In Guilt, Mark Bonnar’s snide, crafty Max is far from sympathetic. But the veteran actor thinks even Max is redeemable in the end. Bonnar talks Max and making this season of Guilt in a new conversation.
Mark Bonnar Thinks No Character Is Unredeemable
Related to: Guilt
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Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
If you’ve watched the full first season of Guilt — and if you haven’t, here’s the requisite spoiler warning for this tightly-wound family potboiler — you might be surprised by the sudden twist ending…
Nicola Come on then Max. I must caution you. You’re not obliged to say anything. Anything you do say will be noted, and may be used in evidence. Do you understand?
Max What’s going on?
Jace As desperate as Max and Jake both seem, older brother Max has remained in stern control from the very beginning of their time as hapless murderers.
Max Let me do the talking. Don’t say anything you don’t have to say. In particular, don’t say anything which could, in any way, put me, Jake, or you in legal jeopardy. In that order of concern. If you do that, I will get you out of here.
Jace But in the end, it’s younger brother Jake who turns his big brother in, fleeing the country and the law with a very different criminal partner.
Max Go, Jake. Go with her and enjoy your life.
Jake What kind of life is it? With this hanging over me?
Max Please, Jake…
Jake I can’t lock things away, Max. I never could. Pain. Rejection. Guilt.
Max I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to protect you.
Jake You stopped protecting me a long time ago.
Jace Mark Bonnar’s performance as the fiery Max is another tour de force for the beloved Scots actor, and he joins us to talk Guilt, playing some of TV’s most “psychotic” characters, and what lies ahead for Max when Guilt returns.
Jace And this week, we are joined by Guilt star, Mark Bonnar. Welcome.
Mark Hello, Jace. How are you?
Jace Throughout your career you’ve excelled at playing characters who are, shall we say, rather shifty. I’m thinking of Mike Dryden in Line of Duty or Duncan in Shetland or even Chris in Catastrophe. What was your initial take on Max when you first read the script for Guilt? Did you respond to that, that same sort of shiftiness?
Mark I think what attracted me, first of all, was the incredible opening. So in the first two pages, I was completely, you know, sold, hook, line and sinker because, you know, iit hits you, right between the eyes. And then what unfolds afterwards is intriguing, to say the least. Max’s reaction to what’s happened is so not what you expect. And Jake’s, of course, is exactly what you would expect. So the set up from the word, “Go” was captivating. And that’s what really kind of drew me in. And yes, of course, Max is on the make. He’s very much looking out for number one in a lot of situations. I think what was interesting by the end of episode four, was that he’s changed. He’s kind of realized, despite himself, that he loves his brother and, you know, deep down. But I think, yeah, so I think yes, it was an attraction, probably, the way that he reacted to the events and the way they unfolded and he continued to react to them. But I think also his kind of small time transformation was also what attracted me.
Jace You mentioned the inciting incident here, the accidental killing of Walter. I want to kind of go back to the beginning of Guilt. Max on the surface seems to have it all — the perfect wife, the perfect house, the perfect job. And he radiates this sense of ownership for all of those things as though they’re trophies to be collected along the way. What do you feel motivates Max, beyond a sense of appearing as though he’s winning? Is it ambition? Is it something more dangerous?
Mark I think yeah, a large amount of it is ambition. You know, if you if if he sat down with a psychiatrist for an extended period of time, it would be that kind of, you know, sense of self-importance, you know, that kind of self-justification, the continuing saga of proving your worth to yourself, and to others and is probably high on the agenda, you know, if you can be seen to be successful, then you are, even if you’re lacking in all kinds of other ways.
Max They paid for butterflies then they have a cash bar.
Jake It was beautiful.
Max It was bang out of order.
Jake You’ve got no soul.
Max You’ve got too much.
Jace Those initial moments between the brothers even before they strike Walter end up encapsulating their dynamic. Is that the crux of the brothers’ differences, that one exchange?
