Kevin McNally turning his hand to directing with short film Lipstick

Updated: May 31

Kevin McNally, star of Unforgotten, Supernatural, TURN: Washington Spies and the Pirates of the Caribbean films, talks to us about starting his career, advice for new directors, and the experience of directing his own short film, Lipstick.

Photo Credit: Ruth Crafer

It's been a pretty turbulent year for the film and television industry, with many large productions grinding to a halt as they were postponed or cancelled altogether. As professionals across all disciplines of production found themselves in limbo, some were able to use the time to work on projects they might not have otherwise - especially when it comes to short films.

Kevin McNally is one such professional. How has the successful film and television actor found working life in the time of a pandemic?

"Well, what a good question. Interestingly enough, just before all this hit last March, I had installed recording equipment in my house. So, for the beginning of the pandemic I was doing a lot of voice work, because a lot of companies got in touch with agents to see who could record remotely, and I was one of those people.

"Then as the summer went on, with a little bit of lifting of restrictions, a lot of young filmmakers were asking me to do some short films, which I did. It was an opportunity to work with some young filmmakers that I wouldn't normally have been available to work with. Then I directed my own shorts before the lockdown restrictions came in again and I went back to voice work, and I've since been filming a TV show in Wales. So I did pretty well to stave off a lot of the boredom that many of my colleagues have gone through."

Before we discuss directing his latest short film Lipstick, I first ask McNally how he started out as an actor, and the first steps he took down the path of his impressive career.

"Well, I had always wanted to act, really. I used to act at the free schools I went to as a young man. When I was 16, I wanted to go to the National Youth Theatre, but my family couldn't really afford to send me to London for that amount of time. I was then fortunate a youth theatre started at that time in Birmingham where I grew up, so I joined that. That was one bit of luck!

"Another bit of luck was that there was a man at the local Repertory Theatre, Michael Simpson, who needed a young actor. He had cast quite a well-known young actor who had to pull out because of filming commitments, then he happened to come and see the youth theatre and offered me a job. I left and school, and then did a year of theatre until I could get into a drama school, which was RADA. I left there in 1975 and started to work in television almost immediately."

Poldark (1977)

For many actors, the early years before becoming a working professional feel like chasing a dream. For those who do make the breakthrough, when work starts and continues to come in, there must be a tipping point at which the dream becomes reality. Does McNally remember when that point was in his career?

"That's a good question. Fortunately for me, throughout the series of events that I've described to you, I didn't really have to do a lot of chasing. It seemed to all fall into place at the right time, although probably a little young. I think I could have done with a bit more life experience early on. I've certainly never doubted that this is what I will always be doing, but it just so happens that I have worked all the time.

"I don't think you ever get to a place where you say, 'I've made it'. There's always something in your mind that you want to do, something you've not done, and you wait for those opportunities to come up. I didn't go to America, or to Hollywood, for instance, until I was 46 years old. So, that previous time of working as a largely British television actor changed quite late for me. Change can happen at any point."

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

That first career leap to America came in the form of Joshamee Gibbs in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It has since seen McNally star on all of the franchise films up to now, as well as appear in a number of television series, including Supernatural, Designated Survivor and TURN: Washington Spies. What was his working experience after making the move?

"I first went over to do the first Pirates, and while I had worked on big films before, it had not been in such a good part or in such an engaged capacity. It's remarkable that wherever you go in the world, film crews are exactly the same. Same roles, same division of labour.

"The difference I found in America was when I started to do American television, which in terms of hours is brutal compared to anywhere else in the world. In the UK, we'll take two to three weeks to do an episode of television. In America they take seven or eight days. They also, generally, make more episodes. They're hellish hours, particularly for the crew. So, yes, television was the biggest area of shock for me working in the States."