Robert Carlyle is talking about his late father, about losing him earlier this year.
Then I feel ashamed. But actors provoke that confusion. On screen they are accused of living out their true emotions, and off it of creating fantasy ones. That’s their business, walking the line between fiction and reality, creating a tightrope, staying on. Before the interview, I watch a preview of Carlyle’s new BBC film, Born Equal, in which he plays Robert, a homeless outsider. The character Robert is wiping the slate clean, trying not to be the ‘scum’ society labels him, but then he loses a parent and retreats into the life he was born to. There’s something almost feral about Carlyle’s screen performance. Like you’re watching something unadorned, unpalatable – and true. Maybe the most compelling thing is his ability to be both violent and vulnerable, to make you simultaneously fear him and want to save him.
He’s riveting on screen and off. We’re sitting in the bay window of a drawing-room in a posh Glasgow hotel. There’s a tree with gold-wrapped parcels, and Christmas music playing softly in the background, like a scene in a perfect Christmas snow globe. But somehow, even though he’s inside, you feel that part of him is the on other side of the window, looking in. This is not hard to understand when you know where he and his dad came from. They had places all over this city when it was just the two of them. After his dad died, Carlyle set out in the car for late-night vigils. His wife was brilliant, simply saying, “I’ll see you when I see you,” and off he’d go. In some of the places there was nothing left but his memories. Some had cash-and-carries built on them. But then he drove to Polmadie, which was still recognisable.
Now he’s talking about houses being boarded up, keeping talking through waves of emotion, holding on to words like life-buoys, fighting to retain control. I hear at a distance, my eyes still drawn to the continuing drama unfolding across his face. Here’s the cruel camera close up: utter desolation in his eyes, rigid cheek muscles fighting imminent collapse, mouth set uncertainly. Even the viewer’s composure gets threatened. It’s partly Carlyle’s ability to be emotionally naked that makes him such a good actor, and in real life it’s just as compelling. “It was awful,” he says. “It was awful. I would sit there and cry for hours, just remembering things, missing it.”
He sat in the dark car and looked at the boarded up houses in Polmadie. “I thought, ‘These are the houses that were built after ours, how bad were the conditions we were in?’ The last of the real tenements, old decaying terraces. It affected me. I could see darkness and how difficult it was for my father after my mother had left. Awful squalor. Real poverty.”
He understands Robert in Born Equal. It’s almost a self-portrait, he says, a parallel life that he might have lived. Although improvised, the story always had Robert searching. But it was Carlyle’s idea to make that search for his mother. It seems extraordinary that he suggested it. He has always preferred not to talk about his mother, who left when Carlyle was a child. He hasn’t had a relationship with her since, and was furious when a newspaper tracked her down. Now he has almost invited comparisons. So did he use his own experiences to understand Robert’s search? There is a long pause. “I used it… I used it in terms of the character, because I wanted something truthful.” He smiles. “But this is how I can answer your question. Robert tells a story about his father… and that is not true.” He looks at me expectantly. If people deduce from Born Equal that he is ‘searching’ for his mother, then it will be tangling the threads of fiction and fantasy. “It will make me laugh… because I’ve cheated you. And that’s a nice feeling.”
Here is the truth. Carlyle feels his life has been so “bastardised” by the tabloids that he almost doesn’t want to talk about it. He is said to have lived in a commune, but a Maryhill commune always sounded a bit unlikely. “You’re right. It’s not about a commune. It was an alternative lifestyle, I suppose. What had happened was my father’s marriage had split up.” (Interesting that he doesn’t say his parents split up. It’s as if he sees his mother as completely removed from his life – and later that explains a lot.)
“My dad had always been a collar-and-tie man,” he continues. “I was with my dad and we were drifting for quite a while, and then we ended up in the West End, in this house in Belmont Street. I would have been about seven or eight. After about the second week there was no one to collect the rent any more. The landlord had vanished. So my dad saved the rent up, and after a month or so he started chapping the doors in there and each door was opened by someone more colourful than the last.”
Seeing his father was alone with a child, neighbours invited him in. “These people were what you would call hippies now, but they weren’t then. That’s not the way I saw it. They were just nice people who kind of thought, ‘F**k it,’ to the world. My dad thought this a great idea and was like, beard down to here,” he says, indicating his stomach, “and hair all the way down his back. He tuned in and dropped out. And took me with him.”
They were squatters, but never deliberately. The landlord just never turned up again. His dad kept saving the rent, and then one day said he wasn’t saving it any more. The residents all stuck together, resisting eviction. But their lifestyle was precarious. There were six deaths: a couple from drugs, some as a result of mental illness. “There was this woman who took an overdose and died in bed with her son. It was awful. I can still remember that. I must have been about ten. I remember him coming through, because my dad would care for him at times, and he said, ‘I cannae wake my mummy up.'”
After a couple of years, the bailiffs turned up. “That’s why we all left. I mean, it wasn’t an intentional commune. Everybody had to get out, so we were off, hung about together, ended up everywhere – Manchester, London, Brighton, Birmingham.” They even slept under the pier in Brighton for a few nights. It sounds precarious for a child, but Carlyle says it didn’t disturb him for one important reason. “I had a lot of love. A whole house of people who loved me. There was a lot of brightness as well.” Did it feel like a family? “Oh aye, definitely. That’s why I’m all right, you know what I mean?” He laughs. “I could have been damaged, but I think I came out of it okay. My dad was wonderful and the people we were living with were wonderful. I felt safe. I never felt in danger. My dad used to say putting down roots is a load of shite, as long as you’ve got love – and he was right. I don’t know any of these people now, but it would be interesting to see how they all turned out. I bet you they’re all right.”
And maybe moving about saved him. The alternative for someone of his class, he says, was to stay in some deprived area and get sucked into gangs. One day, he’d like to write about that time. So many colourful characters. The main group consisted of about six or seven adults and half a dozen children, but others would come and go. “Larger-than-life people who had amazing stories,” says Carlyle. “Looking back, I was destined to end up in the arts because it was so rich, so many stories all the time.”
As a young man he joined community drama groups, then studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which he left in 1986. He co-founded the theatre group Raindog, though looking back he’s not sure how he survived five years there. “We would do anything because you could get money to do workshops in different kinds of places – Borstals working with really deprived children, or geriatric homes. We did all this to put money, not in our pockets, but into a budget to do a play with. I don’t think I could have kept doing it.”
He didn’t have to. His film break came in the 1990 Ken Loach film Riff Raff. He went on to play a series of famous roles. Gaz in The Full Monty launched his international career, though at the time he thought it more likely to be a career-breaker. “I was never sure about that film.” He certainly didn’t realise it was a comedy, because he saw things from Gaz’s view. And there was also the psychotic Begbie in Trainspotting, the country copper in the BBC’s Hamish Macbeth and, more recently, the mesmeric performance as Hitler that won him such critical acclaim.
If there’s a theme to his roles, it’s being the outsider. Live the life he did as a child, he says, and you’re always on the edge of just falling off the world. He prefers that emotional connection to his work. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do other stuff. I enjoy doing a big-budget film now and again.” (The low-budget Born Equal is not his only film released this weekend – he also plays Durza in the blockbuster Eragon.) He laughs. It’s just that once you’ve done a big-budget film, you don’t want to do it again for a long time. Why? “There’s an unreal quality. You look at something like Born Equal and think that must be hard, and it is emotionally difficult. But it’s much more difficult mentally to do a big-budget film and retain a bit of yourself, a bit of what you have, without it being swallowed up in the glitz of it all, the celebrity of it all, which I have no time for.”
At 45, he knows how to play the game. The high-earners offer him the safeguards he never had. But he says he’s still hopeless at security, forcing himself to be sensible only to provide for the future of “the wee people”. His three children with wife Anastasia – Ava, Harvey and Pearce – are all under five. But he recognises that money transformed his father’s last years. His dad was a rebel only because he had to be – what he really hankered after was family life. “The last ten years were great for him. Obviously he was immensely proud of me and delighted with his grandchildren. I bought him a house just round the corner. That was everything I had ever wanted to do – everything he ever wanted as well, probably. He was happy. He loved it there. He was secure.”
There were no brothers and sisters, no mother, just the two of them against the world. It’s easy to see why Carlyle took his father’s death so hard. “I was just f**ked by it,” he says. “It was a real black time.” He pulled out of a film, unable to work, but then picked up a script for Flood. Due out next spring, it was to star one of his heroes, Tom Courteney. “Not only was Tom to play my father, but he dies,” says Carlyle. “Shivers and all that. Six weeks previously, I had played it for real. I had to do it. I confronted it all and it was incredibly cathartic. Tom doesn’t have any children, and we became this wee unit. This business has been great for me. So many times it has been my saviour, and it was in that moment when I needed something. I needed my father and I got Tom. It was lovely. It was lovely.”
