We’re sitting at a table in a vast medieval banqueting hall in east London. Robert Carlyle famously hates interviews but, as the most lauded British actor of his generation, he likes improvising. So I’ve been throwing some questions at him and, to my surprise, we’re laughing, having fun.
Are you fond of children? ‘Yeah. Very much.’
What do you expect to happen to you after you die? ‘My wife’s gonnae hate me for this – but absolutely nothing.’
She’s religious? ‘No, but spiritual.’
Can you remember the occasion of your first wet dream? ‘I remember it happening. I remember that I thought I was on a spaceship. Can you?’
Yes, there had been a Rod Stewart concert on television the previous night. This has haunted me ever since. ‘No!’.
What is your greatest fear? ‘Not to be able to do what I love doing.’
You mean acting? ‘Yes.’
Do you ever take the violence and brutality of some of your characters away with you?
He catches, and there is a pause while he decides whether to answer. ‘Definitely. The better the writing, the more it tends to happen. If the writing is true, the resonance is strong. It can be disorientating…’
There is a longer pause. Let’s stay with this one a while, I think.
Until you meet him, it’s almost impossible to know what to expect of Robert Carlyle in the flesh. He has an ability to immerse himself in an extraordinarily broad range of parts, seeming to change voice, accent and even physical appearance with each one. He was the terrifying thug Begbie in Trainspotting, the psychopathic Hillsborough survivor Albie in an award-winning, three-part episode of Cracker; he played Hamish, the amiable, hash-smoking slacker cop, in Hamish Macbeth and Gaz, the downtrodden former steelworker turned stripper in The Full Monty, which made him into an international star and changed his life irrevocably. His favourite directors, Ken Loach and Antonia Bird, have cast him as everything from a Glaswegian bus driver caught up in the Nicaraguan civil war to a homicidal vagrant. Next, he will be a highwayman in the gory British comedy Plunkett & Macleane (think Trainspotting with wigs) and the ruthless bad guy in the next Bond film. How much of Robert Carlyle is there in any of them? So far, he’s been reluctant to say.
Carlyle makes these transitions look easy, but the lengths to which he will go in pursuit of what he refers to gravely as ‘truth’ or ‘honesty’ are often extreme, bordering on obsessively weird. This could be one reason why we associate him most readily with the chilling portrayal of psychos and sociopaths. Today, however, Carlyle could scarcely be less redolent of Begbie. Dressed in the season’s crisp grey suit and black wool polo-neck, with floppy centre-parted hair, he looks like a refugee from Boyzone, sleek and notably handsome. What you focus on, when he’s onscreen, is the mobile central portion of his face, but, close up, his angular cheekbones and wide-set, almond-shaped brown eyes are striking. An early girlfriend has spoken of her attraction to those deep, soulful eyes (‘It was as if there was something hiding behind them’), and you can see what she means.
Carlyle’s voice is soft Glaswegian, acquiring a harsher edge only when discussing his working-class upbringing in that city, or when talking about the media, which he has learned to loathe since being engulfed in Monty mania and being turned over by the tabloids several times. The worst of these stories concerned Carlyle’s mother, whom he hadn’t seen for 30 years, but who was tracked down and interviewed by the Sunday Mirror three years ago.
If the people Robert Carlyle plays tend to have one thing in common, it is that they are alienated outsiders – though, if you ask him how he chooses his roles, this is the very last thing he will mention. He seems quite shocked to have any such pattern pointed out to him. I think this is interesting. For the moment, we’re still talking about acting, though.
Asked for specific instances where the work had followed him into reality, Carlyle starts talking about Cracker. Jimmy McGovern had dreamed up Albie, a survivor of the fire which had killed so many Liverpool fans at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield. Reacting to the Sun’s scandalous labelling of the victims and survivors as ‘Scum!’, Carlyle is driven to embark on a vengeful murder spree.
McGovern’s script contained both of the virtues that Carlyle – a former painter and decorator, and trade union official – professes to look for: it was ‘real, and it was socially relevant’. From the moment he heard that the part was his, he spoke only with a Scouse accent. He kept it up for three months (‘I found it difficult not to’), and when a friend called at 3am to test him, he was still in character. It helped him to deliver an exquisite performance – which was likened to De Niro’s turn in Taxi Driver – but the price was one that most of us wouldn’t wish to pay.
