Robert Carlyle: “I don’t feel sympathy for Boris Johnson”

As he prepares to play a Tory PM, the famously socialist Scot looks back on his career

ympathy isn’t really a word I’d use for Boris Johnson,” laughs Robert Carlyle. “I don’t feel sympathy for politicians but I do have respect for anyone doing a tough job.” If anyone knows just how tough the job can be it’s Carlyle – back playing a Prime Minister in a crisis for the second season of Sky drama COBRA, which debuts next week. Famous for throwing himself headlong into method acting roles (sleeping rough, getting a bus driving licence and pulling out his back teeth to play various parts over the years), this latest performance is one of his biggest transformations yet.

“When COBRA was offered to me I thought it was something about snakes,” he laughs again. “I read the script and I literally couldn’t believe it. Not only a Prime Minister, but a Conservative one at that?! The great thing about this job is that you can find yourself in the most bizarre and extreme places, but the thought of me playing a Tory PM? Coming from what I come from?”

Rocking back in his chair from the bedroom of his Vancouver home, Carlyle is a long way from a childhood spent in Glasgow’s east end. Raised in the tenements of Maryhill, he’s spoken before about a “Dickensian” upbringing at the broken end of the welfare system. Leaving school at 16 without any qualifications, he got into music before he discovered drama at the Glasgow Arts Centre.

“I couldn’t believe they wanted me to play a Tory Prime Minister”

“I’m not just saying this, but I used to get my copy of NME religiously every week,” he smiles – softly spoken, quick to laugh, deeply engaged in the conversation. “I think I was probably as mad as any other teenager from Glasgow but music was massive for me. I had a great friend at the time and we used to go to a lot of gigs together. I took him to see Bob Marley and Leonard Cohen and he took me to Kiss and AC/DC. Music follows me everywhere. When I started my theatre company I called it Rain Dog, named after the Tom Waits album [‘Rain Dogs’].”

Fed up with acting in plays that only the rich could afford to watch, Carlyle’s indie group took theatre straight to the streets – performing everywhere from foster homes and retirement centres to young offenders units and Barlinnie prison. “That’s where we felt like we belonged. They were the people we wanted to try and reach,” he says. “We wrote stuff, we improvised, we did Shakespeare. We did a fantastic production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There was nothing else on the horizon for me at the time. I was picking up little acting jobs here and there just to make a little bit of money for the theatre, but I wasn’t really interested in building any kind of career. And then suddenly, out of the blue, Ken Loach came along and changed everything for me.”

Cast in Loach’s 1991 dramedy Riff-Raff as an ex-con Scottish builder sleeping rough on the streets of London, Carlyle’s performance got him noticed, with a flurry of big and small-screen parts following throughout the early ’90s. Nominated for a BAFTA for his violent and intense turn as a murderer in 1994’s Cracker, he side-stepped into the gentler leading role of TV’s Hamish Macbeth for three years playing a lovable highland policeman. Just when it looked like he might be stuck in Sunday teatime forever, Trainspotting came calling.

Robert Carlyle as Begbie in ‘Trainspotting’. CREDIT: Alamy

“I already knew the book and I loved it,” remembers Carlyle. “We’d actually stolen bits of it for some of our improvised theatre stuff, like sampling a song, so it meant a lot to me. The problem was, Danny [Boyle] and I had already met because I was turned down for a part in Shallow Grave. We didn’t have a disagreement as such… it turned out that we were just thinking things in a different way. But when Trainspotting came up and I knew I was walking into a room with Danny I just thought: ‘Shite, I’ve got no chance!’ But as soon as I walked in, I remember his exact words, he said: ‘Right Bob, Ewan McGregor is going to play Renton. What part do you want to play?’ I was floored.”

