People: Robert Carlyle
Robert Carlyle gets back to his Glaswegian roots and takes a bit off the top as a barber with Barbicide on his mind, and a mother who loves a good game of bingo as much as a grisly murder in The Legend of Barney Thomson.
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER, BC – Everyone’s been asking him about Trainspotting 2, but Robert Carlyle has more on his plate than a plan to reprise the role of Begbie in an as-yet-to-be scripted sequel to Danny Boyle’s breakout film about heroin addicts.
For the past few years, he’s been living in Vancouver playing Mr. Gold in the successful Disney TV series Once Upon a Time, and before that, he was Dr. Nicholas Rush in the B.C.-shot SGU: Stargate Universe. He says he loves Canada’s west coast. But after making his directorial debut with the Glasgow-shot black comedy Barney Thomson, released in theatres this week, Carlyle says he’s looking at a tough decision somewhere down the road. He may want to hang around town. Even though on the day we speak, the rain falls in vertical waves on sodden ground. Even the sewers refuse to swallow the deluge.
He says he’s fine with the weather. He says it’s comforting.
“To be totally honest, I think the move to Vancouver was probably easier for me than most because I’m from one of the rainiest places on the planet myself in Glasgow. But I tell you what, I never thought I’d find some place with the rain Glasgow has, and I found it. And here it is…”
Carlyle’s brogue takes a while to sink in and settle into words. It’s a thick Glaswegian that turns your ear inside out as you try to follow the syllables filled with rolling R’s and shortened vowels down a musical rabbit hole of meaning.
“So much of Vancouver, you know, when you go up to Whistler and back it’s so much like the Scottish countryside. So you can see why so many Scots settled here and wanted to be here. And everywhere you go you see Scottish names on streets and stuff like that. And a lot of Scots helped build up the city, so people here have a history. They understand the Scots. They get it. Certainly more than in the U.S. where you have to explain that you’re not Irish and you’re not Welsh. The subtlety, they don’t get it.”
Yet, as much as Carlyle loves it here, he says he will move back to Scotland – one day.
“One day, Once Upon a Time will end and the day will come where I’ll move back from Vancouver, but I will be very sad when I do. I really will. It will be a real decision, because my wife and kids love it here as well. And the kids are in school here, so it’s really going to be a major decision. And we’ll have to make it probably in the next year or so.”
Given the B.C. film industry’s current boom, boosted by the low Canadian dollar, Carlyle could probably hang out if he wanted while Vancouver regains its Hollywood North status.
“You’re right. Last year, I think in March, there were something like 16 pilots being shot here. It’s quite astonishing. And even at the moment, on Once Upon a Time, we’ve been struggling to get crew people for second unit gigs because everyone is working. It’s wonderful for Vancouver. You’re right: There is no reason to leave.”
Carlyle laughs. But as the conversation turns to Barney Thomson and the Glasgow landscape, you can hear where his heart lives in every lilting tone.
“Barney had been offered to me four or five times as an actor over a seven or eight year period,” says Carlyle of the character created by novelist Douglas Lindsay.
“But nothing was happening with it. Then I got here…and I got it again. I realized I couldn’t get away from it. At this point, there was a script… and I said while it may be Glasgow, it wasn’t a Glasgow that I recognize. Maybe because the script was written by a guy from Vancouver!”
Carlyle says Richard Cowan, better known as an assistant director and producer, grew up in West Van.
“The books were written by a Glaswegian, but the screenplay was written by a native of West Van. He’s a lovely guy. But we thought let’s just see if we can get it made… so we took to it Glasgow to give it a remake. Colin McLaren and I eventually pieced together what you see on the screen. And as that process went on and on, it seemed obvious that I should direct it. I was the one who knew the most because I’d been with it for so many years.”
Carlyle says the job was made easier by the fact Barney, a barber who accidentally kills his boss, is a reactive character.
“Everything happens to Barney and bounces off of him,” he says. “You have to just enjoy the ride and go along with it. And having Emma Thompson to react to, and around you, it’s just magic.”
Thompson plays Barney’s mum, Cemolina, a bingo-playing party girl with a few secrets of her own.
“Emma is a wonderful actress and so much fun, and in the original draft she was only in once scene, and she was the standout character. Colin and I expanded the role to the point where we could hopefully get someone big for Cemolina.”
