“There are no bangs and flashes; it’s just a story about how we treat each other”: James Cosmo on My Sailor, My Love at Glasgow Film Festival 2023
Veteran actor James Cosmo (Braveheart, Highlander, His Dark Materials) stars opposite Brid Brennan and Catherine Walker in Klaus Härö’s latest feature My Sailor, My Love.
Cosmo plays a retired sea captain named Howard who lives alone on a remote yet picturesque cliffside. His daughter (Walker), whom he has a tenuous relationship with, believes that her father needs assistance taking care of himself and hires Annie (Brennan) to be his housekeeper. Despite a confrontational start, Howard and Annie soon form a loving relationship.
Beautifully shot and acted, Härö’s latest feature is a marvellous portrait of love and companionship in later years. With My Sailor, My Love’s screening at Glasgow Film Festival, The Upcoming had the chance to talk to Cosmo about his role, love in later years and working alongside his co-stars.
I’m here with James Cosmo to talk about his new film, My Sailor, My Love, which is showing at Glasgow Film Festival. First of all, thank you so much for speaking with me today, James. It’s an honour to meet you.
Great pleasure. It’s lovely to be here, thank you.
Could you start by talking a bit about the film and how you got involved in the project?
I originally was sent the script a couple of years ago, which I really enjoyed. I had a couple of Zoom calls with Klaus Härö, the director, which I found really enlightening. Klaus sent me a link to a movie that he’d made called The Fencer. It’s set in Estonia during the early days of the Cold War. I loved the film. It has that wonderful Scandinavian clarity, and the use of lighting and the sparseness of dialogue was intriguing. That was me signed on and then we shot it out in Achill on the west coast of Ireland in County Mayo. It’s a tremendously atmospheric landscape. It’s quite extraordinary.
The film is a story about family and the dynamics of broken relationships, problems that are never talked about. It’s also a love story about an older man who falls in love with an older woman. It’s a reverse of the usual thing of younger people falling in love and the older people objecting to it. This is two older people falling in love and the younger people are really concerned about what’s going on. It’s a very intimate film. There are no bangs and flashes; it’s just a story about how we treat each other. It’s a film of many levels.
One thing that really struck me about this film is just how gorgeous it is. The island is really atmospheric. It’s rugged but also very beautiful. In a sense, the setting is a lot like your character. Do you think that’s part of the reason why Ireland was chosen as the location?
I think that Klaus had been looking for a location, and however it happened, he ended up in Achill and thought, “This is it. This is the place where it should be.” Although the actors are Irish and I play an Irish person, it’s not a particularly Irish story. It’s a very human story, which just happens to be set in Ireland. And that wonderful landscape is such a fabulous backdrop. It’s a vast canvas where these tiny characters in this house play out their story amidst all that beauty and harshness. I think it was an inspired choice to use Achill.
This is also a very heart-wrenching film. It really got to me.
Did it really? Oh good.
As upsetting and raw as this film is, it’s also a very funny at times. When you’re performing, how do you balance the more light-hearted elements with the dramatic ones?
It’s more a natural reaction to the time and the place of that scene. Like the scenes where Howard plays with the young girls: that’s Howard in his element. As so many older people are, they relate to children so much more than the generation up from that. Two generations down it’s a more open relationship, and he loves that. Being with them and this woman who he cares about, that’s when he’s at his best.
At the start of the film, Howard isn’t the friendliest of people. He’s got some harsh words to say to Annie when they first meet. Talking to you now, you’re very warm and friendly. Your Howard’s opposite. Was it difficult to get into the character’s mindset, or was there something about him that really spoke to you?
We were very lucky that we had John [Hand] as our production designer. They were able to take this opportunity to take this old abandoned house that sits on the peninsula and turn it into Howard’s home. They did such a wonderful job that, when you walked onto that set, you could really feel how Howard’s whole story was told there. The piles of old newspapers that had been kept just because he wanted to do the crosswords, the dishes in the sink, all that sort of stuff. It wasn’t difficult. We also had the huge luxury of spending the week, myself, Catherine, Brid and Klaus, together rehearsing and talking about the interrelationships of the characters. When we came onto the set, I was pretty clear about who Howard was and how each arc of his story was going to happen.
Going back to the idea of how Howard’s house tells his story. One detail I noticed is the long hallway that’s covered in photographs: I think that says a lot about who Howard is as a character as well. Despite his gruff exterior, he’s very sentimental and still wants to hold onto these family memories. I don’t want to say too much about what happens at the end, but that final scene with the portrait seems to encapsulate what the entire film is about.
Absolutely. Also, I think that the lovely touch – and it’s only a touch – is his old uniform being a bit like himself. It’s worn and threadbare, yet someone can come along and make it shiny. This life, this thing, this jacket can still be polished up and can still look great.
You don’t really see romance between older people in film. Do you think there’s any difference in this kind of love compared to that of the younger couples you’d see in rom-coms, or is love simply love?
I think that love is love. In a way, one is spared the more physical and sexual side to love, and it almost becomes purer. There’s not a great deal of sexual desire there, but there is the love of another person, a kindred spirit, a joyful relationship; that is truly love. When procreation is not in question, it’s just about two people who find each other. It’s beautiful.
I think that you and Brid’s performance really brought that across. You’re wonderful together. Did you spend time with her outside of rehearsals?
We spent a week, the four of us, together. I can never understand why that doesn’t happen all the time. It was costing very little for four of us to sit in a room in a hotel in Achill and just talk all day. No big money was being spent, and yet it made such a huge difference when it came to performance and saved so much time. If you could just imagine walking onto that set and you’ve never met Brid or Catherine before. “Right. Here’s the first scene.” Really? Are you meant to create something that way? I don’t think that’s the right way to do it. I think that actors should walk onto the set and know exactly the relationships that they’re going to play out. It’s a great thing, and I’d advise any director worth their salt just to get their actors together. Let’s all talk about this piece, change this piece, change this bit, that bit, and agree on where you’re going to go. I think that’s a profoundly good idea.
Would you say that a lot of things changed in the script during that week-long process?
It was kept mostly as it was. But our individual knowledge of our characters improved. Especially the relationship between Howard and his daughter, Grace – there’s so much there that’s only inferred to. Did Grace’s mother drown because her husband had abandoned her? It’s something that’s never spoken about, but it’s something that Catherine and I had time to talk about, and that helped inform our performance.
I believe that this is the first time this film is being shown in Europe, following its premiere at TIFF. How does it feel to bring your film to Glasgow?
It’s great. There’s such an affinity between Ireland and Scotland, we’re just about the same bloody nation, really, and it’s wonderful to see that crossover. The production crew and Klaus were so happy to come to Glasgow because they know the city’s reputation. It’s a great city with great artists, great actors, great writers. I’m proud to show the place off.
Do you think the audience here will react differently than in Canada?
I’ll be really interested to see how it goes tonight. Glasgow has always had the reputation for having very astute audiences. I remember when my father, who was an actor, worked at the Citizens Theatre right in the middle of the Gorbals. He used to say when you do Shakespeare you have all these guys coming in from the shipyards. They’d take off their dungarees and stick them under the seat as they were coming in. He said that if you dried [up], forgot your lines, the prompt would come from the audience before it came from the prompt caller. Glasgow might not be that astute, but it still has a degree of intellectual criticism, which isn’t found everywhere.
You’re an actor who’s been in pretty much everything. How do you think that Howard compares to other roles you’ve done over the years?
I think that roles find you at the right time. Howard found me, I didn’t find him, and this was the time I was meant to play him. I’m a great believer in, as my mother said, “What’s for you, won’t go past you.” I was very happy to do it.
Just before we run out of time, why do you think that people should see your film?
This isn’t the kind of film where you wouldn’t come out and go, “Oh golly, that was exciting!” You’d come out and be prompted to maybe think about your own relationships and how you could approach problems with family and friends with a different sort of view. Nothing has to be written in stone in relationships. Forgiveness and love, as you see at the end of this film, mean everything. Everyone is open to forgiveness and love, no matter what.
My Sailor, My Love is released in select cinemas on 10th March 2023.
Read more reviews from our Glasgow Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Glasgow Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for My Sailor, My Love here: