Richard Rankin has just come from a photoshoot. Roughly an hour ago, he was dressed top to tail in a white suit, black socks, and shiny shoes. The man who turns the corner into the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, though, looks far more comfortable: gym kit on, duffel bag in hand, Paris-bound. “It’s always fun dressing up,” he laughs, his Scottish brogue cutting through the din of the Euston Road. “But sometimes it’s like ‘I know what you’re going for here, and I’m not sure I’m the man to do it for you.’” 

Over the course of our drink though – “I’d have another one, if only I didn’t have to catch this train” – it becomes clear that there’s probably quite little Richard Rankin can’t do. The Outlander star, who’s set to play the title role in the BBC adaptation of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series (no relation), is a bit of a polymath, not that he’d ever call himself that. As he darts his way through discussions on ancient 

Greek etymologies, literary criticism, and a little ditty known to physicists as the Inverse Square Law, the sheer breadth of his conversation might be intimidating – if only he weren’t so chill. 

It’s one of those shockingly sunny days you sometimes get in April, the kind that leaves most Brits sunburnt and beer-saturated. It feels like we should be shooting the breeze outside a riverside pub, rather than the hotel’s Gothic Bar, eyeballing the vaguely toxic-looking cocktails just delivered to our tables. His? A Diablo’s Descent (Patrón, tomato juice, sage leaves). 

I’m about to engage in some drink-based psychoanalysis, but whatever my order was, the waiter spritzes the air with absinthe as he serves it – so now we’re really relaxed. The bar is stunning, of course, but with its plush velvet, palm trees, and eau de vie, you sense it’s the sort of thing that Detective Inspector John Rebus would hate. Then again, Detective Inspector John Rebus would hate most things. 

“Often he declined invitations, because to accept meant that he had to dust off his brogues, iron a shirt, brush down his best suit, take a bath, and splash on some cologne. He had also to be affable, to drink and be merry, to talk to strangers with whom he had no inclination to talk and with whom he was not being paid to talk. In other words, he resented having to play the part of a normal human animal.”

We were first introduced to John Rebus in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. World-weary and whisky-soaked, he’s the epitome of a certain kind of detective, one who can solve cold cases but can’t fix their marriage, who’ll happily beat up a kingpin but just can’t shake the cigarettes. I hope Rankin (Richard, not Ian) is enjoying our drink more than Rebus would be. He’s certainly more affable company. 

Richard Rankin

The misanthropic inspector with a heart of bronze and a cast-iron moral compass became a best-selling sensation. Over countless novels, Rankin’s (Ian’s not Richard’s) depiction of Rebus’ Edinburgh – polite Enlightenment ghosts; judgemental, malicious rain; drug barons and the gentrifying force of English uni students – led to the development of his own genre, nicknamed ‘Tartan Noir’.

The novels follow Rebus across decades: his chaotic love life, his coming to terms with PTSD, the revelation that he’d have voted “No” in the independence referendum. He remains stubborn throughout. “The various ways in which Rebus could improve the quality of his life, which boil down essentially to being less impossible,” wrote literary critic John Lanchester, “are somehow unthinkable.”  

Rankin laughs aloud when I parrot the quote back to him: “That’s absolutely bang on. There’s this self-destructive quality to Rebus, he just won’t be shaken or moved.” It turns out that playing this “impossible” character came somewhat naturally. “I’m very stubborn as a person, to the point of being unmovable,” Rankin nods, “which can irritate people in my life.”

Without slipping into the quagmire of media-based determinism, it’s worth noting that Rankin has spent a lifetime with the character. He grew up watching Ken Stott play Rebus, sat in front of the TV with his father – also a policeman. “It was the grittier crime drama,” he recalls. “You had Taggart and you had Rebus: one’s for Glasgow, the other for Edinburgh.” He laughs again: “I’m a Glaswegian Rebus! I’m on the wrong side of the fence here!” 

Regardless of city allegiances, if there’s one thing Rankin knows, it’s detectives. Sipping our drinks, we lose count of the times he’s played the long arm of the law. Silent Witness, The Syndicate, Thirteen (opposite Jodie Comer), and The Pillowman (opposite his brother, Colin). Neither of us are convinced we’ve listed them all.

