We first saw him as a young thug in Trainspotting, but Robert Carlyle has come of age to play the UK prime minister in an exciting new TV series, writes
There are actors who light up the screen and there are actors who go off like a blowtorch when the cameras start rolling. Robert Carlyle has for most of his career belonged emphatically to the second category.
In the 1990s he blazed through British cinema as pint-chucking Edinburgh hooligan Begbie in Trainspotting and steel worker-turned-male stripper Gaz in the Full Monty.
This week he takes on the very different role of a Tory prime minister in new Sky One disaster thriller Cobra. He was “surprised” casting directors thought of him when looking for someone to sit in Number 10.
“It was not something anyone would necessarily imagine — me playing a Conservative PM,” says Carlyle (58). “There’s no way I could have done the part speaking the way I’m speaking now, in my native Glasgow accent.
“There’s a particular type of Scot I’m sure you’ll recognise from hearing Scottish rugby players speak. They’re vaguely Scottish — they’ve been brought up there.
But they went to various private schools, Oxbridge or whatever. And the accents have flattened. That’s what I was trying to do.
Begbie and Gaz are the characters for which he remains best known today. Trainspotting, in particular, has earned Carlyle a permanent place in British cinema’s hall of fame.
Even if you haven’t seen it in 20 years you’ll still remember Ewan McGregor dashing down the street to Iggy Pop, Underworld thumping over the end credits — and Carlyle as Begbie, a headbutt in human form.
He was at that point already known for his cauterising screen presence. He had variously portrayed a padre’s forbidden lover in Jimmy McGovern’s Priest and, also in 1994, a killer traumatised by the Hillsborough disaster, opposite Robbie Coltrane in Cracker.
Later, in Angela’s Ashes, he played the alcoholic father. The film was clearly made for sentimental Americans but Carlyle held up his end. He even made for a plausible Bond villain against Pierce Brosnan in 1999’s World Is Not Enough. It was an incredible streak.
“It’s tough — it’s a mental strain to continually inhabit those worlds,” says Carlyle of his early parts. “It’s not a physical strain. Listen, I’m not down a mine. But it is tough when you are dealing sometimes with quite complex issues which in your own private personal life would be very traumatic. You have to represent that. Sometimes it can wear you down.”
He couldn’t keep it up and he didn’t try to. Twelve years ago, Carlyle, his wife, and their three daughters moved to Vancouver.
After 25 years of gritty, often draining roles he'd decided to come at life and at his career from a different angle. First came the sci-fi saga StargateUniverse, and then the cult fantasy series Once Upon A Time.
“I’d been doing low-budget indie stuff. It feeds your mind. It certainly doesn’t feed your pocket. I had three kids, a wife — you have a responsibility to try and secure your livelihood.”
Carlyle was born in Maryhill in Glasgow in 1961. His mother, who worked for the local bus company, walked out on the family when he was four, leaving Carlyle to be raised by his father, a painter and decorator.
He left school at 16 and initially worked with his dad. He discovered acting in his 20s, training at the Scottish Academy of Drama and Music. His first major role came in 1991 when he starred in Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff.
Once Upon A Time finally wrapped last year after seven seasons. Carlyle and his family still live in Vancouver, but has returned to the UK for Cobra. Prime minister Robert Sutherland is no Boris Johnson and has seemingly been written so as to render fatuous any comparisons with the current inhabitant of 10 Downing Street.
Nonetheless, he is a Tory, and the story, in which apocalyptic solar flares threaten to plunge the UK into environmental and social anarchy, is established early on as taking place in the aftermath of Brexit.
It’s a drama brimming with machinations, too. The PM is tight with his chief of staff (Victoria Hamilton, aka the Queen Mother from the Claire Foy era of The Crown).
And he is keeping his enemies close, particularly conniving home secretary Archie Glover-Morgan (Killing Eve’s David Haig).
"My own political beliefs don’t really come into it,” says Carlyle.
It’s more trying to think about how this man in the context of his party and to give an honest representation.
He was in Canada during the Scottish independence referendum. Obviously he has his opinions. He is, however, keeping them to himself.
“It’s my business,” he says. “The thing is, I’m in Canada but I go back and forward. I like to go to the supermarket and not get any hassle.
“What I noticed at the time of the Scottish independence referendum was that people were coming out one way or the other and getting terrible stick. I thought, ‘I’m keeping well out of this’.”
One thing he was happy to go back to was Trainspottting.
In 2017 he reunited with director Danny Boyle and fellow actors Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller for sequel, T2 Trainspotting.
The film caught up with the Edinburgh reprobates 20 years on. It was a hoot. But it was also a meditation on age, loss and how people both change over time yet somehow remain the same.
“It was an absolute pleasure. When would you ever get the chance to do a sequel 20 years after? To reunite with the cast and my good friend Danny Boyle was an absolute joy. My personal opinion is that it was a better film.
"There’s more of a narrative. You get deeper inside the heads of these men who have aged. Danny always said, ‘I’m never doing a sequel until you’ve aged’.
"Twenty years ago we all said, ‘Well we can put on make-up to look older’. But he was absolutely right. You have that life experience. We’d all lived our lives by then. And it’s there for all to see.”
He hasn’t filmed a great deal in Ireland, to his enduring regret. He did The Mighty Celt in Belfast with Gillian Anderson in 2005. And it’s more than 20 years since Angela’s Ashes, set in Limerick and shot largely in Cork, including at locations in Blackpool and on Barrack Street.
The chance to work with Alan Parker [director of Angela’s Ashes] was fantastic. And so, at a personal level, was the opportunity to meet members of the McCourt family.
"To play someone who was within living memory of people was fantastic. I’m seven-eights Irish.”
That may be the case, but this week, he’s 100% believable as the UK’s prime minister in a gripping opening episode of Cobra.