Robert Carlyle takes off on another beautiful tangent this month in Hamish Macbeth, his latest television drama. Allan Laing talks to an actor who relishes the challenge of new roles.
Robert Carlyle gives good mental bald headbanger. Before Woody Harleson had even considered his trip to the ultimate barber, the Scots actor had shaved his head and gone famously berserk with a blade in Cracker.
Robert Carlyle gives good gay. In Antonia Bird’s Priest, a devastating movie soon to be unleashed upon Scotland, he is utterly convincing as a young homosexual lover. And Robert Carlyle gives good crucifiction. In the first episode of ITV’s 99-1, a gangster with a neat line in Gothic nailed him to a wall and let him slowly bleed to death.
In short, Robert Carlyle gives good acting. No, not just good. Robert Carlyle gives fine acting. He is a chameleon, all things to all roles. Somewhere along the line he must have gone to business school because, like some wised-up business corporation, his ethos is “diversify to accumulate”.
There are two chances of this actor ever being stereotyped — slim and none. His theory, which is to be applauded, is that being different at every available twist and turn serves to lengthen an actor’s shelf life. There is every reason to believe that he’ll still be going strong long after many of his contemporaries have reached their sell-by date.
Later this month, Carlyle bounds off on yet another beautiful tangent with Hamish Macbeth, BBC Scotland’s major network drama in which he plays an off-the-wall copper, a hippie with handcuffs, in a sleepy Highland village. He sees the character, not so much as a policeman, but more as the sheriff in a one-horse town. The series is good; very good, in fact. But it does owe a debt of gratitude to both Whisky Galore and, just perhaps, Local Hero.
“I’m really very pleased with the way it has worked out. It’s different; it’s not like a conventional police show. Hamish Macbeth’s way of dealing with problems and crimes is to try and talk them out rather than physically arrest people. He is not a hard man,” he explains.
There is, he thinks, only one car chase in the entire series. And it involves a caravan travelling at 10mph along a country road. He admits that there is an element of “kilts and heather” involved but it doesn’t celebrate the Highland myth. Instead, it attempts to look underneath the kitsch image and explore the realities of a remote and often savage community.
“On the one hand it is very lovely and picturesque living up there but it is also very bleak after a long hard winter. How do these people survive?” he asks.
If only for its time slot (early Sunday evenings) there will be the inevitable comparisons with Heartbeat. Though, to be fair, the comparison really starts and ends with the fact that both serials feature a young village policeman. Still, to be compared to one of the most successful mainstream dramas of the 90s is not necessarily to be sneezed at.
“I think it would be unreasonable to suggest that 14 or 15 million Heartbeat fans will suddenly switch allegiance to Macbeth. But please don’t compare us to Heartbeat. It is well-established now but people didn’t know what to make of it when it started. I hope that the same thing will happen with Macbeth, that people will get involved with it as it goes along and that they’ll stick with it,” he adds.
Carlyle will know soon enough. The series starts transmission on March 26 and the BBC’s network controllers will decide after three episodes whether or not they’ll make a second series. It is all down to audience figures, of course. Anything between seven and 10 million should ensure its future. Curiously, decision day should coincide with Carlyle’s 34th birthday on April 14.
Robert Carlyle came to acting by a circuitous route. He left school at 16 with nothing and worked with his old man, a painter and decorator for five years. Then he went to night school at Cardonald College, Glasgow, to pick up a few basic qualifications. With a book token he received for his twenty-first birthday, he bought himself a copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and discovered acting. He went on to study drama at the Royal Scottish Academy and eventually ended up learning his craft with the legendary theatrical company, Raindog. He first came to popular prominence with his acclaimed performance in Ken Loach’s movie, Riff Raff.
What you find odd about Robert Carlyle when you meet him is just how normal he really is. There is neither the air of conceit nor that precious “I’m-an-actor-so-don’t-even-try-to-understand-me” nonsense about him. Jees, you could take him for a pint and no-one would ever notice that he’s a thespian. And yet, here you have one of the most powerful young actors in Scotland.
He is a method actor. But he employs his own distinctive methods. For the part of Albie, the psycho who had a post-Hillsborough grudge against the tabloids in Cracker, he steeped himself in the Sun’s scandalous reports of the tragedy and wandered about with a Liverpool accent for two months.
For Priest, Jimmy McGovern’s controversial movie about a homosexual Roman Catholic priest, Carlyle (it is worth pointing out that he is hetrosexual) faced the dilemma of working out for himself how to portray a homosexual.”Being involved in this business you regularly come across the gay community so I didn’t have to do that much in terms of research. But I had to decide how far I took the character. It would have been very, very easy to make him a screaming gay. It would also have been very easy to do nothing at all — and make him a closeted ‘hetrosexual’ gay man.
But what I tried to do was to go for the middle ground, if you like, and show the feminine side of myself without overplaying it too much,” he explains. The depths to which Carlyle goes to introduce, if not truth then certainly verisimilitude, to his characters takes its toll on him, physically and mentally.
“You take a character like Albie. It is very difficult to live a normal daily life when you’re carrying that about with you. Even after you’ve finished it still lives on with you. But I look on it this way. I am being highly paid to do a job of work and it is only two or three months out of my life. I owe the producers of whatever drama I am working on everything I have for that period of time. And after it’s finished I will go away and get off the planet for a while,” he adds.
“You just have to diversify with things. To me that’s the only way for an actor to secure a decent shelf life. I have no illusions about acting. I’ve been down there chasing round the country with theatre companies and I’ve also hit the heights of the Cannes Film Festival.
“All I can do is hope to hang on as long as I possibly can through the standard of work I can produce. I am a very fortunate person and I look at some of my fellow actors who came out of drama school at the same time as me and they are struggling to get work and pay the mortgage. I don’t have anything to complain about,” he says.
Now Robert Carlyle is off to give good severely disabled. He is about to start work on Go Now, yet another Jimmy McGovern project. In this film for the BBC he will play a promising amateur footballer, a young man with everything going for him and a girlfriend to boot, who is stricken by multiple sclerosis and who ends up in a wheelchair. Rest assured his research will be painstaking and his performance brilliant.
* Hamish Macbeth starts on BBC1 on Sunday, March 26; Priest will be showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre from March 17