The Mirror (UK)
(Interview with ex-girlfriend) - I was Bobby's girl and believed he would triumph in the end.
November 1997   |   Written by Tanith Carey

The making of; Robert Carlyle: They were teenagers in love and for five years Donna Collins shared his life. Now she recalls his struggle towards stardom.

The final frame of the film was a revelation. With his back to the camera, a gyrating Robert Carlyle snatched off his G-string.

As the hit movie’s name demanded, Carlyle had just gone the Full Monty, and the entire cinema audience roared with appreciation.

But in the midst of such jubilation there was one woman who couldn’t bear to watch. She felt herself shrinking into her seat, peeking gingerly through her fingertips.

Donna Collins had been Robert’s teenage sweetheart, the girl who had shared his life for five years.

“As I looked up at the screen, I felt really embarrassed for Bobby,” Donna, now 35, recalls. “He was facing every actor’s nightmare – standing on stage completely naked. He would have been absolutely terrified.

“Not that he’s self-conscious about his body,” she adds, revealing the intimacy they had once shared. “Quite the reverse.”

Bobby Carlyle has come a long way since the days he stripped off wallpaper rather than clothes for a living as a pounds 3-an-hour painter and decorator.

It’s not as if 36-year-old Carlyle has achieved overnight success. It has taken him almost 20 years to fulfil his ambition. And it was during their relationship that Donna saw the Glasgow boy who left school at 16 without a single qualification turn into one of Britain’s most talented actors.

After drama school and performing in rep, his breakthrough came as the pot-smoking TV detective Hamish MacBeth in 1994. A year later he achieved cult status as the psychopathic Begbie in Trainspotting.

But it was 15 years ago, in a modest Glasgow flat covered with pictures of Forties and Fifties movie icons, that Robert shared his dream of acting with Donna.

She and the penniless drama student often only had enough money to share a fish and chip supper. But night after night, they would indulge Robert’s love of movies, going to the cinema to see favourites such as Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

Now a mother of one and still living in Glasgow, she says: “Bobby and I were soul-mates. He was so driven it doesn’t surprise me one bit that his talent has been recognised.

“All through his life people doubted his ability. He was determined to prove them wrong – and he has.”

Donna was his first love. They met at school as unworldly teenagers. Bobby came from a broken home and shared a bohemian existence with his father Joe as he scoured the country looking for painting and decorating work.

When he met Donna in 1976 at a large comprehensive school, the North Kelvinside Secondary, she was a naive 14-year-old who decided she wanted to be Bobby’s girl.

A year below Robert, Donna couldn’t help but notice him on his way to school. With his long hair, sleeveless Afghan coat and platform shoes, he was the epitome of the then fashionable glam rock style.

She was smitten.

“I thought he was gorgeous from the moment I set eyes on him,” Donna recalls.

“When I saw him I thought: `That’s the man for me’. It was love at first sight.

“Never in a million years did I dream that Bobby would give me a second look. I was very innocent and naive with no experience of boys.

“Bobby, on the other hand, was a bit of a heart-throb. He had a style of his own. He stood out from the crowd.”

So, with all the awkwardness of adolescence, Donna began an innocent courtship. She confided in a friend, hoping she would act as a go-between. “At school the boys had one recreation room and the girls had a separate room upstairs,” Donna says. “My friend made endless excuses to go down and knock on their door – like asking for a cup of sugar – so that Bobby would answer.

“Then, without my knowing, she pushed some notes under the door, saying, `Someone upstairs fancies you’. When it became obvious it was me, he asked me out on a date. I was shocked.

“On the day of our date I got my hair cut first and I remember saying to the hairdresser, `Don’t cut it too short. I’m meeting someone’. But he still cut it all off.

“When I walked out, I was terrified. I thought, `I looked one way at four o’clock and completely different at seven. Bobby won’t like me anymore’.

“But he was still nice about it. Being broke students, we just went for a walk together.”

Donna remembers that the next night they went to see Bobby’s favourite film, Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty.

“Our love of films brought us together. That and the fact I was madly in love with him. It must have been pretty obvious to Bobby how I felt.”

