There’s a sense of art imitating life when it comes to Robert Carlyle’s career path, says Alastair McKay. But if the disaffections of his early years have helped inspire his best known characters, what can be read into his latest venture, which sees him tackling the notion of reconciliation following trauma and turmoil?
‘I was on a plane in India and I thought it was going to crash’ – Robert Carlyle
Since he turned 40 four years ago, Robert Carlyle has been thinking about his legacy. He imagined his children looking at his films on the video shelf and decided he had to concentrate on decent work. Since then, there have been no more Bond villains with bullets in their brains. “I just don’t like the whole Hollywood thing,” he says. “It’s fucking tacky. It’s not me. It’s not my world.”
The Mighty Celt
Production year: 2005
Cert (UK): 12A
Runtime: 81 mins
Directors: Pearse Elliott
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ken Stott, Robert Carlyle, Tyrone McKenna
I first met Carlyle in 1995. He was on the brink of mainstream success. The role that would define the early part of his career – the psychotic Begbie in Trainspotting – was not far away, but first Carlyle was taking a surprising sidestep. He was about to star alongside a dog called Wee Jock in the BBC1 Sunday night drama Hamish Macbeth. It seemed an odd choice, perhaps even to Carlyle. He defended the role on the basis that the character had no ambition. “It’s commercial television,” he said, “but it is not – it is fucking not – Heartbeat.” This ambivalence towards commercial success, and all it entails, has been a feature of his subsequent career.
Carlyle’s early breakthrough came in 1990 with his turn as a builder in Ken Loach’s building site drama, Riff Raff. He explored his darker side as a raging crusty in Antonia Bird’s Safe. In Jimmy McGovern’s television series Cracker, he played Albie Kinsella, a charismatic psychopath seeking revenge for the Hillsborough disaster: the echoes of De Niro as Travis Bickle would have been evident even if the costume department hadn’t put Albie in combat gear. None of it suggested any professional similarity to Nick Berry.
If you take Carlyle at his word – he says you should never imitate other actors but be yourself – and you assume that his acting style offers a true reflection of the person, he is a conflicted animal. There is a tough guy and there is a humane streak. There is Begbie, the Scottish hardman in all his repressed, glass-chewing glory, and there is Gaz in The Full Monty, exposing himself to preserve his dignity. People tend to focus on the psycho roles, but there are just as many thoughtful, socially conscious parts in which a tough guy is forced to accept his humanity. Looking back now, though, Carlyle accepts that if he is remembered for anything, it is for Trainspotting. It is, he thinks, a seminal film, defining a time in people’s lives. For Carlyle, it seemed to be the bright moment when anything was possible. The middle of the video shelf, padded with odd choices such as The 51st State and Plunkett & Macleane, offers evidence of a more messy outcome.
In 1995, Carlyle was aware that the story of his journey towards acting had a corny tinge. He left school at 16 with no qualifications, and went to work with his father as a painter and decorator for five years. From the age of 18, he did night classes at Cardonald college, Glasgow. At 21, he spent a birthday gift of a book token on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and was entranced. He pursued drama at Glasgow Arts Centre, got into the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (which he hated), and dragged himself towards a career in which he could be himself by pretending to be other people. Success was not, of course, without its downside. Fame – especially the attention he got when The Full Monty became an unlikely blockbuster – meant his background became public property. A tabloid tracked down Carlyle’s mother, who had walked out when he was young. A former girlfriend was uncovered. His wedding plans, to make-up artist Anastasia Shirley, were revealed. (The couple now have two children: three-year-old Ava and 18-month-old Harvey.) He didn’t like any of it.
Occasionally, Carlyle will refer to a period in his teens when he went off the rails. I ask him to explain what happened, and he says he prefers to answer in general terms. “Nonspecifics, you know? It’s best to leave that blank. But in terms of what was going on in my head, I was 17 and full of testosterone and angst. I saw my life stretching ahead of me as a painter and decorator, which my family – my father and uncles – had been. There was a nihilistic quality about me then, which said, ‘Fuck it, I’m no’ caring if I’m destined to do that.'”
