From his iconic portrayal as Begbie in Trainspotting to his latest role as an IRA man adapting to peace in The Mighty Celt, Robert Carlyle is renowned for playing hard men. Now 44, with two young children, he talks to Alastair McKay about reconciliation, real-life heroes and meeting with Glasgow gangster Paul Ferris
This profusion of Führers probably says something about the typecasting of Scottish actors but it also illustrates Carlyle’s versatility. Stott has settled into his Grumpy Old Men persona, dispensing curmudgeonly asides from a face that would be shattered by a smile.
Carlyle can do hard (see Begbie in Trainspotting) but is just as likely to be found trading in vulnerability. He was the gay lover of a priest in Jimmy McGovern and Antonia Bird’s Priest, an unlikely stripper in The Full Monty and a dope-smoking polis in Hamish Macbeth, the Scottish Northern Exposure.
In his new film, The Mighty Celt, he blurs the lines again, playing an IRA man returning home after the ceasefire, trying to adapt to peace. (Stott is the man from the Real IRA).
Naturally, the two Hitlers met on the set. “It was so weird,” Carlyle recalls. “Ken said: ‘I, eh, didn’t see your Hitler.’ I said: ‘I didn’t f**kin’ see yours either’.” Carlyle pulls himself up as if reacquainting himself with a bad memory. “I can’t watch it. There’s no way. I can’t look at anything to do with the guy. I can’t even think about Hitler. Don’t want to think about it. It cost me a lot of grief, in my mind, trying to get to some kind of reality in my portrayal of this f**king monster.”
Often, when people talk to Robert Carlyle about acting, they mention Robert De Niro and the madness of his Method. It’s a tempting comparison and it works, up to a point. When De Niro was researching Travis Bickle for Taxi Driver, he drove a cab around New York. When Carlyle was playing the Bickle-like Albie in Cracker, he spoke in a Scouse accent for three months. De Niro ate his way into the role of a flabby boxer in Raging Bull. Carlyle slept rough to understand a homeless person in Safe.
These days, De Niro operates at reduced intensity, spoofing himself in films such as the cartoon Shark Tale, which redefined the notion of “sleeping with the fishes”. Carlyle, while reluctant to class himself as an actor on a par with either, prefers the trajectory of De Niro’s Mean Streets co-star Harvey Keitel.
“Anybody who has any urge to slag De Niro off, you have to look at what he’s done, and he’s given everything. He’s in a different world now. But I think it’s hard for him. Like Keitel, you’ve always got to look for the interesting stuff, and try and find a world that you haven’t visited before. That’s the only chance.”
Carlyle took a chance on The Mighty Celt, working with a first-time director, Pearse Elliott. “That, for me, is a gamble. I don’t know if this guy can do it or not. I believe through talking to him that he can but that’s not always the case. But Keitel does that. He still goes and seeks out the dark, interesting stuff.”
To understand how he got here, you have to appreciate where Robert Carlyle came from. Sometimes, when he talks about the challenges of acting – something he is loath to do because it can sound, in his word, “wank” – he will edge towards acknowledging his own surprise at his circumstances. The challenge of playing Hitler, for example, was to convince the audience that they were not watching “a wee ex-painter from Maryhill”.
Carlyle believes he is the same person he was when he started out (“I haven’t gone funny”) but he is conscious that standing still is not an option. “I’m becoming aware that the generational thing comes about and suddenly you’re like the remnant of another decade.” He offers a small sigh. “So what do you do? Do you change who you are? Do you change your perception of the business, and how you approach it, or do you just keep going the same way? There’s no decision to make there, really.”
But some things have changed. It’s odd to observe the transformation in Carlyle’s features when he talks about his family. He has two children with his wife, Anastasia; Harvey (17 months) and Ava, who was three on the fourth of July. For all that he tries to keep his home life private, he can’t suppress the delight he finds in his children. “Mid-40s, this is just a wonderful thing to happen, and you realise that there’s other things. It’s a great leveller. It calms you down. It gives you more focus in your life. You’ve got to prepare this wee person for the world. What a phenomenal challenge that is. There’s no bigger task. It’s an awful world we live in. But the children have given me hope. I love them so much. It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me, for sure. I’m less selfish now.”
