Nobody likes to criticise Robert Carlyle. Fans of lo-fi kitchen sink misery love him for his work with Ken Loach, and point out that he’s one of the few actors whom the director has cast twice.
Loaded readers love him for Begbie, his Pringle-sweatered, beered-up maniac in Trainspotting, and for his endless use of the f-word in interviews. The cardiganed crowds, who lap up stuff like Ballykissangel and Heartbeat, love him for Hamish Macbeth – despite the character’s dope-smoking in scenes that were transmitted just after the Sunday evening Thora Hird slot. And just about everyone who doesn’t fit into these categories loves him for his portrayal of Gaz, the unemployed Sheffield steel worker who strips his way back to self-esteem in The Full Monty. Tony Blair, a man who knows a populist bandwagon when he sees one, slapped an OBE on Carlyle in the new year’s honours. Which makes him, you’d suppose, the People’s Film Star.
Yet Carlyle is an unlikely leading man: physically slight, with teeth that would make an orthodontist scream. So why do people like him so much?
His versatility, for starters: a scouse serial killer in Cracker; a Catholic cleric’s boyfriend in Priest; a pub psychopath in Trainspotting; a bus driver-turned-Sandinista in Carla’s Song; a shy, retiring policeman in Hamish Macbeth; an MS sufferer in Go Now; a hard-up Yorkshireman in The Full Monty; and an East-End mobster in Face. Yesterday, audiences could catch him for the first time as a dandy 18th-century highwayman in Jake Scott’s Plunkett & Macleane. Later in the year, he’s a 19th-century cannibal for Ravenous, a destitute Irishman for Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes, a wasted hippie in The Beach and an osprey-wielding bully-boy for the new Bond movie The World is Not Enough.
His roles tend to be carefully researched. He bedded down in cardboard city to play a homeless man in Safe. He hung out with recovering heroin addicts for Trainspotting. During the filming of Cracker, he vowed he would play by the Lee Strasberg rules and keep a 24-hour grip on his character’s Liverpool accent. To test him out, his fellow actor Ricky Tomlinson telephoned him at 3am, and found him as good as his word.
Audiences and critics believe so strongly in the idea of his versatility and thoroughness that they’re quite willing to ignore his reckless involvement with regional accents that he can’t quite master. His fragile mockney in Face and his dodgy Sheffield in The Full Monty were not quite as bad as, say, Brad Pitt’s Irish accent in The Devil’s Own, but they were fundamentally shaky.
Nobody, however, seemed to care. British audiences have remained loyal to him because he has remained loyal to them, rejecting the Hollywood offers that came after Trainspotting.
His unwillingness to jump aboard the transatlantic gravy train has left him with a better reputation than many of his Trainspotting colleagues. The director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor went arm-in-arm to LA, signed up with Polygram, and drafted in Cameron Diaz and Frances McDormand to co-star in A Life Less Ordinary.
The film was an unholy mess, and bombed in the UK and the US. Jonny Lee Miller jumped straight across the Atlantic and into the cast of Hackers, an undistinguished teen thriller about computer espionage. Kelly MacDonald strapped herself into regulation corsetry for starry, US-backed costume dramas such as Elizabeth. She spent last year in New York filming Entropy, a romance in which the male lead is played by – of all people – U2’s Bono. Carlyle, conversely, went back to Glasgow to learn how to drive a bus for his role in Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song. He has yet to make a film on American soil.
Carlyle was born in 1961 in the Maryhill district of Glasgow. His mother, Elizabeth, walked out of the family home when he was a toddler, leaving his father – Joseph, a painter and decorator – to bring him up alone. In the Seventies, father and son lived a peripatetic life with a travelling hippie commune. Carlyle has hinted that his teen years were traumatic (“I went fuckin’ mad,” as he puts it). He left school at 16 and followed his father into the decorating trade. He didn’t stay long.
For his 21st birthday he was given some book tokens, and used part of the money to buy a copy of The Crucible for 75p. It ignited an interest in theatre that resulted in his auditioning for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1983. He got in, hated it, and stuck it out for three years. It took four years, he says, for him to unlearn what they taught him. In 1991, he and four other actors formed Raindog, an experimental theatre co-operative named after a Tom Waits song. That same year, Ken Loach cast him as a labourer in his film Riff Raff, and Carlyle suddenly found himself at the Cannes film festival, chatting at the bar with Dennis Hopper. It was his first trip abroad.
Since Hamish Macbeth made him a household name, Carlyle has been intensely suspicious of the press, and with some good reason. The Scottish tabloids picked over the details of his break-up with a long-standing girlfriend, Caroline Paterson (who plays Ruth in EastEnders), and printed paparazzi- style photos of him with Anastasia Shirley, a make-up artist who became his wife in December 1997. When the couple married, at the stroke of midnight in Skibo Castle, Sutherland (on loan to them from the millionaire Peter de Savary), persistent hacks attempted to infiltrate the ceremony by persuading the presiding minister that they were “old friends of Bobby’s” from Glasgow.
