Anyone who has seen Robert Carlyle only in “Trainspotting,” the unsettling 1996 film about junkies in Scotland, might well wonder about his sanity. In that movie, Mr. Carlyle, a 36-year-old Glaswegian, plays the psychotic Begbie with such conviction that the actor himself seems possessed by demons. But, be assured, in the handful of roles that have won him recognition as one of Britain’s new acting talents, he has also been gentle and loving. Indeed, Mr. Carlyle is all too wary of being typecast as a “Glasgow hard man.”
In Britain, he need not worry. True, he has played a couple of psychopaths apart from Begbie. But television viewers here have most recently seen him in the title role of “Hamish Macbeth,” a BBC serial about a gentle marijuana-smoking Highlands policeman. In Antonia Bird’s “Priest,” he played the gay lover of a troubled Roman Catholic priest. In Ken Loach’s film “Carla’s Song,” still unreleased in the United States, he is a Glasgow bus driver who falls in love with a Nicaraguan exile.
Still, after “Trainspotting,” Mr. Carlyle was looking for something different.
“The Full Monty,” which opens on Wednesday, is his first comedy. Directed by Peter Cattaneo, the film tells of a group of Yorkshiremen left without work or hope after the closing of a steel plant in Sheffield. Gaz, played by the short and wiry Mr. Carlyle, has a particular problem: unless he can find money to pay child support, his former wife will prevent him from seeing their son. So, inspired by seeing local women gawking at naked male dancers, he convinces his mates that they, too, can earn good money by putting on a strip show. But there is a but. To persuade women to pay to see their bodies, they must go “the full monty” — they must strip all the way.
Inevitably, the film has echoes of “Brassed Off,” another recent British export, which dwells on a Yorkshire mining community’s struggle to keep its brass band alive after the local colliery is closed. “The Full Monty” is less sentimental and arguably funnier, but both films are set against the harsh backdrop of a Britain in which towns and cities have fallen into decay as mines, shipyards and steel plants have gone out of business. For Mr. Carlyle, a former labor organizer with a strong distaste for Thatcherism, the political dimension of “The Full Monty” was as appealing as the comic one.
“What I thought interesting was the idea of gender politics,” Mr. Carlyle said the other day over coffee at a hotel in Glasgow’s West End. “Suddenly, these guys were forced to look at themselves the way they had always looked at women. They had to re-evaluate their place in society because the women now had jobs and they didn’t. It’s funny, it’s charming, but there’s a lot of sadness and tenderness there too.”
“The Full Monty” fits logically into Mr. Carlyle’s career in that he is once again playing a working-class character, tapping what he knows. He was brought up by his father in Glasgow hippie communes in the 1960’s (his mother left home when he was 4) and remembers his childhood as “very bohemian, very idyllic, very left-wing.” But by the time he left school at 16, his only job prospect was to follow his father and work as a house painter for a building firm. Unhappy and rebellious, he became a trade union official and began hanging out, as he puts it, “with people I wouldn’t be seen dead with today.” Then, one day when he was 21, he was given “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller to read.
“Someone obviously told me it was about McCarthyism, and I thought, how fantastic to be able to tell a story so accurately, yet set in an entirely different context,” he recalled. “The play’s first impact with me was political, not artistic. But then I began looking at how you could talk about a particular subject but not quite show yourself. That was when I was drawn to amateur theatricals. I liked the idea of taking on a character and portraying myself in the guise of another. I liked dressing up, hiding behind something, but speaking the truth.”
Within a year, Mr. Carlyle was studying — without much enthusiasm — in the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. When he left three years later, he found work in various repertory theaters, but he soon grew impatient with doing “the same old Chekhov and Ibsen.” In 1990, he and three friends set up their own company, Rain Dog, with the idea of adapting or creating plays through improvisation. No sooner had they produced their first than Mr. Carlyle won the lead role in Mr. Loach’s film “Riff Raff,” about union busting in the building industry in England.
“I wanted everyone in the film to have had experience in the building sector, and Bobby had worked as a painter and decorator,” Mr. Loach said. “But he also combined warmth and gentleness with an authentic sense of what he was doing. The film was about construction workers, but Bobby gave you a glimpse into a private world as well. That was very important.”
It was also important that Mr. Carlyle was able to work with Mr. Loach, a director who has never disguised his commitment to leftist causes. (And it was predictable that they should work together again in “Carla’s Song,” a love story set in Glasgow and amid the war in Nicaragua in the 1980’s.) On his second film, “Safe,” made for the BBC, Mr. Carlyle met a second mentor, Ms. Bird, with whom he later made “Priest” and the recently concluded “Face.”
“Like attracts like,” he said. “Antonia is very, very political. She can’t leave it alone. The film we have just made is a gangster thriller thing set in the East End of London. But there’s a heavier political slant on it because it’s under Thatcherism. The most important thing for me is for a screenplay to have some social worth. It doesn’t have to be talking about that awful woman who used to run this country as long as it’s saying something to someone.”
In “Safe” and “Looking for Jo-Jo,” a drama set in the drug-ravaged Edinburgh district of Sight Hill that Mr. Carlyle recently made for BBC Scotland, the “social worth” involves showing the dark side of a money-driven society. In “Priest,” it is about tolerance and hypocrisy. And Mr. Carlyle said he took on the role of a young man struck by multiple sclerosis, in Michael Winterbottom’s film “Go Now,” “because it’s such a misunderstood illness.” Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” with its tragicomic take on heroin addiction, takes a bit more explaining.
“I was shocked by those who said it glamorized drug abuse,” Mr. Carlyle said. “In my eyes it’s about the society that allows that kind of world to exist. I’d go further and say that ‘Trainspotting’ is probably one of the finest antidrug films ever made. Anyone who looks at that and says it’s an attractive-looking life style needs help.”
In any case, it was “Trainspotting,” which has grossed more than $70 million worldwide, that carried Mr. Carlyle’s name beyond Britain for the first time. But unlike his co-star, Ewan McGregor, Mr. Carlyle has not been tempted to work in the United States. Instead, in quick succession, he made “The Full Monty,” “Carla’s Song,” “Face” and “Looking for Jo-Jo,” all low-budget films. This fall, he will be in Prague to shoot “Plunkett and MacLeane,” the story of two 18th-century highwaymen in London.
“I’m happy going along the way I’m going,” he explained. “I have no great desire to jump into this crazy race for megastardom. I came from Nicaragua straight into the madness after ‘Trainspotting’ was released, and I was able to distance myself from it all because I had just been through another experience. I had been totally unprepared for that kind of third-world poverty. It affected me profoundly. It was humbling. So when people said to me after ‘Trainspotting,’ ‘Well, that’s it, lad, off to Hollywood,’ I said, ‘Not necessarily.’ ”
Mr. Loach believes Mr. Carlyle is simply remaining faithful to himself. “I think with Bobby you have a sense of solidarity, a sense of injustice, a sense of where you belong, where you’re coming from, how you see the world, what side you are on,” the director said. “It’s not a question of political correctness. It’s about how every little instinctive judgment you make about people has a political base.”
Politics or no politics, however, “The Full Monty” came down to whether Mr. Carlyle and five other actors were ready to strip naked to loud music in front of 300 screaming women.
“The scene took two and a half days to shoot,” Mr. Carlyle recalled, “but most of that was close-ups of a tie or a jacket coming off, and the women were getting bored. Finally the camera went behind us and we did the whole strip scene through, ending with a 10-second freeze. The women went wild. And we just stood there.”
He paused and seemed to shudder at the memory. “It was terrifying,” he said softly, “absolutely terrifying.”