As his new film receives its world premiere in Edinburgh, Robert Carlyle tells Libby Brooks about the price of fame, the lure of villainy – and why he wants to stay true to his roots
Here is Robert Carlyle. One of the most versatile actors of his generation, he inhabits psycho, soft touch, lover or loafer so convincingly that people often fail to realise it’s the same man. He’s a performer with perfect pitch. Here he is again, the star of Trainspotting and The Full Monty, two of the most commercially successful British films of the last decade. And again, coordinating an international acting career from his native Glasgow.
Fiercely private and avowed enemy of the press, his public persona is similarly fractured: garrulous hard-nut, working-class hero, fanciable chancer, nippy sweetie. Committer of the cardinal celebrity sin of taking his work seriously.
So here is Robert Carlyle today. He has kind eyes. “I appreciate my life and what I’ve got in my life. It’s always good to remind yourself, wherever you go. Me and Anastasia [his wife] are sitting there and I’m like, ‘Fuck’s sake, babe, this isn’t bad.’ I’m a very lucky man. I’m always grateful.”
Nothing about him is obvious. There are qualities that you sense rather than intellectualise: warmth, intelligence, honesty, cheek. He is preternatually elusive. But his body can’t dissemble: it coughs at awkward questions, leans into interest, coils round a joke.
There’s a lot of light about him. There’s a lot of animal about him: sex, anger, tenderness. He has a familiar face. He’s only 5ft 8in but he doesn’t seem smaller in real life. “There’s been a lot of aggression [in my recent work]. I didn’t ever want to be seen as that, but I know I’ve got that reputation. I wanted to redress that balance. I’ve stabbed, punched, eaten people, blown them up in films for ages. I saw something in this that I needed for myself. It was very calm – an antidote for myself in a way.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Carlyle’s latest endeavour is There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble, a gentle urban fable charting the journey of a lonely Manchester City fan from playground punchbag for the rival Reds to schools’ cup final hero. Alongside Gina McKee and Ray Winstone, Carlyle turns in a typically nuanced performance as Eric Wirral, Jimmy’s games teacher. “I just felt for that kid. Bullying is a terrible, terrible thing. It would be nice if any kids in that situation come to see the film and get a wee boost,” he says eagerly, open-faced. He pauses, shakes his head to loose the sentiment, and begins to haver. “That’s idealism at its best. It’s only a fucking movie, but hopefully that’s what it’s about.”
The debut feature for television director John Hay, with a budget of £3m, the part was the antithesis of his last role as osprey-wielding Bond villain Renard in the £73m blockbuster The World is Not Enough. “I had a great time doing Bond, but it was an alien world. I wanted to get back to the type of films that I feel comfortable making, and that I think have some kind of social worth. You take the £70m off and you can focus a wee bit more.”
Most of Grimble’s youthful cast were first-time screen actors. “Acting is a really insular thing. You’re in this vacuum, and working with teenagers shakes you out of that because you realise your responsibility is to make sure they’re okay. You can pass on what you’ve learned, and that’s one of the most rewarding things that you can do.” It could sound horribly Miss World were it not for the fact that’s it’s delivered with such enthusiasm. He mashes his knees together earnestly. The body doesn’t lie.
Doesn’t Carlyle have a tendency to put himself in that vacuum? His thoroughness is legendary: learning to drive a double-decker bus for Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song, sleeping on the streets in preparation for Antonia Bird’s Safe. But it’s clean of pretention. “To me, it’s a simple thing. The people who employ me are putting their faith in me and paying me to do a job. I don’t know whether it’s a west of Scotland work ethic or whatever, but I feel that it’s my responsibility to fulfil that for them. For those three months my life goes on hold and that seems to me to be a fair exchange for me to able to do what I do.”
The belief of others – as much as self-belief – seems to be very important to Robert Carlyle. The last thing anyone expects is success, he says. He talks especially tenderly about Antonia Bird’s early faith in his work. Now a close friend – they set up a production company, 4Way Pictures, together with Mark Cousins, former director of the Edinburgh Film Festival – she first cast him as Safe’s homeless psychotic Nosty in 1993. “Antonia believed in me when nobody did. I’ll never ever forget that. She’s a good woman.”
His ego is modest but not fragile. If a criticism of his work is offered, he is interested to hear it, all the while making it clear that he privately maintains a complete understanding of why you are wrong.
He is uncomfortable with words like talent. He only thinks about the OBE that Tony Blair awarded him in the New Year when journalists ask about it: “You have to be graceful. I don’t quite know how it happened to me, but I’m not going to trash it.” The way he describes it, his hunger – to move people, to keep learning, not to take anything for granted – never shifts into something so out of control as craving.
If Jimmy Grimble is about the grim realities of childhood, it is also about the stories we tell ourselves that allow us to escape. What were the stories Carlyle told himself as a child? “I was always a dreamer. You couldn’t keep me away from the cinema when I was a kid – I lived in the Wild West completely. When I got to 21 and I was introduced to acting again, I didn’t equate the images I’d seen as a child with the theatre – it didn’t seem to me to be the same world.” Why didn’t the theatre move him? “I never believed it. I never believed myself. It’s too artificial. You could say it’s artificial on a film set, but when I’m in a room, in a tight situation and the camera’s pretty close, I don’t see anything else but the other actor I’m looking at.”