Carlyle’s character in The Mighty Celt, is a man abandoning the hard certainties of youth for the compromises and rewards of family life. “That type of subject’s speaking to me, louder than it ever has before. It’s about reconciliation and forgiveness.”
He recognised the film’s theme of sectarianism from his childhood – albeit from the non-aligned position of the Partick Thistle supporter. Glasgow, he says, operated as a kind of shadow of Belfast. “It’s a subject that was close to my heart, and anything you can do to say ‘this is wrong, forget this’ is a good thing. Mighty Celt is one of these rare projects that is worthy – really worthy – to be seen now and into the future.”
Since he turned 40 four years ago, Carlyle has been thinking about his legacy. He made some odd moves in the middle of his career. The big-budget pictures – Angela’s Ashes, The World Is Not Enough, 51st State – were his least compelling. Subsequently, he has been careful with his choices.
All of which made it surprising to read he had agreed to play the lead in a biopic about Paul Ferris, the real-life Glasgow gangster. But is it true? According to those reports, filming of The Ferris Conspiracy was due to start this month.
Not so. What is true is that Carlyle met Ferris at a Glasgow hotel in January, and found himself in the middle of “a media scrum of madness”.
“I turned up at the hotel; a scrum of journalists outside, even television – Scotland Today and Reporting Scotland. You can imagine how I felt – what the f**k? I met with Paul Ferris. A very personable guy and he certainly had a lot to say. The only thing I would say is that, should a script come, I will certainly read it and take it on its merits. But it’s not something I’ve been desperate to play.
“I think it’s ideal for the press in Scotland, that kind of thing, with my previous incarnations – Begbie, characters like that – they think, ‘That’s my headline made: ‘Psycho Carlyle plays the Psycho’. Well, wait a minute. Let’s see what it’s about first. This isn’t about the glorification of violence or gangsters. If it is, I’m out the door. I’m trying to think of it as a social piece – how it’s affected him, how his life has affected other people. If it’s like that – if it’s Mighty Celt-esque – then it’s interesting. If it’s just a biopic about carving up this or that person, then it’s not really very interesting.”
I tell Carlyle that, by an unfortunate piece of timing, I saw the bodies of Ferris’s associates, Joe ‘Bananas’ Hanlon and Bobby Glover, on the slab in the Glasgow mortuary, and there was nothing glamorous about it.
He sighs. “I’ve known a lot of people in that world and, to be fair to them, it’s about their own. You and me aren’t part of it. We’re not involved. We’re innocents to them. They’ve got no interest in harming you or me.
“They will kill each other, for territory or for whatever it is that they want, but it’s a private matter. I think they would be appalled if people thought they were monsters. ‘What do you mean,’ you know, ‘I only killed that c**t who killed my brother-in-law’.”
The Ferris story does seem a risky move for Carlyle, though it could be argued it is consistent with his interest in reconciliation.
“If I thought it was going to hurt any innocent person that had been affected by anything contained in that script, then I wouldn’t touch it. It’s not worth it at all. I’m good at spotting lies; I’ll be able to spot that. No way is it a done deal. There’s a salacious quality to these kinds of stories but I’m beginning to get less attracted to the cut and thrust of it. I’ve done a lot of it. I’ve explored these characters. I’ve been down that road. I know I’ll f**king probably do them again but it isn’t what I’m about.”
To get a sense of what Carlyle is about, you have to go right back to the start. Famously, he took up acting after buying a copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with the change from a book token he got for his 21st birthday. He started acting at Glasgow Arts Centre and endured an unhappy time at the city’s RSAMD.
Carlyle’s beef with the drama school was that their methods were irrelevant and – paraphrasing slightly – pompously middle class. The insistence on pupils learning Standard English was a fundamental point of disagreement. Carlyle (professional motto: “Be who you are”) insists that Talking Proper introduces artifice into an actor’s performance.