“I’d told my agent I didn’t want to play any more detectives,” he explains. “It seems like people who play cops or who play detectives play them frequently. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just like to be working outside the box.” 

Richard Rankin

Gregory Burke’s script, however, was too good to turn down. Ten pages in, and Rankin was totally sold. “I just thought: ‘Shit, this is immediately different. This is very original.’ It was a great example of what Scottish TV could be, because I feel like sometimes we fall back a little bit on the production value in Scotland.” 

At the time, the thought of playing the lead role didn’t even cross his mind: “I thought I was going to be the bad guy, or an evil character,” Rankin recalls. Rebus isn’t a bad guy, granted, but the Edinburgh legend is no saint. It’s not a spoiler to say that those ten pages involve Rebus punching, kicking, and asphyxiating his way through the first scene. “Immediately, you see the capability that man has for danger – is he going to snap?” 

It’s a very contemporary Rebus, set not in the 80s but the present day. No longer emotionally constipated, Rebus discusses his broken marriage with a therapist; no longer pot-bellied, he practises pull ups and push ups with the strict discipline of his old army days. It was Rankin’s idea to have Rebus work out, staying true to the psychology of an ex-military man trying to hold on to a point where his life made more sense. The show barely covers the topic, but it all informs Rankin’s performance. 

In the three preview episodes, there are a couple of workout montages, and at least one tasteful shot of Rebus’s post-coital behind. “He’s trying to be healthy,” says Rankin of the inspector’s mental state in the adaptation, “but day by day, you can see he’s becoming less and less arsed with it. I wanted him to get to the point where he can’t do another rep.” 

Does he worry, though, about adapting such a beloved character, one that he grew up watching? “At the end of the day, we’re an adaptation, so there are going to be adjustments, concessions, evolutions of the character. I’ve already had people being like ‘He’s no Ken Stott, I want Ken Stott back!’ I just hope we can do it justice and that people like it.”

Richard Rankin

Another thing Rankin knows: devoted audiences. Since joining Outlander in season two, his performance as Roger the time-travelling historian has been a firm favourite among fans of the show. After some brief back-and-forth establishing how much he can say without being hauled by his duffel bag into Outlander’s legal department, the actor outlines what’s in store for Roger when the show returns in November: “The second half of season seven is really some of the best stuff I think we’ve shot for Outlander,” he hints. “It’s an incredible adventure for Roger, because we don’t often see him without [his wife] Brianna – they’ve always been such a team.” 

The same is true for Rankin and Sophie Skelton, who plays his on-screen wife. “Richard and I have been on such a unique journey,” the actress told Square Mile. “We had each other as a bit of a crutch, because no one else was going through what we were going through.” He’s a dab-hand at lightening the mood during long, rainy filming days, Skelton recalls. At this point, she introduces us to Rankin’s on-set alter ego: an American, called Bob. 

“Of course she did,” Rankin laughs, before we settle down for the biography: “Bob won a competition to be on set, and he’s infatuated with Brianna.” We establish, crucially, that Bob is a running joke, not some dubious method-acting technique; that he calls Sophie ‘Soapy’; and that “he’s always looking to rehearse the kissing scenes.” Could we get Bob here today, I wonder? In an impressive act of séance, only appropriate for the Gothic Bar, Rankin summons a sort of Canadian-cum-Caledonian mishmash that is genuinely impossible to reproduce in print.  

The on-set shenanigans are not limited to love-struck fanboys, though. Rankin’s ability to conjure up a character seems to know no bounds. “There’s a German that pops up every now and again, called Hans. He used to run a biscuit factory, but that burnt down and now he’s trying to make his way as an actor.”

At this point, he looks into the distance, as if contemplating the very genuine impact of this very fictional conflagration on poor Hans’s psyche. “He’s much more serious than Bob.” Understandably. 

Richard Rankin

He (Rankin, not Hans) is currently filming for Outlander’s eighth and final season. It must be odd, knowing the show is coming to an end. “Isn’t everything?” He jokes, sipping his drink. And just like that St Pancras is confronted with the inevitable heat death of the universe. “And I’m only halfway through a cocktail!”

