Robert Carlyle on California Solo, American vs. British TV, and the appeal of fairy tales
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Apart from a Scottish burr, there’s not much connecting the roles that made Robert Carlyle’s career. Trainspotting’s Begbie is a psychotic; The Full Monty’s Gaz is a genial, unemployed steelworker. Finding a common thread in Carlyle’s filmography—a thread that links a bus driver drawn into the Nicaraguan revolution with a James Bond villain—is no easy task, but that’s how he likes it. Along with his gig on Once Upon A Time, where he plays a modern spin on Rumpelstiltskin, Carlyle recently took on his first character-driven lead role in years, playing a onetime British rocker who’s found a new life as the manager of a California organic farm in California Solo. The drug-related death of his brother, who fronted a band briefly touted as the British Nirvana, is decades past, but he dwells on the subject indirectly by recording a podcast devoted to famous rock-’n’-roll flameouts, although it’s never clear who (if anyone) is listening. When a DUI puts his immigration status in jeopardy, Carlyle’s character is faced with the possibility he’ll be sent back to confront ghosts he thought he’d left behind for good, and guilt he can no longer escape. TV duties kept Carlyle from making the film’s Sundance première, but he talked to The A.V. Club in Park City the day before.
The A.V. Club: Music played a big role in your life early on. Was that part of the attraction to California Solo?
Robert Carlyle: Very much so. One of the things that attracted me to this script was that I came from that world, that whole Britpop time. It was my time as well. I know the Gallagher brothers very well. I know Damon Albarn very well. They’re good friends, and right in the eye of the storm as well. I kissed my wife for the first time at the Hacienda in Manchester. So I’m very in touch with all of that. That was the first thing that struck me.
AVC: Because you played music yourself?
RC: I was 16 when I was in a band, for about 10 minutes. I went off and did acting after that. So it was a wee moment for me when I sang.
AVC: So this was an opportunity to be part of that world on film.
RC: Yeah, and to understand it. The film’s not, to me, just a rock ’n’ roll story. It’s kind of a Hollywood story as well. So many of my friends, old friends I haven’t seen in years, made their way out there and got lost, then found their way back. That seems believable to me.
AVC: The cast includes several actors with musical backgrounds, including Kathleen Wilhoite and Danny Masterson. Was that intentional?
RC: I guess. I didn’t know any of these people were going to be in it. They just turned up, and I thought, “Ah, this makes sense.” Especially Michael Des Barres. Because looking at Michael, it’s a very nice Hollywood moment. It could easily have been him in real life. I really enjoyed that scene.
AVC: How much of a chance did you get to work with Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin, who wrote the songs your character sings?
RC: Only very briefly. We spoke on the set, I think, once, and then he spoke to me on the day when I was actually going to be doing the singing. He was very encouraging.
AVC: You’d already had a leading role in Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff by the time Trainspotting came around, but the part of Begbie really put you on the map. Did you have a sense that was really clicking at the time?
RC: That’s never happened to me. I don’t know anyone that ever has. You can’t tell like that. Any part I’ve played, I think back on the journey I had to take to play that part. So there wasn’t any, “Hallelujah, I’m playing Begbie.” It was like, “Fuck’s sake, I’m playing Begbie. This is going to be tough.”
AVC: Irvine Welsh was already a prominent author in your native Scotland. How well did you know his novel at the time?
RC: I knew it very well. I had a theater company at the time, and we’d taken quite a lot of the piece—stole it, basically—and did a few improvised pieces in and around the subject of Trainspotting. So I knew it pretty well.
AVC: How different from your unofficial Trainspotting was being a part of Danny Boyle’s version?
RC: The great thing about Danny is he makes sure everyone’s involved. That sounds obvious, but it’s not always the case. He gets everyone around a table, and he says, “Right, this is what we are all going to try and do.” So it was an entirely different thing. It took me away from my theater company to suddenly seeing it as Danny’s vision, his eye.
AVC: You’ve moved between theater and film and television regularly throughout your career. Have you developed different strategies for working in each medium?
RC: Earlier on in my career, I would have thought that, but the last five, 10 years, I haven’t thought about it as much. It’s more about the journey, to be honest with you. I started this journey 30 years ago, and each part I take is like a step on that path. I try not to waste anything, any films, any project. I try to do something that’s going to forward—not my career—but something that’s going to forward me as an actor. It’s only now, in the past few years, that I think I’ve reached that place that I used to admire in older actors, which is that thing, I guess you’d call it gravitas. I’m just beginning to dip my toe in the pond of gravitas. I have to do less. It’s already there.
AVC: It seems like that’s a quality that’s missing in most actors these days, a sense that they’ve really lived life. You don’t feel the weight of experience.
RC: That’s what you try and do. You try and feel that character’s pain. The way I was trained is that if you’re going to do something heavily emotional, you go to the well and try and find something in your life that reacts to that. But I stopped it. Nowadays, I think, you have to try and find the pain of that person. If you can get inside there, then it’s going to speak to you. If I’m trying to disguise the pain of character A by Bobby Carlyle’s pain, it doesn’t work as well. So the past 10 years or so, I’ve got away from all of that, and I feel more comfortable in the skin of these characters.
AVC: Does that make it easier to leave the character on the set when you go home at the end of the day?
RC: A wee bit, a wee bit. Early days, I was a bit racked by that, particularly when I did Hitler, for CBS [in 2003’s Hitler: The Rise Of Evil]. That was hellish. That stayed with me for quite a long time. I was 40, 41, and that was the last of that kind. It was really after that—maybe that was the film that did it—that I decided, “It’s okay to be you when you go home.” Children arriving as well: That changes everything.
AVC: Stepping away from a Method approach must make it easier to play a character like The World Is Not Enough’s Renard, since Bond villains aren’t known for their elaborate backstory.
RC: It’s [a] comic book, really. You try to make it as believable a comic character as you can. Bond, for me, that was my past. That was my childhood, going to see Bond films with my father in the ’60s. With Sean [Connery]. That was the only guy that fuckin’ sounded like me. So there was always that connection. And then to get an opportunity to be in Bond, that was special. My father was still alive, too.
AVC: Did acting even seem like a viable option for you growing up?
RC: Never at all. When I look back at it now, my past and the way I grew up, I grew up on communes. That was meant to be. It never occurred to me when I was younger.
AVC: So what was the appeal?
RC: To be honest, at the time, it was a social thing. A friend of mine had joined this community-theater group in Glasgow, and he said to me, “You can come and join in.” These were his exact words: He said, “There’s a lot of good-looking women.” I’m there. And he was right. It was the very first time I came across—and this is maybe more a U.K. thing than a U.S. thing—that thing of working-class actor/middle-class chick. That’s good. [Laughs.] And there was a lot of that. So that drew me toward it. And very quickly, I realized this was a world I belonged in. It didn’t feel strange to me to be acting and pretending to be somebody else.
AVC: Riff-Raff must have been an interesting introduction to the world of film. Ken Loach isn’t a typical movie director.
RC: Absolutely. Ken’s unique. There’s only one Ken, and will only ever be one Ken. You literally don’t get the script at all. There’s no script. It’s, “Okay, you’re a journalist.” A lot of fucking pressure on that. I loved working with Ken on Carla’s Song as well. That was a big thing for me at the time. I’d never worked with anyone twice before. He came and worked with me again, and I heard him say a lovely thing when he was interviewed about it. He said, “You can always cut to Bobby anytime, because the reaction’s always real.” That’s what you want to be.
AVC: You’ve worked with Danny Boyle twice as well, and Antonia Bird, on Priest and Ravenous.
RC: Sadly, we haven’t done it in a long time because she’s been working on other things. As with any director-actor relationship, you understand the way that they work. Like Scorsese with De Niro, he obviously has a working relationship that’s easy shorthand. That was the thing with Antonia. We could get things done quickly.
AVC: Do you get better at establishing that kind of shorthand with a director more quickly as you have more experience?