Initially put off playing Begbie because he was “a big, massive, scary monster of a guy”, Carlyle asked for the Sick Boy role (“Renton would really have been the part for me at the time…”) before Boyle convinced him that he was perfect for Begbie because “small psychos are the best”. Filmed on a tight budget over seven weeks in the middle of 1995, Trainspotting lit a rocket under the British independent film scene, kick-started a dozen careers and became one of the defining movies (and soundtracks) of the ’90s. In the space of a single year, Carlyle went from jobbing TV actor to having his face pinned to the wall of every teen’s bedroom in Britain, casually flicking a V from behind a thick ’tache on one of the most iconic posters of the era.

“When you’re in the middle of it, you’re not always entirely aware of everything that’s going on,” he says. “All that came afterwards. I’d walk into any club and within two minutes ‘Born Slippy’ [by Underworld] would come on. It became my signature tune. People started shouting my own lines back at me, and they knew them better than me. ‘‘That lassie got glassed…’ or whatever it is…”

“After ‘Trainspotting’, I’d walk into any club and within two minutes ‘Born Slippy’ would come on”

Hearing the lines quoted back now it’s hard to imagine the gentle, deeply intelligent Carlyle ever getting into character as a man who headbutts his way to the bar, but there’s clearly something about Begbie’s brand of violent chaos that still makes the 60-year-old actor grin.

“It was an incredible thing, you know, but looking back it’s even more incredible. It happened. I was part of it,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “And who knew that it was going to take off like that? Trainspotting was tiny, it was a little Scottish thing. But suddenly it was all over the world. Two years later I shot a film in Bulgaria and I got two steps outside the hotel when this Bulgarian saw me and shouted: ‘Hey Begbie!’ And that became the norm. Wherever I go, whatever country, whatever accent, I now always hear that name.”

Wanting to stick to his indie roots without getting typecast, Carlyle’s next role saw him stripping down to his hat for The Full Monty. Another landmark British hit, the comedy became the highest-grossing film in the UK before it was beaten by Titanic – earning Carlyle a BAFTA and cementing his reputation as one of the most promising and versatile British talents around.

Robert Carlyle

Now with two blockbuster performances under his belt that each showed two completely different sides of his range, Carlyle’s career exploded. Between 1999 and 2001 he released eight different films – including Plunkett & Macleane, Ravenous, Angela’s Ashes, The Beach and, his biggest coup yet, playing the main Bond baddie in The World Is Not Enough.

“Yeah that was a busy time!” he chuckles. “I was literally just going from one country to the next for most of those years. I was hopping from Prague to Slovakia and then Hungary and Bulgaria and Romania… those films kept me going farther and farther east. It was a magic time. And to get the opportunity to have a laugh in a Bond film? That’s alright, isn’t it?”

Talking about his love of Sean Connery as a boy (“going to the cinema with my dad in the late ‘60s you didn’t hear too many Scots accents…”), the chance to be in a Bond movie was too good an opportunity to turn down – but the film was a rare step away from small-scale social dramas and indie comedies. Occasional big budget movies popped up after his late ’90s breakthrough (including 2006 fantasy dud Eragon), but Bond marked a turning point for the actor who loves losing himself in the method.

Robert Carlyle
As Bond villain Renard in ‘The World Is Not Enough’. CREDIT: Alamy

“Big action movies involve so much more time,” he says. “On an indie film you’re in the character every day, but on a big film you work for a couple of days and then you’re off for two weeks. It’s tough… But, y’know, ‘boo hoo’. It’s not that tough. It’s hardly a real job!”

Deciding to slow the pace after his mad run of movies, Carlyle had one last commitment to shake before he could settle into the next phase of his career – a favour called in from his Britpop days that came at exactly the wrong time. “I met Oasis several times during that Trainspotting period and it was always pretty mental, so when they asked me to star in the ‘Little By Little’ video I just thought: ‘Why not?” he says. “The thing was, that was the same week that my daughter Ava was born. I really didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to leave her for the first week of her life. But it was a promise, so I sort of had to do it.

“That whole week was a strange netherworld for me. It was the birth of my daughter and the beginning of this whole new chapter, the start of a calmer period. But being stuck in a little studio with the Gallaghers was not exactly the calmest of experiences! I’m still very fond of those boys though.”