Existential nihilism and alcoholic tomato juice aside, he says the whole cast is aware that they’re in the last moments of something special: “It was a very emotional read through, we had photos up from all the past seasons of the show.” They’ve already filmed at Castle Leoch, in a call back to season one. “You can feel the nostalgia and what it meant to people. There were a lot of tears in the room that day.”

There’s a special kind of comfort, he says, working on a show that has near-guaranteed job security. “I’m very aware that it’s a real privilege to be able to do that. When I started acting, I really struggled a lot – I almost gave up, but that’s probably an interview for another day.” He checks his watch, his train probably chugging its way from Dover. “That’s definitely an interview for another day.”

Is there enough time, I wager, to talk about photography? “As long as you don’t let me ramble again!” We decide that an instruction to arrive at the station “50 minutes early” can probably be whittled down to, what, 20? That gives us about ten minutes’ wiggle room to discuss another of Rankin’s talents: solving crimes, time-travel, and now “drawing with light, from Greek – I think.” Back in 2019, he hosted a solo exhibition in Brooklyn. Since then, his landscapes and cityscapes have been shown in online galleries, with Rankin himself acting as audio guide. It is characteristically wry, honest, and warm. 

His photography began with a trip around the world. Touring with a theatre show, Rankin was performing his way from the vast skylines of America to the softly crumpled mountains of Korea. “This is such a huge opportunity for me,” he remembers thinking. “It’s such a wild dream to be able to travel, and on theatre wages; I don’t know when this is going to happen again.” He packed his girlfriend’s camera – a Canon 550D, Rebel T2 – and made his way across the Atlantic like a thespian Ansel Adams.  

“They were just the worst photos,” he grins. “It hit me how incredible these things were in life, how amazing they were at the moment of seeing them… and really having failed to capture that moment.” So he put his mind – one that genuinely seems to revel in the honing of a craft – to understanding why. He read books about the physics of photography, down to the photon; learned to see the world in focal lengths and light leaks; to compose a scene, rather than play it. “I developed a love for it in a specific order: first the principles and science of it, then the love and art of it. I suppose I kind of went backwards.”

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He points behind me, gesturing to the April sunlight falling through the bar’s cathedral windows: “Look, how the light is spilling through there.” By the time I turn back, he’s already reaching into that duffel bag and pulling out a camera. He angles himself so I can see the composition he’s drawing up in his head. 

A pause. A click. The photo is black and white, all film noir chiaroscuro. 

“There’s a law about the way light falls,” he says: “Let me Google it – I’ll miss my train and get the next one.” I mentally draft an apologetic email to the PR about why the talent failed to make it to Paris. 

A quick search tells us how the Inverse Square Law dictates “that for a point source of waves that is capable of radiating omnidirectionally, intensity decreases with the square of the distance from the source.” Luckily, Rankin knows precisely what this means. “Don’t write about the Inverse Square Law!” he jokes. 

One last thing, as we pack up. When Skelton was recounting how the two bonded on the set of Outlander, she left us with a question for her co-star. On a rainy day in a Scottish whiskey shop, the two came across a 51 Macallan – “it must’ve been £5,000,” she recalls. They struck a bargain: if Outlander was renewed for season four, they’d buy themselves a bottle. That was five seasons ago. Where, Skelton would like to know, is that whisky? 

“She has some cheek!” Rankin bellows. He’d just asked her the same thing. “We couldn’t afford it at the time, but I said we’d make a deal, just you, me and the universe: if it brings us a fourth season we’ll buy that bottle. Now it feels like karma is out to get us.” He packs his bag: “I’m going to text her on the way out, ‘Thanks for putting that out there, just to tempt fate.’”

With that, he’s off. Off to navigate passport control, off to Paris, off to catch a train that’s currently rattling its way through Hackney – a train he probably should have left for half an hour ago. Something tells me he’ll figure it out. 

Rebus will launch on Friday 17 May on BBC Scotland and on BBC One on Saturday 18 May