Actor Steven Cree, perhaps best known as Ian Murray from TV drama Outlander, talks about his new film Churchill alongside Brian Cox as the eponymous British PM.
Actor Steven Cree has a come a long way since playing “Decapitated Greek Marine” in 300: Rise Of An Empire. He might be best known these days as Ian Murray from Outlander or you might have seen him in Silent Witness. But his notoriety on the big screen is set to be boosted by his latest role in Churchill, director Jonathan Teplitzky’s powerful historical drama about the British prime minister in the lead up to D-Day.
Cree plays Captain Stagg, another real life hero who helped turn the Second World War in the allies’ favour. Stagg was the man assigned with the task of deciding if the weather conditions were right for the D-Day offensive. The largely unpredictable English skies had scuppered plans previously and, after initially delaying once again, Stagg instructed Eisenhower that a temporary weather improvement was due, precipitating the attack.
“I read up as much as I could about Captain Stagg, as I actually knew nothing about him beforehand and how vital a part he played in D-Day,” Cree says. “For me, one of the fascinating aspects of WWII is that it is littered with so many important figures and countless examples of heroism, there are always untold stories to be told.
“I don’t think people will be particularly familiar with [Stagg] but certainly I wanted to do justice to him. I couldn’t find any footage but I grew a moustache and the make-up team cut my hair into the style of the time so we made a good stab at capturing his look. Then of course you go with the dramatic license of the script.”
The film, which sees the great Brian Cox play the eponymous character, condenses the lead-up to D-Day through the experiences of Churchill, particularly his personal relationships and the role of his wife, Clementine (Miranda Richardson) who he confided in. Indeed, Churchill’s public defiance is less notable behind closed doors, his anxieties about making momentous decisions wading on his psyche.
“I think the film will be interesting to audiences because it looks into his relationship with his wife in a way that we haven’t seen before and really highlights the fears he had around making the wrong decision at such a hugely pivotal moment in history,” Cree tells me.
But the actor explains the film has a little bit of everything. Not only does it focus on one of the Second World War’s most pivotal people, it highlights what a fine line the success of D-Day was. It also shines a fresh light on Churchill, examining a moment of the war that hasn’t been focused on quite so acutely before.
Cree has fond memories of working with Cox on set who he describes as “absolutely lovely” and “very relaxed”. He says, “I had some very nice chats with him but we didn’t talk about acting so much. It’s always interesting to watch such experienced and fantastic actors and I like to think I learn from every job I work on.”
He feels Cox did a great job bringing Churchill to life. He “managed to stamp his own slant on a character who has obviously been portrayed many times before. I was particularly struck by how he had captured his posture and general demeanour,” he said.
The film was an ideal fit for Cree who has long been interested in the history of World War II. He lists Saving Private Ryan, Downfall, Schindler’s List and The Bridge on the River Kwai amongst his favourite war films and previously narrated a six-part documentary series about the war called Apocalypse: The Second World War.
He says he’s always found the period to be “absolutely horrifying and fascinating”, the likes of which we will hopefully never see again. “So to have the opportunity to be involved in one of the stories of this time was a great honour for me,” he adds.
Certainly, historical figures, both fact and fiction, have played a key role in Cree’s career. He’s favourite character remains his most famous – Ian Murray in Outlander. “It’s set in a fascinating period of Scottish history, albeit the time line does begin to jump due to time travel, and he’s also a great role to play.
“He’s an extremely loyal, even-tempered and good man who also suffers from the scars of war, both emotional and physical. He has a wooden prosthetic after losing a leg in battle and so there were many challenges involved in playing him.”
Getting decapitated by Eva Green remains a personal highlight though. “’Decapitated Greek Marine’ in 300: Rise of an Empire is also a personal favourite as I think it’s one of the best character names I will ever have!
“I think as an actor it’s just exciting to be involved in great scripts and hopefully work with great people who you can learn from. I’ve been very lucky so far to actually have played a pretty diverse range of characters and to be involved in wide ranging projects spanning different periods of time from historical to futuristic. It’s certainly exciting to play a character further away from yourself as it’s obviously more of a challenge and is important to keep testing yourself if given the opportunity.”
Next up for Cree is a film called The Titan in which he stars alongside Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington. TV viewers will also see him in the new series of Outlander and he’s also trying his hand at directing with short film currently in post-production produced through Noel Clarke’s Unstoppable Entertainment company.
Churchill arrives in UK cinemas June 16.