Scottish actor Robert Carlyle on why he’s leaving Britain for Canada to star in sci-fi TV drama Stargate Universe
Robert Carlyle is angry. In fact, he’s livid. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise: the 48-year-old Scottish actor does “angry” extremely well. His breakthrough television role came playing a murderous football hooligan in a 1994 episode of Cracker. His breakthrough film role was as the thrillingly threatening Francis Begbie, the Glasgow-kissing sociopath in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. He has since portrayed perhaps the angriest man of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler, in The Rise of Evil. But Carlyle isn’t acting today. He means it. And the focus of his exasperated rage is the state of British cinema.
“The British film industry is on its knees,” he says. “Since September 11 and the financial disaster that’s befallen the planet over the last three years, finance has become harder and harder to find. In troubled times the last thing you want to do is to stick your money into a film. It’s such a gamble. So now financiers of independent films have to jump through hoops, backwards, through fire, into a crocodile pit to get the money.”
Carlyle has personal experience of the crocodile pit. For several years he has been itching to star in The Meat Trade, a dark reworking of the story of 19th-century grave-robbers Burke and Hare set in modern-day Edinburgh. Irving Welsh, who wrote the novel on which Trainspotting was based, has written the script. Carlyle and Colin Firth have been cast in the leads. Yet despite the pedigree of those involved, the film appears to be no closer to shooting. “We’ve been trying to get this film made for f—— years and it just isn’t happening,” he says. “People will be surprised to hear that – given all those names attached. But this is the British film industry in microcosm right there – and I’ve had it with it.”
Carlyle is clearly a passionate, patriotic supporter of home-grown cinema. “I’d love to be working in Britain making films,” he says, “but it’s getting more and more difficult.” This desire to stay true to his roots is perhaps a result of his tough, troubled upbringing, which couldn’t have been more down-to-earth. Carlyle’s mother left the family when he was four. His father was a painter and decorator who Carlyle worked for for five years after leaving school at 16 without any qualifications. His late teenage years were an angry, turbulent time which Carlyle is now reluctant to discuss (“To be honest with you, I don’t want to go back that far. It’s been documented,” he says stiffly). He discovered acting almost by accident, aged 21, when he spent a book token, given as a birthday present, on a copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It inspired him, and led to Carlyle earning a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Twenty years on, and Carlyle’s passion for acting is undimmed, though he’s bitterly frustrated by how few cinema-goers are getting to see his work. One of Carlyle’s latest films, I Know You Know, in which he plays a middle-aged father who indulges in Walter Mitty-style fantasies, is a case in point.
“I Know You Know will get a release in December [18 months after it was made] but what kind of release – f— knows,” he says. “Maybe it will be shown in a phonebox in Charing Cross. In my opinion, it’s one of the best performances I have ever given. Yet it will probably be seen by 25 people in the world and, for me, there’s no point in that. If you’re going to throw your life and soul into a part, which is what I do, you want people to see it.”
Carlyle acknowledges that British films are faltering partly because of the current financial crisis, which is affecting every corner of the economy. But, he says, the Government can and should do more to help. “It’s all too easy for the Government to jump on the bandwagon when we have a hit – by slinging their arms around film-makers and actors. I’d like to see that support when they don’t need our votes, like a tax incentive to attract foreign productions here. Of course the Americans don’t want to film here. The Government have made it harder and even more expensive. It’s crazy. And Britain has the talent. When we’re allowed to get it right, Britain punches well above its weight as a cinema nation. Look at Danny Boyle [whose film Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars earlier this year, including Best Film and Best Director]. That’s the kind of talent we have in this country and it should be supported.”
In these straitened times, says Carlyle, Hollywood is feeling the pinch, too, and becoming increasingly conservative, hence the proliferation of sequels, comic book crossovers and throwaway movies aimed at the lucrative family market. “The people who run this industry would have us believe that British people don’t want to see British films any more. To get a film made now it has to have two or three American stars and be full of CGI. The idea of having another breakthrough British film like Trainspotting – forget it. It ain’t gonna happen. This is one of the reasons I’m doing Stargate.”
Indeed, Carlyle is so angered and exhausted by the process of making British movies that he’s set off in entirely the opposite direction: to Canada, to star in Stargate Universe, a new sci-fi television drama which starts on Sky1 on Tuesday. Ironically, Stargate Universe is both a sequel of sorts (it is the latest spin-off from the 1994 movie Stargate) and employs lots of American actors and expensive CGI. But from Carlyle’s perspective, glossy US television series have two major advantages over independent Brit-flicks: they have the budgets to attract the best writers and actors; and they actually get made.
“Each episode of Stargate Universe costs over $2million to make,” he says. “That’s the equivalent of four films in the UK. The quality of TV drama nowadays is getting better and better. They’ve had to invent a new term for it: ‘high-end television’. This is partly thanks to the advent of cable TV [which in the US is responsible for challenging, ambitious dramas such as The Sopranos and The Wire]. The line between film and TV has blurred.”
Indeed, Carlyle is the latest in a migration of British and Irish film actors now starring in “high-end” American TV. They include Tim Roth in Lie to Me, Gabriel Byrne in In Treatment, and Joseph Fiennes in FlashForward. In Stargate Carlyle plays Dr Rush, a Machiavellian scientist who finds himself stranded on board a spaceship light years from Earth. The central storyline – in which Dr Rush and his stricken colleagues are beset by various challenges as they struggle to plot a course home – is lifted straight from The Odyssey, and, crucially, can be drawn out for as long as the series remains popular and therefore profitable. Carlyle missed his family and his other Glasgow-based passion, Partick Thistle, during filming in Canada. “In the past I wouldn’t have cared so much about how tough a job was or how long I was going to be away from my children because I didn’t have any,” he says. “But now I do, they matter very much.” (Carlyle met his wife Anastasia, a make-up artist, on the set of Cracker. They have three young children.) Part of Stargate’s appeal for Carlyle is that it is shot in Vancouver (“a fantastic place to be”) and not Los Angeles. Carlyle is scathing about the starrier side of his profession; the notion of actors also being “celebrities” is another subject that sets his blood bubbling.
“I’ve never been easy with that whole Hollywood side to acting,” he says. “To pursue a career in Hollywood you have to have a personality bypass. Look at the top 20 stars in the world – there’s probably only two actors among them. Hollywood’s not about you as an actor. It’s about your currency, what you ‘bring to the table’. And I’ve never been one to jump through hoops for anyone.”