Emun Elliott enjoying life in Paradise

Emun Elliott in The Paradise. Pic: BBC
Emun Elliott in The Paradise. Pic: BBC
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IMAGINE being an actor back in the 1870s. That’s what Emun Elliott is trying to get his head around right now; the 1870s being the setting for the BBC’s flagship department store drama The Paradise, in which he stars as the effortlessly charismatic John Moray.

“It would be a bit of a nightmare because, up until Hollywood and the studio system, actors were just broke vagrants...” he reflects, laughing when I suggest many still are.

“You could be right, it’s all just masked with red carpets and airbrushing these days.”

Thankfully nothing could be further from the truth for Elliott who, although he has just turned 30, has already played three leading TV roles - Dr Christian King in the BBC One sci-fi police drama Paradox, Jay Adams in Lip Service, and Richie Valentine in the Comedy Central sitcom, Threesome.

On the big screen, Elliott, who was brought up in and around Meadowbank and Portobello, has also appeared opposite Sean Bean in Black Death; in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, and in the recent film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Filth.

But it was on stage in the Capital that he got his first break, as Private Fraser in the original National Theatre of Scotland production of Black Watch, at the Drill Hall on Forrest Hill.

“That was an incredible experience. We had no idea of the response it was going to get. We though it was going to be a one-month run on the Fringe, but it’s still going. On the back of that, a few doors into film and TV opened for me.

“Loads of people saw it and people want to meet you off the back of something as successful as that.”

Elliott’s stage debut, however, came at a far more tender age. He was just seven when he appeared in Parsons Green Primary’s production of Alice In Wonderland. Although even then his dream wasn’t of a career on the stage, but of one on the pitch.

“Up until 12 I played a lot of football. I played for Tynecastle Boys Club, then moved from Tynie to Fernieside, then I went to Edina Hibs, getting progressively worse until, at 13 I realised perhaps football wasn’t my destined occupation.

“The first musical I did, however, was a version of Alice in Wonderland when I was in P4.

“I played the caterpillar. Before we got cast, we were shown the costume sheets. The caterpillar’s costume looked incredible - this big green thing that looked like, well, a big green caterpillar.

“I got the part and eventually this costume arrived... it was this spray-painted old green duvet cover. I was a bit disappointed about that.

“But I made a pretty bold choice and decided that he would be an American caterpillar, and that he would be pretty cool, so he became this laid back American,” he laughs. “My parents still have that on tape, so that is officially my debut.”

After Parsons Green, Elliott attended George Heriot’s, not an obvious choice, he admits.

“In P6 my best friend had applied to Heriot’s and got in. That was the main reason I wanted to go, much to my parents’ dismay, although they were pretty supportive. I sat the test and got in and actually had a brilliant time at that school.”

There, inspired by two of his teachers, Elliott’s love of theatre blossomed.

“I’d done a few musicals at school and they had sparked my enjoyment of being on stage. Then we started studying Shakespeare, and that was when I realised that acting wasn’t just jazz hands and tap dancing, it could be whatever you want it to be. I still feel like that today.

“My English teacher Cameron Wylie, now head of the senior school at George Heriot’s, was a massive inspiration. It was through him I started analysing plays.

“Also, there was Chalmers Neil, who has retired now. He was a maths teacher but taught after-hours drama classes. They both had a lot of faith in me. That is inspirational and encouraging for anyone and they deserve more credit than they get because, if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have pursued acting.”

Initially, however, on leaving school Elliott did not follow his love of drama, instead going to university to study English literature and French - a degree he would eventually drop.

“Although there’s no acting in my family, it was the obvious route for me. When I look at what I enjoyed most at school, it was performing and reading plays.

“I had this love of English and of the spoken word but I didn’t realise that was what I wanted to do until I went to university. There I thought, ‘I’m not sure if this is going to make me happy for the rest of my life. Why don’t I do the one thing that I know will?

“So I left university and went to drama school. Again my parents were really supportive, but it was a big move, especially as I left university before I’d got into drama school. If I hadn’t got in, I’m not sure what I would have ended up doing. But it was definitely the right move. Quite often you have to take risks.”

Judging by his track record to date, it’s a risk that has paid dividends way beyond any that little green caterpillar from Parsons Green Primary could ever have imagined.