“If you’re speaking Standard English, you can’t help but raise yourself up a little bit. Especially if you are an actor, because” – he slips into Donald Sinden-ese – “you are talking like that. You become very, very posh. And some of these boys are from Castlemilk. My argument is that this is irrelevant to them. If you’ve got any chance of achieving anything, you have to achieve it as you are, because you’re going to get found out.”
By the time he left drama school, Carlyle had discovered others who shared his world view. He was a founder of Raindog, the theatre group which developed a good reputation for its re-interpretations of modern work. “It’s only afterwards you realise that was an interesting period. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, for example: I directed this piece and transposed everything into Glasgow.
“The big Native American Indian became a Western Highlander. The fishing industry – dead – seemed to fit. We did this piece and it was very successful, people seemed to enjoy it. Then other theatre companies started to take David Mamet plays and do them.
“I’m not saying we started that but we were certainly a catalyst. We started to break down these barriers of voice and stuff like that, and think: these people are talking about things we understand. Just because they’re speaking in an American accent doesn’t mean to say it hasn’t got any relevance to us. We did Conquest Of The South Pole, written in German and set in Hamburg. It was an interesting time in theatre.”
Carlyle’s film career was launched in 1990 by his association with Ken Loach, who cast him in Riff-Raff: “I’d done some small parts in films prior to Riff-Raff – cough and a spit type stuff – but I had no sense of the industry. When I worked with Ken, I thought, ‘This must be how it is, this is great’. F**k me: only one time since then, which was Carla’s Song, did I experience that again.
“But it enabled me to work with people like Antonia Bird and Danny Boyle, Peter Cattaneo and Michael Winterbottom. People who were disciples of the Loach school. They’re the people who would go and watch Loach films, and say, ‘Oh, this actor’s interesting, I’ll work with him’. Without Ken Loach I don’t think I would be anywhere at all.”
Carlyle suggests that his favourite of his own films may be Winterbottom’s Go Now, in which he played a man afflicted by multiple sclerosis. Winterbottom was the first director with the guts to tell him to turn down his performance: “I can shout and scream but there’s a silence, a stillness, which I first learned with Michael.”
His future plans include The Meat Trade, in which he will star alongside Colin Firth. It is a modern reworking of Jekyll And Hyde, written by Irvine Welsh, and will be produced by 4 Way Pictures, the production company in which Carlyle and Welsh are partnered by Antonia Bird and critic/filmmaker Mark Cousins. 4 Way’s most ambitious project, the ‘Scottish Western’ Jamie MacGillivray, may yet be revived by the director John Sayles. Cousins describes Sayles’s script as “the best screenplay about Scotland I’ve ever read”.
Carlyle also hopes to work alongside his hero, Harvey Keitel, on Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales, which takes place inside a strip joint. “It’s a very dark thing – big holes in it for the improvisation. But, man, I’d cut my arm off to work with these people.” Being offered the chance to work with Keitel was, he says, “a marker”.
If the clock was stopped, and Carlyle was forced to come to a conclusion about his legacy, he would concede the film he is most identified with is Trainspotting (1996). “It almost defines a time in people’s lives. That’s what they say to me – they remember what they were wearing when it came out, and what music they were listening to.”
He thinks it is exactly the kind of film at which British filmmakers excel. “It was full of attack and bite and dynamism.” He is aware, too, that fans of the film would love to see him reprise his role as Begbie. “I wish, and a few of us wish. A couple of us don’t wish, and that’s the problem. Work that one out.”
This sounds like a reference to Ewan McGregor, who fell out with director Danny Boyle when he cast Leonardo DiCaprio, and not McGregor, in The Beach.
“I didn’t say that.”
But if I did?
“If you did, you would be perfectly entitled to your opinion. I think it’s there to be done. The piece is there. It’s ready to be devoured. I would play the part again, because I think Begbie’s an interesting character in terms of the Scottish psyche. He’s a caricature. It’s like trying to turn that thing in on itself. That was what I was trying to do with that part – trying to make him so big it was ridiculous: that hard man thing.
“There’s a journey to go on with Begbie. I think we should visit the guy and see where he is now.”