July 2003 Sunday Times

IMAGINE the scene. It's one night in Glasgow just after the first Lord of the Rings movie has come out. A gang of young lads leave the cinema and get on the bus home. That's when they see him. "Are you Pippin?" asks one incredulously. "Yes," says Billy Boyd, for it is he. "What're you doing on a bus?" asks the first.

"There is this thing," says Boyd today, "that if you've been in a film, you're expected to live in a mansion in Los Angeles."

Safe to say he doesn't. In fact, you'll never meet anyone quite as unfazed by fame as Billy Boyd. As one of the key players in one of the world's biggest film franchises – the first two instalments have each taken over $300m in the USA alone – his is a face recognised across the planet. Because of him, teenage fans from as far afield as Norway and Texas are booking flights to Edinburgh to see San Diego, the new play by David Greig in which he plays, curiously enough, a character called David Greig. And being fans, they are bulk buying tickets so they can see him on every night of the run.

Let's hope they can cope with the play's relaxed attitude to reality. "I'm an actor playing David Greig in a David Greig play about San Diego, but it’s a made up San Diego that's in David Greig's head," says Boyd. With a playfulness that is typical of the prolific Scottish author, San Diego connects a lonely airline pilot, a prostitute, some illegal immigrants, a self-harming hospital patient and a Bedouin tribesman. It's often funny, sometimes alarming and, on its deepest level, about our need for somewhere to call home.

Meanwhile back on Planet Boyd, warped internet users have been caught adopting the actor's name to lure innocent devotees into who-knows-what trap – a phenomenon he can describe only as "ugly".

But Boyd himself is genuinely unchanged by the hoo-har. By which I mean that, although he's filmed in New Zealand with Ian McKellen, schmoozed in Los Angeles with Penelope Cruz and surfed in Mexico on the set of his next movie, he's managed to retain a sense of perspective. Where many an actor before him has been swept up by the tide of adulation, sucked into believing their own hype, Boyd just thinks it's all a bit of a giggle – an opportunity to give his old school mates a one-night window into the glitzy world of celebrity when he's invited to a red-carpet do with a plus-one invitation in his hand, but not something to be taken seriously.

"I try very hard not to be arrogant," he says when I meet him in Glasgow's Tron Theatre bar, blending in effortlessly in his deep blue cotton shirt, tattered jeans and well-worn trainers, his fresh-faced hobbit looks disguised only partially by a close-cut beard and golden highlights in his hair. "That is the thing about Los Angeles: they allow you to be arrogant. You're not allowed to be arrogant in Glasgow. Which is good."

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For the 34-year-old Easterhouse-born actor, The Lord of the Rings is a happy opportunity, one that's opened up previously unimaginable doors, but not one to wrench him from the gang of school friends or former band members he still hangs out with. He ranks the experience alongside the thrill of his first professional roles in The Slab Boys and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, in 1995 or, indeed, appearing in a new play by David Greig with whom he collaborated on Caledonia Dreaming by 7:84 in 1997 and The Speculator in the 1999 Edinburgh International Festival. He takes his life as he finds it, has no five-year plan and no driving ambition other than the desire to act in worthwhile things.

Of course, these days he frequently meets Hollywood actors with quite the reverse attitude to life, but he doesn't get it. "It's such a weird mindset that I can’t actually understand it," he says, fixing me with his blue eyes. "They never really seem happy. I think I'm a very happy guy. I really enjoy my life. I enjoyed my life before I was in The Lord of the Rings. Now I do have more choices and doors have opened up, but I don't think it's a magical skill that I have that the other actors don't have. I was lucky, I got a part in a big movie and anybody could at any point. I don't think that anyone who hasn’t gone down that root is a lesser person – that's a crazy logic."

His positive attitude to life is part of what makes him such a watchable performer. His youthful good looks helped secure him the part of Peregrin 'Pippin' Took – the youngest hobbit, but by some years the oldest of the core actors – but he has a natural charm to match. On stage he is an undemonstrative actor, perhaps not a heavyweight player, but a loveable one and always one you notice. His easy-going stage charisma follows him around: in the short time it takes to be photographed by The Sunday Times, he manages to befriend the assistant photographer and, once the session is through, they're swapping phone numbers.

Where does this sunny disposition come from? He finds it hard to say. Could it be something to do with the death of his parents within a year of each other when he was a teenager? Well, yes it was a formative influence, he says, but such a trauma could have pulled many people down and it certainly didn’t seem like good luck at the time.

Prior to that, though, his childhood was secure and happy. He might have been brought up in a deprived area of the city, but it never seemed so to him. "I remember seeing Billy Connolly talking about growing up in Anderston and how everybody was saying about the awful poverty there, but as a kid, growing up there you don't see it – it's a great place. It's the same in Easterhouse and Cranhill where I grew up – it was like living in a village. You knew everybody. I could be on the street with my mates all night and my parents knew nothing was going to happen. The only thing I'd have changed is that, because of that working class upbringing, a life in the arts is not a choice. It was always: 'Yeah, you can be an actor, but get a trade first.' So I got a trade."

And perhaps the best clue to his level-headedness today lies in the six years he spent as a book-binder. The job might have been tedious, but it gave him space to focus on what he really wanted to do. "It was good," he says with characteristic enthusiasm, before remembering that, no, actually, it wasn't good at all. "Really, really boring though," he corrects himself. "The people were cool – great characters. But being in a factory, having to do overtime – you couldn’t even do nine to five. You could have lived on the money they gave you, but if you got overtime, you did it. Even then, I was thinking what am I doing this for? My time in drama school was much better because I'd had six years working in a factory, learning about people and learning that being in drama school was a bit of a privilege. I didn't miss a day of drama school the whole time I was there."

He adds: "Like my parents passing away, like working in a printers for six years, like going to drama school, you are who you are through your history and you should always try to adjust yourself to be a person that you'll like better. I think it's really important to give people time to be themselves."

So what fame means to him is that he doesn't have to play in "bad 1940s whodunnits" in provincial reps just to pay the rent. And fame means that when he and fellow hobbit Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck) get the idea of writing a script, there's a film producer on hand to encourage them. They've written a comedy about two British guys running a scuba diving school in Miami. Its working title is Fish Out of Water. "Dom said it’s funnier than a penguin playing a banjo – which is pretty funny," says Boyd. "I'm really excited about it and people are now talking about other scripts for us to do."

Still, he doesn’t regard himself as a writer. He's tempted by the idea of film directing, but acting remains his true love. As well as shooting extra scenes for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, he's recently completed Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (The Truman Show) with Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. It's an ocean adventure about the Napoleonic Wars in which Boyd plays Crowe's favourite helmsman. "Their country is the ship," he says. "Peter Weir wants it to be the truest telling of what life was like on a three-mast frigate that's ever been."

His first concern, though, is San Diego, a poetic, funny and gently surreal play in which he plays a narrator caught up in a world of drifters and jet-setters, sex and death, care and exploitation in the Californian city that "despite being such a great place to live, has featured in almost no fictions". "There are many levels of reality to play with – what's real and what's imaginary," says Boyd whose character has the same name as the author. "Before I left Glasgow for a while, I was really excited about being involved in this Scottish writing thing – David Harrower, Stephen Greenhorn – so it's fantastic that the first time I come back to Glasgow that what I'm doing is a David Greig play – and on top of that playing David Greig."

Still wondering if there might be a chink in his cheery armour, I ask Boyd if he's easy to live with. The only negative traits he can come up with are that he's "quite messy" and that he's never grown out of having a high-energy "mad half hour" each day. The man, in short, is impossibly loveable. "My favourite line to live life by is: 'To thine own self be true,'" he says. "As soon as you start playing a character, you will never be happy."

As he hauls his rucksack onto his small frame and jogs briskly away, you can see Billy Boyd knows exactly who he is.

San Diego previews at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, August 7–9, 0141 552 4267, then plays the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, August 15—17, Festival booking line 0131 473 2000.

© Mark Fisher

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