Directorial debut shows Carlyle's a cut above

Robert Carlyle returns to his native Glasgow for The Legend Of Barney Thomson, which also marks his big screen directorial debut. But, the passion project was not love at first sight, the Scot tells Susan Griffin

Robert Carlyle in The Legend of Barney Thompson

ROBERT Carlyle's big-screen directorial debut, The Legend Of Barney Thomson, is receiving rave reviews but he's had a tumultuous connection with the project.

"It was offered to me purely as an actor four or five times over a 10-year period. I was doing other stuff, and I said to my agent, 'Listen, the next time this thing comes through my letterbox, I'm going to be waiting with a gun because it's beginning to annoy me'," reveals the 54-year-old Glaswegian, laughing.

When pushed, he admits it wasn't only because he was too busy that he felt that way.

"There was [always] something not quite right with it. It was a Glasgow setting, but it wasn't a Glasgow I knew," he explains. Then, Carlyle was in Canada shooting the fantasy TV series Once Upon A Time, when he got talking to a producer friend who said there was a script he should read.

When he received it, he discovered it was "f***ing Barney Thomson! It was following me!" he recalls. But this particular screen adaptation of Douglas Lindsay's novel The Long Midnight Of Barney Thomson, penned by the Canadian writer Richard Cowan, struck a chord with Carlyle, who volunteered to "help 'Glasgow-fy' it".

The story is a darkly comic tale, which follows Barney (Carlyle), a hapless barber devoid of charm, who accidentally, and quite literally, stumbles into serial murder. Despite having directed in the theatre, it was never Carlyle's intention to helm the movie.

"I was just thinking about getting the characters and the script worked out so if it did ever happen, it would be in a good place. Meanwhile the producers, the sneaky people, were behind the scenes going, 'This could be Robert Carlyle acting and directing', and the financiers thought this was a great idea. Suddenly I was like, 'Hold on a minute, I never said I'd do this'," he says.

But then June last year, with no director on board, he thought, "I guess I know this piece better than anybody by now, so why not?"

Known for his intensity on stage and screen, Carlyle makes for great company. He recalls how he and co-star Ray Winstone – "who I've known for too long" – have had a few good drinking sessions in their time.

He's humble too, admitting feeling nerves on the first day of shooting Barney Thomson. "I've worked with some brilliant directors and you don't see the hesitation in the good ones, so you just have to go, 'Right, this is what we're doing, let's all do it together'."

Raised by his father after his mother left when he was four, Carlyle left school at 16 without qualifications and worked as a painter and decorator. He credits his dad with instilling a love of cinema.

"He used to take me to the movies four, five times a week. Back in those days, you could sit down and watch it again and again, and that's what we used to do if we liked the film. So I became a wee film student at a very early age."

At 21, he became involved with community theatre, after reading Arthur Miller's The Crucible. He was asked if he wanted to "take this further" and go to drama school. "I didn't know there was such a thing," he says.

But he gained a place at the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music And Drama (now known as The Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland) where the experience was "tough at first, because I didn't understand it".

"I hadn't seen a play before I went to drama school, and there were loads of people walking around talking like that [adopts a plummy voice]. I thought, 'This isn't what I thought it would be', but I grew to love it."

He and four mates formed theatre company Raindog but then the director Ken Loach walked into his life, and offered him a role in 1991 movie Riff-Raff.

He went on to play the gay lover of Linus Roache's Fr Greg in 1994 film Priest, a serial killer in Cracker alongside Robbie Coltrane, and the title role in TV series Hamish Macbeth. Then along came Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, the cult 1996 movie which saw him star as psychopathic Begbie, followed by The Full Monty, which earned Carlyle a Bafta.

Although he calls Glasgow home, his base for the last few years has been Vancouver, in order to shoot the aforementioned TV show, in which he plays Rumpelstiltskin.

"It was a big decision to move," he says, adding, with typical candour: "Throughout the 90s, a lot of the film stuff I was making were small, independent movies, which is fantastic for your mind but s**t for your pocket. I thought, 'I have three kids, a wife, I can't leave this industry with nothing'. I needed to make some money, and try to do it in a way which was also going to be satisfying. I was lucky enough to end up in Once Upon A Time, which isn't bad."

:: The Legend Of Barney Thomson is released in cinemas tomorrow.


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