obert Carlyle, who has charmed Sunday night television viewers with his engagingly dark, dope-smoking Highland police officer, Hamish Macbeth - and terrified others with the volcano of urban rage he summoed as the the nutter Begbie in Trainspotting - doesn't like rehearsals. They knock the edge off his acting, he says. But that's not to say he doesn't prepare.
Playing a homeless character in Anotonia Bird's film Safe a couple of years ago, he didn't think he was getting very far. So with a few coins in his pocket, some fags and beer, he went to the Waterloo area of London to live for real among the damned andthe desperate.
Carlyle, a slight figure, who could pass for 25 not the 35 he is, found an empty arch from which the stink was overwhelming, sat down and waited for something to happen. After 20 minutes' fretting he was ready to run when two angry (and fairly mad) men from Scotland pitched up and accused him of taking their place.
Not for the first time in his career, Carlyle musht have been thankful for having an authentic Glasgow accent you can cut with a razor. With his fluent use of the f-word - and the fact that as an actor he relishes the rush of risky improvisation - he convinced them he was "on the straight". The three were soon sharing a brew.
The worst moment came when one of the men took out something stronger: a bottle of milky white fluid of dubious origin. "I thought, 'I know what's coming'. But what do you do? You don't go, 'No thanks'," says Carlyle, now perched next to some nice, clean water bottles of English mineral water at a recherché Soho club where he is publicising his latest film.
"F___ knows what it was. It had a turpsy quality - it might have been turps and milk. I don't know what these boys drink, but I took a slug of it and very quickly swallowed it. I just felt this burning...I thought I was going to die. I really did. I thought, 'I'm going to f___ing die here. I have just poisoned myself'."
But he hadn't; and thanks to a soup kitchen, the bins outside McDonald's, and begging, Carlyle survived for five nights. He tells the story because I press him on it, not because he's trying to make out that it's tough being a well-paid actor whose job provides wall-towall location catering and someone to do his hair. Robert Carlyle is not a luvvie
Preparing for the role of George the Glasgow bus driver in Ken Loach's forthcoming Carla's Song, must have been a doddle by comparison, even if he did have to learn to drive a double-decker bus. (He got his Passenger Service Vehicle licence in six days.) The film is set in Nicaragua and Scotland in 1987, when the "dirty war" between the US-backed Contras and the Sandinistas, who had toppled the Somoza dictatorship, raged, and when fictional George, a feisty yet sensitive working-class lad who is about to marry, has had it up to here driving his bus around Glasgow.
George hooks up with a very bedable fare-dodger called Carla (Oyank Cabezas), a refugee from Nicaragua, and, this being a Ken Loach film which sets working-class romance against potent politics, he is soon on a plane with her to Managua. It is through George's eye that Loach reveals the artocities of the Contras. And while critics may argue about how well the love story fares against the real heart of the film - post-revolutionary Nicaragua - they are unlikely to quibble with Carlyle's performance. In his nicely implusive romantic hands, it is perfectly believable that a Glasgow bus driver might go AWOL with a double-decker and drive his exotic new girlfriend to drink champagne in the mit above Loch Lomond.
"I think he is realistic. I hope he is," says Carlyle, who, like George, was left reeling by what he saw in Central America. Carlyle went to the benefit gigs in the mid-80's and heard calls to buy Nicaraguan coffee to support the Sandinistas. "But nothing could have prepared me for what I was going to experience 10 years later.
"You can't go to Nicaraua as a tourist and have a lovely, enjoyable holiday. It just isn't like that. You're confronted with poverty on a Third World scale. I didn't get over that at all in the six weeks I was there. The average wage is £1.40 ($3) a week...You can't contemplate surviving on £1.40 a week in any country. I'm grateful to have had the experience, but that's what I mean when I say you cannot say you enjoyed it."
Carlyle certainly enjoyed working again with Loach, however. The director shoots chronologically and reveals the script only pages at a time, so when Carlyle signed up, all he knew was that he was a bus driver called George: he didn't know Central America was on his route. He got a clue when shooting in Scotland and he was sent to get inoculations.
Carlyle, who says he has a horror of formal rehearsal which wrings the emotion from a scene, relishes Loach's efforts to keep his performers' reactions fresh and documentary-like. "When you're working with Ken it's all about honesty. As soon as Ken starts to see 'acting', that's when he goes, 'Cut'.
