The legendary roles of Robert Carlyle

The legendary roles of Robert Carlyle

Robert Carlyle’s latest project, The Legend of Barney Thomson, might see him emerge at last from Begbie’s shadow, that is until next year when Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Porno hits the big screen.

The 54-year-old Glaswegian shot to prominence on the back of his frightening performance as the psychotic character from 1996’s Trainspotting, and even today it remains his most famous piece of work.

“I guess Begbie does cast a long shadow but you’ve got to be grateful for it,” begins Carlyle. “Anything that involves something that iconic is so rare and when you are involved in something like that, you have got to take that as it comes.”

He recalls walking down the street in Sofia, Bulgaria, a full 10 years after Trainspotting’s release. “I suddenly heard, ‘Hey, Begbie!’ You got to love that. It is not something that is just confined to Scotland or even to these islands. It is a worldwide thing.”

When Trainspotting first came out he purposely avoided interviews. “I really didn’t do an awful lot around the Trainspotting release because I could see that this was maybe as a problem that was going to follow me around so much.

“I worried that people wouldn’t see me as anything else, but since then the films and the stuff that I have done through the years, there’s enough variation in them.”

For all the variation in Carlyle’s work — he’s shone on stage and TV — he is never better than when he plays a character on the edge, an outsider, whether that’s Gaz, his leading man from 1997’s The Full Monty, his drunk-driver in 2012’s California Solo, or even Barney Thomson, the titular character in his latest film, which also stands as his directorial debut.

“I enjoy doing that kind of stuff because they are Everyman types and when I watch films they’re the kinds of character I like to watch. They are like you and me. Two steps to the right and I am Barney Thomson.”

Carlyle’s performance in The Legend of Barney Thomson is another critically popular turn, made all the more impressive by the fact that he directs the film as well as playing the leading role.

Based on the first in a series of darkly comic novels by Douglas Lindsay, the film follows the fortunes of a hapless Glasgow barber who become an accidental multiple murderer. Carlyle had been asked several times across the years to take on the role, but only now did scheduling allow him to step into Barney’s life.

“When the project came up again, I was just going to be playing Barney. But then once the money came through, the money people liked the idea of me being in it and directing it. That suddenly changed everything.

“I have always been interested in directing something, although I didn’t fancy being in the middle of it as well. But I was cajoled into it by my producer and, given all the work we’d done on the script, I knew that I understood the character and the film inside out.”

Sitting in the director’s chair off-screen while also managing a barber’s chair on-screen proved a challenge. “In some ways, I’m mad to even try,” he laughs.

But an all-star cast helped Carlyle realise his vision. He secured multiple-Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, who summons a highly memorable performance as his character’s 77-year-old mother, Cemolina, while also recruiting the likes of Ray Winstone, Ashley Jensen, James Cosmo, Tom Courtenay and rising star Kevin Guthrie to the supporting cast.

It is Thompson, hidden beneath a pile of prosthetics, who really stands out. “When I cast her, everybody said, ‘Are you crazy? You are nearly older than her!’ But there were a couple of reasons I wanted her.

“First was that I needed someone really brave to play the part. Cemolina could be a man, no problem, but there are very few parts written like that for women. Also, I need someone who had no vanity at all given how she looks on screen.”

The film unfolds in Carlyle’s hometown. “I wouldn’t have wanted to direct it if it wasn’t set in Glasgow.”

He was born in the Maryhill area of the city and raised by his father. He followed his dad into a painting and decorating business before he was turned onto drama by coming across Arthur Miller’s famous 1953 play The Crucible.

“My friends just thought it was just a bit of fun,” he remembers of his move into acting, “because I had been working as a house painter and decorator from 16-17 until my early 20s so they were like, ‘What!’ and they started laughing, thinking it was a fad that would come and go.”

His first film role came when acclaimed director Mike Leigh sought-out real-life tradesman to people his 1991 drama Riff-Raff. Carlyle’s father was fully supportive.

“He was absolutely brilliant,” Carlyle says, recalling how his dad scraped together some cash to start a bank account for him, just in case things didn’t work out. “I found out years later after I’d already done a Bond film, and he said, ‘That would’ve bought you a wee van and pair of ladders and you would be on the way to be a decorator’.”

It is a touching story, though, as we know, Carlyle never needed that money. His career took off and by the time he hit the mid-1990s, he was a household name courtesy of a string of roles that came in the wake of Trainspotting — TV’s Hamish Macbeth, The Full Monty, Plunkett & Macleane, The World is not Enough, The Beach and Angela’s Ashes to name but a few. He earned an OBE in 1999.

“I never considered my career a risk because I didn’t want to be a painter and decorator for the whole of my life so I wasn’t really losing anything,” he says. “I was still young enough at the time to think, ‘If it doesn’t work out, I will do something else.’ Having said that, I didn’t set off with the intention of becoming a film actor or having any notion of success. I just wanted to do something better and I became interested in the notion of theatre.”

Up until his early 20s, Carlyle, who was raised singlehandedly by his beloved Dad, had never seen a play. “My notion of theatre was pantomime or variety or music hall. It was by chance that I came across a copy of The Crucible and I was absolutely taken with this notion that you could disguise what it is you are talking about so utterly.

“So that is what really got me into theatre as an entity and that pushed me towards community theatre and then subsequently to drama school and then on.”

Over the past few years he’s been working in American TV, following up his 2009-2011 role in SGU Stargate Universe with a recurring role in the hit ABC fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time, where he plays the Mr Gold/Rumplestiltskin character.

“I have enjoyed every minute of that show because the quality of it is so good,” he says. “Ten or 12 years ago you would never have said that about American TV. But now it is so good because Hollywood is making fewer films and many of the best writers are working in TV.”

With Once Upon a Time set to enter its fifth season at the end of the year, and with The Legend of Barney Thomson proving a hit when it debuted at this summer Edinburgh International Film Festival (earning a nomination for Best Feature), Carlyle has definitely stepped out of Begbie’s shadow.

That is until next year, when filming starts on Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle’s long-awaited next instalment, Porno.

More in this section

Click and connect: 100 places in Munster to shop locally this Christmas

#HomeAtHeart

We want to help you to connect with the people you love, but may not see, this Christmas.  Every Saturday, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we will publish your messages in print and online, starting November 28.

Say it here, in the Irish Examiner.