‘It was easy to get immersed in something like that. I looked back at the tabloid reports of Hillsborough, and it didn’t take long to get angry. I sunk quite deep into that one. Part of it was the good professional actor, but partly it just felt easier to keep going like that. And because I looked so different to my normal self, and was speaking differently, the line between fiction and reality can get blurred.’
You mean it did get blurred? ‘Yeah, it did. I felt depressed and found it hard to function for two months afterwards.’
Was anyone worried about you? ‘I think they do.’
You mean they were? ‘Yes. My wife Anastasia works in the industry [he met her on the set of Cracker, where she was a make-up artist], so she’s able to identify what’s going on. I mean, when I’m about to start a job, I’m unbearable, you know? I really am. Sometimes she’ll turn and say, “You’re just behaving like that because you’re about to start a job and you think you’re shite and you’re worried, blah blah blah…”’ He sighs heavily. ‘I mean, it’s not what you need to hear at that point, you know?’
So you still get the fear? You still think you might not be good enough? ‘Oh, absolutely. It’s funny with acting, because I’ve worked with people who spend the whole time pissed and don’t give a shit, and with others who pace their trailer worrying every night, and you wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess which was which. I’m more confident now, but my approach is instinctive – and the next one could always be the one where I fall on my arse.’
Carlyle hasn’t fallen yet. Far from it. He is the nation’s actor du jour, to the extent of being awarded an OBE in January’s resolutely populist New Year’s Honours List – which is remarkable only because he is also so good. To ensure that he hasn’t failed, he has gone to the trouble of living rough in London for a week, armed only with 27p and some tins of Special Brew (for Antonia Bird’s Safe), spent six days acquiring his Passenger-Carrying Vehicle Licence (for Loach’s Carla’s Song) and embarked on all manner of crazy research. There is also an element of Carlyle’s having been in the right place at the right time – just when the pernicious old dichotomy between gritty proletarian realism and English middle-class manners was being replaced, for a whole range of reasons, with a much more productive inclusiveness. It is no coincidence that Carlyle and Ewan McGregor – both Scots and thus outside the English class system – were chosen as symbols of this cool new cultural spirit. Carlyle has the advantage over his Trainspotting co-star of being able to recognise a good script. Age and experience probably help, too.
Andrew Macdonald, the producer of Trainspotting, describes having taken the cast to the Calton Athletic drugs rehab group in Glasgow, prior to shooting. ‘The others were totally out of their depth,’ he says. ‘They had been through drama school – but nothing had prepared them for the reality of the stories being shared by the ex-junkies. Robert just sat there and seemed to be part of the experience. I think he knew what they were talking about.’
Macdonald first saw Carlyle perform in Raindog, an experimental theatre group named after a favourite Tom Waits album, which he formed after drama school with his then-girlfriend, Caroline Paterson (who played Ruth in EastEnders). ‘It was obvious at that point that Robert was able to be real and charismatic at the same time.’
Offscreen, Robert Carlyle doesn’t have a big physical presence. He’s probably 5ft 9in; he’s wiry of build. As so often with actors, you find yourself asking where his screen presence comes from. In his case, you’d guess that it was related to an introspection developed in response to an unsettled early life and, second, to an imagination that served (and presumably serves) as a refuge from the knocks he took then. Any actor will tell you that part of the joy of acting is losing yourself, forgetting yourself, as small children do when they play; returning to a point where there was just ‘me’ – before the burden of ‘I’ existed. Carlyle seems able to do this to a degree that goes well beyond most people’s capabilities. Asked if acting is a release for him, he begins by skirting the question.
‘Oh, acting’s the greatest therapy known to man,’ he says. ‘I can go on set and get all the shit out of me, whenever I feel like it. Sometimes, at the end of the day, you feel lighter, like you’ve shed a load of stuff that needed to come out. There’s certain people I would prescribe acting for.’
The last time Carlyle cried for real was two weeks ago, when he was watching a musical passage from his latest Antonia Bird film, Ravenous, which is about members of a lost wagon train who resort to cannibalism (he is quick to add that he wasn’t in the scene). He evidently cried for a whole half-hour when Gary McAlister missed his penalty against England in Euro 96, and cites the most difficult things he’s ever had to do as appearing on Late Night With David Letterman, executing the final strip scene in The Full Monty, where he and his cohorts had to freeze for 10 seconds while 300 women went gleefully insane, and researching the BBC film Go Now, which is about a hedonistic lad who discovers he has multiple sclerosis. ‘I had to go to MS centres in Glasgow and Bristol, asking people: “What did it feel like when you were told you had MS?” That was the only time I’ve felt like a parasite.’
