In Marshall Lewy’s indie drama, “California Solo,” Robert Carlyle plays a one-time rock god whose stardom is far in the rear-view mirror.
He’s an actor who has turned in a variety of memorable characters – the raging psychopath Begbie in Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” (1996); the sweet, unemployed working man who turns to stripping in “The Full Monty” (1997); James Bond nemesis Renard in “The World Is Not Enough” (1999); a dad coping with a zombie invasion in “28 Weeks Later” (2007); and, most recently, fairy-tale villain Rumpelstiltskin and his modern-day doppelganger Mr. Gold in the ABC series “Once Upon a Time.” But his latest role allows him to play out an adolescent fantasy. “I was in a band when I was very young,” he says during a chat at the Sundance Film Festival, where “California Solo” made its world premiere. “I was 16. It lasted for about 10 minutes. It was fun at the time. I sang. It was fun. I always wanted to do it. That was one of the attractions of the film for me, the notion of the life that could have been.”
The 51-year-old Glaswegian plays Lachlan, who if not at peace as “California Solo” opens, seems at least resigned to his glory days being behind him. He works on an organic farm in rural Southern California during the week, selling his wares at urban farmers’ markets on the weekends. He hosts a podcast that focuses on the legends behind rock-star deaths. And every night he holds down a stool at his neighborhood bar. A drunk-driving arrest throws Lachlan’s life into an uproar when he is threatened with deportation.
“I thought it was a very honest portrayal,” Carlyle says. “There were no surprises in it. I liked that. It is what it is, and it came across like that. I liked that. I thought, ‘There’s not going to be any sugar with this at all.’ It’s just a slice of life. “One of the things I liked about the script and enjoyed about the script is that it’s not just a rock ‘n’ roll story,” he adds. “It’s a Hollywood story, as well, the idea, the notion that people kind of get lost there. A lot of people get lost there. Some friends of mine got lost there, in fact, that I haven’t seen in years. They never quite managed to escape it, but they don’t want to. I love Lachlan’s line when he says that he’s comfortably numb. I think a lot of them end up comfortably numb there. They don’t want to leave. They can’t come back, can’t face it.” A terrific ensemble of actors that includes A Martinez, Kathleen Wilhoite, Danny Masterson, William Russ, Alexia Rasmussen, Robert Cicchini, Savannah Lathem and real-life rocker Michael Des Barres (cast as Lachlan’s former manager) is on hand in support, but this drama, as the title suggests, is very much a one-man show. A city boy, Carlyle says the one thing he didn’t know anything about going into the film was organic farming. But he understood Lachlan immediately.
“He’s happy. He’s happy in that place,” he says. “He’s happy doing that, that comfortably numb thing. All he’s got are the bar and the podcast, that’s his life. He’d probably be quite happy doing that for the rest of the time until the DUI, and he has to confront his demons and his past. But I just love the notion of the guy who just goes to the bar and does his podcast. Many years could go by like that before he even knows it. I’m 50 now. I really understood that. That’s very interesting when you get to that time in your life, the thoughts that throws up. And, of course, that’s been going on in his life, too.
“He’s a loser. That’s what losers do, they infuriate you, because he’s got something about him. He’s got a spark, he’s a nice guy, but then you go, ‘Why are you doing that? Why can’t you just behave?’ ” If playing a rock star, however much a drunken has-been, fulfilled a little bit of the teenage Carlyle’s fantasies, he won’t be ditching his day job or recording that solo album any time soon. He’s blunt on the topic: “It was really the first time in my adult life that I warbled. It was exciting, it was exciting to do that, but that crossover thing between actors and musicians, I don’t think it works that well. Stick to what you know.”
What Carlyle knows is that he is in a great place with “California Solo” – for which he also served as executive producer – being released and “Once Upon a Time” enjoying a second popular season. The television show’s success means that he will have less time for movies in the foreseeable future, but that’s a problem he’ll happily live with – even though it also means spending less time in his beloved Glasgow.
“I couldn’t find anything more interesting to be locked into, because the whole notion, the whole Rumpelstiltskin notion, is another thing that I’ve been able to build from nothing, because the lines on the page are the lines on the page. The rest of it’s all coming from me,” he says. “I absolutely love it, and I love the notion of playing two parts, but Rumpelstiltskin particularly. It gives me a chance to – this was the thing, when this came up, I thought, ‘I don’t really know who Rumpelstiltskin is, and I bet most people don’t either. They know that stampin’ the foot story, but that’s it. They don’t know anything more than that, so we had to kind of layer it, and that’s been the most exciting thing to do on that show – layer and define Rumpelstiltskin for a younger generation. Whenever they hear that name, they’ll think of that figure now. I like that.”