Mark Well, yes, it certainly is for for a long period of time, I think. Max sees it as Jake’s downfall, that he cares too much, and it certainly almost does topple them, you know, on an occasion, on several occasions that he kind of gets too emotionally involved without being able to carry out the task that Max has set of him, you know, i.e., just to keep Walter’s niece occupied until it’s time for her to go home. But no, Jake has to get involved. So, yes, I think he does see it as a definite fault in Jake that he has too much soul. I think Max sees it as a weakness, you know.
Jace I mean, you mentioned Max’s reaction to the accident — their reactions to striking and killing Walter confirm the differences between them. Max doesn’t want to go to prison. He convinces Jake to cover up the crime. But what makes the situation more fraught is that Max’s behavior here is far more selfish than it initially appears. Why do you feel he’s so able to compartmentalize in his life?
Mark Probably you could argue it stems back to their upbringing. You know, the fact that Jake was the apple of our mother’s eye and received a lot of the attention as the wee baby, and dad had long since gone. And I was left to kind of adopt that and, you know, senior male position in the house after our father left. So I think a lot of it is down to kind of arguably emotional starvation. And it all being poured on, Jake, a lot in a lot of ways explains Max’s attitude to Jake as well, because there’s jealousy there, you know. But, yes, I think a lot of it stems back to his childhood, that kind of self-regard and sort of clinical detachment when number one is at threat, you know?
Jace There’s a natural rapport between Max and Jake. These two characters feel like brothers who have been together and fought together for years. You’ve known Jamie Sives for 20 years, though this is the first time you’ve worked with him. What is Jamie like as a scene partner, and did you draw upon your shared history together?
Mark We’ve actually known each other for 40 years, because we were at we started high school together, so since we were 13, 12, 13. And so although we didn’t know each other well at school, we sat beside each other in two or three classes. And we always got on, and made each other laugh. But we were never pals, you know. So it was, we gradually, we got to know each other again when we realized that we were both actors, bizarrely. I mean, it’s bizarre enough, one of us being an actor from the school we went to. But for two people to be actors from the school we went to is kind of just crazy. So, yeah, we started running into each other at meetings or auditions and slowly over that time became friendly. We started going to see each other and shows that we were in. And then we yeah, we just kind of we kept in touch, and then after Neil Forsyth, the writer, of Guilt, after I read the first episode and he said, ‘Do you have anybody in mind, or who who were you thinking of when you were reading Jake?’ and I had only ever thought of Jamie. But before I could say Jamie’s name, Neil said, ‘Have you ever heard of an actor called Jamie Sives?’
Mark Yeah. And I said, ‘Well, sit down and let me tell you a story!’ So Neil was obviously absolutely beside himself that we had known each other for 40 years. And I think to answer your question, that history that started when we were 12 was very, very easily transferred on to screen. We have an ease with each other and we make each other laugh and we really, really enjoy each other’s company. He’s an incredible human being, Jamie, I love him dearly and playing scenes with him was something that, it was difficult because we laughed a lot and sometimes had to stop, stop the take because we were laughing. But it was immensely, it brought a real richness, I think. And I couldn’t have imagined Jake being anybody else. It was just, it was a joy from beginning to end.
Jace I think it is ultimately a puzzle box, mystery, Guilt. Each installment reveals more about what’s going on. And the major theme of ‘guilt’ is obviously right there in the title, but it does take the length of the series to find out where that true sense of guilt within Max comes from, which you alluded to earlier, and it is stretching all the way back to his childhood. When you’re playing a character like Max, do you need to be on his side, as it were?
Mark Oh, yeah, absolutely. You have to be able to justify your character’s actions, otherwise why you’re doing it, you know? And so so you have to make a judgment call on why you are behaving the way you’re behaving. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a mass murderer or or, you know, you’re the lead in a romantic comedy. You have to, whatever decisions and actions you take during the course of the film or the TV show or whatever it is, or the play, you have to be able to justify those for, you know, from from whatever clues you have in the script initially or what, you know, rubbish made up in your head.
Jace I mean, is it possible then to play someone entirely unredeemable or…
Mark Nobody’s unredeemable are they?
Jace I don’t know, I mean, certain characters, I would think, might be, maybe the actions they take are justifiable, as you say to themselves, but so you do then, how do you turn off that empathy, then, at the end of the day, when you go home and you’re playing a character that has done some truly horrific things, do you just sort of turn it off?
