This isn’t quite a face-to-face with Robert Carlyle but side-to-side, with two microphones in front of us, in front of two hundred people in the beer garden of a bar in Glasgow’s Clydeside.
Carlyle has been invited by way of a fund-raiser to raise cash – and subsequently a statue – of boxing legend Benny Lynch, and the actor in turn invited yours truly to ask the questions. It’s relevant, you feel, the chat is taking place under the glass roof of the rebuilt Clutha Vaults, a chance not only to remember those sadly lost to the city, but to take strength from this collective spirit.
Is that what Robert Carlyle, star of Trainspotting and the Full Monty is doing here? The answer comes later. For now, we chat about the part Lynch played a part in his own backstory. “I’ve known about Benny Lynch since he was a wee boy,” he says, looking out to the crowd, who can’t quite believe they are seeing the man who played sociopaths such as Begbie and nice guys like Hamish Macbeth. “My grandfather saw him box and this legend was with me as a wee boy. And later, his rags-to-riches story really hit home.”
Does Lynch sum up the Glasgow character, Bobby, this triumph over adversity tale? “Yes and I sympathised, and empathised with him. I started life with less than nothing, in the gutter, and anyone who has climbed out of it in any way, has my respect.”
Carlyle’s dad, Joseph, was painter and decorator, a single father who’s wife left when little Bobby was four. “It was a helluva time for him,” he says of his father. The pair travelled constantly in search of work, of a life. At one time they lived in a commune in Brighton. Carlyle never saw his mother again, nor did he wish to. His late dad was his parents.
Back in Glasgow, the sixteen year-old Bobby left school and also became a painter and decorator. Yet, where – and when – did the light of acting possibility appear? Not from role models. There were none. It transpires, the light came from the beam of a cinema projector. “Because of what had happened with my dad and mother, in the late sixties my dad would take me to cinema, to forget about what had happened, to forget about the sh*** in our lives, to forget where we were living. In those days, you could sit through the same film all day long, and we’d do that watching cowboy films over and over again. We’d be there four or five times a week. The kernel of an idea must have stayed with me, even though I was in my early twenties before I started to act.”
He adds, smiling; “I had no knowledge at all of theatre, of course. I was in my mid-twenties before I even entered one.”
Carlyle reveals the initial attraction of the Washington Street Arts. “Girls,” he said. For the first few month he turned up and looked at the girls and did nothing else. Then organiser, Maggie Kinloch, (now of the Conservatoire) coaxed him to get up and try improv. “People began laughing at me, because they thought I was funny, and this gave me a wee buzz. I remember going home that night feeling ‘Maybe I could do something with this.’”
Did he tell his dad? “Not at first,” he says, grinning. How long before he came out as a thespian? “It took years,” he admits. “It was only when I was accepted for drama school, I was still working as a painter and decorator at the time – I had to tell my dad.”
Carlyle’s experience at Glasgow’s RSAMD was way less than fulfilling. “Acting didn’t seem right. It wasn’t a real job. My da’ had a real job. “There was about twenty of us in the year but most of the students were from down south and I didn’t know how to deal with all of this. They were middle class. I couldn’t come to grips with it.”
He reveals he walked out of the RSAMD at Christmas time. He’d had enough. “The principal, Ted Argent, phoned me up and asked me if I was coming back. I said ‘Naw.’ He said ‘Well, at least come in and talk about it. ‘Naw.’ He called again. Same answer. He called about four or five times in a two week period. To get him off my back I went in to talk to him and I was persuaded.”
He reflects for a second; “One of the reasons I hated drama school was because we were all required to speak in RP, and I thought ‘I can’t be f****d with all of this. I remember one boy from Castlemilk coming in one day speaking like (does Prince Charles voice) and I thought ‘What the f****?’ He told me he’d changed his accent and was then kicked out of the house.” He adds, grinning, “And rightly so.”
“My deal for coming back was I didn’t have to speak middle class English and Ted Argent agreed.” He adds, “I guess he felt there was something in me that was worth persevering with.”
It was not that Carlyle couldn’t do accents; his psycho Scouser in Cracker was so convincing for years later he was offered Liverpudlian parts. In Bond he was Eastern European in the full. When he formed Raindog Theatre company in 1991, with the likes Peter Mullen, Stuart Davids, Caroline Paterson and Sandy Morton, part of the plan had been to play Scots characters, with real accents.
