As a ‘Trainspotting’ sequel is announced, Robert Carlyle opens up about his beloved father who raised him after his mother deserted him when he was four years’ old.
Robert Carlyle is laughing at his reputation for playing nutters and sociopaths and men on the edge – although he is about to reprise a glorious example of one. It was announced last week that a long-rumoured sequel to Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s iconic Nineties movie, will finally be made.
Carlyle will be back in Porno, as Begbie, the most violent and brutal member of a gang of Edinburgh heroin addicts that feature in both the Irvine Welsh books on which the films are based.
“Mind you,” Carlyle says, “although people always cite that role as an example of my dark side, I’m not so sure. Really, Trainspotting is a black comedy and in many ways Begbie’s the funniest one in it.”
Comedy and Carlyle are not, perhaps, synonymous, although, as he points out again, the role that brought him awards galore and international fame – Gaz, the leader of an unlikely pack of Northern male strippers in The Full Monty – was full of laughs, and Hamish Macbeth, in which he played a Scottish policeman, was drama and gentle comedy rolled into one.
We meet in the swanky library of a luxury hotel in London’s Fitzrovia, to talk about another project – The Legend of Barney Thomson, a new film in which he stars and that marks his directorial debut – and it turns out that, in real life, he is funny, empathetic and open, too.
The 54-year-old actor wears his emotions on his sleeve, where they have been, he says, since he began the project, which tells the tale of a hapless barber with a couple of accidental murders on his hands. It’s another comedy, but this time it was filmed in his native Glasgow.
“Aye,” he says, his Scots accent as thick today as it was when he was a “snot-nosed kid”, pacing those very same streets that he returned to film. “At times it was incredibly emotional. Very close to the bone. It affected me in ways that I hadn’t bargained for when I agreed to do it.”
Although Carlyle is now a renowned actor, with an OBE and the happiest of personal lives – he is married and the father of three children, Ava, 14, Harvey, 11, and Pearce, nine – he had a difficult start in life. His father, Joe, raised him after his mother, Elizabeth, left when he was just four years’ old.
During filming of The Legend of Barney Thomson, he found himself in the Bridgeton Cross area in Glasgow’s east end – the stomping ground of his mother’s side of the family.
“One of the odd and the weird things about filming was the number of people who came up and said, ‘I knew your auntie’, or ‘I’m your cousin on your mother’s side’. And I didn’t know these people existed, because I only ever knew my father’s side of the family.”
Although, he says, he came to terms a long time ago with his mother’s absence from his life, he did find himself re-examining his feelings about her. “I think I came to the conclusion that some women just aren’t maternal, and my mum was one of them. I’m sure I hated her at one time, but as I’ve gone through my twenties, thirties, forties and now my fifties, I feel sorry for her more than anything because she missed out on so much. She missed out on me and, especially, she missed out on her grandchildren – and that’s punishment enough, isn’t it?”
His father was a painter and decorator, who struggled to make ends meet, while being both mother and father to him. When not in Glasgow, they had an itinerant life, travelling to various cities in search of work. “One month it would be Manchester, the next Liverpool. We probably lived in a 100 different places,” says Carlyle.
“The backdrop of my childhood seemed to be the back streets, the dark alleys and the rainy streets of those cities. I know every beat and rhythm of that life, which could be another reason for why I’m drawn often to dark gritty roles and why I wanted to show the gritty side of Glasgow in my movie. It’s a landscape I know.
For three years, between 1969 and 1971, father and son lived in a Brighton commune. “I have only a couple of pictures from my that time, and one of them is of my dad and me beneath the West Pier. A lot of the time we actually slept beneath it. It was that kind of life.
“Recently, I took my own kids back there and we all posed for a picture in exactly the same place. It was a way of celebrating the way that my life turned out and it was a nod to my dad, if he’s up there watching.”
From the age of 16, Carlyle worked in his father’s profession, downing tools at the age of 21, to go first to the Glasgow Arts Centre and then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Although Joe died nearly a decade ago, from a heart attack at the age of 76, Carlyle is comforted by the idea that he was able to witness his son’s success.
“Back in the Sixties, when I was growing up, the notion of a one-parent family – especially of a single father – didn’t really exist. And for him to have walked that road and lived that life and still managed to raise me and love me as he did, was just incredible.”
Even after Carlyle’s acclaimed appearance as a Bond villain in The World is Not Enough, which enabled him to buy his father a house, Joe handed his son a bank book with £3,000 on it: he’d been meticulously saving for him every month, just in case it all went wrong. It’s not surprising, then, that when, in 1998, Carlyle received a Bafta for his Full Monty performance, he dedicated his award to the father, declaring him to be “the greatest man I have ever known”. When Joe died in 2006, Carlyle was so devastated that he considered quitting acting.
“I took time off and I’d drive to these places where we’d lived, probably visiting about 50 of them, and sit in the car and cry for hours, making animal noises that I didn’t even know I could make. Then I’d go back home and write it all down, perhaps because one day I’ll write a book, or at the very least pass the memories on to my own children.”
There are autobiographical elements to Carlyle’s directorial debut. For many of the male characters, he has borrowed his father’s “Glasgow grit” – although not for Barney himself. “Poor Barney’s a hapless bloke. He’s like a pinball in a machine being knocked around by events. But Barney’s clothes in the movie, at least, were 100 per cent my dad.”
The places that made it into the film, too – the Barrowland Ballroom, McIver’s market and the bandstand – are a collage of Carlyle’s childhood.
“On one occasion we used my youngest son, Pearce, who’s nine and was born just after my dad died, to pose for a picture of Barney as a little boy at the Shawfield Dog Track – and I used to go there every Thursday and Saturday night with my own father.
“He came in dressed exactly as I used to be. I was looking at myself as a little boy standing next to my dad. It was like a fist slamming into my chest, ” Carlyle says.
You can’t help wondering, too, if the grotesque, ball-breaking, chain-smoking mother in the film, played brilliantly by Emma Thompson, is a salvo fired at his own, still living (he thinks, but doesn’t know) mother.
“Oh God, no! Emma’s character, Cemolina, is a grotesque that sprang from the novel on which the movie is based. She’s definitely not someone who emerged from the darkest recesses of my mind,” he laughs.
It would not, however, take a psychiatrist to work out that Carlyle’s choice of a mother for his own children have been deeply influenced by his childhood.
He has been with Anastasia, a make-up artist that he met on the set of the Hamish Macbeth, for 21 years (and married for 17 of them).
“Even as a little boy, if I could have hand-picked the perfect woman to accompany me in this world and in this life, it would have been Anastasia, and that’s as true today as it has ever been. She is just the best, and I love her to bits,” he says.
She has been at his side, anchoring him while his career took off in the UK and Hollywood. For the past five years, the family have been based for nine months of the year in Vancouver, Canada, where Carlyle has been shooting a regular role as Rumplestiltskin in the US mini-series, Once Upon a Time. But he’ll be back in Scotland soon to film Porno. He still considers Glasgow home.
“It’s the city that I return to in my head all the time,” he says. “I never really left there.”