Begbie is a terrifyingly violent yet mesmerising character in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. Nick Roddick meets the actor who brings him to life
The first time I met Bobby Carlyle, it was on a hillside above Loch Lomond. The scenery was stunning - especially from higher up, where the winter sun (it was a week before Christmas) caught the heather horizontally, lighting it up like something from the Next catalogue. Down below, the temperature was sub-zero and the mist swirled up the glen from the loch, as though for the climax of a Dario Argento movie.
Up there on the single-track road, Bobby was driving a bus - in character, you understand, that of George, the role he plays in Ken Loach's new film, Carla's Song, but driving it nonetheless. A few weeks before, he had taken the Scottish bus driver's course at Knightswood, the Glasgow school for trainee bus drivers. He got the same time to learn as anyone else - six days - and emerged proficient in handling a Glasgow Bus Company's 16-ton Routemaster.
"When I passed the test, that was one of the proudest moments of my life," he says. "Turning left, that's the most difficult thing to do. What you must always remember" - do I hear the ghostly echo of a Glasgow driving instructor here? - "is that the wheels are six feet behind you, and that's what turns. You need to go past your normal point of turn, and then it's a case of making the bus drift round the corner. If you turn the wheel too much, you're going to go over the curb and maybe squash some people's toes."
It doesn't surprise me that Carlyle has emerged, over the past couple of years, as one of Britain's most promising actors, the kind of performer to whom John Ford would immediately have responded, the kind who could ride a horse (or drive a bus?) and act.
But even after Riff-Raff (Carlyle is possibly the only actor ever to work twice with Loach), Priest (in which he played the gay lover) and the cult British TV series Hamish Macbeth (in which he plays the kind of troubled but charismatic cop who used to be the sole prerogative of Hollywood or Alain Delon), his performance in Trainspotting leaves you breathless.
If Carlyle were not physically small, gentle and intense, you'd think his Begbie wasn't acting. A friend tells me that is just what he said after Riff-Raff: if you're in a Ken Loach film about a building site, no one thinks you're an actor, everyone thinks he found you on a building site. It would be easy to make the same mistake about Trainspotting.
Carlyle's portrayal of Begbie - the film's psychopathic hard man, who never touches drugs but gets off on acts of violence the way fetishists get off on rubber - is so totally, convincingly terrifying, he could have come out of a Sauciehall Street bar on a rainy Saturday night. "Are you looking at me, Jimmy?"
Danny Boyle must have known this about Carlyle, because he came up with the idea of casting him. "He approached me and asked me to play Begbie," recalls the actor a year or so later, in the muted confines of the ICM office in London. "I wasnae too sure at the beginning, because I knew the book very well, and I saw Begbie as this huge monster, you know?"
Like his twin in novelist Irving Welsh's extraordinary second novel, Marabou Stork Nightmares, the Begbie of Trainspotting is a towering figure. But then you realise you are presuming his size from his single-minded - no, mindless - commitment to physical violence. So size doesn't matter. And Carlyle distils the whole thing into a lethally-compact package.
"If you take Begbie as he is in the book," he muses, "I would say the character would possibly be unplayable. The audience would be turned off by the guy. You couldn't possibly watch it for that amount of time. But, the way I'd seen the script going, the first half hour of the film is actually quite funny. So what I wanted to create was a sort of cartoon caricature of a Glasgow hard man - well, actually, an Edinburgh hard man, because Begbie's from Leith," - which is to polite, educated Edinburgh (where "sex" is what you put your coal in) what the South Bronx is to Manhattan.
"So, at the beginning, there he is in his pink Pringle jersey and his red stay-pressed trousers and his moustache.
"Then, as the film progresses - the crucial point, of course, is when the baby dies - it gets quite dark. So the clothes become darker, the Pringle becomes black, the suit goes on. And, by the end, you're left in no doubt whatsoever that the guy isn't funny at all, that he's actually extremely dangerous and probably insane."
Carlyle is full of praise for Trainspotting's director Danny Boyle. "He's probably the closest to Ken Loach you're going to get, because of his ability to work with actors. That's the major thing a director must have: an actor's trust. Danny'll walk onto a set, and there'll be 40 extras and he'll know every one of their names, and he'll speak to them throughout the day. Can you imagine? You're in a park or something and you have to shout during a scene. And, at the end of the take, he comes up and goes [a brief, congratulatory hand on the knee]: 'Nick, that was brilliant!'"
Whether or not it was the confidence that Boyle inspired on the Trainspotting set, Carlyle's Begbie is the anchor of the film, the living embodiment of the breakdown of human values with which Trainspotting so brilliantly deals - brilliantly because it holds fast, in the end, to humanity, to what holds the human spirit together when all the props are pulled away.
Except for Begbie. Begbie is off the map. Even in the muted, super-safe confines of the London ICM office, I feel a chill when Carlyle's eyes glaze over at the first mention of Begbie.
"Ma pal," he murmurs. It's hard not to duck, as though a beer glass were flying through the air - as it does in the first, unforgettable scene in Trainspotting in which Begbie lets loose.
Fuck stardom: this is acting.
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