Mark It depends. Depends how…I think it’s easier to turn it off if you’re doing something on screen because you, generally speaking, you’re only doing each scene, you know well, not once, but you’re you know, you do it several times, but you’re only performing each scene maybe 10 times. If you’re doing a play, you’re doing the whole story every night, and you also have to get into the mindset maybe before the show. Yeah, I would, I would say, or what I am saying is that it’s harder to let go if you’re doing a play on stage, it’s slightly easier, or I find it slightly easier to let go if it’s something on screen.
Jace I love the scene between Max and Sheila, played by the incredible Ellie Haddington.
Sheila You look tired, son.
Max I am tired.
Sheila I’m not surprised. After everything you’ve done, after everything been through. Well, you can leave all of that right here with me.
Jace What makes him give up control in this moment? And can you talk a little bit about this scene and working with Ellie?
Mark It was it was a huge privilege to be working with Ellie, she…the weight and the class that she brings to everything she does is incredible. But the yes, she had two words to say in episode one at the end of episode one, which were, ‘I saw.’ And it absolutely sends chills through me just thinking about her saying them, and then casually walking away. She has an incredible aura, Ellie, I think, and an incredible look. And when she fixes you with those eyes, you’re just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ But yeah, no, that that scene is incredible. And few people have mentioned that over the months since it was first broadcast, and rightly so, I think, because it’s an interesting scene, and I think Max acquiesces because nobody has spoken to him like that and nobody certainly, I mean, you know, his mother would be of an age with Ellie’s character, and I think that that there’s a lot going on there. And as far as you know, Max’s mom’s concerned. And the way she and the way she speaks to him is like a mother. You know, it’s almost a motherly scene, or it becomes a motherly scene. Anyway, after Max thinks he’s got the the upper hand in the beginning may very quickly realizes that she’s far, far superior in terms of negotiating and emotional manipulation.
Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
Jace Max gambles with explosive effect over the course of the series, hoping to outmaneuver gangster Roy Lynch, played here, of course, by the steely and fantastic Bill Patterson, only to lose everything when Roy says he’ll buy his business for a pound. Is it hubris that makes Max think that he can take on Lynch and survive to tell the tale?
Mark Definitely, yeah. I mean, I think he grossly underestimates the powers that Roy has and he overestimates his own ability and to to to negotiate some kind of, you know, half-baked deal with the guy in the consulate. And thinking he’s able to, you know, launder money in great quantities. And it said very well, when he talks about loyalty and the fact that that’s important and that’s something that Max doesn’t have. Max would, you know, almost is sell his Granny down the river, if he thought it would, you know, give him a couple of bumps up the ladder, it’s loyalty, even in even in the darkest corners, pays dividends. You know?
Jace As you say, Max is…he’d sell his own granny down the river. He’s willing to do whatever it is to survive, whether that’s making Jake shop a front or trying to push Kenny off the wagon or even selling Jake out at the end. Do you see him then as sort of the ultimate survivor, someone who will do anything, no matter how horrific, to save his own skin, no matter the cost?
Mark I think he’s definitely a real survivor. Yeah. And again, you’ll find out how much of a survivor in series two as that progresses. You know, but I do like I said before, I don’t think. I don’t think anybody is irredeemable. You know, I think you have to believe that as a human moving forward or what’s the point, you know?B ut I think that he’s started to grow as a human, as a person towards the end of series one and was able to connect with Jake and be honest with Jake about how he felt about what was going on when they were growing up and how he felt about it and why he, you know, almost kind of admit why he is the way he is and apologize, you know, he apologized to Jake, which is, you know, that’s a big deal. But I think for somebody who started the series not given two shits about the guy that they just killed and saying, ‘Let’s just go, let’s just go.’ So, yeah, he’s he he definitely is a shyster, but I think he would you know, he’s not an irredeemable shyster.
Jace On those lines…I mean even Sheila is horrified that Max would attempt to pin the blame for Walter’s death on Jake, which is saying a lot. This is Sheila.
