Steven Cree, the Kilmarnock actor talks about A Discovery of Witches, Outlander and how fatherhood has changed him
Steven Cree’s Twitter biog describes him as being, besides an Andy Murray fan, a wig and beard specialist. Today, speaking from the London home he shares with his wife casting director Kahleen Crawford and daughter, he’s sporting a bushy chin, thanks to his role as a vampire in time-travelling thriller A Discovery of Witches on Sky, but lockdown’s done its bit too.
“Yeah, this beard is never ending,” he says. “Right now it’s for A Discovery of Witches. It feels like I’ve had it for about 18 months because we finished filming season two this time last year then pretty quickly went into the pandemic and then I had to start growing it again for season three, so much to my wife’s chagrin it’s been ever present.”
Cree doesn’t have any tips for the cultivation of facial hair : “I just go completely unkempt,” he says. “I don’t brush it or oil it. I’m just lucky I guess. I can grow a beard if necessary,” he laughs.
Being hirsute may not be something he’s had to work hard at but the 40-year-old actor from Kilmarnock agrees it’s kept him in jobs.
“I’ve done so many with beards. Somebody posted a photo on my Instagram the other day from Outlaw King and I look very similar to how I look on Discovery of Witches. I had a beard in The Musketeers, a bit of a beard in Cobra. I don’t necessarily want to have a beard like this, but I hate being completely clean shaven, so I’ll always try and convince a director that the character should have a beard or a bit of stubble.”
Bearded or not, Cree has a busy CV of high-profile roles in films like Outlaw King, (playing Robert The Bruce’s brother-in-law Sir Christopher Seaton), Terminator: Dark Fate, opposite Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maleficent and Churchill, as well as TV parts in dramas from Silent Witness to Mother Father Son with Richard Gere and Helen McCrory. He’s played good guys like Joe Kallisto in Deep Water with Anna Friel, hard-nosed police chief Stuart Collier in Cobra, the political thriller starring Robert Carlyle, the Jacobite Ian Murray in Outlander and now Gallowglass, the merry mercenary vampire in A Discovery of Witches.
The time-travelling supernatural Sky series, two seasons of which are available on Sky now, is based on the All Souls trilogy (A Discovery Of Witches, Shadow Of Night, The Book Of Life) by Deborah Harkness. Based around the forbidden love of a vampire and a witch on a quest, it takes us from present day Oxford back through time to Elizabethan London and for the third season, which Cree has just finished filming, fast forward to contemporary France.
Not only is Cree enjoying being able to work on a restricted TV set, he’s happy to inhabit the popular character of Gallowglass once more.
“Gallowglass is a humorous character; there are elements of him that are larger than life, and he can be quite fierce. He can be a warrior and he can be emotionally sensitive too. In the second season and second book, the side we see more of is this fun loving side and when the shit hits the fan and everyone’s being really serious, he’s the one who always undercuts it with a one liner. But there’s a kind of sadness underlying him and he’s a loner. We don’t know that much about Gallowglass, and he’s quite mysterious so I kind of tried to get that across.
“It’s not clear why he’s sad, but you know, in series two he’s been alive for 400 years and he’s single. That’s a long time to be single! We don’t know if he’s had a previous love or something’s happened there. His father died, despite being a vampire and theoretically immortal, in quite ignominious circumstances, and when vampires mate, it’s incredibly intense, even more intense than human mating, so to speak, so that could have left its mark. I think, maybe like Fun Bobby in Friends who is always the life and soul of the party, there’s probably something else going on.”
Filmed in Cardiff and South Wales, Venice and in northern Italy’s Dolomites and Padua, the series’ locations are a tantalising glimpse of pre-covid freedom for viewers.
“The Dolomites are absolutely stunning and probably as beautiful a location as I’ve ever filmed in,” says Cree. “We were meant to film in France and Spain, maybe even Italy again, and New Orleans, but obviously because of restrictions it’s been Wales, Bristol and Oxford.”
Wild weather in Wales saw filming abandoned one day during a beach scene, but Cree is a veteran of Outlander as well as Outlaw King, and used to filming in all weathers.