It was Loach who first brought Carlyle's edgy talent to prominence when he cast him as Stevie, a Scottish ex-con building worker, in Riff Raff in 1990. Since then there have been a string of increasingly memorable roles that display his formidable emotional range. This was seen brilliantly in the BBC film Go Now, in which he played Nick, a lager and footie-loving lad who succumbs to multiple sclerosis. "that was the only time as an actor that I have truly felt like a prasite because I felt I was leeching from people," he says.
the "cosmetics" - the erratic physical movements, for which he was greatly praised - he puts down to memicry. What hurt was prying into the lives of the real sufferers he met at MS centres in Glasgow and Bristol. "Fundamental to the part was asking those people, "What did it feel like when you were told you had MS?' What f___ing answer do you expect? It was the worst moment of their entire life...I had to ask quite a few people that to get a kind of uniform idea of what it must be like to be in that situation. That is probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do."
Albie, the deranged skinhead survivor of Hillsborough in Cracker, which won Carlyle comparison with Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, was different kind of victim. And there was the homosexual Graham, Linus Roach's gay pick-up in the acclaimed Priest, whom Carlyle imbued with a compassion far beyond "meat rack" stereotype.
He is a bit fed up being asked about their love scene. "That sequence with Linius was much easier than with a woman. When you are doing these scenes with women there should be subtitles saying'I hope you don't think I'm enjoying this'. there is all this tension. With two straight guys there was none of that."
The hard-drinking, non-drugtaking Begbie in Trainspotting was in a different league. His sizzling venom and urban dysfunction recalled a young Tim Roth tooling up and exploding in the The Hit and it was a performance that is hard to forget. Where did this apparently calm man find that rage? "I don't want to do Glasgow a disservice, but there are aggressive people in Glasgow as there are in any major industrial city and that's where it comes from - that's where you find these people, scrabbling to get to the top. And the wee ones get trampled underneath, so it makes them tougher and it makes them harder."
Carlyle's own upbringing in Maryhill, Glasgow, was certainly tough. His mother walked out when he was an infant - Carlyle did not want to meet her again after a tabloid newspaper recently tracked her down - and he was brought up by his father, Joseph, a painter and decorator and former hippie.
"We moved around in a kind of extended family-type situation from Glasgow to London to Brighton. It was a crazy time, you know what I mean? It was the 60's. It was a wonderful childhood."
Nevertheless, as an adolescent back in Maryhill attending a sink school with 1,800 pupils and classes of 45, Carlyle admits he went off the rails."People were going home to heimums an gerin their dinner. I was going home and cooking he dinner myself. So that chips away at you and a big boulder starts to appear at that age. Of course it's puberty, etc, an you just go mad."
He left school at 16 a "numpty" - with nothing - and joined his dad painting and decorating. But a couple of years later an urge to learn kicked in."I thought, 'I need to do something about this', so I went to night classes."
He took higher school certificates in English and history and got straight As, and then started proper art clss. Then acting, and the RoyalScottish Acadamy of Music and Drama, beckoned. Though acclaimed for his Sottish verse, he was not entirely happy with conventional stagecaft, and a lot of unlearning followed: "To me there is no link between theatre and film."
He set up Rain Dog, a theatre company named after a Tom Waits album, and improvised. "I wouldn't know each night what the actors were going to do and that, to me, seemed exciting. It seemed vibrant and truly live theatre. I enjoyed that approach and it goes into my film work now"
Perhaps it was the lack of vibrancy that made him turn down the tartan heritag films Braveheart and Rob Roy "I wasn't into being a hairy arsed Highlander, charging up a hill, to be honest" Instead he opted to put Plockton, on Scotland's west coas, on th map wih eth wonderful,quirky Hamish Macbeth
Sceptical about playing a rural copper on a Sunday-night TV - not the hard-edged fare he was used to - he was persuaded by Danny Boyle's writing. "The hash smoking, the difficulty in communication - the more we spoke, the darker the character became...You see a really dark side of the guy, particularly with the death of the girlfriend...I think some was as good telly as you'll see".
He was particularly happy to have been involved in the herionfest that was Trainspotting "The drug problem in Scotland is astronomical...but to me the film wasn't so much about the drugs, its more about the society that allows that community to exist. That seemed a very, very interesting thing to talk about. Far more relevant than Braveheart or Rob Roy."
No-one has yet asked him to play in a bonnet - and just as well. "The most important thing for me is the piece has to be worthy...otherwise why f__king do it? It makes this part of the job [interviewes] an awful lot easier if you can talk about real issues rather than Jane Austen. I'd never condemn it. It's just not somthing that interests me."
Thus far he has been largely cast to class and he is well aware how success distances him from his roots. Can he feel himself becoming more middle-class? "I cannot possibly sit here and say I am still a working-class guy. Inside my head I still have that raison d'etre. My whole f__king reason for being is that. But it takes you further away from that - the places I stay in, the house that I am about to buy in Glasgow is far in excess of what I could ever have expected to achieve."
Is it going to cost a lot of money? "A lot of money."
And who's going to do the decorating? "Not me!'
Telegraph Magazine, London
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