He had to play a scene over his father’s coffin. People on set who knew him couldn’t watch, it was so raw. Carlyle looks at me. Now if I’m looking for reality, he says, that was far more real than anything about his mother in Born Equal. But hasn’t he ever shared Robert’s need to find his mother? “I never searched.” If you don’t search for a parent, it suggests anger towards them. Is he angry? “No, I don’t have any anger,” he says.
I have to accept that’s the truth of what he feels, but it doesn’t make sense. Why would he reject a relationship unless he resented her? “I’ve got my family,” he says. “I love my wife; I love my children. I don’t need anything else. There was a time in my life where maybe I might have thought about it, but I don’t need it. I am who I am. I’ve come to terms with it. I understand life, I understand relationships. I understand what happened, and that’s why I don’t have any ill-feeling towards her. I am too long in the tooth.”
But you can’t know a person without meeting them. Is he sure he isn’t angry? “I’m not angry. I’m past it,” he insists.
Indeed, the only obvious anger is about newspaper distortions of the truth. They quoted him as saying that as far as he was concerned, she was dead. “Who the f**k said that?” he demands. “I’ve never said that – never. You know from talking to me it’s not in me to say that.”
No, I don’t think it is. But let’s turn this around. Carlyle doesn’t need his mother. Would he care, though, if she needed him? “No, I don’t care,” he replies. (And, no, he doesn’t remember her going.)
It makes me think of a question I had asked him earlier in the interview. Did he think being brought up by a man made him more emotionally independent? Probably, he had replied. Then he said that he had never spoken to a shrink, but maybe he should. “I think the one thing it has done in my life is that I have the ability to cut things off quite easily.” He laughed softly then, and looked down. “That’s not so good.”
ONE thing, I suspect, is important in understanding Carlyle. No matter how much success he has, how much money he earns, he will remain an outsider. It’s in his psyche rather than his wallet. When his father died, he arranged a humanist service and then realised he had to speak himself. He wrote 20 pages of notes. Now he wants to write it all down properly, because he wants his children to understand where he and his father came from. He asks how kids can understand privilege. “They were born into a world I could never have imagined. That’s a big deal for me.”
Sitting here in his jeans and leather jacket, he is a slight figure with a big presence. But he’ll never be a celebrity; he’s an impostor in that world. When asked the point of his job, he looks startled, then curls back into his seat laughing. “Brilliant! Totally brilliant. That’s bang on. It’s useless, worthless shite.”
But he obviously loves the work, even if the word ‘celebrity’ makes him cringe. He thinks Michael Parkinson is “a legend”, and would love to talk to him. But alone, thanks, not with a camera, so every invitation has been turned down. But he could appear and be himself, surely? Carlyle looks uncomfortable. “That early part of my life…” he says, searching for an explanation. “I come from a world where you don’t shout about it. You don’t show people what you’ve got, you don’t talk about what you earn. You have humility. You have a bit of dignity. That’s what I believe. I’m not going to sit on some chat show and talk about my this or my that… It’s not what I am about.”
This year has been a terrible one. After his father died, he lost his best friend, John, to bowel cancer. Carlyle had been his best man just three months earlier. “He was my dearest friend and I miss him.” Then his baby son Pearce, who is now eight months old, was taken to hospital. “I thought he was going to die,” says Carlyle. “The glands you have in your throat, you have them in your bowel as well, apparently. They swell up in there and what can happen is that it starts to swallow the intestine into itself. It was touch and go, touch and go. I never want to be in that situation again, where a surgeon says to me it’s 50-50.”
Pearce is fine now, says Carlyle, “but I’ve been down to the abyss this year. I’ve visited it. It puts your life in perspective, makes you a stronger person, that’s for sure. What I’m telling you about my take on the industry, it just kind of confirms everything. You think, ‘This is bollocks. I’ve no time for it.'”
Since he was 20, Carlyle says, he has lived the life he wanted. Walked away when he wanted. “And suddenly I was confronted by my father’s death, and having to talk for him, my friend dying and my wee son being ill, and I had to understand that there were things I couldn’t walk away from, couldn’t let someone else do or cope with.”
Maybe it’s presumptuous to question whether he is still walking away, unable to face his mother because it would raise too many unsettling questions about his life. Maybe he’s right and this is resolution. But this questioning is wistful rather than critical. “Be careful,” he says during the interview, “but write it as you see it.” And what I see is a very decent man. Maybe that’s what makes you naively want to move him into the perfect snow globe picture – with his mother. The thing is, only Carlyle knows the truth of his emotions. We’re all just observers. But I can’t help wondering when he says he cheats his audience about his feelings if he ever cheats himself too.