Max You get out the same way I do, because I’ll say that all I know is that the car came back dented, and that my wee brother hasn’t been the same since that night. And no one will ever know any different. And no one will ever know about an old man in the dark, just looking for help.
Sheila Your own brother.
Max He’ll be okay. He’s leaving. And when he finds out, he’ll not come back.
Jace Has Max entirely erased any sense of morality at this point out of his own self survival? Or is this payback for Max’s belief that their mother didn’t love him?
Mark No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I don’t think either of those things. I think, he’s not irredeemable because the reason that he says that at that time, the reason he tries to pin on Jake is because he knows, or he thinks he knows, that Jake is going to the States. And when Jake goes to the sStates, he’ll find out what’s happened and he won’t come back! So he, I think he genuinely believes that it’s a way of tying it up that where nobody, you know, comes to any harm. Nobody has to go to prison. And, you know, as long as people stay where they are, then it should be OK. And I think I think he sees it as a genuine solution.
Jace Yet it’s Jake who says, ‘I can’t lock things away, Max, I never could, pain, rejection, guilt.’ We’re coming back to that first scene again to having too much soul, to not being able to just push all of these things down that Max is somehow capable or more capable of doing. I love the final scene between them. It ends with Max’s smile to Jake, that there is embedded within them this sense of respect that even Jake has pulled this off. What does that smile mean to you? Should we read it as respect even as Max gets carted off by the police? What’s in that smile?
Mark Oh, I think everything, I think an acknowledgment of the wrongs, I think, but also what kind of, you know, a question of, you know, kind of, a demanding of an acknowledgment that he understood why. And although he doesn’t smile back, from what I remember, I don’t think? I think I smile at him…or maybe he does? I can’t remember now, maybe there’s a slight, but my smile is bigger than his. But yes, I think an acknowledgment of everything that has passed and being shared, not just ever in the past year, but everything that has passed, you know, in their lives. Yeah. But you know, it is just a smile as well, just a smile to say, ‘Hey. Thanks. I love you,’ you know?
Jace I mean, if we go back to that exchange about soul in the opening scene, has Jake perhaps lost some of his extra soul? Has Max found some of his by the end? Have they sort of balanced themselves out by the end of this first series?
Mark I wouldn’t say balance, no, I would say there’s still a gross inequality in soul quarter by the end, but I would say yes, there’s perhaps a small readdressing. I think he is, you know, hurt and surprised by the way that, I mean the depth of Max’s selfishness, probably certainly when he tries to pin the blame on Jake and Jake’s just in the next room listening to all. I think that’s a real killer for Jake, you know. And you will see how that unfolds in series two, as well.
Jace Yes. Well, about that. I mean, this could have been the end of Max and Jake’s story, but Guilt continues. ‘I sat in that cell for two years and kept quiet,’ Max says in the trailer. You recently filmed series two, which adds Sara Vickers and Greg McHugh and Phyllis Logan, some of my favorite actors, to the mix. You’ve teased a little bit…what can you tell us about the second series and where Max’s story is going? Is this a revenge plot of sorts?
Mark Well, that’s an interesting word you use. And I think that yes, I mean, the trailer does mention or Max does mention in the trailer that he sat in that cell for two years and not said anything, which obviously implies he’s been in the cell for two years. So, yeah, I think without any spoilers, you can glean from that that I’ve been inside. And he has had a lot of time to think inside and a lot of time to plan what he might do when he gets out, and I think that that, along with the people that he has met while inside combine to raise his Machiavellian profile, somewhat, on his release.
Jace Hmm. Did you know going into filming the first series that Neil Forsyth might want to continue Max and Jake’s plot? Was that always a possibility?
Mark Yeah, I think I think he mentioned it fairly early on that he would love to do more. So obviously, when we got a second series, it was fantastic. I think, you know, I think he’s interested in it being a trilogy of stories. And whether or not that happens obviously is in the lap of the gods. But, yes, I think he’s always seen as certainly more than one series.
Jace You came to acting, if not late, then later than many other successful actors. You were working in Edinburgh libraries and a council planning office before joining a local theater group in your mid 20s. But what precipitated that move and where did the interest come from at that point?
