31 August 2010 Scotland on Sunday

Billy Boyd interview

Interview with the Lord of the Rings actor about Sunshine on Leith. A Dundee Rep preview

IT WOULD be less of a problem if Billy Boyd wasn't such a big fan of the Proclaimers. The Lord of the Rings star has landed a lead role in a revival of Dundee Rep's Sunshine on Leith, the superb musical based on the songs of Craig and Charlie Reid. It's a dream job - one that's lured him back to the theatre for the first time in six years - but getting his mind around arrangements that are not quite the same as the records he has loved for so long is proving tough work.

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"They're great songs to sing" - Billy Boyd on the musical Sunshine on Leith

"Sometimes you're singing a harmony that Hilary Brooks, the musical director, has thought up, and it's even harder to forget the melody you know and then sing this harmony," says the fresh-faced 42-year-old actor. "They're great songs to sing - really truthful and emotional, and the way they've fitted them into the play is amazing."

In this remounted commercial production, which is setting off from Dundee on a three-month UK tour, Boyd is playing Davy, a soldier who returns to Leith from Afghanistan and finds he has to cope with the highs and lows of civilian life. Written by River City creator Stephen GreenhornStephen Greenhorn, it is a tale of growing old, one-night stands and falling in and out of love. Because it is inspired by the Proclaimers, it is also about unemployment, being forced to change your accent and cultural exodus.

"The songs push the narrative as much as, if not more than, the scenes do," says Boyd. "The story never stops for a song. And it makes sense now probably even more than when Stephen wrote it. As we just heard on the radio, it's the poorest families that are going to be hit hardest. Even though we're doing it through song and dance, there's a real story to be told."

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"What they're writing about is pure humanity" - Billy Boyd on the Proclaimers

As the singer in his own band, Beecake - with a debut album, Soul Swimming, in the shops and an east coast US tour done and dusted - Boyd has a muso's admiration for the Proclaimers as well as that of the fan who remembers being startled by their breakthrough appearance on The Tube singing in defiantly Scottish accents. "Singing in a Scottish accent wasn't done and I remember thinking at the time, 'That's really weird'," he says. "Because they sing in Scottish accents people think of them as a Scottish band, but what they're writing about is pure humanity. They touch on so many different subjects and tell stories in such a truthful way and that's why people are drawn to them. "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) is just a perfect piece of writing. Just as soon as that chunk-chunk-chunk starts – what a piece of genius to come up with that. Like all art forms, a lot of it is not that simple, but they make it look as if it is.

The phrasing is quite obscure or they'll add a little chord that comes out of nowhere." Lyrically as much as musically, the songs make complex ideas seem simple. "They can get a pub going with one chord and they can get across quite a difficult political message in a verse," Boyd says. "Like in Misty Blue, they ask why are Scottish men not able to show love and affection, yet if you put on some Scottish music and drive through Glen Coe, they'll be in tears. It's a difficult idea but the way they put it across is amazing."

Getting to hear songs as brilliantly constructed as Over And Done With, Throw The R Away and I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) every day has only increased Boyd's admiration. "I feel like my songwriting will be more influenced by them now that I've looked into the songs a bit deeper. I can definitely see a progression in my own songwriting to take away some of the things that I've learned from the rehearsal period."

Although he is best known as Pippin in The Lord of the Rings and for his part in the Academy award-winning Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - and with four films in production - Boyd was once a mainstay of Scottish theatre, a reliably versatile actor who cropped up in everything from The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole (his debut in 1995) to David Greig's Caledonia Dreaming and The SpeculatorThe Speculator. Now back in the rehearsal room, he is remembering how much he enjoyed those days and has renewed his appetite for theatre.

"Doing dance routines, fight routines and harmonies is a nice way to be thrown back in," he says. "I'm really enjoying myself. We've been working till ten o'clock at night and I'm dying to go to bed to get back up and go back into rehearsals."

© Mark Fisher 2010

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