Published Augsut 25th 2000
By James MacGregor
A Late Rising Scottish Star in Lewis

To have your latest role premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival would be a dream scenario for many Scottish actors. To have three films showcasing your talents in Edinburgh….that could be a Scottish film actor’s international dream ticket. That is reality this year for Garry Lewis.

After years of playing characters so emotionally flawed they would be beyond therapy, his biggest film card so far is his emotive role as the striking coalminer in Billy Elliot, coming to terms with his son’s ambition to be a ballet dancer whilst the world he knows crumbles around him.

Lewis has already shown he can bring great depth to his screen characters. He was the recovering alcoholic security guard in Ken Loach’s film My Name Is Joe. His dimwitted, sanctimonious, role as older brother Thomas in Orphans earned him Best Actor Award at Spain’s Gijon Festival.

But it is 41-year old Lewis’s emotive portrayal of the grief-stricken, striking miner, father to Billy Elliot in Stephen Daldry’s film, that has made film insiders sit up and really take notice. The observations of the early critics – the film got its Cannes audience to their feet cheering and applauding – describe his performance as "heartbreaking", "masterful" and supplying the film’s "most affecting high points" and more tellingly; "his character emanates so much pain you half expect it to register on some kind of Geiger counter."

The grim Soviet-style sixties tenements of Easterhouse may have provided a gritty start for a rising star of the Scottish screen, but then Garry Lewis was always a bit different. Whilst neighbourhood walls echoed the scraping of blades as local gang members prepared for their latest turf war, the walls of Lewis’s childhood home reverbrated to a piano. The family’s Marxist father and Catholic mother were firm believers in the value of education, broad and fully rounded, to include music.

High ideals are fine, but when the neighbourhood’s reputation is blighted by violence, even basic schooling can be difficult to arrange. Teachers may simply refuse to work there, even when offered more money. Easterhouse schooling was part-time only for Gary Lewis, aged ten. "You’d go to school in the morning and spend your afternoon watching fairly unsavoury stuff – men carving each other up. Then the teacher would ask you to write your diary and you would write all this Blue Peter stuff –‘my neighbour’s dog had puppies’. Contradictions and dichotomies like these inform Lewis’s screen work, giving his characters that distinctive edge that can be crafted only from realism, from truth and from determination.

Early employment as a roadsweeper gave no clue to the direction his career would take, but work in the local library ensured he became well-read before launching into the social sciences at Glasgow Tech, emulating the self-education route taken by his parents. A book borrowing brother fed Lewis a secret philosophical diet that included Sartre and Kafka -"A lot of them weren’t paid for"- but lessons on nihilism from Nietzsche were hardly needed, with social disintegration happening matter-of-factly all around: "Some guys at school got murdered. Folk went to jail. Dreadful things went on." But beneath his vehement thirst for knowledge, Lewis had already been bitten by the drama bug, encouraged by an English teacher who had screened Kes for the class and took them on outings to Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre. "There was bare-naked scuddery everywhere. After that we went on our own. There was always a chance of seeing naked women," Lewis says, almost in denial of interest.

An amateur dramatist, nine years ago he began serious acting, by joining Robert Carlyle’s Raindog Theatre at the age of 32, when many professionals give up acting and resting for a more conventional job. Encouraged in his career by Carlyle and through his personal friendship with Peter Mullan, things have begun to snowball for Lewis.

His three Edinburgh premieres include the features Billy Elliot and One Life Stand as well as the short film Long Haul. Later this year he’ll be seen in Shiner, Michael Caine’s new movie. Lewis is getting noticed.

Lewis’s rising star has made a steady rather than a spectacular ascent, but it shines clearly. His upbringing of realism in a soulless Glasgow overspill will not be turning his head, though there is evidence that recognition is beginning to turn the heads of others, to take notice in the perverse way of the native Scot. Lewis tells the story of the woman on the bus who thought she recognised him and asked him who he was. "I told her I was occasionally on television and she might have seen me there," he says. "She said ‘No I don’t think so. Did you ever work in the Easterhouse library?’"

A rising star is a rising star even when it is late ascending, but in Scotland, you are always known best, by your ain folk.

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