The Hound is alive and well in the North. At least for now.
Rory McCann, known to fans of HBO's "Game of Thrones" as Sandor "The Hound" Clegane, strolls into the parking lot of a popular climbers' haunt in the heart of town. The large Scotsman looks every bit the rugged outdoorsman coming in from a Highland winter, dressed in layers of wool, goose down and tweed. Yet his demeanor warms when he smiles, explaining the morning's adventure in his native Scottish brogue.
"My car won't start. I had to park it back there on a hill so I can get it going on the roll," he said. "I may need a push."
Born and raised in Glasgow, McCann, 44, is home in the northern Scottish Highlands, even mooring his sailboat in a region known as Wester Ross - almost the identical name of the fictional continent, Westeros, at the center of HBO's hit fantasy series.
Yet beyond his size, a nomadic lifestyle and solitary tendencies, he doesn't see many parallels with his fearsome character, long a fan favorite of the popular genre drama based on the writings of George R.R. Martin.
"The Hound is a tortured soul, bullied as a child and forced to be a bodyguard for someone he doesn't like. I can't say I relate, much," he said and laughed. "Though it was meant to be. You know, my name McCann actually translates from 'canis,' or 'canine.' I am a hound."
McCann's path to bad-boy sworn shield is the stuff struggling actors envy. Broke and hitchhiking through Llanberis Pass, Wales, in 1987, he came across the "Willow" movie set and an extra casting call for two tall men to play drunks. At 6 feet, 6 inches, McCann got a spot.
"Unfortunately, I didn't understand how serious the whole business was and I kept laughing during takes," he said. "I was eventually chucked off the set."
Still, McCann was inspired by the experience, and he sought an agent in Glasgow. But acting work was hard to come by for a then-untrained actor, and he spent the next several years working as a forester, tree surgeon, bouncer and even a painter on the iconic Forth Rail Bridge.
Finally, he got a call from Scott's Porage Oats, which was looking for an actor to portray the man on its package in a series of television commercials. A dead ringer, McCann soon found local fame as the strapping Porage Oats man, strutting around wintry scenes in a kilt - and sometimes less - kept toasty by his porridge.
A few years later he landed his first real break, a role in the BAFTA-nominated Scottish comedy "The Book Group." The show was the brainchild of American filmmaker Annie Griffin, whom McCann once took climbing. While in the mountains with Griffin he shared tales of his outdoor adventures, including the dramatic story of his near-fatal accident in 1990.
Climbing solo, he'd gotten stuck on an overhanging rock face in Yorkshire, holding on until his strength gave out. He dropped more than 70 feet, breaking both ankles, an arm, a wrist and fracturing his skull. With the help of a friend who saw the fall, he lived to tell the tale.
Months after their climb, Griffin sent him a script for the newly developed show, inviting him to play the part of Kenny McLeod, a former climber who became a paraplegic in a fall.
"Reading the script, I couldn't believe it. Those were my stories, my experiences, my fall, but with an alternate outcome," McCann said. "Of course I took the part."
A self-described man's man, he chooses to live a mostly lone, transient lifestyle, a choice that allows him to fully enjoy the stunning hills, glens and lochs of the region. He says one acting job can sustain him for a year or more as he moves between his sailboat and trailer, hiking, climbing and camping wherever the mood takes him.
"This place feeds my soul," he said, leaning forward to look up at Buachaille Etive Mor, covered in a fresh coat of January snow. "I'm blessed."
As for "Game of Thrones," most of what happens in Season 3 remains shrouded in mystery. While his character is in one of many story threads slowly unspooling this season, McCann hints the Hound's role is just getting going and will later include an action-packed fight scene that required daily practice for nearly three weeks.
"You'll be seeing a lot more of the Hound, big time," he said of the series, which airs on Sunday. "They've developed him a lot slower and made him a bit softer on the show than in the books, but I quite like how it's all unfolding. There's a good story now, and it definitely gets more exciting with big fights and a lot more horse riding. These are the Hound's biggest scenes yet, and you'll definitely get to know him a bit more."
In a hint about a climactic flaming sword fight with Beric Dondarrion, he added: "Let's just say I end up slightly singed. Not great. A big, angry, singed dog."