“Outlaw King in particular was freezing, with so many scenes outside on the horses in your chain mail. We joked about it because in the 1200s, 1300s these guys were actually having to do this for real, in chainmail out there on their horses, whereas as actors, whenever they shouted cut, we’d be in the trailer having a hot coffee. I don’t think we had the work ethic for the 1300s.”
Cree’s work ethic is, however, prodigious. He was born in Kilmarnock in 1980, to a sales rep for plumbers and builders’ merchants and a mum who retrained as a chiropodist for the NHS after his parents split up when he was seven.
“She went back to college and did four years of training, with two kids. We were skint for years, and as a kid as a kid, you don’t understand or appreciate any of that, but now as an adult I look at what my mum did and think it was incredible.”
With no actors in the family Cree decided it was the job for him after watching Jesus Christ Superstar at 12 and at 15 headed to London to watch Starlight Express, his love for musicals nurtured at school.
“We had a fantastic music teacher called Fiona McKenzie who runs a place called Centrestage in Kilmarnock. It’s basically an arts centre for ages ranging from zero to 90 and does incredible work in the community. When it started people said that won’t work in Kilmarnock, but it has.”
From school Cree went to study theatre arts at Langside College and on to the RSAMD, now Conservatoire, but hasn’t forgotten a time when he didn’t know the drama school in Glasgow even existed. Keen to put something back, during lockdown he started working with Cameo who record personal greetings for people, and donates his fees to Cash for Kids.
“I thought if there’s ever a time to try and help out people with families and children who really needed it most, then it’s now. I started doing Cameo for Cash for Kids and they got in touch and asked if I’d be a patron, which was very humbling.”
After drama school Cree headed for London and began a gruelling slog of six years mostly working in bars, restaurants, offices and children’s parties as he auditioned for parts.
“Whatever you can do, you do,” he says. Then came the game changer when he landed the role of Cliff in Cabaret in the West End in 2007.
“That changed everything for me. I was working in Carluccio’s at the time and it was an unexpected jump to get it because I had such little experience. The reason I wanted to get into acting was to do musicals, it was always musicals I loved, and six years out of drama school and having not worked very much, you start to lose confidence. So that was such a confidence boost. Doing a musical in the West End, it was literally a dream come true, what I’d always wanted to do. It turned a little switch. I thought OK, I think I can make a career out of this, and it gave me the belief that you can get a really good job completely out of the blue. Ok, when I finished that job I still spent large times unemployed, fighting and scrambling and auditioning for other jobs, but that definitely was a huge turning point in my life.”
Another game changer for Cree was Outlander, although this wasn’t immediately obvious as it was a slow burner in the UK.
“I still have to audition for everything I go for but I thought, OK, I can get a part in a big global show like this, so maybe I can get another job, and so on.”
With his character Ian Murray in the background plotwise in the latest Outlander season, Cree is hoping for a return in future.
“I couldn’t do season five because of A Discovery of Witches, but Ian Murray returns in book seven, in which he dies. I haven’t been asked back for this season but sometimes it’s very last minute, so I don’t know. If they do a season seven and the story where Ian dies, it would be nice to tie it up.”
Asked about the series’ popularity Cree has several explanations.
“It’s epic and people just love fantasy, to transport themselves off to other worlds. There’s the romantic aspect of this nurse from World War Two that travels back to the 17th century and falls in love with this big heroic, hunky Scottish warrior who’s a virgin but seems to be the best lover in the world ever,” he laughs. “It taps into historical Scottish elements, which people from outside of Scotland in particular love, and it’s shot so beautifully. I remember watching episode one and thinking ‘Oh God, it just looks incredible.”
Also on our screens now is the Sky One political thriller Cobra, in which Cree played Chief Constable Stewart Collier a no-nonsense police chief who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
“I use the C-word which you don’t see very often, but I think Ben [Richards, the writer] thought me being Scottish, it would fit my character. I think that’s a compliment,” he laughs. “I was meant to disappear in episode four,” he says, “but I think they liked what I was doing so they brought me back in, so you got to see Collier complete his journey.”
Cree modelled Collier on senior ranking officers he researched and met through his brother, who is in the police.
“He is somebody who is really, really, straight, determined and super capable. If you were in the middle of a crisis that engulfed the whole country as it does in Cobra, that is the sort of guy you would want because he seems unflappable. That is definitely not like me.