Mark The interest started at school, but the school, it was, you know, it was the early ‘80s and the school that certainly I went to, combined with the fact it was the early ‘80s, acting or drama wasn’t really was a bit of a joke subject. So yes, I although I enjoyed doing drama and I did I think I did a show or maybe to like sort of like revue show or something, you know, with songs and little sketches. And I was good at it and I kind of knew I was good at it because I decided to choose it as a subject moving forward into into third year when I was sort of 14, 15, when I was starting to think about qualifications. But I was talked out of it by my guidance teacher at the time who was like, ‘Well, what are you going to do with drama, seriously? I mean, let’s choose an academic subject.’ So I did, I chose chemistry instead and then and promptly forgot about drama until, you know, up to ten years later when I worked for the planning department of the local council. Two of the guys who I worked beside were members of this local theater company. And they saw that I had a propensity for arsing around. There’s no polite way to put it. And they thought, ‘Well, either that’s going to do one of two things, get him fired or, you know, he can come and, you know, come along to the theater company and find a more useful outlet for for his arsing about.’ So that’s what I did. They sort of took me under their wing and I went along and quickly sort of within a couple of years or a year and a half, maybe realized this was something you could do as a career. I’d never thought about that before. But they were sort of instrumental really, in kind of helping me realize the beginnings of that, you know, and yeah, I did a one year course just to check that it was right and I was okay at it. And then I went to drama school for three years and that was that.
Jace And it turned out well, yeah.
Mark So far, yeah, touch wood
Jace the Telegraph dubbed you as, ‘TV’s Greatest Psychotic Scotsman’ in a headline. Do you wear that a as a comfortable moniker? Does that fit?
Mark Oh, I don’t know. People say stuff don’t they? And when people say stuff and you read it, you go, ‘Well, that’s nice, I suppose. But I can also do this!’ you know, so it kind of…I guess it’s nice that, you know, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘There’s only one thing worse than people talking about you and those people not talking about you.’ Yeah, I think it’s nice to be dubbed anything I suppose as long as it’s not a criminal and, you know, ‘Long, long may they dub!’
Jace Long may they dub! I mean, Chris Lang, the creator of Unforgotten, said that it took all of 10 seconds for him to know you were right for the part of Colin Osborne, which is saying something because you’re so damn convincing in every role you play, whether that’s a comedy or harrowing drama. Do you see yourself as a chameleon, as able to slip into these very different roles with ease?
Mark Oh, Christ, no, no, no. I am blushing. I see myself as lucky. I see myself as, you know, without wishing to appear falsely modest. I mean, I know I have some talent, but so do all of my peers, you know? And so what I do is acting. And there’s many, many, many actors in this business that are all capable and all able to do what I do. It just so happens that I’m lucky enough to be sometimes in the right place at the right time, and I happen to be the right fit for a certain rule. So, no, I don’t see myself as a chameleon. I love getting into a role. I love doing voices. I love, I love studying people. I love seeing how they move. I love trying to copy it, and trying to get their voice right and physicality. I think that’s just part of the love of the job, isn’t it? You just kind of, you’re intensely not attracted but kind of captivated by human beings, you know, and what they do and how they are and the deeds they perform and be they good or bad. And I think, yeah, it’s one of the oldest jobs in the world, isn’t it, really telling stories?
Jace Storyteller, yeah.
Mark Yeah. And I just I, I love sharing stories. You know, it’s for other people to say stuff about how I do it. I just try and do it as best as I can.
Jace Mark Bonnar, thank you so very much.
Mark Thank you, Jace. It’s been a pleasure.
Jace It’s time to return to the picturesque English village of Grantchester, where murder is as common as a well-baked Victoria sponge. Season six of Grantchester premieres on October 3, and we’ll be bringing you a new batch of podcasts, too.
Geordie You might want to photograph the body before you move him.
Gerry Detective Constable Gerry Wicks. And who the hell might you be?
Geordie Detective Inspector Keating.
Gerry I see.
Geordie Technically, “I see, Sir”.
Jace You can find those upcoming new episodes of MASTERPIECE Studio — and our back catalogue — on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music or wherever you listen to podcasts.
MASTEPRIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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