The gay sex scene with Linus Roache in Antonia Bird’s Priest was easier than clinches with actresses, he says (‘With women, you want subtitles saying: “I hope you don’t think I’m enjoying this”’). I ask where his uncommon immersion in his work comes from, and he answers: ‘I suppose it’s a desire to get it right. And to be seen to get it right. You don’t want to mess it up. So you drive yourself.’
Carlyle came to acting late, after he was given a copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible for his twenty-first birthday. That was when ‘I began looking at how you could talk about a particular subject, but not quite show yourself. 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.’
He involved himself with an amateur company at the Glasgow Arts Centre, his first paying part being Rudolph in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (‘early type-casting,’ he once quipped). Later, he won a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which he hated and left halfway through the first term, returning only after a great deal of persuasion by two of his tutors.
Friends, schoolmates and teachers have all confirmed that a career on the stage had never occurred to the younger Carlyle. This was hardly surprising. His father was a painter and decorator who either liked travel or had trouble settling down, depending on which way you look at it. His son moved primary schools several times and spent much of his childhood and youth living in communes in Scotland and London, including one in Chelsea, which was ‘really cool’.
Carlyle had always spoken about this unorthodox childhood as a positive thing, full of interesting experiences and people who cared for him. Only recently has he begun to realise the depth of the imprint it left on him. He has always dismissed such a connection in the past.
‘There is a link between that time and what I do now. It’s taken me a long, long time to realise and understand it. Because of that always-changing environment and set of circumstances, you’re constantly trying to assimilate yourself. Every new playground is a new set of problems and challenges. So you try your best to blend in. Which is what I do now. You’re trying to convince people that you’re something else, that you belong within that environment.’
Carlyle claims to have no idea why his father chose to live as he did and seems to grow uncomfortable when talking about it. Why? ‘Because it’s been bastardised by the tabloid press,’ he says quietly, almost apologetically. ‘It gets trivialised. That’s why I get hesitant in talking about it…’
You mean after what happened with your mum? ‘Yeah, that’s just a… closed book, you know what I mean?’ He’s speaking in a terse whisper now. This is more like the Carlyle you see onscreen: clenched, intense, emanating rather than expressing emotion.
He won’t thank me for saying so, but his mother’s story, as it appeared in the newspaper, was moving. As she told it, Joseph Carlyle’s wanderlust took a big toll on their relationship. Robert was five when it finally broke down and she retreated to her mother’s house, only to find her own home deserted when she returned two days later. She went looking for her husband and son, she says, but couldn’t find them, until she received a letter from Joseph two years later, saying that he was having trouble coping. They reunited around the time of Robert’s seventh birthday, only to part acrimoniously, with Elizabeth frozen out once more.
This is almost certainly a partial account of what happened (an alternative version has her leaving the family for a bus conductor), and the details are not important to anyone other than the people involved (Robert has evidently remained hostile to the idea of meeting Elizabeth), but the image of this small boy caught in the middle of an adult struggle and having the ground whipped away from under his feet is strangely powerful in view of what he grew up to be. Perhaps the frighteningly vivid imagination that he can crawl into and inhabit so completely for such long periods originates here. If ever there was a case of adversity furnishing strength, this is it.
Carlyle won’t comment on any of this, but the longer he spends explaining why, the more you sympathise with him. ‘It’s difficult because… suddenly you get this thing thrown at you, like, “Hey – you’re successful. Right, this is what you go through when you’re successful.” Says who? Fuck off! Imagine how it felt with my mother. I didn’t even know what she looked like. It’s disgraceful. And you try your best to work the game, figure out ways of handling the press. So you quietly decide, “OK, I’m not saying that again and I’m not going to deal with tabloids in that way.” Then you talk to someone decent, whether it’s from a broadsheet or a magazine, and the tabloids lift what you’ve said and contort it. That’s why I’m wary. I’ve been burned, you know?’
Last year, he made an off-the-cuff remark at the end of a Scottish press conference about how the wages earned by Rangers player Paul Gascoigne could finance his own team, Partick Thistle, for a year. This, he opined lightly, was ‘a disgrace’. The comment made all the back pages, as if it had just been handed down from God. Are the headlines about him being near to quitting Scotland true?