RC: That’s the thing I’ve missed the most in television. I’ve really enjoyed my work in television, but the problem for me is the turnover of directors every week. Sometimes that’s great. I’ve worked with some really terrific people; I’ve worked with some wankers as well.
AVC: How much can a TV director change the tone on the set?
RC: It depends who you’re working with. For me, nothing at all. There’s a kind of unwritten rule: Don’t say anything at all, and everything will be fine. It’s a producer’s medium. The directors aren’t there to make any decisions. They’re not going to change anything.
AVC: Once Upon A Time has been an interesting change of pace. You haven’t had much of a chance to act in this kind of mythic or fantastic register—maybe on Stargate Universe.
RC: Stargate was something else. [Once Upon A Time] is something I’m really, really enjoying. Rumpelstiltskin himself—after the second episode, that was the No. 2 most Googled thing on the planet. Fucking hell. That was interesting. I started to think more about that name. Who is Rumpelstiltskin to people? This gave me the opportunity to define the part for a younger generation, so that any time youngsters who are watching hear “Rumpelstiltskin,” they’re going to see that face. That was important to me, because I’ve got a few young kids now—5, 7, and 9; and my 7- and my 9-year-old, they love it.
AVC: You’ve done television projects in the U.K., but the American model is very different.
RC: It is. I don’t understand it, to be honest with you. You get something potentially really interesting and really good, and you go, “Let’s have 20 of them!” You can’t do 22. Let’s just do six or seven, or let’s do 10. Let’s stop there. If you keep going on and on and on, you’re going to stretch it very, very thin. Something that starts off with a very good, very interesting idea, 55 episodes later, it’s not so much. Then again, in the U.K., we do six episodes, and that’s it.
AVC: How far ahead do you know what’s going to happen on the show? Can you plan for what your character is doing 10 episodes from now?
RC: You don’t know at all. You make the pilot, and then you wait to get the pick-up. You can’t write anything until you get the pick-up, so then suddenly, you’ve got those front 11 episodes of something. And then they’ve got to do another 11 or 12. It’s not like a film script where you can do draft after draft. They don’t have time to go back and rethink it.
It’s an interesting thing. The U.K. and the U.S. are very different countries, and it really shows in the television. Having said that, the quality of American television the last 12 years or so has been fucking outstanding. Beyond belief. To me, that’s the advent of cable. All this idea of the difference between film and television, you can’t pass a slip of paper between them anymore. It’s so similar. I walk on the green-screen set in Vancouver and there’s all these big fucking cranes and stuff flying about—this is as big as anything I’ve ever worked on. This hybrid has now become the real deal. I tell you what did it for me. I thought Deadwood was really pushing the envelope. I thought that was a really excellent show. I was stunned when it was cut. Critically great, but audience didn’t really watch it so much. I think the beginning of the change, and I had a good buddy involved in it, Kiefer [Sutherland], was 24. 24 kind of raised the bar with episodic television and made people want to follow it again, rather than going, “Fuck, 20 episodes of this?” People wanted to see what happened with 24.
AVC: There’s been a sea change in that most dramas are continuity-driven, or at least make a pretense of it, although people still watch Law & Order, which isn’t.
RC: It’s just story of the week, isn’t it? Jeopardy of the week. But 24 took that much further. Jeopardy of the whole 24 hours. You follow it all the way through. And hopefully we’re going to do the same thing with Once Upon A Time. They’re almost little films, in a way. And to go back and re-examine these fairy-tale myths, these stories, I think is a wonderful thing. It’s definitely working. The audience really loves this tuff. You never forget your childhood, and that’s where that stuff comes from.
AVC: Did you read fairy tales to your children?
RC: Aye, absolutely. When they were young, of course. Still do. They love it. They understand Hansel And Gretel. They understand Cinderella and stuff like that. These stories were originally there as cautionary tales, you know? Be careful: This fucking world is a dangerous place. Don’t go into strange women’s houses. Don’t take candy from strangers. That’s what these stories were telling you. They really dig deep into your psyche as a child, and I don’t think they ever quite leave you. So when you go back to these stories again, you look at them with adult eyes, but there’s something in your mind that’s still a child.