Eventually, Carlyle found his calm. Losing himself in longer parts on smaller projects, he took on Russian gangsters (Human Trafficking), King James I (Gunpowder, Treason & Plot) and even Adolf Hitler – finding his way into the mind of history’s greatest monster through music. “I found out that he loved this one Wagner opera called Lohengrin. I realised there was a little tiny bit of his headspace that I could understand.”

Taking on the role of Rumpelstiltskin in fantasy adventure series Once Upon A Time, Carlyle stayed with the cast for seven years between 2011 and 2018. With the show finally affording him the privilege to be pickier about his jobs, there was always going to be one person he couldn’t say no to.

Reuniting with director Danny Boyle for 2017’s T2 Trainspotting, Carlyle returned to the role of Begbie 21 years after he was first cast, finding his way back into character by yanking out two of his back teeth (“You can imagine he’s probably lost them in prison somewhere…”) Building up a close friendship with Boyle over the years, the bigger test came in 2019 when the director asked him to play his hero, John Lennon, for a film-stealing cameo in Yesterday.

“I cried when Danny Boyle cast me as John Lennon”

“With Danny the answer is always yes, but he told me he wanted me to read the script before he’d tell me what the part was,” remembers Carlyle. “When I turned the page and Himesh [Patel] says ‘John’, I just started crying. My god I’m even getting emotional just talking to you about it now. I phoned up Danny and said: ‘Jesus man, you just killed me.’”

Playing Lennon in an alt-present fantasy that imagines him as an old man, the cameo took just a few days to film but remains one of Carlyle’s proudest achievements. “It was just such a beautiful and spiritual thing. Danny told me that this was the reason he was making the whole film and I believed him. The reactions I’ve had from people have been really beautiful too. I’ve been so lucky in my career so many different times, but to get the opportunity to do that and affect people in that way was just such an amazing experience.”

Welling up at the memory, visibly moved, Carlyle seems humbled by his own career at every turn. Fuelled by the same indie passion that took him into Glaswegian prisons and reform centres as a penniless twenty-something, the 60-year-old Hollywood veteran still does it because he cares about the work.

T2 Trainspotting
Begbie returned in 2017’s ‘T2 Trainspotting’. CREDIT: Alamy

Now back on the small screen playing Prime Minister Sutherland in COBRA: Cyberwar, Carlyle filmed the second series during lockdown – forced to put so many other plans on hold. “You couldn’t write it could you?” he laughs. “Although actually our writer, Ben [Richards], did originally think about doing a pandemic storyline for COBRA but he thought it would be too far-fetched! Shooting in Manchester during late 2020 really felt like being in the eye of the storm. I didn’t leave my apartment at all for four months other than to travel to the set in a mask.”

Now that film and TV productions are slowly getting back to normal, Carlyle is starting to think about his legacy again – returning to the one role that he just can’t seem to leave behind. Giving NME the exclusive scoop on his plans for more Trainspotting, Carlyle isn’t ready to let go of Begbie anytime soon.

“Irvine [Welsh] and myself have been chatting quite a lot recently,” he says, already excited about being back in character. “There was another book called The Blade Artist which is just entirely about Begbie and his mad story. It’s still in its early moments but it’s looking pretty good that this will happen eventually. We’re thinking about doing it as a six hour ‘television event piece’, as they say nowadays.

Robert Carlyle
Robert Carlyle as the Prime Minister in ‘COBRA: Cyberwar’. CREDIT: Sky

“It’s such a massive story – it’s all Los Angeles back and forth to Edinburgh – and it’s difficult to do all that in an hour and a half, especially if you want to keep that book pure. So that’s the plan. Sometime in the next year and a bit we’ll hopefully be talking again about the return of Begbie.”

So that’s more iconic posters following him from job to job? More strains of ‘Born Slippy’ to smile politely at? Even more shouts of “Begbie!” as he walks down the street? “I know!” he laughs, half regretting it already, half loving the very thought of it. “What have I done?!”

‘COBRA: Cyberwar’ airs on Sky Max and NOW from October 15