Here is a story about Robert Carlyle. Daniel Boyle, the scriptwriter for the BBC’s 11-million-pulling Hamish Macbeth, met a man who asked what Boyle did for a living. He said he wrote Hamish, and the man said: ‘Ach yes, that stars Robert Carlyle, I knew him once. Or at least I thought I knew him. I worked with him for six months at the Metro Bar in Glasgow, and for those six months I thought he was English.’
Robert Carlyle is not English. He is from Maryhill in Glasgow – he cried for half an hour when Gary McAllister missed a penalty for Scotland in Euro 96 – but he lives his roles so completely and performs his accents so convincingly that the barman’s confusion is understandable.
Those who have seen Carlyle as the white-socked madman Begbie in Trainspotting, or as Albie, the Scouser who kills to avenge the Hillsborough tragedy in Cracker, think he’s a psycho. Those who know him as the dreaming labourer in Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff, or as the gay boyfriend in Antonia Bird’s Priest, or as the hash-smoking bobby in Hamish Macbeth, are convinced he is gentle, easygoing, lovable. Those who have seen him as Hamish and Begbie often fail to realise it’s the same actor.
The ridiculously flexible and totally convincing Robert Carlyle is short – about 5ft 8in – he is skinny, and he walks cockily, like a chancer, arms swinging side to side. He smokes ‘like a bastard’, chews gum, sucks on his cigarettes as if he has something to say to them. He wears a pimp-chic brown leather jacket, dark blue jeans and new Vans trainers – khaki, without a mark on them. At 35 he makes no claims to be a hardman – he drinks Rolling Rock because Budvar is ‘too strong’. And he has a rather sexy habit of smacking his lips – he does it in erotic anticipation in his new film, Carla’s Song, and he does it in real life too.
So what is it about this man-about-Glasgow that makes him so convincing? ‘Every actor has their own method,’ he says. ‘My own particular way is to try to lose myself as much as possible, to immerse myself totally in the part and not be aware of acting. If you can get deep enough into a situation, the reactions will happen. We all have the ability to love, to hate, to want to kill somebody, to be happy. You just have to tap into that part of yourself.’
He is an advocate of the sort of acting that looks like not acting at all, so it is no surprise that he has a close relationship with arch-realist Loach, the director of Carla’s Song. ‘What strikes me about Bobby is that he plays very straight, there’s an evenness,’ says Loach. ‘I’ve always trusted his instinct about his responses.’
Carlyle’s role in Carla’s Song, as big-hearted Glasgow bus driver George, who falls in love with Nicaraguan refugee Carla (first-time actor Oyanka Cabezas) and goes back to Central America with her, was made real, he says, by Loach’s directing techniques: shooting chronologically, only revealing the script page by page. ‘In a sense Ken makes it easier to become real,’ says Carlyle. ‘You’re not projecting a character; you’re projecting a truth.’
His desire to immerse himself in his roles has meant that he learned to drive a double-decker bus – and got his licence – before Carla’s Song. He slept on the streets before Antonia Bird’s Safe, and when he is in a role he speaks in the required accent all day, every day for the duration of the shoot. (He will be revealing an East End accent in Antonia Bird’s upcoming Face, and a South Yorkshire one in Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty.)
Carlyle grew up with his father, a painter and decorator who moved around a lot but was based in Glasgow. His mother left when he was a toddler. Bobby followed the same trade as his father until he was 21, when he bought a 75p copy of The Crucible just because he had 75p left over from buying another book. ‘Before then I’d been to the theatre twice maybe and thought it was pish. But I read The Crucible and I thought it was brilliant. I realised I could see the characters.’ It was a significant choice of play – dark, intense, political – and it got him interested in acting. ‘Theatre has always been a predominantly middle-class pursuit,’ he says. ‘So I go to these amateur dramatics clubs, and I’m the painter and decorator from Maryhill walking in. You get a culture shock – all this theatrical arms round each other and I’d never been used to that. But in six months I was really bitten by it.’ He went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which he found restrictive, and worked for five years in Scottish theatre with the odd part in Taggart, forming a theatre company called Raindog, before the big break of Riff-Raff.
