I nodded, and off she went. So, in her little world, she’d met Father Christmas in Waitrose.

Father Christmas shops at Waitrose, you heard it here first.


Given these Covid times and people are isolated, when it comes to stepping back onto a film or TV set, is that something you’re wary of or something you’re excited to do, to tell stories?

Oh yes, it’s part of the fabric of my life. I would find it very hard not to. I hope and believe that when this is behind us, there’s going to be a huge outpouring of work. Simply because even though we’ve had this terrible pandemic and lockdown, people have still been sitting there writing screenplays. They’ve been planning stuff, honing those screenplays, making them better and better. Our industry is such that things can be put together pretty darn quickly. The ability to make movies now is so much easier with technology, so I’m really hopeful for the future. I just hope that we produce films that people firstly enjoy and films that bring hope and positivity for the future.

Skylines is out in select UK cinemas and available digitally on-demand now.

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