Robert Carlyle likes to play roles that are grey with a wee dash of pink. The Glaswegian actor talks to Demetrios Matheou about his latest film and his cowboy tendencies.
I’m sitting at a trestle table, in a social club in Edinburgh, waiting for Robert Carlyle to join me. The actor is talking by the bar with the director of his new film, Shane Meadows. Actually, Meadows is doing the talking; Carlyle is dancing – waving his arms and prancing around the other man, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a chirpy grin on his face.
The actor who has played some of British cinema’s more convincing hardnuts, not least Begbie from Trainspotting, is displaying the goofy charm of a football fan whose team has just won the championship.
As soon as he sits down, the reason for Carlyle’s good spirits becomes apparent. He and his wife, the make-up artist Anastasia Shirley, have just had their first child. “Aye. That’s why I’m so good. It’s a wee girl, Ava. Born six weeks ago. And Elvis was number one.” He breaks into the trademark crooked, quizzical smile. “Whae’s going on here?”
Having spent the past decade establishing himself as one of Britain’s very best actors, parenthood seems to be the catalyst for Carlyle finally coming to terms with his achievements – and enjoying his success for the first time.
“Suddenly I’m thinking: I’m 41, my daughter’s just born, and if I’m lucky I’ll get another 40 years out of this, of being a father,” he says in a still-broad and expletive-laden Glaswegian accent. “It’s also given me an excuse to kinda look over my shoulder for the first time. I’m not a reflective person. But now I’m looking back and thinking – man, you’ve fucking come a long way for this wee boy in Maryhill.”
At the same time, he adds, “at the end of the day all I’ve got is a collection of video tapes on a shelf, to show for my life. So I’ve started thinking about words like ‘legacy’. I’m conscious of leaving something behind.”
He’s not done a bad job so far. Since Ken Loach gave him his big-screen break in Riff-Raff, in 1990, Carlyle has put together a formidable CV that includes some of the biggest British hits of the 1990s and a bewildering range of characters: from the psychopathic Begbie, to Gaz, the hapless but well-meaning dad reduced to baring all in order to win his son back in The Full Monty; from a Western cannibal in Ravenous, to the Glaswegian bus-driver out of his depth in war-torn Nicaragua in Loach’s Carla’s Song; from his steely, dead-eyed Bond villain, in The World is Not Enough, to a feckless father in the depressed 1930s Limerick of Angela’s Ashes.
If one also considers the early television – an utterly chilling performance (as another psychopath) in Cracker, and as the amiable policeman Hamish Macbeth – it is an extraordinary body of work for an actor who didn’t get into his stride until his thirties.
Now Carlyle has joined those other defiantly, heroically, working-class Britons Kathy Burke and Ricky Tomlinson in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. The last of Meadows’ trilogy set in his home town of Nottingham, this film is a tongue-in-cheek imposition of Wild West themes onto a wholly recognisable East Midlands working-class setting, with Carlyle’s Jimmy, a man who wants to win back the family he abandoned, as the outsider coming to town, disrupting the status quo and making the locals question their values.
“I don’t say this lightly, mate, but I think this is the most three-dimensional character I’ve ever played,” says the actor. “In most films, and especially in American films, there’s nae fucking room for grey areas. You’re told, ‘You are the bad guy, right, you fucking slash his face and tell him he’s a cunt and that’s you.’ They don’t want the scene in the middle when the guy’s with his baby – fuck that, that complicates the issue.
“But with this type of film, you’ve got that room to manoeuvre. Suddenly there can be grey – lots of grey. Put a wee bit of pink in there as well, and Jimmy seems quite a nice guy; then two minutes later he’s banging at the door and the audience just isn’t sure. I think it’s absolutely believable to have multi-faceted characters. Too many times it’s drama for the hard-of-thinking. You’ve got to think about this film a wee bit.”
Meadows is one of Britain’s most exciting and original directors, but despite critical acclaim, his earlier films – 24 7 and A Room for Romeo Brass – failed to gain an audience. The casting of Carlyle was a conscious attempt to break into the multiplexes; a move with which, says Carlyle, the actors were happily complicit. “I cannae speak highly enough of this guy. I’ve worked with good directors as you know, but Shane is right up there with them.”
He also shared the director’s love of Westerns. “When I was growing up, Westerns were my big love,” says Carlyle. “My father would take me to see them all the time – Yul Brynner, Jack Palance, they were heroes. The Magnificent Seven is probably the best Western ever made. It’s a magic movie.
“It’s funny, but it’s only recently that the thought has crystallised in my mind, that a lot of my characters could be seen as cowboys – loners, outsiders, drifters. Hamish Macbeth was probably the first one that I played as a cowboy, even down to his drawstring pouch.”
I suggest that the outsider mentality might be a subliminal spin-off from an itinerant childhood, in which he travelled the country with his father, a painter and decorator.
“Absolutely. For about 10 years we went all over; anywhere he could get work – London, Leeds, Brighton, Birmingham, Manchester, all over. I went to a lot of primary schools.” So he was the unfamiliar boy turning up for a term, causing mischief, then leaving? He laughs. “Aye. Perhaps art is imitating life, maybe what drives me is something which has been obvious all along.”
Carlyle was an only child, whose mother walked out of the family home when he was a toddler, leaving his father, Joe, to raise him. “My childhood was extraordinary for many reasons,” he recalls, “not least because my father brought me up on his own, which in the early Sixties was relatively unheard of – a single-parent family with a man, and a man in Scotland. It was very, very difficult, but I don’t think my father made any mistakes with me that I would criticise him for. He’s 72 now. Having a child myself has brought me even closer to him, because now I understand what I meant to him; because I know what it’s like to have such emotion for this wee thing.”
For a time it even looked as though he would follow his father into the painting and decorating trade. The defining moment that changed that course was on his 21st birthday, when he used his birthday book-tokens to buy a copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The play inspired him to try acting and in 1983 he won a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Three years later Loach cast him in Riff-Raff.
He calls the ensuing years “a roller coaster”, which led to his being offered an OBE three years ago – his acceptance of which raised many an eyebrow amongst his friends. Not surprisingly, he did so largely for his father.
“When I first heard, I was just shocked. I didn’t quite understand it, it was such an alien, strange thing. I phoned a few people, and they thought it was a bit weird. Then I phoned my dad and he was ‘ah son, that’s fantastic’. My dad’s not a Royalist but he’s not a Republican either. When he watched the Queen put a medal on his son, he fucking loved it. You don’t deny them that.”
After a medal for his father, what of that legacy for his own child? I suggest that the video shelf is pretty good as it stands. “Yeah. Well, yeah. I know that there’s been some decent stuff in there. But I want to make sure I do some more decent stuff; to make doubly sure that the collection is really, really good.”