By the time he finished his apprenticeship as a painter, he was totally disaffected. When he was introduced to acting at 20 or 21, it was therapeutic. “For the first time I was able to go into a room and shout and scream. I was finding these wee plays with people shouting and screaming about things that were important to them, and I thought: ‘This is interesting. I can shout and scream my stuff inside them.'”
That, he says, was the condensed answer. The bigger answer was more personal. “I was an only child. My mother had gone – and it’s fucking boring and I don’t want to talk about it – but all of that came to me at that time in my life. The injustice of that, suddenly, when you’re a teenager.”
Accounts of Carlyle’s life with his father tend to have an unreal quality. He is said to have been raised in hippy communes, travelling around the country. “I hate the word ‘hippy’. It was a bunch of people who had been hurt by the world. My father was one of them. There was a woman there who’d had two children, whose husband had left. Her sister also had had two children; her husband had left. There was another couple whose child had died. And we all lived in a house in Belmont Street [in Glasgow]. Everybody got very close through that sense of loss. I never wanted for a mother because I had these surrogate mothers. When you start to talk about that, flowery journalism starts to build it up into this commune idea. If that’s what it was, that’s what it was, but it’s not what people think it was.”
So it wasn’t, “let’s drop out of society and have an alternative lifestyle”?
“No, I don’t think they knew what they were doing. Certainly, my father didn’t drop out of society. This place in Belmont Street was a squat. I was maybe seven or eight. But then that house was gone, so what are they going to do now? They’re all clinging to each other. Nobody wanted to go their separate ways. Somebody knew somebody in London, so they all ended up in London. My father was painting and decorating to make money. They didn’t stop participating in society – far from it. People were out doing wee jobs but money was, to a certain extent, communal. People didn’t starve. One of the women would make a big pot of communal soup and everybody would have it.
“From London, somebody knew somebody in Brighton, so we all moved there. The whole bunch of us stayed in Brighton for the best part of two years. There was a period in that when we did literally sleep beneath the pier on the beach for a couple of months.” He remembers picnics in the park. “Everyone would go along and play guitars and the kids would run about. That was my upbringing.”
Even as he talks about it, you can see the appeal of some of his roles. Hamish Macbeth was a dope-smoking policeman who did everything he could to avoid making an arrest. Begbie, we may assume, is informed by his late teenage years. The Begbie-lite Jimmy, in Shane Meadows’ comic western, Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, was fuelled by a rage about his fragmenting family. There is something to be said for the notion that Carlyle’s work reflects his background. It is clearly informed by the politics of the 1970s. And the politics of the 70s were seasoned by the realisation that reality was tougher than the idealism of the 60s had suggested.
“There was most definitely a downside to all that for a lot of people,” Carlyle says. “By about 1972-73, there were more than four – possibly five, even six – suicides all round about my father and I. Two of the people I’ve mentioned killed themselves, and there were others on the periphery of the group. I’ve thought about it for years: why did these people kill themselves? I think it was a very simple answer: there was nothing for them to go back to. Society had no place left for them. Any hiccups that happened in their lives – and in a couple of cases a couple of affairs had happened – that was enough to tip the balance. They were all deaths by overdoses or pills. All round about me. Terrible. This one woman died with her wee boy in the bed. Killed herself. I was getting to be 15, 16, and thinking, ‘What the fuck was all that about?’ So my teenage years were a kind of backlash against my 60s childhood.”
It was, he says, a strange time. His attitude was: why should I fit in? “I was dogging school every day of the week, and I had no fucking idea what I was going to do with my life. My dad set me up with a wee bedsit of my own when I was 16. He was next door in another flat, but I was autonomous.”
Salvation came at the Glasgow Arts Centre. Carlyle was starting to act at a time of mass unemployment. “The Thatcher years. I was in the situation where I had a job, and you didn’t want to lose it. So it’s a big decision to let all this go and join this arts centre, with hundreds of similar souls.” He laughs. “All going, ‘What the fuck are we going to do with the rest of our lives?'”
In a way, I suggest, it was a creative time. “That’s true. Hunger’s a great spur. Even thinking back to my time at the arts centre, and some of the theatre I directed at that time, I see furry images of it in front of my eyes now and think, ‘Fuck’s sake, did I do that?’ We’re walking up the road, four of us, trying to club in for a fish supper, and I was 29 at that point. What the fuck happened after that?”
So was there a period in which you had to adjust to the idea that it was OK to be an actor, and that it didn’t make you a poof?
He laughs. “Jesus, man, it’s so true. I was at drama school fighting against it. Even at the arts centre before that, which was much more creative, and then when I went back into doing my own improvised theatre after drama school, I think I was kidding myself on that. I was embracing it. Even at that point in Scotland in theatre, in the 1980s, there were important English actors up from the National to be in the Citizens Theatre, and I thought they were wankers. I didn’t want to hear the word ‘actor’ come out of my mouth. And then there’s the celebrity world, which I abhor with every fibre of my being … I don’t want to be seen as being part of that. What I’d thought it was about was all these guys in a room, creating stuff. There was no ‘luvvie this’ or ‘darling that’, as far as I was concerned. Yet I was in an industry where every journalist would put the term ‘luvvie’ before the word ‘actor’.” He employs his most exasperated voice. “I don’t want to be a luvvie actor. It took a long time for me to accept I was an actor, a professional actor, and that, actually, I make a living out of this.”
With Riff Raff, Carlyle found a sympathetic mentor in Loach, who had trawled the country for an actor with experience of the building trade. Carlyle was perfect. The actor, meanwhile, imagined that Loach’s methods were typical. “I thought, ‘This must be how it is. This is great. Fuck me.’ Only one time since then, which was Carla’s Song [another Loach film], did I experience that again.
“But it’s enabled me to work with people like Antonia Bird and Danny Boyle, Peter Cattaneo and Michael Winterbottom. People who were disciples of the Loach school. They’re the people who would go and watch Loach films and say, ‘Oh, this actor’s interesting, I’ll work with him’. Without Ken Loach, I don’t think I would be anywhere at all.”
If he had chosen to, Carlyle could have followed his fellow Trainspotting alumnus Ewan McGregor to international A-list fame. He dabbled with the multiplex, but his time on The World Is Not Enough taught him that big budgets mean special effects, and special effects mean six hours in the trailer between takes. Derisively, he called the result “instant acting”.
His latest film, The Mighty Celt, is a reflection of the mature Carlyle. He plays an IRA man returning home and trying to adapt to the peace. “It reminded me of the films I grew up with, and the films that inspired me, certainly as a young actor: Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. Those films were about the people – it was about their lives – the wider political world had affected them, and they were zooming in on one particular aspect of that.” He liked Pearse Elliot’s script because of its emphasis on reconciliation. “In my 20s, a lot of the parts I was doing were about revenge.”
The future promises more of the same. He would love to do a Trainspotting sequel, but someone – we may guess McGregor – is less keen. The production company Carlyle formed with Antonia Bird, critic Mark Cousins and Irvine Welsh, is soon to start work on The Meat Trade, starring Carlyle and Colin Firth, with a screenplay by Welsh. There is talk of a role in Go Go Tales, with the uncompromising director Abel Ferrera, co-starring Carlyle’s hero, Harvey Keitel. (While his son is named Harvey, Carlyle says, a little defensively, “There’s a wee nod in Keitel’s direction, but he’s not named after him.”)
The offer of Go Go Tales, Carlyle says, “was a bit of a marker”. Keitel, he notes, has never stopped searching. “You’ve always got to look for the interesting stuff and try to find a world that you haven’t visited before. That’s the only chance.”