ABC’s freshman hit ONCE UPON A TIME, Sundays at 8 PM, is unlike anything else currently on television. Created by its show runners Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, ONCE posits that the curse of the Wicked Queen (Lana Parrilla) has deposited all of the inhabitants of Fairytale Land – Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge), the Magic Mirror (Giancarlo Esposito) et al – in our world’s town of Storybrooke, Maine, a picturesque community where nothing ever changes.
Due to the curse, the inhabitants have no memory of their former selves and don’t realize that there’s anything odd in the fact that they don’t age and no one can leave town. Then bounty hunter Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) comes to town and things begin to change.
Although the premise is unconventional, it’s played straight. However, one standout character is the richest man in town, Mr. Gold, who in the Fairytale world is Rumpelstiltskin. Both are played by Robert Carlyle in a performance that is alternately fey, terrifying, hilarious, touching and ever-surprising.
Carlyle is no stranger to series television. He did two seasons of SGU: STARGATE UNIVERSE as that show’s resident contrary scientist with perpetually multiple motives, and three seasons of the detective series HAMISH MACBETH in his native Scotland (he’s originally from Glasgow). However, Carlyle is primarily known for a whole host of feature film roles, including the ferocious Begbie in TRAINSPOTTING, the enterprising hero of THE FULL MONTY, the unreliable father in ANGELA’S ASHES, the cannibalistic villain in RAVENOUS, the protagonist in 28 WEEKS LATER and many more.
While many of Carlyle’s other roles have had fantasy elements, Rumpelstiltskin is certainly the most overtly fairytale-related on the roster. The actor takes time to talk about playing the mythical deal-maker, why fairytales matter – and why Scots are so at home in Vancouver.
ASSIGNMENT X: After two years making STARGATE UNIVERSE there, were you looking to work in Vancouver again?
ROBERT CARLYLE: Yeah. It’s just easy. A lot of Scots obviously settled in Canada through the years. It’s a very easy place for Scots – they understand us, we understand them. In British Columbia, the coast there is very, very like the west coast of Scotland. I’ll tell you what the weirdest thing of all is. Not only do we shoot [ONCE UPON A TIME] in Vancouver, we shoot in the Bridge Studios, where we shot STARGATE. We have the same offices on the same stage. It’s almost as if they swept out STARGATE, and I got left behind [laughs].
AX: Were you disappointed that STARGATE ended?
CARLYLE: I was disappointed – I was [as] disappointed as the fans of the show, but you move on.
AX: How did you become involved in ONCE UPON A TIME?
CARLYLE: This just came from nowhere. This was something my manager had [sent]. The guys [Horowitz and Kitsis] had wanted to work with me on LOST for a long time, and I’d always been busy and doing other stuff, and this had been in the drawer, as the guys had said, eight years, and they said, “There’s this thing here if you’re interested.” And at first, I wasn’t – [after SGU: STARGATE UNIVERSE] I went back to Europe, did some more movies – and then I read this thing and I said, “This is really interesting.” I thought it was superbly well-written, I really liked the atmosphere of the piece, and Rumpelstiltskin – I get to play two characters as well. It’s very, very interesting.
AX: Do you find any similarities between Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold and the Wendigo character you played in RAVENOUS? There seems to be a sort of primal menace masked by double talk in both of them.
CARLYLE: Well, I guess that’s true. I’ve actually never thought about it, but I suppose there are similarities there. I mean, they are fantasy [or] almost fantasy characters, and there’s a similarity in that respect. I think that Gold is meant to be the most interesting of the three, because he’s the one who’s carrying the plots.
AX: Mr. Gold and Rumpelstiltskin are, beyond the curse, actually the same person, but they’re different on the surface. How do you play that duality?
CARLYLE: Really, the most important thing is to try to find something similar between these two. It seems incredible, because there’s this big fantasy thing going on, but I’ve deliberately played both very, very charming and very, very soft. So this is what interested me, how to get these two side by side.
AX: You often are cast as men who clearly have more going on inside than is on the surface. Do you know why you tend to get these roles?
CARLYLE: I guess you’d have to ask the producers and the directors that work with me. I love [those parts], I love them. I don’t see them necessarily as that complicated when they’re given to me. I suppose it’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to piece it all together. I think these parts, most actors would say the same thing. These are the most interesting parts to play, when you’re playing someone who the plot’s kind of bouncing off; it’s not quite as exciting when you’re trying to push the plot through.
So I suppose that’s the most common [reason] people come and ask me to do these parts, because they think I can do that. As I said, these are the type of parts that you want to play. You don’t want to play the hero – the hero’s boring, you know what I mean.
AX: How is working with the makeup for Rumpelstiltskin?
CARLYLE: It’s tough, man. That’s a good two hours, and an hour to get it off me [laughs].
AX: TRAINSPOTTING filmmaker Danny Boyle told the Independent in December that he’d like to do the sequel to TRAINSPOTTING .Would you want to do that?
CARLYLE: I’d work with Danny Boyle any day of the week, so if it’s going to be that, that’s great. I think there’s probably a long way to go before that actually comes to fruition, but the cast is very respectful about Danny. I’m all for it. It’s about fifteen years down the line now [since the film TRAINSPOTTING was made]. I think that’s a bit late. I think we are actually fact fifty-five, fifty-six. So it’s a long time.
AX: Where would your character Begbie be at this point in time?
CARLYLE: He’s definitely in prison. He’s either in prison or dead. [laughs] That is where he is, in actual fact. Do you know the second book [PORNO, the sequel to author Irvine Welsh’s TRAINSPOTTING novel]? That’s where Begbie is, he’s in prison. He dies in the second book, and Renton [the character played in the film by Ewan McGregor] has gone off to Amsterdam, I think it is.
[Begbie] was amazing character and it keeps coming back to me, people mentioning it. That’s how you know [it’s had an impact], because people keep mentioning it to you. I was saying to Danny, there are very few characters, unless you’re in a TV show, [who] have that arc over several hours. It’s very difficult to do that in film. You can’t do that in film. But Begbie, of all the parts I’ve played, it’s one of the [most memorable].
AX: You worked more recently with Danny Boyle – you starred in 28 WEEKS LATER, which he executive-produced after directing the original 28 DAYS LATER. How was that experience?
CARLYLE: I loved 28 WEEKS LATER. And working with Danny, it’s a pleasure. He did a lot of second unit on that, he was around the whole time, so it was great.
AX: Do your children know fairytales? Do they have any affinity for what you’re doing in ONCE?
CARLYLE: [Someone was saying that children now have other sorts of entertainment] instead of learning about fairytales, and how people don’t quite know it any more. I think that’s probably true. We don’t tend to teach these stories, and it’s a shame, because, if nothing else, they’re cautionary tales. This is the reason they were written, this is the reason why they were told to the children.
Like for instance, Hansel and Gretel – don’t go into a stranger’s house and don’t take candy. That’s why that stuff is there. All of these stories contain these kinds of morals and I think in the Victorian era, they seemed to be very big on all that stuff. Nowadays, we’ve got too many PlayStation games and TV and stuff like that. They don’t really get it.
My children as well, in fact. My children go to school, get a [good] education. Even with that, the teachers are saying it’s strange how the children are coming in, they don’t know nursery rhymes any more, Hickory-Dickory-Dock, whatever it is. These things are kind of gone. It’s strange, and maybe that’s why there are so many fantasy/fairytale stuff getting made. Maybe there’s a desire for it for some reason.
AX: Maybe the more people analyze the fairytales, the more they’re afraid they’ll scare kids?
CARLYLE: I think we’re too afraid to scare our children. I think it’s [unint.] to terrify your kids about life, about the world, but if you can teach them a little bit about the world through these tales, that can really be a good thing.
AX: Anything else you’d like to say about ONCE UPON A TIME?
CARLYLE: ONCE UPON A TIME – I’ve watched it with my family, with my three kids and my mother-in-law. They loved it. They absolutely loved it. The stuff the kids were mentioning [about what they thought] was fantastic, it really was. So that gave me a lot of hope.