Carlyle pauses, and laughs. “I know this sounds odd, but Nanny McPhee came into my head. The character is nothing like Nanny McPhee, but you could tell that you were dealing with an actress who didn’t have any vanity. She’s an A-list star. That’s what she is. But she’s not afraid to be ugly or to be nasty. And a lot of them are. But when I sent the script to Emma… she agreed to do it within a day and a half. She got it right away.”
“Emma is a wonderful actress and so much fun, and… I know this sounds odd, but Nanny McPhee came into my head. The character is nothing like Nanny McPhee, but you could tell that you were dealing with an actress who didn’t have any vanity. She’s an A-list star. That’s what she is. But she’s not afraid to be ugly or to be nasty. And a lot of them are. But when I sent the script to Emma… she agreed to do it within a day and a half. She got it right away.
Parts like Cemolina don’t come around all that often for women, says Carlyle. “That part is really more of a guy part, normally: an off-the-wall, headcase type of part. Girls don’t get an awful lot of chances to do that…. And she knocked it out of the park.”
Carlyle says he wasn’t even stressed about directing his first feature film because he’d been a theatre director for six years before he made it big as an actor via Trainspotting.
“All the second tier cast, they were all in my theatre company. And as an actor, I’ve worked with so many great directors, but with Danny Boyle, I really learned that if you cast correctly, you don’t have to do that much on the directing front except worry about the shots, etcetera etc… “
Ask Carlyle about what kind of style and mood he was looking for and he says it was all about evoking a sense of timelessness.
“I think I’ve always thought this, in acting and directing, that something that moves you or interests you, you have to think moves an audience. So I went back to the original script and changed all the and changed them to places that I knew and were familiar to me.”
Carlyle put in the dog track, and Barrowland dance hall. He also cast no background players to fill the streets.
“I wanted to see these shots clean and bare because it’s my belief that in recollections of the past you remember the building but you don’t remember the people walking by. So I shaved it down to the absolute essence to maybe ring true with people, and feel familiar in some strange way.”
Carlyle says he was so immersed in creating the specifics of his frames that he didn’t even think of Barney’s connection to another barber, from Fleet Street, named Sweeney – Sweeney Todd.
“It’s bizarre. But I genuinely never thought of it. The barbershop is the centre of the whole film. And my recollection of barbershops as a wee boy was that you had no idea what decade of the century you were in. So I didn’t want any modern references in this film at all. No computer screens. No cell phones. It could be 40s or 50s, which gives it its own unique quality.”
What we see on screen, in every subtle and strangely altered frame, is a little piece of Carlyle’s own past.
“I suppose if anything, it’s maybe a model of my town on film. I was determined to depict the Glasgow I knew and grew up in, because many of these places are under thereat of closure. Some of them are even gone now. That world is going, and so this was my chance to document the world that I knew.
“And I’ve never really spoken about this before, but Barney is partly inspired by my father. Not that he was anything like Barney Thomson. But the way he dresses, that was my dad: The matching shirt and tie. The jacket, slacks and slip on shoes. My dad had this infuriating habit of never taking his jacket off. He’d come into the house and you’d be like, Are you going somewhere? And that was it with Barney. There are other little nods, like the dog track. My dad loved the dogs. He used to go Thursday and Saturday nights every bloody week…”
I suggest maybe that’s why Barney is still lovable despite his many flaws, and Carlyle’s tone gets almost gooey. “That’s really nice of you to say that, because that is exactly right. And that was the major problem with the script. He’s not a nice guy. He doesn’t like his friends. So it was important to imbue him with something, and that little something was my father.”
Carlyle says until Once Upon a Time is over, it’s hard to schedule future projects, whether it’s acting in the Trainspotting sequel or putting new directing projects into the pipeline. He says he’s got a few ideas he’s developing, one with Tom Courtenay (45 Years).
“But just finding the time to do Barney was tough, especially with the editing. But we’ll see… These days work isn’t everything. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get this part or that part. I think I am much more relaxed about it and more comfy in my shoes these days…”
You might say, Carlyle – whether he realizes it or not – is totally West Coast.
THE EX-PRESS, March 8, 2016