His choice of projects has often been political – Riff-Raff was about union-busting and safety on building sites; Safe about homelessness; Priest about homosexuality; Carla’s Song about CIA assistance to the Contras. Is he as political as his CV? ‘I’ve never been an overtly political or party political person,’ he says. ‘But the most important thing for me is that a project has some kind of social worth. At its base level, acting is such a frivolous thing to do, so you want to try and use that skill on something that has something to say.’ Even Hamish Macbeth? ‘That’s different, that’s commercial television. But Hamish does have its wee bits of subversion – the two most respected members of the village, for example – they are the hash-smokers.’
Carlyle speaks softly and appears gentle, but there is an edgy sexuality stirring underneath. It is disconcerting to see the occasional Begbie neck-jerk or moment of George-like tenderness, but this reminds you of the little actions that make his characterisations so thorough: the look of resignation when he is dragged up for a smooch in Carla’s Song; the way he stands, hips thrust forward, knees locked, in Trainspotting; the deep and dirty drag on his cigarette when he eyes up Linus Roache in Priest. Hamish’s Daniel Boyle says that Carlyle ‘asks you questions that you’d never even considered about what a character might be thinking’. Carlyle says: ‘In any given situation, people are communicating with each other, and more often than not it’s what’s not being said that’s more interesting.’
What is not being said in this interview, by the way, is that Robert Carlyle is trying very hard to tell me nothing at all. ‘You’re very serious, aren’t you,’ I say. ‘No, I just don’t want you to know what I’m like,’ he says. ‘So you’re just showing me the bits you want me to see,’ I say. ‘Could be,’ he says. ‘Acting another role,’ I say. ‘Could be,’ he says, with a cocky swagger. ‘But you don’t know.’
He detests the press, and with good reason: in 1996, the Sunday Mirror found and interviewed his mother, from whom he had not heard for 30 years. ‘You start to talk about this kind of press and I get a bit fucking angry, as you can tell. I’m not distrustful of you personally: I just don’t trust the press.’ Ken Loach believes actors should limit their interviews because ‘they have to reveal themselves in their work, and the more you do it, the more you coarsen it’.
With Carlyle, it is more about retaining credibility in his performances. ‘The more you reveal yourself as you really are, the less believable it is when you’re portraying people.’ Which is why he doesn’t want you to know whether he supports Celtic or Rangers, or whether he has a girlfriend, or who he votes for. I wonder why he even bothers doing interviews. ‘Carla’s Song needs the publicity,’ he says. ‘It deserves it.’ He is irritable initially in the interview; polite, measured, but clearly annoyed by certain questions. If he thinks you’re talking shite, he’ll tell you so, ever so respectfully – like when I ask him if he wants to go to Hollywood. And it is only when I get confrontational with him that he begins to respond in a different way. Then he starts to interview me, to show how hard it is to talk about yourself, and then I notice how his brown eyes, which have huge irises and very little white, are always fixed on mine; and how he speaks in thoughtful, beautifully constructed sentences that reveal a sharp and sensitive brain. And then I feel a little ashamed for asking him about Hollywood.
‘I’m just a private person,’ he says. ‘I’ve always been like that. I’ve got a very, very close circle of friends, and the more perceived success you achieve, the more difficult that gets. It’s very important to hang on to some kind of reality from your past.’ This is another reason why he doesn’t reveal too much of himself to the press, and why he still lives in Glasgow: to protect the painter and decorator in him, to make sure fame doesn’t stop him being the man he always was. He relaxes very obviously when the tape recorder is turned off, which is when I learn that Carlyle is not as serious as he likes to make out, although he is very serious about his acting. But by then it’s too late. On screen, he inhabits Begbie, Hamish, George. In interviews, he reveals an actor called Robert Carlyle. But it is Bobby who swaggers off into Glasgow, smacking his lips. It is Bobby who, for the good of his work, he wants kept a secret.