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29 October 2014
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Kevin McKidd plays Lucius Vorenus

Rome - this autumn on BBC TWO - press pack phase two


Kevin McKidd plays Lucius Vorenus

Playing Roman centurion Vorenus brought out the big kid in Kevin McKidd.


"It's all schoolboy fantasy stuff, Vorenus's storylines," he grins.


"Being soldiers, getting to gallop horses and go into battle, saving ourselves on a life-raft made of dead bodies… there were moments when Ray [Stevenson, who plays legionary Titus Pullo] and myself would look at each other and we'd be, 'wow, look at us!'"


And as one of the two foot-soldiers around whom Rome revolves, Kevin had plenty of those moments.


"He's in it a lot; it's probably one of the best parts I've been given to perform because by the end of the 11 episodes you see a huge change in this man," he says.


"You also see every side to him, every shade and texture, as opposed to just a military disciplinarian. You see beyond the cliché in a way.


"If you were playing this kind of part in a film you wouldn't have the time to show that because you've only got an hour and a half to make a movie, whereas in this TV programme the joy of having 11 episodes is you have the screen time and story time to really get into it."


After having been away from Rome for eight years with the 13th Legion, Vorenus eventually returns home to find it's not so easy to just pick up where he left off – his wife has become a stranger and his children have grown up not knowing him.


From leading his men in battle to battling to come to terms with his domestic life, there's a huge contrast in his situation that was highly attractive to Kevin.


"What I love about the character is he's incredibly complex. It's funny, initially maybe it's very easy for the audience to make snap judgements about the characters, especially Vorenus at the beginning – it's easy to label me as the unsmiling one – but very quickly, even in the first few episodes, it's apparent that this guy really is very conflicted and drawn in a very human, detailed complex way, as opposed to a stock character."


And by the end of the series, events reveal the vulnerability at his core.


"He's built up this life, he's managed to come from basically nothing and just through being a solid man manages to provide for his family eventually.


"His family seemed to have found some chance of happiness in their lives and then the scales are dropped from their eyes and he realises his whole life up to this point has been a complete sham," Kevin explains, adding that he found those scenes hard to do.


"It was tough emotionally, as me and Indira [Varma, who plays Vorenus's wife Niobe]) got on very well, we bonded as people and became very close friends – but very rewarding."


Physically too there were plenty of tough moments in store for Kevin.


"We did some stuff where we were stranded on a desert island and it was just incredible, the extreme weather we were hit with. I had slight hypothermia the week after we finished that shoot!


"We were hit by extremes of cold, torrential thunderstorms, there was a tornado about 50 metres out at sea and we were still shooting. Then the next day it would be blistering heat. But the extremity of that was great.


"And we had to shoot through the winter in Italy and it can be cold. Damp, cold gets into your bones.


"That opening battle sequence in episode one where everybody is fighting, we wore opened-toed sandals and skirts. We were blue and freezing and didn't feel as if we could carry on, all the men in the line."


However, a couple of intensive weeks' preparation at military trainer Billy Budd's boot camp stood the troops in good stead for the battle scenes.


"All the boot camp guys had become these hardened soldiers," recalls Kevin with a grin. "They stank because they hadn't had a wash!


"We were thrown in as their leaders so we were allowed to be a little bit cleaner – myself, James [Purefoy] and Ray ended up being drafted in like a bunch of 'wusses' at the end.


"We had to bond with these guys, show them that we cared about them and wanted to work with them. It was an exciting and nerve-wracking time.


"Billy turned to me at one point and said 'Right Kevin, these are your men, you need to give a speech to them. Just stand here in costume, on the Forum, and speak to them'.


"I had to reach into their hearts and into their minds. It's what a good sergeant major does. He's not only a disciplinarian, he's a motivator of men and he's their mother and their father depending on the circumstances.


"I had to dig deep down inside myself. This stuff was coming in off the top of my head, from the research that I'd done. By the end of it they were all cheering and shouting, it was a great experience for all of us.


"I suddenly felt, yeah I can do this. Billy Budd for me was an invaluable tool in that boot camp, those two days that we got of it - to get just a taste of what it would be like to lead these hardened men into battle and to motivate them enough to follow you."


Kevin was also helped by being totally immersed in Roman life – both ancient and modern.


"I didn't realise how much living in Rome would affect what we did," he admits.


"If we'd shot that show anywhere else but Rome it wouldn't have had the flavour, smell and scent of something we all tried to achieve.


"Every member of the cast would agree we all fell in love with Rome. The more you'd go past the obvious tourist attractions and start to get into the life of the city, the backstreets, you suddenly felt really accepted – you become a part of the city.


"I think on a secondary level that really helped everyone's performances; the more time you spent there the more you felt invested in the show.


"That's why we were there in the first place, to try and create these people's ancestors. The people who live in Rome today, many of them are probably the descendants from these people. I think it helped us all being in the city."


Kevin also moved his family out to Rome with him for much of his time there.


"Lock, stock and two smoking children!" he laughs.


"They had a ball. I was working so much but at least I could tuck them in at night, which is very important, especially when your children are young."


His son Joseph is five and has just started school; his daughter Iona is three.


Highlander Kevin, originally from Elgin, is keen that they appreciate their Scottish roots.


"There is an island called Iona which is really beautiful and I took Iona there for the first time recently to let her see the place she's named after," Kevin says.


"It's a diamond of an island with sandy beaches and Mediterranean blue sea. If you go in the water you die, it's freezing, but it looks beautiful! We had a small Scottish holiday up there in July."


He says he tries to take the family there at least a couple of times a year to visit his family – who all still live there apart from one uncle – and loves the lifestyle there.


"It's a lovely way of life, very uncomplicated and unmaterialistic," he says rather wistfully.


Yet it's a life he chose to leave – though surprisingly, not originally for acting, though he'd enjoyed it at school.


"When I hit my teenage years I said 'acting's for ponces – I want to be a rock star and sing in a band instead'.


"So I joined a band, and we were quite successful, we got a great reputation and toured the north of Scotland on weekends and holidays.


"There's quite a big hippy set, people who've opted out, in the north of Scotland so we used to go round all these hippy festivals.


"We were called Plan 9, after the film Plan 9 From Outer Space."


Despite the band's local success, Kevin felt he should be doing something more serious with his life as well, but that didn't work out quite as planned.


"I went to university in Edinburgh to study engineering to show my mum and dad I was doing something proper with my life and was bored instantly within a week.


"I couldn't wait to get out of that place – doing maths, calculus, not my idea of a good time. I was a decent mathematician, but not good enough to be studying applied maths at university level, I realised very quickly.


"I dropped out, didn't tell my parents and joined the Edinburgh University theatre company. That was the first serious theatre for me as opposed to school plays and it just blew my mind, playing these serious and experimental pieces of work for about a year.


"I eventually applied to a small polytechnic called Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh. I fell in love with Edinburgh and didn't want to live anywhere else.


"I got in, and then I said to mum and dad, 'I've got to come clean. I haven't been to lectures for the last six months, I want to be an actor!'


"I thought they'd go off the deep end but they weren't surprised at all. They just said, 'we expected something like that would happen. You do what you want son, we won't stand in your way'. They were really good about it."


Their confidence was soon rewarded when, in 1994, Kevin landed the leading role in The Silver Darlings, produced by Robert Carlyle's theatre company, quickly making his film debut in Small Faces and then Trainspotting.


"When Trainspotting went global, everybody was saying 'it's gonna do this for you and that for you' and it didn't," Kevin says.


"It did for Ewan [McGregor], it did for a couple of the other guys but it really didn't for me and I spent the next year working in a pub."


It's amazing to think of that now with his steady stream of credits that includes Kingdom Of Heaven, De-Lovely, The Purifiers, Sixteen Years Of Alcohol, Nicholas Nickleby, Topsy-Turvy, Hideous Kinky, Regeneration and The Acid House, plus television appearances in Gunpowder, Treason And Plot, North Square, Anna Karenina, Looking After Jo Jo and BBC ONE's forthcoming The Virgin Queen, in which he plays the scheming Duke of Norfolk.


Coincidentally his next role after Vorenus is also as part of the Roman Empire, albeit a later version, in Dino de Laurentis's The Last Legion with Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley.


"I'm playing a Visigoth warrior. It's a good character, basically a bad guy, at the tail end of the Empire when it's finally just turned into dust."


After that he's due to play a character he describes as "very horrible", a disturbed SS officer in a prequel movie of the Hannibal Lecter films which explains how Hannibal becomes who he is.


It looks like he won't be needing to brush up his barman skills just yet.


"Things are even lining up for January and February now. I really love working, this is the problem," he laughs.


"It's totally mad. I know what it's like to be out of work; I'm grateful for having lots of work because it doesn't always happen. It's a funny old game, this acting lark."

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