In performing the likes of One Flew Over the Cukoo’s, turning the American Indian character into a man from the Western isles, Carlyle found his acting voice, his star soaring upwards in 1994 with ITV drama, Cracker. “This changed everything for me. (Not half; he met his wife Anastasia, then working as a make-up artist for Granada.)
Was acting a chance to forget about Bobby Carlyle? He throws the idea around for a second. “Yes, the further I got away from myself the better. But I realised I had to concentrate more on accents, and I worked on dialects which suited me better than RP.
It worked. And he landed the role of Bond villain. How to make him stand out? “I tracked down this guy in London, who was a Serbian, and I didn’t know it at the time, an absolute bastard, a real nasty piece of work, and there I was letting him into my house. But at least he gave me the voice for Renard.”
Was he intimidated by the chance to appear in an iconic film event? “For sure. My heroes were people like Donald Sutherland and Robert Shaw who’d played Bond villains. And you get taken all over the world on private jets.” He pauses and grins; “We had to film some of it in Bilbao, and I was taken to a wee airstrip in London, all very secret and MI5 and Pearce turned up and we flew to Spain, and I found myself being handed a glass of champagne with Pearce saying ‘Cheers, Robert’ and I began to laugh out loud. What I was thinking was ‘I cannot f****** believe this!’”
Film work, of a quality, dried up in the 2000s, but television had become the new film. The actor took off to Canada to film military sci-fi Stargate Universe, which lasted two years. Then, as the bags were packed, the family (two children, he now has three) ready to return home, the phone rang with an offer to remain in Canada, still in Vancouver in the same studio to star in Once Upon A Time fantasy, playing Rumpelstiltskin/Mr Gold. Worldwide success followed. But Carlyle never felt the urge to pitch up in Hollywood.
“It’s no’ me,” he says. “I don’t like hanging around there. The people, no disrespect, are a different animal. I hate watching chat shows because I hate this whole world, this falseness, when I hear actors talking it makes me feel sick and embarrassed and I just want to say ‘Shut the f*** up and be grateful for what you have.’”
Canada, where he works for nine months of the year, represents less of the hype. “The Canadians seem to understand us,” he says.
Next month he begins filming on Trainspotting 2. But he could resurrect his character Begbie for a third time. Writer Irvine Welsh has brought back his favourite psycho in new novel The Blade Artist, which is a dead cert to be turned into a movie.
Would he play Begbie for the third time. “I’ve already been asked and yes, I think I would although I don’t know if Danny (Boyle) will come back to the world for a third time. We’ll see.”
Is there any chance Carlyle will come back to the Scottish stage? “I’d love to,” he says. “I directed Macbeth twice, back in the day. One of my favourite Scottish actresses is Laura Fraser. I’ve never met her but I have this notion that myself and Laura Fraser could appear in Macbeth. If the National Theatre of Scotland is listening . . .”
Perhaps the success of Barney Thomson will help fund a Benny Lynch story. At 55, Carlyle will never play Lynch, but he is mad keen on the idea of directing a movie of the boxer’s life.
Because Lynch is Glasgow. Because Bobby Carlyle is Glasgow. “I think so,” he says smiling in agreement. “I could live anywhere. I live here because I want to. Because I feel part of this city. As did Benny.”
Ah, Danny Boyle. He’s back working with Boyle in Trainspotting 2. “For me, Begbie was so extreme I decided to inject a bit of humour in him, make him slightly ironic because someone like him wouldn’t last two minutes on the street. He’d be done in.”
What happens to Begbie? “The characters are all exactly where you would want them to be,” he said, teasing. Come on, Bobby. Is Begbie now a social worker, a politician?
“Well, I can see when the movie begins he’s in jail. And here’s a thought. In Irvine’s (Welsh, the writer) new book the Blade Artist came out in threw a real spanner in the work because Begbie is very much alive and in a very different line of work.”
My life and loves
Favourite Films: Raging Bull, Down By Law, Magnificent Seven. Any one of these make it onto the list.
Favourite Book: The Catcher in the Rye.
Favourite Piece of Music: Mama You’ve Been On My Mind by Rod Stewart.
Favourite Play: The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht.
Best Advice Received: Always be professional.
Worst Advice: You need to change your accent.
Ideal Dinner Guests: Peter Sellers, Stephen Fry and Peter O’Toole.
Favourite Holiday Destination: India.
The Life Changer: Going to Drama School.