Interview with Kevin McKidd – The long road to Hollywood
'Grey’s Anatomy’ star Kevin McKidd is one of the most loved TV actors in America.
Kevin talks to Thomas Kelly, QMU’s Head of Development and Alumni Relations, about his journey from QMC to Hollywood, taking the rough with the smooth, and how a little bit of luck can change your whole career.
“When I was a kid, I was painfully shy.” We catch-up via phone as Kevin drives through Los Angeles. He’s having some down time during the filming of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ season 17. As he takes me on a journey through the highs and lows of his career, it’s evident he’s come a long way from being the shy boy from the Scottish Highlands.
In Primary 5, he took part in a play about a king who couldn’t stop sneezing: “I played the sneezing king, the comedy role. My shyness disappeared when I walked on stage. That’s when I got hooked!” At the tender age of 16, Kevin went to the University of Edinburgh to study engineering.
His parents wanted him to study “something sensible”, but Kevin confesses:
"…in my heart I knew I wanted to be an actor. So I applied for drama school. I’d fallen in love with Edinburgh so I only auditioned for Queen Margaret."
Kevin only made it as far as the car park after his audition before being offered an on the spot place on the course! “I went to the phone box to call my mum and dad. I was nervous as hell. “‘Mum, Dad, you’re never going to believe this. I’m leaving university, I’m not going to be an engineer, I’ve just got into drama school’.”
“I thought they’d go off at the deep end, but instead they said: ‘We always knew that was what was going to happen, Kev. Congratulations, we support you'.”
When we talk about Kevin’s time at QMC, incredibly, he reels off every single production he was part of, character he played and class he took part in – from fencing to method acting. “I always remember Lynn Bains teaching Uta Hagan techniques.” Uta Hagan was a German-American actress who went on to be very well known for her acting techniques based around acting normally in imaginary circumstances.
He explained: “We had to bring every item from our bedrooms into class. We were asked to setup our bedroom on stage, sit on our bed, in front of everyone else, and just act normal. It’s much harder than it sounds and f***ing intimidating. Every class was like going to the dentist, but boy, did we learn! To this day, I still use these skills.”
Fast forward to Kevin’s final year. “I got lucky, as I had my first acting job already lined up before graduating (‘The Silver Darlings’ with John McGrath). Wildcat Theatre Company needed a young, male actor who sounded like he was from the Highlands – I’m from Elgin. It was a done deal.”
During the Scottish tour with The Silver Darlings, Kevin “got lucky again”. ICM, the biggest agency in London, saw the production and signed him.
"I’d never even heard of ICM – I thought it was a computer company. I was very much a country bumpkin, never having left Scotland before, but I went down to the ICM Offices in the middle of Oxford Street, … and that was it! I had a London agent!"
That was far from Kevin’s “big break”. Work dried up for a while but eventually he gets a gig in Glasgow – a film called ‘Small Faces’ – and takes his first step away from theatre. “During the filming of Small Faces, Danny Boyle was in Glasgow for the pre-production of ‘Trainspotting’. Danny hears about the up and-coming actors filming Small Faces and wants to see footage. He asked me to audition for the part of Tommy and the rest is history.”
We chat about filming Trainspotting and the reality of filming a low budget film. He laughs about the one little campervan where all the male cast members would cram in together and get changed into costumes. They would then get out, smoke some cigarettes on the freezing cold street corner, whilst the female cast members got changed.
I can’t help but imagine the scene: Kevin McKidd, Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller and Ewen Bremner all crammed into one campervan!
"Whilst we were still filming, the producer showed us the five minute film trailer with that Iggy Pop song. We all thought we had been filming this hard-hitting piece, but what Danny did was mix up real gritty action with pop culture. After seeing the trailer, we realised this could really be something special for Scottish cinema."
“It wasn’t until walking into the premier, and seeing the likes of Liam Gallagher, did I realise this was much more than a film – it was a cultural movement!
“After filming Trainspotting, I was living in Partick and work dried up. By the time the premier came around, I had no money and I had to borrow a suit. We got picked up in a limousine to go to the premier, and I remember thinking ‘I hope we’ve got a lift back’! We didn’t, so after the premier, and the big fancy do, me and my girlfriend walked home in the pouring rain!” Everyone told Kevin to move to America after Trainspotting. He said: “The Trainspotting cast were all doing really well; Ewan (McGregor) had just got the ‘Star Wars’ gig. However, this is one of the only times I listened to my gut – and got it right.
I was a reasonably innocent boy from Elgin and didn’t have much street smart about me. Los Angeles would have just chewed me up and spat me out.”
During his mid 20’s he was forced to take jobs on building sites and pubs to support his young family. He thought he’d made the wrong decision staying in the UK, however, his acting work grows momentum again with work at the Royal Court, and then with the 2002 action horror film ‘Dog Soldiers’.
In 2003, Kevin finds himself in Bucharest filming ‘Gunpowder, Treason and Plot’. Bruno Heller (executive producer of the soon to be HBO hit ‘Rome’) is also there scoping out the studio next door as a potential filming location. Kevin hears the American voices and introduces himself – it was his first step towards securing the role of ‘Lucius’. Throughout our interview, Kevin often talks about “being lucky” or in the right place at the right time. There is clearly an element of luck here, but a lot of hard work, determination and resilience surrounds it.
“I get annoyed when people refer to my ‘overnight success’!” There’s a real passion in Kevin’s voice now.
"I had 15 years of really hard work before I got the Rome gig. But QMC prepared me for this. The course demanded everything from us, but also prepared us to deal with rejection, failure, and uncertainty."
Rome paves the way to the lead role of Dan Vasser in ‘Journeyman’. As the romantic, time-travelling TV show takes off, Kevin makes the big move to LA! However, the 2007/08 writers’ strike begins, and Journeyman is cancelled, LA becomes a ghost town for eight months and Kevin is running out of money ... again. “I picked the worst time to move to LA.”
Kevin’s kids are at school in LA and that is the only thing that keeps him there during this really tough period. However, the writers’ strike ends and one week later Kevin gets a call from his agent to say that Shonda Rhimes (Producer for ‘Grey’s Anatomy’) wants to talk to him about a new character in the show. “My agent tells me the role of Owen Hunt was between me and James Van Der Beek (known for playing Dawson in ‘Dawson’s Creek’) but Shonda is going on holiday for two weeks and she’ll decide when she’s back… Two weeks later I get a call saying ‘She chose you’. And that was it…I’ve been here ever since.”
Kevin has been Owen Hunt in Grey’s Anatomy for eleven years now, and he loves it as much today as he did when he started.
"The life of an actor is like a travelling salesman - you’re living out of a suitcase and you don’t know where you’ll be next week. With Grey’s Anatomy, I’ve signed long contracts and I’ve used this as a chance to plant my feet in one place for a while. I’ve played this brilliant character, whilst being at home and getting to watch my kids grow up."
The show’s also given Kevin the chance to direct – over 30 episodes so far!
We finish up by talking about Kevin’s bucket list, which involves directing his first film, writing (which is the one aspect that scares him most) and joining the Royal Shakespeare Company – something that Kevin has had to turn down in the past.
"I feel like the past 11/12 years has been a detour on this mad journey that I’ve been on. As they say in America ‘it’s all been gravy’."
Kevin studied Diploma in Drama (Acting Studies) and graduated from Queen Margaret College in 1994.
Kevin McKidd - Photo: Mitchell McCormack/Trunk Archive