Robert Carlyle was born on April 14, 1961 in Maryhill, Glasgow, Scotland, to Elizabeth, a bus company employee, and Joseph ‘Joe’ Carlyle, a painter and decorator. In 1965, when Robert was just four years old, his mother left the family, and Joseph went on to raise Robert. Father and son lead an itinerant life, travelling to different cities in search of work. “One month it would be Manchester, the next Liverpool. We probably lived in a 100 different places”, says Robert. “The backdrop of my childhood seemed to be the back streets, the dark alleys and the rainy streets of those cities. I know every beat and rhythm of that life, which could be another reason for why I’m drawn often to dark gritty roles. It’s a landscape I know.”
Robert Carlyle’s childhood wasn’t exactly one of privilege. His father had a nervous breakdown, which lead Robert raking through bins to survive. “My childhood was harder than hard at times and tough as anything I can remember,” says Robert. Today he says that he “owes everything” to his father. They stuck together, seeing films together several times a week. Even though Robert has never spoken to his mother since she left, he always has said he felt a great deal of love growing up. “I think I came to the conclusion that some women just aren’t maternal, and my mum was one of them”, he has said. “I’m sure I hated her at one time, but as I’ve gone through my twenties, thirties, forties and now my fifties, I feel sorry for her more than anything because she missed out on so much. She missed out on me and, especially, she missed out on her grandchildren – and that’s punishment enough, isn’t it?”
At age 16, Robert left school and went to work as a painter and decorator for his father, then briefly as a butcher. He still continued his education by attending night school classes at Cardonald College in his hometown.
Robert Carlyle was inspired to pursue acting after reading Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’. At the age of 21, he enrolled in acting classes at the Glasgow Arts Centre and later at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Robert knew that acting was what he wanted to do, and, with the support from his father, he decided to pursue his dream.
In 1990, Robert left the Royal Academy of Music and Drama. The following year he formed a theatre company, called Rain Dog, with four of his friends. The company was named after Robert’s favourite Tom Waits album of the same name. Rain Dog later became 4 Way Pictures, a British film production company, which he runs together with Irvine Welsh, Mark Cousins and the now diseased Antonia Bird.
Soon, Robert Carlyle guest starred in the television show ‘The Bill’ (1991). His apparent talent attracted director Ken Loach, who cast Robert in his first starring role in ‘Riff-Raff’ in 1991. In this film he stars as Stevie, an ex-con construction worker, who falls in love with an unemployed pop singer drug addict.
In 1993, Robert went on to star in the British TV drama ‘Safe’. It was a darker role for Robert, playing an alcoholic leader of a homeless gang – this was the beginning of many dark roles he would take on in the future. Known for his meticulous research for roles, Robert went homeless in Waterloo to prepare for ‘Safe’. Said Robert: “I’ve never said I’m a method actor; I just think that actors should do research. I went homeless for a while, for ‘Safe’; it gives you something extra, a little bit of knowledge you didn’t have. I used to do a lot of preparation for roles, but once you reach a certain level of celebrity, you become the observed rather than the observer.” For his role as a bus driver in Ken Loach’s ‘Carla’s Song’ (1996), Robert passed the test for a licence to drive a bus with passengers.
In 1994, Robert experimented with his range of roles by playing the gay lover of Catholic priest Father Greg in the film ‘Priest’ (1994). It became clear that Robert was trying to expand his range as an actor, like any great actor would do. By now he had done this in a growing number of television and film productions. Following ‘Priest’, Robert began to gain the attention of the greater public. In an infamous role in the television show ‘Cracker’ Carlyle played Albie Kinsella, a murderer who vows to kill 96 people. He won a Scottish BAFTA Award for his performance. It became evident that Robert had found the type of role he excelled at and typically most enjoyed: the dark and disturbed characters. Bear it mind, the versatile actor has also played softer characters, like in Ken Loach’s ‘Carla’s Song’.
In a compelling performance in ‘Go Now’ (1995), Robert Carlyle played a young man who learns he has multiple sclerosis. Soon after, he landed a role that is often named to be his most significant: the role of Begbie in ‘Trainspotting’ (1996). Begbie is a drunken sadist psychopath, who is friends with Renton (Ewan McGregor), an addict who is trying to diminish his friendships with fellow addicts in order to sober up. Robert has said that he had no idea what a phenomena Trainspotting had become: he was abroad filming and came directly to the film’s premiere in his own clothes. Needless to say, he was shocked when ‘Trainspotting’ and his character became instant classics. Said Robert in 2017: “It’s a horrible word now, but in that Britpop moment, the film was right in the centre of everything. We all felt that when it came out. Politically, you felt it too. Change was coming.”
The role of Begbie is one of the most high profile roles of Robert Carlyle’s career to date, as said by the public and critics alike. The remarkable performance also awarded him critical appreciation. Soon there after Robert went back to TV and landed a role in ‘Hamish Macbeth’ as a policeman. This comedy-drama was a change from the darker roles he was taking on, and it awarded him his second Scottish BAFTA. In 1997 he starred in the second most high profile role of his career as Gaz in ‘The Full Monty’. This was a huge turning point in Robert’s career – although he was not sure about taking the role at first because he didn’t think it would benefit his acting career. It became one of his most prominent roles and gave Robert international fame as a steelworker turned amateur male stripper. In 1998, Robert won a BAFTA for his performance.
In 1997, Robert married his wife, make-up artist Anastasia Shirley. “We met in Cracker”, he said. “I played a maniac fan who murders a policeman and she did my makeup. I thought anyone interested in me looking like that must have genuinely liked me.” Congratulations are in order for Robert and Anastasia, who have now been married for an impressive 20 years.
After ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘The Full Monty’, Robert Carlyle’s name was on everyone’s lips. Next he starred with Ray Winstone in ‘Face’ (1997) and appeared in the TV film ‘Looking After Jo Jo’ (1998). In addition, he co-starred with ‘Trainspotting’ co-star and friend Jonny Lee Miller as Will Plunkett in ‘Plunkett & Macleane’ (1999). Although the film was a flop at the box office, Robert really enjoyed working on ‘Plunkett & Macleane’, the first large budget film of his career. In ‘Ravenous’ (1999) he played a cannibalistic soldier.
Robert then snagged another great role, starring next to Pierce Brosnan as Renard in ‘The World Is Not Enough’ (1999), the 19th installment of the James Bond franchise. Robert’s character, another villain, was a rabid anti-capitalism terrorist. Another 1999 film that Robert is noted for is his role as Malachy McCourt in the memoir ‘Angela’s Ashes’. He plays a drunken, unemployed father, who moves his family from Brooklyn back to Ireland, and is yet unable to provide for his family. In 1999 he was also awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for his services to drama, a huge accomplishment for the actor.