“When we were filming Cobra, a couple of reviews said it was a bit far fetched but it turns out it wasn’t far fetched enough. A lot of it has come to fruition: the predictions of the north being disenfranchised from the south and the government making a complete hash of a crisis. So I did wonder if I should try and inhabit the same sort of calmness that Stuart Collier would, try and stay cool and not completely lose my shit.”
Cree has also added writing to his talents, penning the 2018 short film The Little Princess, in which he also starred. The story of a man going through a deep depression whose chance encounter with a little girl reminds him of the beauty and simplicity of life, it’s had a big impact for a short film, and is particularly relevant for now, dealing as it does with mental health issues.
“It was tweeted on the official British Railway Twitter recently because they thought it would send out a positive message for people right now, which is amazing, two or three years after we made it,” he says.
“It’s the story of a man who is at a really low ebb and this chance occurrence with a little girl changes his path. We didn’t have the idea of it becoming used for mental health but the Kris Boyd charity used it on their website and when it’s been shown at Outlander conventions, fans have told me what a difference it’s made to them. The idea that a short film can have a positive impact is really humbling.”
Cree has been savvy with his profiling, taking on a wide variety of roles, from vampires to the hard done by husband in Deep Water with Anna Friel.
“In a way Deep Water was a bit of a turning point as well because it’d been a while since I’ve done a continuing character on a TV show and playing a real family guy, a taxi driver who has a real sense of home and is happy with his life, there’s a real challenge in THAT sort of stuff, making those almost literally kitchen sink type scenes interesting and mining the truth of that.”
Some of Cree’s favourite scenes in Deep Water were with Nell Williams (Helen Baxendale’s daughter) playing his teenage daughter, situations he has more of an affinity with now he’s a father himself.
“My daughter is three now, and more and more the father daughter stuff appeals to me. Having a kid saw a profound change in me. For the first time I wasn’t just obsessing about myself all the time or just thinking about my career. And because my wife had to go back to work before me, I didn’t really work for the first four months of our daughter’s life. I was going for auditions and parts, and for the first time ever genuinely thinking ‘I don’t care if I get this because if I don’t, I can stay at home with my daughter’.
“But the less you want it and the cooler you’re able to be, the more of it in abundance you get and the last three years have been the best and most consistent of my career. I think absolutely it’s changed something inside of me. It’s such a cliche maybe, but she really is the best thing in my life.”
Cree and his daughter have started watching anime films and she’s also a fan of Star Force, written by Ross and Kevin Mains and Brendan O’Rourke, which Cree and pals filmed themselves in lockdown on mobile phones. A spoof drama, it’s an internet hit thanks to big names including James McAvoy, Kit Harrington, Florence Pugh, Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan happy to film themselves at home.
“They do their individual bits on mobiles, then we edit it together,” says Cree. “She’s shown a real interest in that, I think because you can watch on a phone and it’s kind of funny. Sometimes she’ll repeat lines from that. She’s definitely showing early signs of being a performer, but it’s a funny one. You think do you want her to get into it, because I had such a hard journey in my twenties. I found it really, really tough and I wouldn’t want my kid to go through that. But it’s a bit early to be thinking any of that,” he says and laughs.
After the success of The Little Princess, Cree is keen to do more writing and he’s reworking a comedy he started a couple of years ago.
“I’m rewriting it with a friend and we’re gonna see if we can get that off the ground. I do love doing comedy but I’ve never really been cast in it that much. The worlds have been separate, but comedy’s changing and if you look at Fleabag or Back to Life, there’s more of a fine line between drama and comedy these days, although something like Only Fools and Horses managed to be hilarious and then have real moments of vulnerability and drama in there there as well.”
As well as A Discovery of Witches Cree has also finished working on Martyrs Lane, a horror ghost film with Denise Gough, which is still in post-production but due out this year.
“The film’s about two little girls who are lost… and I can’t explain any more without giving it away. But it’s a ghost story,” he says.
“I play an English minister, good-hearted but slightly rebellious, who cares more about his congregation than the church.”
A rebellious minister? Maybe there’s gonna be stubble. Watch this face.
A Discovery of Witches is out now on Sky One and NOW TV.
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