Even so, it was a teenage infatuation that was short lived – at least as far as Robert was concerned.

“I think I was too naive for him and I thought he was too good for me,” Donna admits self-consciously. “It lasted a few weeks and then just petered out.

“I was upset, although looking back now, he was probably playing hard to get.” Although Robert and Donna were to resume their relationship two years later and become much closer, Robert could then have been plagued by the insecurities of his own childhood.

When just a sandy-haired five-year-old he was devastated when his mother Elizabeth left his father Joe for another man. A blow from which he has never recovered.

And so began the father and son’s itinerant lifestyle. Over the next decade, they lived in more than 50 places, mostly hippy communes, bedsits and, once, a tent on the Scottish coast.

A sense of stability came at Kelvinside Secondary. He was reserved and popular, but more interested in five-a-side football and the music of Stevie Wonder and Santana than schoolwork. Contemporaries describe him as likeable if somewhat unconventional. Few remember him as an aspiring actor.

Old school friend Robert Farmer says: “At school, he was just himself, not at all arrogant, just a decent all-round guy. None of us had the slightest idea he wanted to be an actor.

“As far as I was concerned he was still a painter and decorator – until I recognised him on TV in Hamish MacBeth.”

Former English teacher David Fairweather admits there was little hint of the greatness to come in the school leaver.

“You could not tell he was going to be a star, let alone an actor, although he was certainly a very interesting pupil and good at discussing literature. He had a difficult family situation and that tended to influence him.”

But there was still one person who believed in him, who never forgot him. Donna.

And two years after their first romance a twist of fate brought them together again – in a Glasgow bar.

“Bobby was still just as lovely,” Donna says. “We were in a crowd and it took some time for him to remember who I was. He was living with someone at the time and I was with someone too. But something happened between us that night.

“At first, it was a very innocent courtship. He was reserved and down- to-earth but he knew how to charm a woman. It was his sensitivity that I loved the most.

“People just seem to open up to him because he is so understanding and giving,” she says affectionately.

“Physically, it was his deep soulful eyes that attracted me. It was as if there was something hiding behind them.”

From then on it was Donna who persuaded him to pursue his ambition to be an actor. And after buying a copy of The Crucible by Arthur Miller with a birthday book token, Bobby’s dream of becoming an actor was fully formed.

“It was all down to his desire to prove other people wrong,” says Donna. “The teachers who had known him at school did not look further than the obvious with Bobby.

“Acting was something that he always had a hankering for, although he was worried about whether he had what it took.”

Donna persuaded him to try out the amateur dramatics at the Glasgow Arts Centre, even going with him the first time to lend support.

His first role was in a Greek tragedy, although his first pay cheque was pounds 40 for playing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer in a Christmas pantomime.

“He very quickly got involved in productions, not just acting, but every aspect,” recalls Donna.

“It was quite a nerve-racking time because I had heard him talk a lot about going on the stage.

“And although I always hoped his dreams would come true, there was still a protective part of me that wanted to shield him from possible failure.

“But the first time I saw him on stage in front of an audience, I knew I didn’t have to worry. It was a joy to see someone I loved feeling fulfilled.”

Sensitive about his lack of qualifications, Robert was also determined to prove what he could do and returned to night-school to take classes in Art, English and History.

But Bobby’s first role was in an unusual location. He posed as a friend at an English exam he had already passed.

Donna says: “He went in and impersonated his friend in the exam room. It was an another example of how Bobby was to other people.”

His aspirations were also driven by his celluloid heroes, from Bogart to Pacino, and he read biographies of all the Hollywood greats.

“His flat was always covered with black and white film stills,” Donna remembers. “He was really attracted by Forties and Fifties glamour.”

After a string of amateur successes, Robert finally had the courage to try out for drama school. Even then he had undoubted charisma. As he walked into the audition room for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music And Drama, all eyes turned to stare at the long-haired hippy dressed in a shabby red leather jacket and dark shades.

Within minutes of launching into a speech from the Two Gentlemen Of Verona, Bobby had landed one of just 20 places at the school. But again, his restlessness got the better of him and within weeks he had decided to quit.

