Gregory’s Girl was almost the kiss of death for my writing, they didn’t want to read an actor’s scribbles: John Gordon Sinclair
He now pens Troubles thrillers but John Gordon Sinclair can’t outlive the role that made him a star,writes Hannah Stephenson
John Gordon Sinclair bristles slightly at the mention of Gregory's Girl, the 1981 film which made him a star at the age of 19 – and for a time seemed to overshadow everything else he'd done in his career.
The thing is, he points out with a sigh, he's done so many other acting projects since then, has won awards for his stage performances in musicals She Loves Me and The Producers, enjoyed numerous TV parts and, most recently, appeared alongside Brad Pitt in the post-apocalyptic thriller World War Z.
However, people of a certain age still remember him as the gawky love-struck teenager in Bill Forsyth's charming coming-of-age film, even though he's now 52, has long since moved from his native Glasgow to leafy Surrey, and is happily married to GP Shauna McKeon with two daughters and pursuing a career as a novelist, writing taut, fairly graphic thrillers.
People at his book signings still mention Gregory's Girl, though. "But I steer the conversation away from that, because I've talked about it for 30 years and I don't feel like I've got any more to say about it really," he admits.
"I wouldn't say it's been a burden, because people have very fond memories of it, but for some people, it's their only frame of reference and I think, well, over the 30 years, I've spent 10 years of that in the West End of London, so there's quite a lot more to talk about.
"But first impressions count and I think that people's first impressions of me were immersed in that film, so I do understand, but it was a very small part of my life."
Today he's discussing his new novel, Blood Whispers, the second in a trilogy but which could be a standalone book if you didn't read his debut, the highly-acclaimed Seventy Times Seven, a brutal IRA thriller.
In Blood Whispers, the main character is tough lawyer Keira Lynch, who was a minor character in Seventy Times Seven. She comes to the fore when she takes on the case of a prostitute on the run from a Serbian gang leader. It's an exciting page-turner whose plot thickens to boiling point as the case turns out to have global repercussions.
"I was tired of all these cops who'd turned to drink, whose marriage had split up. It was all becoming a bit clichéd. I wanted a character that was slightly damaged and had a lot of empathy for people who are damaged themselves," Sinclair explains.
While the name John Gordon Sinclair may be familiar to many, it hasn't helped his writing career, he says. "If anything, it's been a hindrance. The editor who commissioned the books is quite young so didn't know of any of my previous [acting] work.
"She was reading it purely as a submission from someone who'd written a book, whereas when I went higher up the tree at the publishers, one of the senior editors – who was older and knew my work – initially didn't want to read it, because she said she didn't want to read a book by an actor.
"It was the young girl's persistence that made the senior editor sit down and read it. She said that I had a much more difficult mountain to climb because she was looking for any reason not to take this book."
Fatherhood, he says, is what inspired him to pursue writing, as he didn't want to miss seeing his young daughters, Eva and Anna, grow up.
"My daughter [Eva] was born and the work I was being offered wasn't the type of work I wanted to do, because it would take me away from my kids," he explains. "I didn't want to be one of those dads whose kids grew up and said, 'My dad was never there'.
"I'm now trying to tip the balance. I don't want the writing to be the second string, I want it to be the bow.
"When I'm in book mode, I think about it all the time," Sinclair continues. "When I go to sleep at night it's the last thing I think about, and when I wake up in the morning it's the first thing I think about."
Yet he hasn't given up acting. This summer he'll be playing Jeeves in Jeeves And Wooster In Perfect Nonsense. So, how is that going to fit in with fatherhood?
"I struggled so hard to make the decision to do it. My first priority always is my wife, Shauna, and kids, but I keep getting offered bloody jobs," he jokes. "Somebody said to me, 'Most people get depressed when they don't get a job, but you get depressed when you do get one'."
The West End job which runs until December will hopefully buy him enough time to write the third novel, and he says that over the next couple of years he'll probably give up acting entirely.
He would love his books to be made into films. In fact, he has trouble writing them without thinking about the possible movie. "When I'm writing, all I'm trying to do is describe the film that's going on in my head. I'm not trying to write it as a film, but I am describing the movie I've got playing. One guy who interviewed me said, 'These are the two best films I've ever read'."
He wouldn't be averse to Angelina Jolie being in the starring role.
"Obviously Angelina Jolie could have any part," he says wryly. "She could play one of the guys. I'd definitely be in the role opposite her, or I'd just play someone there, maybe just an extra."
The former pupil of Glasgow's Youth Theatre does not recall a fallow period in his acting career and reflects that work, whether film, TV or theatre, was not hard to find.
"I've always been reasonably lucky in that respect," he says. "There's always been one thing a year that's been a fairly substantial role. I have had times when there's not been much happening, but I've never worried to the point where I've thought, 'This is all over'."
So, what gives him more pleasure – a standing ovation in a theatre or a string of good reviews for his book?
"Without a doubt, the reviews for the book. I can say, hand on heart, that the best moment of my life, kids and family aside, was when I went to the Edinburgh Book Festival for the first time and they handed me a little tag that said 'Author'."
He has long said that he doesn't feel like being tagged as an actor and still doesn't have that profession listed in his passport.
"I've never felt comfortable with it. It's something I've fallen into. I never had any ambitions to be an actor and I don't socialise with other actors.
"I have one really good actor pal, Jane Horrocks, and she's the most un-actressy person I know."
He much prefers to be holed up in his garden shed – which he describes as a "small lodge" – to write than surround himself with fellow thespians.
"I'm a bit of a sociophobe. I'm not great in big companies.
"When everyone goes out for drinks and parties, I don't really enjoy that very much," Sinclair notes. "I prefer sitting at the bottom of my garden plotting ways to kill people."
Blood Whispers by John Gordon Sinclair is available now, Faber & Faber, £12.99