Two brothers are returning home from a wedding a little beaten up. The automobile slams into an elderly guy in the middle of an argument, killing him instantly.
Mark Bonnar, who plays the older brother, comes into focus. He claims that if they call the cops and admit to their crime, their life will be finished. However, if they follow his instructions to the letter – transfer the body, drive away, and forget about it – it will be as if it never occurred.
But, after that, will they be able to live with themselves? Could you do it?
Guilt, the riveting, Hitchcockian show depicting their spiral into more and more law-breaking, began in this manner, immediately living up to its name. When asked about his decision to take the part, Bonnar states, “I didn’t need to read any more than that.”
“It’s a fantastic start. ‘Absolutely, yeah,’ I said.
We should be thankful that he did. Bonnar was not only cast in the character of the psychopathic elder brother by Neil Forsyth, but he also excelled in it, with the series premiering to critical acclaim in 2019.
He is swift, furious, and sharklike as Max. He belongs to the top tier of violent screen sociopaths, such as Begbie from Trainspotting, Don Logan from Sexy Beast, and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood.
He’s an unbridled force of nature bent on subjugating the entire planet to his will.
Despite this, the Edinburgh-born actor is completely absent from Zoom. He’s eating a slice of toast and has a warm and twinkly presence.
While his performance is noteworthy, he is quick to point out that it was far from his breakout role. “I’m in everything, according to a lot of people, and they’re sick of seeing me,” he laughs.
“This is something I’ve been doing for over 25 years. But I feel that if you believe you have a voice that can set you apart and you persist with it, people will finally say, “All right.” Come on,’” she says.
Bonnar, it’s true, has been around for a long time. He steadily clawed his way up television’s ranks, from cop show bit-parts and Casualty to grabby supporting roles in shows like Line of Duty (where he played a corrupt cop), Unforgotten (where he played a violent victim of abuse), Eric, Ernie and Me (where he played Eric Morecambe), and Catastrophe (where he played the world’s least happily married man).
Guilt, on the other hand, is a significant step forward. He’s now a leading man, and a fantastic one at that.
Guilt’s second season is set to begin, expanding on the first’s unrelenting drive by placing Max in a whole new predicament. There’s less guilt this time, and vengeance is the driving force.
“Max was always on the run in the first series, either from himself or the situation,” Bonnar explains. “However, in this series, you see him in a variety of situations.
He’s lost his standing and is out for vengeance.”
Fortunately, the show’s sense of humour is just as sharp as it was the first time around, and it’s still unavoidably grim. The first episode could easily double as the pilot for a sitcom about the world’s most irate interior decorator; Max’s full-throttle wrath is so close to the surface that it still bursts out at inconvenient times.
Neil’s pet peeve was that all these hard-hitting weighty dramas lacked a sense of fun, as Bonnar says. “And your sense of humour is the one thing you can rely on in a crisis or in times of extremes.
Some of the funniest jokes are about funerals, people dying, or other similar topics. The two sides of the same coin are laughter and tears.”
Despite the several roles he’s played over the last two decades, the 52-year-old was a late bloomer. He settled in Edinburgh in the early 1980s after a childhood spent traveling throughout Scotland to accommodate his father Stan’s vocation as an environmental artist famous for Glenrothes’ iconic concrete marching hippo sculptures.
“But my mother also drove a bus,” he adds. “She was a social worker for the NSPCC and a playgroup leader on a playbus. So, while my father was an artist and there was a lot of stuff about the house, I also had this mother who was at the vanguard of, not women’s liberation, but quietly driving a doubledecker bus through Edinburgh.”
Is it easier to become an actor if you have a parent who works in the arts? He nods and adds, “Probably.”
“I’m sure my parents were nervous when I told them I was going to be an actor. They, on the other hand, supported me in all I did, even when I was a… ”
He takes a breather. Was there a what? He responds, “Actually, no, they didn’t enjoy me being a door-to-door salesman.” Bonnar started selling burglar alarms door to door in his late teens.
It’s a period in his life that still bothers him. He frowns and says, “That company was a bunch of jerks.” “Basically, they took impressionable young kids who were lost, like I was at the time, and trained them to get leads.
Not to sell burglar alarms, but to generate leads for later salespeople. We didn’t get the money if the salesman didn’t make the sale.”
That doesn’t appear to be a lot of fun. He nods and says, “It was the worst of all worlds.” “As a 19-year-old, I was threatened on a variety of doorsteps because you’re not allowed to say no.
Even if they reply, ‘I’m not interested,’ you have a response.”
It’s really Glengarry. Glen Ross, to be precise. He chuckles as he says, “I love that movie for that very reason.” “I’m fluent in the language.
They’re talking about something I’m familiar with. I understand how difficult it is to watch… Oh my goodness, Jack Lemmon in that film.
They’re all fantastic, but Jack Lemmon is particularly impressive. “I just came across his gravestone.”
Then he gets up and pats down his pockets so he can show me a photo of the gravestone on his phone.
Meanwhile, his time working for the local council, first at a library and then in the planning department, was more productive. “In the office, there were a couple of guys who were members of this amateur company called Leith Theatre,” he recalls.
“After doing three shows for them, I realized I could make a living acting.” Mikey and Duncan owe me everything.
We’re still friends, and they’re the reason I’m here.”
Let’s not forget that “here” is the lead in one of the year’s top shows. And, although the second season of Guilt premieres in the United States, the first season is still making its way around the globe. (“It has only recently begun airing in Sweden and France, and it is currently being remade in India.”)
More impressively, it is currently airing on PBS in the United States to amazing reviews. Max is such a fantastic character, and Bonnar is so horrifying, that I’m curious whether there has been any comment from the United States. Is Hollywood knocking on your door yet?
“No,” he says, revealing the first glimpse of his onscreen toughness I’ve seen. Really? I enquire. He shrugs and says, “I don’t think so.” But, if Hollywood came knocking, would he accept?
“No,” he says again. “Why would I do such a thing?”
It’s wonderful to be here. This is where I call home.”
That sounds fairly conclusive. He lets out a sigh. “I evaluate each position on its own merits.
I make the judgment at the time if a job is worthwhile and worth doing for the reasons you want to do it. But I wouldn’t pack my belongings and ship out.
I enjoy my time here.”
There’s also another reason for his determination to stick around. “I think America has been held up as a kind of promised land in the film and television landscape for many years,” he says.
“And I believe the UK has demonstrated in the last 10 to 15 years that it can punch far above its weight. Guilt is proof of that, as is its success.”
He isn’t mistaken. Guilt was intended to be a trilogy, according to both Bonnar and Forsyth.
If that’s the case, the third installment can’t come soon enough.
Thanks to Stuart Heritage at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.