“Robert is not a person who responds well to regimentation and authority, which is also why he didn’t like school,” Donna explains.

Unknown to Robert, his talent had also been recognised by another person. His drama teacher Edward Argent.

“I was very impressed,” Edward recalls. “But I do remember commenting in his first report that he needed to find a voice somewhere between muttering and shouting.

“Then I heard he had decided to drop out. He told me he felt drama school was going to smooth out the rough edges on his raw talent. I told him to at least be sensible and finish up the year. Finally he agreed.”

After that Robert buckled down to the course – much to Donna’s relief.

“To his surprise he liked parts of it that he didn’t expect to,” she says. “But he wasn’t too keen on wearing tights for the dancing class. He really used to complain. He never refused to wear them, but he let it be known that they were not him at all.”

Even so, Donna saw him mature. “When he was learning the craft it opened him up,” she says. “Every day, you could see him waking up and thinking, `Wow, it’s another day. What am I going to do with it?'”

Throughout the course, money was tight and it was Donna who worked in financial services to support them both.

“Like a lot of jobbing actors, he had periods when he had to get part- time work in order to eat. He didn’t mind. He looked at it as something you have to do for your art,” she says.

“But the rent was expensive and there was not much left over at the end of the month. There were lean times where we would have fish and chips between us. But when you are young and in love, like we were, it didn’t matter.”

If they did have money, Bobby would romance Donna with gourmet meals.

“Bobby was a brilliant cook. It was one of the things he used to take the most pleasure in. Like with a lot of things in life, he is a perfectionist. I never touched a pan, but he used to prepare an Italian egg soup with parmesan called stracciatella.”

But soon after leaving drama school, the couple started to grow apart. Robert, Donna suggests, was committed to his career rather than their relationship.

“Marriage was never on the agenda for either of us. It was not something we aspired to,” she says.

“When Bobby left, he knew he had to work hard to make a name for himself. He had lot of ideas of his own. He was not the sort to sit about waiting to be offered things on a plate. He was the kind of person who said, `How do I go about getting something done?'”

It was Donna who finally left Robert. He went on to date fellow Glasgow actress Caroline Paterson, who now stars as Ruth in EastEnders. Three years later, Donna married catering assistant Paul Drummond, although they have now parted.

“It took me along time to get over Bobby,” Donna admits sadly. “But I’m not sorry we’re not together. There’s always a reason relationships don’t work out. There is no point regretting it.”

But any suggestion that success changed Carlyle, that he was wooed by the luvvie world of acting, is soon countered by Donna and his friends. Carlyle seems determined to remain unaffected, and not even offers of parts in blockbusters such as Rob Roy and Braveheart can entice him to pursue that ephemeral Hollywood dream.

The actor Robert Carlyle is much the same as the old Bobby, painter and decorator.

Peter MacDonald, who became a pal when he taught Bobby to drive a bus for the Ken Loache film Carla’s Song earlier this year, agrees.

Peter says: “I found him a typical Glasgow lad that comes up here every day for a job.

“There is nothing stand-offish about him. I wouldn’t have known he was an actor if I hadn’t been told.

“He came into the depot wearing a black donkey jacket, sat down and had a smoke and a cup of tea with the rest of the lads.

“I remember him looking at the double decker and saying, `I’m not going out in that, am I?’ He passed his test first time with flying colours. He said it was one of the most enjoyable moments of his career.”

Later Robert even dropped round and gave Peter a signed book on Scottish clans.

“I asked him how far he would go and he said, `Only so far’. Then he wanted to become a director.”

As she raises her four-year-old daughter, Donna still fondly remembers the last time she met Bobby.

“I was pregnant with my daughter and wearing a big rain coat. It wasn’t until we hugged one another, that he realised.

“When he felt my bump, he said, `I think there is something coming between us’, but he was quite shocked.

“I find it funny that the women he has been involved with, me and Caroline, had babies after we split up with him. I think he brings out a maternal instinct.

“I am so proud of him. He will always have a warm place in my heart.”.