Learning to ride a horse in his fifties has brought Clive Russell, the Fife-based Game of Thrones actor, a wealth of opportunities.
After training in horsemanship for a part in the 1999 film The 13th Warrior – in which he played Norseman Helfdane alongside Antonio Banderas – his roles have repeatedly demanded that he take to the saddle, as Brynden Tully in Game of Thrones, and Lord Lovat in cult TV series Outlander.
He is, he warns me before we meet up for a hack along the beach at West Sands at St Andrews, still very much a beginner, albeit a keen one.
‘I love the whole experience,’ he says. Yet, when we come to mount up behind the dunes, he springs nimbly into the saddle from the ground.
‘My first lessons were on a 20-hand Shire horse,’ he explains. Much of The 13th Warrior humour revolved around Clive and his co-stars towering over Banderas, who stands at 5ft 8in to Clive’s 6ft 6in.
So, with the Spaniard riding a dainty Arab mount, a big horse for Russell was a must. ‘At first I needed a block and a leg-up, but by the end of training I was getting on from the ground – dressed in 30lb of armour and a helmet and carrying a sword.’
Learning to ride can be a nerve-wracking process at the best of times, but when your job depends on it, it must add an entirely new level of danger to the whole experience. At the three-week pre-production boot camp in Canada, each actor was paired up with a local wrangler.
‘Have you read any Cormac McCarthy? These ranchers were real men. They had made their living in rodeos, were all wearing belt buckles reading ‘World champion, Calgary, 1982’ and so on. They had the power of speech, but they chose not to use it.’
He was on horseback again for the 2001 TV series The Mists of Avalon, starring Anjelica Huston. ‘It was an entirely different experience. We were filming in Prague, riding highly bred Andalusians. In one scene we had to pull up in front of the camera and draw our swords as the horses reared up, then rush off as 200 men came running in behind us. There could be no messing up.’
The Andalusians were entirely different to the big friendly giant he had learnt on, he explains. ‘They are small in comparison, and very sensitive. It took a long time to get accustomed to their style of riding. In Canada, we’d been told to “kick ’em up” to get moving, but now it was more like a squeeze, the strength of a handshake.’
One actor didn’t like being told what to do, Clive recalls, and kicked his horse on hard while filming a sequence outside a castle. ‘Of course, the horse took it as a signal to gallop off and did so – but with the actor hanging around his neck screaming. He was terrified the horse would jump the moat.’
Big horses, beginner riders, all the pressures of a film set; it sounds like a recipe for disaster. And Clive has plenty of other behind-the-scenes white-knuckle stories – including one that involves a well-known actor being run away with through a forest, returning with his face whipped raw by low-hanging branches; and another of riding through bear country (‘The horses sense them and suddenly race sideways to get away’). But, he says, such excitements are par for the course. ‘If you don’t want to fall off, don’t get on a horse.’
Experts are brought in to advise the actors and film crews. Clive recalls working in Bulgaria with ‘a Romanian horse whisperer, a disciple of Monty Roberts’, who did much of the precision riding.
‘There’s a lot of skill in keeping a horse active on camera – standing in the right spot, but shifting back and forth constantly, so it doesn’t look like a “dead horse” with dull eyes and a sleepy look.’
These details are beyond the ability of many actors still struggling with the basics, but make all the difference on screen.
In acting, a varied skillset can certainly help when it comes to landing interesting roles.
These days, Clive points out, ‘a lot of young actors come from rich backgrounds. They tend to be able to ride and they can list it among their skills on their CV.’
For other roles he has learnt to ice-skate, to handle and dismantle a gun, and to paint – or at least to hold a paintbrush and approach the canvas like an artist, a harder task than one might think. But it is riding that has sparked a passion.
Colleagues have caught the bug too – his friend Nicholas Pinnock, the British actor, now rides weekly at a stables near London and regularly proclaims his love for horses on Twitter and Instagram.
‘If I didn’t spend so much time playing golf, I would consider getting my own horse,’ Clive says. But the game takes up most of his weekends: he plays competitively and has an admirable handicap of five. He also spends a lot of time walking his two dogs on the beach close to the home he shares with his wife in the East Neuk of Fife.