Carlyle’s transition from tradesman to thespian is well documented, perhaps because it’s one of the few stories he’ll tell about himself: 75p left over on his birthday book token, chanced upon a copy of The Crucible, hooked. Stuck out the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, formed a theatre company called Raindog taking plays to local communities, before Loach gave him his first big break, Riff Raff. He nods his head mock-doltishly when I recount it back to him. There must have been more, though.
“Put it into the political context of the time. The Thatcher years were beginning to bite really deep in the late 70s, jobs were vanishing and so leisure time for people was growing and growing.
“Acting, the arts in general, is a magnet for the wounded of society. A lot of people that came to the arts centre I went to never had any intention of going on to a career in acting, but socially they got a lot out of it, talking to people who weren’t going to laugh at them, being in an environment where they could maybe get a bit of shit out of their head. They could rail against society in the safety of the rehearsal room. I became a more political person inside my own head about that time.” And placed himself – his whole social situation – in context for the first time.
Born in 1961, in Glasgow’s Maryhill, Carlyle was brought up by his father Joseph, a painter and decorator who lived an itinerant lifestyle but was based in Scotland. (His mother left when Carlyle was a toddler – he had no contact with her until the Sunday Mirror tracked her down in 1995: “I didn’t even know what she looked like, and then these bastards dug her up. Imagine what that does to you,” he said at the time.)
Labour’s election defeat in 1992 crushed his faith in party politics. “The entire map of Scotland was red, and the injustice of that was just so great for me, I turned my back on that. Social politics is a different thing. I still care about how people are treated.”
Do those politics still inform his choices? His projects span a broad spectrum of issues: Priest was about homosexuality, Hamish Macbeth about a dope-smoking copper, The Full Monty touched on the decline of the steel industry. He hesitates. “Everything inside me wants to say yes, but it isn’t true. Bond, or Plunkett and Macleane, these films aren’t anything to do with that. They’re entertainment. I don’t have any qualms about it. But, if I can, and if the choice is there, nine times out of 10 I’ll go the other way.”
He is happy: his home in Glasgow with his wife of three years, giving it large on his trips to London with his pal Ray Winstone, his tight group of family and friends. It keeps him grounded, he says.
What do they think of him in Glasgow? He wriggles in embarrassment as the answer comes into his head, and blethers for a bit before saying: “I think they like what I do. I think there is that sense in Glasgow that he’s one of us. I don’t revel in it, but I like that, because that’s what I’ve always wanted.
“Whenever I did anything, particularly in this tongue, I didn’t want anybody to go, ‘That’s shite, by the way, that’s not true.’ I think that so far, whenever I’ve been asked to interpret any Scot in any way, I’ve told it as it is and I’ve sounded the way they are. I don’t think I’ve caricatured.”
Which immediately brings to mind Daffy, Carlyle’s sweaty – and to my mind caricatured – psycho-Scot in The Beach. “There were a lot of problems with that film,” he says evenly. “When I saw the thing pieced together, I thought, ‘Well, I’m in a different film.’ ” He pitched his portrayal of Daffy to the character in the book, he says, not the eventual celluloid version, skewed by big-budget demands and studio imperatives.
“Ultimately what happened there was that I didn’t really want to do it, but I love Danny [Boyle, director of the Beach]. He phoned me personally and I felt a pull. Then he threw a shitload of money at me and called it a cameo. I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to go and take my pals to Thailand for a month,’ and at the end of the day that’s basically what I did.” He laughs.
“I love working with Danny,” he adds. “But I don’t think he should be doing any more American films for a bit. I think he should come back to Britain and he should go where he knows.”
For someone who prides himself on withholding from interviewers, he does a good act of being forthcoming, I say. “I think I’ve gone so far down this road now I can’t come back. But I firmly believe in it. I think it’s vital that you keep a bit of yourself back, you have to try and retain a bit of mystery. There’s wee things, wee secrets that you have to keep back. Then you’re always capable of surprising people. If your face is in the paper every day it’s no good. It’s boring. It disempowers you.”
A good actor must guard against public revelation, Ken Loach tells me later. “The more you talk about feelings, the less you have them,” he says. He calls Carlyle a generous actor, a good listener and very direct. He’s also one of the few actors that he has cast twice. “I find his responses very true. I never feel he does things for effect, he simply plays the truth of the moment.”
Carlyle once railed against a journalist for suggesting that an actor’s life informed his work. But surely some universal experiences do? “Personal life is different from experience,” he says. “Whether it’s my childhood or whatever, for someone to equate that with what I do as an actor is up to them, but it’s too convenient to say it’s because he grew up like this, that’s why he’s like that. How fucking pat is that notion? There are a lot of things that make up a performance, a lot of technical things. It isn’t always just about pulling it up from the darkest recesses of your mind or your heart. It’s your experience, and your observation. Because sometimes I’m looking at this guy in a bar and I’m watching how he’s putting a glass down.”
He demonstrates with the water on the table. Normally, you’d put it down so. But Trainspotting’s pub-psycho Begbie, for example, would put it down so. It’s a small action. He hardly moves. He’s not even looking at me. But just for a moment, I’m in a room with a loony. Clutch him and he’s gone.
Here is Robert Carlyle, for a moment. Nobody’s darling, nobody’s fool.
There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble is showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival (tickets: 0131-623 8030). General release August 25.