‘That’s sensationalism and assumption again, like so much of it. There was one article that labelled me “temperamentally ill-suited to fame”. Now, that’s him judging me after meeting me for half an hour, which was interview number 24 on a long day. These snap judgments then become “the truth” about Robert Carlyle: “He’s no’ really into this. He’s successful, but he doesnae really like it. How’s he gonnae handle it?” It’s all shite. It’s all shite. The only thing I’ve ever really wanted people to understand is that what I do in my private life… I’ve not said that it’s nobody’s business, though that’s true. What I’m saying is that it’s irrelevant. What I’m trying to be is an actor who makes people believe that I’m somebody else. This façade here, the one sitting in front of you, is irrelevant.’
Carlyle looks amused as I tell him that this sounds the wrong way round to me. His life is what he brings to his work – and it is relevant. However, it should also be his right to tell us all to mind our own business. ‘Yeah, I think people’s interest is valid, if I’m honest,’ says Carlyle. ‘But I also believe that the more you expose your private self as an actor, the less believable you will be. It’s as simple as that. Even if it’s just in my own mind, I have to be allowed that superstition; that the reason why people are believing what I’m doing is because they don’t know what I’m really like, they don’t know how I sit or speak, they’ve never really seen it. And, anyway, I want people to believe what I do. I don’t necessarily want them to believe me. This is what I do. There isnae any more.’
He may have a point. As Scott Meek, a friend and executive producer on Hamish Macbeth, has shrewdly noted, Carlyle ‘gives off the notion that there is a darkness there, another aspect to him that you never get to grips with’. He remarks, ‘Women find that very attractive.’ If the women I know are anything to go by, this is something of an understatement. The fascination he holds is that this aura appears to be both natural and spontaneous.
The same ex-girlfriend who liked his eyes claimed that Carlyle had always had a mistrust of authority and was fired by an urge to ‘prove wrong all the people who’d doubted him’. Given this, it’s hardly surprising to find that he disliked school. David Fairweather, who taught him English at Kelvinside Secondary, remembers him as ‘a very interesting pupil and good at discussing literature’, adding: ‘He had a difficult family situation, and that influenced him.’ Carlyle also felt out of place: ‘People were going home to their mums and getting their dinner. I was going home and cooking the dinner myself, so that gets to you.’
He left school before he was 16, without sitting exams, and joined his father in the decorating business. This experience later helped persuade Ken Loach to give the fledgling actor his first break as the focus of a team of decorators in Riff Raff. After 18 months of working with his father, though, he decided to go back to college to get some qualifications. ‘I thought, “I need to do something about this, here.” Because I knew I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t thick.’
Had you left school with some idea that you might be?
‘Thick? In conventional terms, I think, yeah. I went to night classes at a further education college for two years, took English, History and Art, and gained all these educational qualifications which have never been any good to me. But I proved something to myself, I guess. I could understand what was being taught.’
Sitting with him now, it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever thought otherwise. He has a keen mind. What went wrong at school? ‘I don’t have kids, but if I ever do, maybe I’ll come to understand it. I just suddenly freaked out.’
Was the problem at drama school also that he felt like an outsider? He chuckles ruefully and looks up from the table, his eyes calm. ‘I suppose there’s a pattern emerging here, isn’t there? Yeah, I felt I didn’t belong at all. Because I’d come from a work ethic, a particularly working-class background, I suddenly found myself surrounded by the sort of people I’d never really met before. I mean, Glasgow Arts Centre was full of people like myself – everyone was trying to get into drama school. And I got in, and I was leaving all these people behind. I knew that had to happen, and I was excited by the challenge. I thought, “Well, this is what being an actor is all about.” Then it did my head in for the next six months. I still don’t know why I went back.’
Was it the right decision? ‘Maybe – if only to give me a platform from which to reject a lot of the things you’re taught as certainties. In the end, I didn’t really fit into what they wanted. They were trying, as they do, to squeeze me into these wee boxes and stick me on the conveyor belt as just another actor. Because I was having trouble fitting into the box, I got very despondent. I really thought that, once I’d left, I wasn’t gonnae take it any further.’
Then, abruptly, Carlyle brightens. ‘But then things started to change. Suddenly, the outsiders were the ones that were getting the work – because you were different from them.’
His eyes narrow with pleasure, as he laughs a laugh that is unmistakably the last laugh. One of the quick-response questions I asked him was: ‘What is the most insulting thing anyone ever said to you?’ He’d thought about it for a while, then realised he didn’t have an answer. ‘It’s been so long since anybody’s… they don’t do that any more!’
I can still hear him giggling to himself about this as I step into the street, leaving him to move on to interview 25. • ‘Plunkett & MacLeane’ opens on 2 April.