Robert Carlyle on going far beyond Begbie with new Sky drama COBRA and how he missed out on Game of Thrones

Scottish actor Robert Carlyle will be taking part in the Belfast Film Festival this weekend. The Glasgow-born Trainspotting star spoke to David Roy about his varied career to date, including how he missed out on a role in Game of Thrones

Robert Carlyle is 'in conversation' at the Belfast Film Festival tonight
Robert Carlyle is 'in conversation' at the Belfast Film Festival tonight

DESPITE enjoying a long and varied career over the past 30 years, Robert Carlyle will always be best known to some film fans for his iconic screen psycho Francis Begbie from 1996's Trainspotting.

The Glasgow-born, Vancouver-based actor – who gamely revisited an older-no-wiser Begbie in Boyle's superb Trainspotting sequel T2 in 2017 – admits he still encounters 'The Beggar' on a fairly regular basis.

"I've been lucky in my career to play so many different parts and roles," says the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama-trained Carlyle, who played Mr Gold/Rumpelstiltskin in Canadian-shot US TV fantasy hit Once Upon A Time from 2011 until last year and will shortly be seen as the astronomer Ogilvy in the forthcoming BBC adaptation of War of The Worlds.

"But Begbie certainly does come up a lot. People come up and say the lines to me all the time. I'm like, 'f*** – you know them better than me'.

"This thing is so fixed in people's minds, and it doesn't matter what country we're in either, y'know? I get it in Vancouver as well – people will come up and quote Begbie things."

Robert Carlyle returned as Francis Begbie in T2
Robert Carlyle returned as Francis Begbie in T2

However, as his varied screen career attests, you could hardly say Carlyle (57) has suffered from being typecast as a 'hardnut'. The fact that his next big role was nice guy steelworker-turned-stripper Gaz in The Full Monty – Peter Cattaneo's comedy drama became a box office smash just 18 months after the similarly seismic success of Danny Boyle's zeitgeist-grabbing Irvine Welsh adaptation – undoubtedly helped him avoid being typecast by his masterful caricature of a volatile 80s hardnut.

"I was getting offered a lot of that after Trainspotting – but I didn't necessarily take them," Carlyle explains.

"I was lucky that The Full Monty kind of came up at the same time which totally confused people. Gaz was the polar opposite of Begbie, he's a guy struggling to find money for his kid and that's all he's about, y'know?

"So I was lucky that people then also looked to me to play other types of roles other than psychos. But I still get them in the post, weekly: 'here's another 'Begbie' for ye to play'."

Although he still lives in Vancouver with wife Anastasia and their teenaged kids Ava, Harvey and Pearse Joseph, Carlyle's latest role in Sky's upcoming political drama COBRA finds him working in and around Manchester.

Robert Carlyle and Victoria Hamilton in new Sky drama COBRA
Robert Carlyle and Victoria Hamilton in new Sky drama COBRA

Moving yet further away from his beloved Trainspotting character, the actor portrays British prime minister Robert Sutherland, a Tory leader forced to deal with a national emergency in the show which also stars Victoria Hamilton (The Crown) and Belfast actor Richard Dormer.

It's a role which has stretched Carlyle in ways beyond mere acting, as he explains.

"It is a weird one for me – I don't think I'm going to be allowed back into Glasgow," chuckles Carlyle, whose personal politics are pretty much the polar opposite of his latest character's.

"He's Scottish, but he's 'rugby player Scottish' if you know what I mean, like a Borders type thing: public school, Oxford-educated – that type of guy. That was one of the things that appealed to me [about the role], not just the fact that he's a Tory, but getting to play the prime minister. It's brave casting, I think."

Carlyle describes Dormer as "a lovely guy and a smashing actor as well", and it seems the pair might have become co-stars on the HBO smash Game of Thrones almost a decade ago had the Scot not already been signed on for family fairytale fantasy series Once Upon a Time when the American TV giant was casting its first series.

"I heard years later while I was in the midst of Once Upon a Time that [HBO] had come in for me as well," he reveals, "but it never got anywhere because I was away working, y'know?

"But these things happen and I'm happy to have done Once Upon a Time anyway – but what a phenomenon Game of Thrones turned out to be."

In fact, the cult Canadian-made series proved popular enough to match its more widely known TV counterpart in terms of longevity, with Carlyle staying with Once Upon a Time for all eight of its 'seasons'.

"I thought it would maybe be a couple of years," admits the actor, who took on the role of Mr Gold in the wake of the cancellation of two-season TV sci-fi Stargate: Universe, in which he played inter-dimensional scientist Dr Nicholas Rush.

"To be honest with you, I was in a situation round about then where I thought I really need to take care of my family and put them first. A job came up out there in Vancouver and I thought this could be good for us – and so it proved to be, so much so that I'm still there, in actual fact. And nice life its been and a fantastic place for kids to grow up for sure."

Carlyle hasn't ruled out an eventual move back to Scotland, and says he is looking forward to returning to Belfast in a professional capacity for the first time since filming post-Troubles drama The Mighty Celt alongside Gillian Anderson in 2005, courtesy of the Belfast Film Festival.

Robert Carlyle and Gillian Anderson in the film The Mighty Celt
Robert Carlyle and Gillian Anderson in the film The Mighty Celt

"I can't believe I've only done one film there," he marvels. "My family, the Mitchells and the Duffys, all came over in the mid-1800s from the north of Ireland and also the Republic as well. So I've got a lot of ancestral roots there."

Tonight will find the Scot discussing his career at an 'in conversation' event, at which he will also be presented with the festival's BFI award for 'outstanding contribution to cinema'.

However, having taken director Ken Loach's advice of "don't talk about it too much" to heart during promotional duties for 1991 drama Riff-Raff – an early role that put Carlyle on the radar as 'one to watch' – the actor is much more enthusiastic about screening one of his lesser-known films at QFT Belfast tomorrow night, Summer (2008).

"It's one of my favourite films that I've been involved with," he enthuses of the Kenneth Glenaan-directed indie drama, which centres on the complex and intense bond between two lifelong friends.

"Performance-wise, I think it's one of my better things and not enough people got a chance to see it as it had quite a limited release back in the day.

"I mean, people were never going to be queuing around the block for Summer, but it moved me. It just touches you in a very human way and I think Kenny did a fantastic job with the film – so I really hope people get the chance to check it out in Belfast."

:: Robert Carlyle is 'in conversation' tonight at Movie House, Dublin Road, 7pm (sold out). Summer will be screened at QFT Belfast on Saturday April 13 at 7.15pm. Tickets via Queensfilmtheatre.com and Belfastfilmfestival.org

Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama