Peter Mullan brings homeless reality to big screen
To play a rough sleeper in Jake Gavin's directorial debut film, Hector, 56-year-old actor Peter Mullan says he didn't need to do any research for the role - he'd already experienced homelessness himself at 15 years-old.
Aberdeenshire-born Mullan, a star of the Harry Potter franchise as well as independent British films, and the writer-director of 2002's award-winning Irish drama The Magdalene Sisters, recalls that he was briefly without a roof over his head.
"Twice during my teenage years - when I was 15 for just over a week, and then again at 18 for three or four days," he says. "It was just one of those things, but it was all the research that I needed to do for Hector."
Hector is a long-term rough sleeper, who embarks on a road trip from Scotland to London at Christmas time. Mullan describes his character as "a lovely gentle old soul, a rare part for an actor to have".
But he admits that he found his own time on the streets terrifying. "I remember that every minute felt like an hour, and every hour like a day," he says.
"You're very vulnerable when you're sat out and you've barely enough to keep yourself warm. You're always looking for a back door into a building, or at least an open doorway where you can bed down for the night. It gets desperate and it gets lonely, you are always trying to protect yourself."
British-born Jake Gavin, who until now has worked as an art photographer, calls the film "my snapshot of homelessness" but believes he's made "a true Christmas tale - it's an uplifting story. The best Christmas I ever spent was helping out in a homeless shelter and I based the script on those experiences".
Mullan agrees that the story combines "compassion, humility and optimism, which doesn't happen often". He feels few British directors have shown the trauma of living on the streets since Ken Loach made the BBC TV play Cathy Come Home in 1966, a depiction of a family's slide into homelessness which prompted national outrage about the housing crisis of the time.
"Fifty years on, it's the same situation and these people are invisible to society, never mind film-makers," says Mullan. "We hear a lot about the British social realist tradition of film-making but actually there's not many of them out there, particularly in the age of the franchise and the Marvel comics. It's good to see one break through at least.
John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue magazine and a recent addition to the House of Lords, has supported the release of Hector and called upon cinema audiences to remember "what a time of dislocation Christmas can be for the lonely anyway, and how much worse it is if you don't have a roof over your head".
"Yes, there are mechanisms in place to take care of the homeless at Christmas, but imagine how awful it is to know you have to return to that terrible world in January."
Mullan, nominated for an Emmy for the TV series Top of the Lake, also won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 for playing an unemployed alcoholic in My Name Is Joe, and starred in 1996's Trainspotting.
He says he likes roles "right from the fringes of society, the people who are invisible" and encourages everyone else to suspend judgement.
"It's all too easy to fall off the radar once you've pursued a certain course of action in your life, be it drugs or alcohol.
"In Hector's case it was a breakdown, and homelessness to him is a long means of self-punishment. Believe me, it takes commitment to sleep outdoors for 15 years. You've got to have a very fragile psyche to do that, and he is emotionally flagellating himself every waking moment.
"I really hope that Hector helps put a human face to this, and a human story that's not some piece of social propaganda. He's lovely, he's had his problems and over the decades he's just lost himself.
"He takes a bit of a road trip that turns into an odyssey and, in the process, this gentle man finds love again. And that's very much a Christmas story."
Hector is released in the UK on 11 December.