But the unkindest cut came in April 1995, when the Sunday Mirror ran a double-page interview with his estranged mother, whom he hadn’t seen since 1965. “I regard her as having died,” he was alleged to have said. From this point, his reticence in the presence of reporters hardened into outright aggression, and he began to voice a violent distaste for the PR duties entailed by his film career. “They make it up – there’s not even 2 per cent of truth in all of it,” he once raged. “I didn’t even know what she looked like, and then these bastards dug her up. Imagine what that does to you. I know it’s part of the job these days, but it’s a fuckin’ dirty part.”
The canonisation that followed his success in The Full Monty has, if anything, caused these intrusions to abate. But his hostility towards the media remains intense. These days, even when asked the blandest questions about his work, his responses are often prickly and confrontational. Richard Jobson, interviewing him for Esquire, noted: “Carlyle has this affable quality where he will say hello as soon as he sees you and will smile and with certainty say “great, let’s get together when this scene is over’. But behind the eyes there is a look which kind of suggests he wishes you would piss off back to wherever you came from.”
And it may be his disinclination to schmooze that has made Carlyle so phenomenally well-liked by cinema audiences, a notion that flies in the face of current PR orthodoxy. There’s also his liking for movies with something to say, a predilection that has enhanced his reputation for integrity. “Usually the most important thing for me is finding a script that contains something of social worth,” he has said. “If it’s got something to say, if it can educate in some way, and if it speaks to me off the page, then that’s a good gauge for me.” The element of class war that underlies his larky highwayman picture Plunkett & Macleane has even allowed him to squeeze this simple-minded adventure into that particular category.
But sometimes he seems satisfied with social relevancy that’s cosmetic or ill-conceived. In Antonia Bird’s Face, we were asked to believe in Carlyle as Ray, a socialist activist who’d lost his ideals and somehow wound up as a cock-a-knee gangster of the sub-Minder variety. It was a painfully thin notion made all the more ludicrous by the presence of a poster for Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom on Ray’s bedroom wall.
Politically, Carlyle is disillusioned. A Labour voter who never quite recovered from the party’s election defeat in 1992, he is suspicious of the man who gave him his OBE. Even so, he certainly won’t be following the example of his fellow Trainspotting alumnus and Loach-acolyte Peter Mullan, who recently cosied up with the Scottish Socialist Party. Carlyle may deflect journalists’ questions about devolution, but he takes his Scottishness seriously enough to remain resident in Glasgow, and to have turned down roles in cod-Caledonian epics such as Rob Roy and Braveheart.
But how long can he hold out against Hollywood? He’s rumoured to have pocketed pounds 1m for his role as Renard, the assassin-villain of The World is Not Enough, and the offers will only multiply once the film has been released internationally. The film’s connection with the world’s favourite Scot Nat, Sean Connery, might reassure Carlyle, should he wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the “social worth” of a film as brazenly empty-headed as an 007 actioner.
But his role promises to be out-and-out camp of a sort with which, in the past, he has been uncomfortable about associating himself. Renard the assassin is a former French Foreign Legion officer with a bullet that has lodged in his brain and makes him insensitive to pain. In a twist on Blofeld’s fluffy cat, the character carries a hawk trained to gouge out the eyes of his enemies. Carlyle acts opposite Sophie Marceau (who appeared as Princess Isabelle in Braveheart), and his fellow Scot Robbie Coltrane. With John Cleese also a member of the cast, and a plot that’s rumoured to involve the blowing up of the Millennium Dome, it’s hard to imagine how Carlyle will avoid compromising his reputation as a purveyor of down-to-earth and thoughtful performances.
Recently, the UK has produced a healthy quota of world-class leading men, but they tend to be soppy posh boys (the Fiennes brothers, Hugh Grant, Daniel Day-Lewis) or craggy character players (Pete Postlethwaite, Ian McKellen, Ray Winstone). Those who comprise our less regular output of working-class heroes (Ewan McGregor and Gary Oldman, for instance) have succumbed to the lure of the LA lifestyle and big-budget, dumb-ass movies with embarrassing enthusiasm.
At the moment, however, it’s difficult to imagine Robert Carlyle following Oldman’s example of moving to Beverly Hills, marrying and divorcing Uma Thurman, and throwing pool parties staffed by legions of strippers. As long as it stays that way, British audiences, critics – and indeed the Prime Minister – will continue to think highly of him.
Origins: Born 14 April 1961 in Glasgow. Mother (Elizabeth) worked for the bus company, father (Joseph) was a painter and decorator.
Education: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, 1983-86.
Vital statistics: Married since 1997 to Anastasia Shirley, a make-up artist.
Career: Painter and decorator until 1983. Formed Raindog theatre company in 1991. Films: Silent Scream (1990), Riff Raff (1990), Safe (1993), Being Human (1994), Priest (1994), Trainspotting (1995), Carla’s Song (1996), Go Now (1996), Face (1997), The Full Monty (1997) and `Plunkett & Macleane’ (1998). Three seasons of Hamish Macbeth on BBC1 (1994-1997)
Awards: 1995 Scottish Bafta for Hamish Macbeth, a Royal Television Society Award in 1996 for Go Now and Hamish Macbeth; Variety Club film actor of the Year, Bafta and Evening Standard Award winner in 1998 for The Full Monty. OBE, January 1999.
He says: “The work is all that matters.”
On journalists who don’t agree: “If any of them are ever in my company, I’ll definitely attack them.”