Theatre, film and television actor Robert Carlyle has won 11 major awards including an RTS award (Hamish MacBeth, 1998) an Evening Standard Award (Carla’s Song 1996, Face, The Full Monty, 1998), a SAG award (The Full Monty), two BAFTA Scotland awards (Cracker, 1993 and The Unloved, 2009) and a BAFTA award (The Full Monty). His other notable credits include Riff-Raff, Trainspotting, The World is Not Enough, Angela’s Ashes, The Beach, 28 Weeks Later, Summer, 24 and California Solo among others. Over the past few years he has been working for ABC Television as Rumplestiltskin in the smash hit series Once Upon A Time. He makes his feature film directorial debut with The Legend of Barney Thompson, in which he also stars, adapted with Colin McLaren from the book by Douglas Lindsay. The film, which features Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone and Tom Courtenay among an all-star cast, was nominated for Best British Feature Film at the 2015 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Below he answers some questions about the film and his career ...
Q The Legend of Barney Thomson marks your feature film directorial debut. Why this particular film and why now?
Robert: I’d been offered this film purely as an actor about four or five times over the last 10 years, it just kept coming back, but I was always doing something else. Then I ended up in Canada working for American TV and there was a producer out there, John Lenic, who I’d become friendly with and he told me that there was a Glasgow script that I might be interested in and it was Barney again. I thought, ‘I can’t get away from this thing!’ but I knew there was something in it, and I started to get more heavily involved in it about three years ago. Myself and John were working on it as a kind of potboiler project, it was nothing we were thinking of doing imminently but suddenly the finance started to come in and the closer it got to the shooting date we still didn’t have a director and my producer said well why don’t you do it? At first I didn’t think it was a good idea but the further it got on, I thought well actually I probably know this script better than anyone now. The performance of Barney Thomson, the character, wasn’t going to be angst-ridden, not that it was going to be easy, but it was something that I thought was going to be manageable, and so I ended up doing it.
Q You’ve worked with Ken Loach and Danny Boyle, pretty amazing people to work with, do you think some of that has seeped in and you’ve been influenced by them?
Robert: Well I would never ever think of putting myself in that category but you hope so, you hope you learn from the good people around you, in any walk of life, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to see Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, Alan Parker, people like that at work. You take little things from them all. Particularly Danny Boyle in terms of this film, his enthusiasm, the way he directs. It is a wonderful experience to work on his set because he is so enthusiastic with every single person that people will follow him anywhere. So I had always thought I would try and take that bit of Danny with me.
Q Did you enjoy the challenge of directing and do you fancy doing it again?
Robert: I directed in the theatre for many years, that was what I was going to do, and then Ken Loach came in to town around 1990 to do Riff Raff and after that all this acting work came in. So it wasn’t entirely new to me, certainly new to me in terms of film work. To answer your question, I don’t know, I really don’t know, I enjoyed the five or six weeks filming in Bridgeton Cross last June, the rest of it, it’s very difficult. I had no idea, even though I’d done so many films myself, the work that actually went in to it, which sounds ridiculous but you just don’t know until you do it, you’re responsible for every single nut and bolt in this thing. So it took up an awful lot of time, I’m quite private with my time, when I’m off, I’m off, with this I haven’t really had a lot of chance to be off for the past three years. I enjoy time with my children and my wife, so it would take something pretty special to get me doing it again.
Q As a proud Scotsman how thrilled were you to be filming in your hometown of Glasgow and to open the Edinburgh Film Festival?
Robert: To open the Edinburgh Film Festival was fantastic for me and it’s been such an important place for me in my entire career. So many of my films have premiered there, big films that went on to do great business, The Full Monty for instance. So to be given that opportunity, not only to premiere but to be the opening night film was fantastic. And shooting in Glasgow, that’s what I always wanted to do, I thought if I’m ever going to direct a film, then I might as well do it in my hometown, the place that I know. There’s various places, and locations that mean a lot to me. These locations weren’t actually there in the original piece – Shawfields Dog Track, Barrowlands Ballroom, The Saracens Head Pub, Red Road flats – these things were, for whatever reason, particular to me. Also the interesting thing is that all these places are under threat of some kind of closure. Red Road flats that should have been gone years ago, but Barrowlands Ballroom, Shawfield Dog Track, Bridgeton Cross, these kind of places are under threat so there’s a sense of me documenting my image of Glasgow stamped on this film.
Q Tell us a bit about the film and the character of Barney Thomson and how he fits in?
Robert: Barney Thomson is a hapless middle-aged barber who in Barney’s own words hasn’t had his "kick at the ball" in life. He’s got a mother who’s difficult, to say the least, and at the point where you join the film, he’s under threat of losing his job. If he loses his job, he’s basically got nothing at all. And through a kind of series of mishaps and accidents, he ends up accidentally killing people. It’s a great character to play in a sense because everything happens to him, although he’s the one that’s responsible for killing these people as it were, he doesn’t do anything deliberately, it all kind of happens to him. So he bounces around a bit like in a pin ball machine from then on in.
Q And it’s got a real timeless quality about it, it could be set in any time, and he is a timeless character isn’t he?
Robert: Thank you that’s what I deliberately tried to do in terms of the production values. It came across to me the more work I did on the script with Colin Mclaren that it’s kind of timeless, it’s old-fashioned really, almost 50s or 60s style, and it was important to me to capture that. The shots are straight on, rather than shots set up slightly to the left or the right or the camera moving. I didn’t want any of that, I just wanted to let the actors tell this story the way things kind of used to be. Actors were given the platform to really express themselves in the 50s and 60s, and I thought well let’s try that. So equally you don’t see any mobile phones, any modern cars, and the barbers’ set in particular, that’s such a timeless place. It’s one of my images of my childhood going to those barbers with my father, boxing pictures everywhere and it could have been 1920, 1930, 1940, 1960, it didn’t matter it could have been anytime, so that’s what I endeavoured to do.
Q It’s an incredible cast, but I’ve got to ask about Ray Winstone and the inspired decision to cast Emma Thompson as your mother. She’s only a couple of years older than you and yet she’s totally convincing in the role…
Robert: Ray and I go way back, we’re great friends, and I was really pleased that Ray wanted to come on and do it. He doesn’t get a chance to do a lot of comedy, because he’s generally cast as "the Daddy" but I know him well and Ray’s a very funny guy so I thought he would enjoy that and he did. He was perfect for that role, a quintessential cockney. Put him in Glasgow and see how he gets on. There are things in there that Colin McLaren and myself fiddled about with to show his dislike for the place. Basically, he is stuck in the city because of his wife. It was wonderful to watch Ray up close and to see how much effort and passion he puts into everything that he does.
And Emma Thompson she’s the jewel in the crown of the film, there’s no doubt about that, she’s absolutely brilliant in it. I knew that Cemolina, the character she plays, that’s generally a guy’s part, a mad crazy serial killer-type man. And there are very few parts written like that for women. So I knew I was gonna have to find someone brave to do this. I’ve always been a big admirer of Emma Thompson and even though this character is nothing like Nanny McPhee, if you think of the way she looked in that film, then she’s obviously not got a lot of vanity about her and I thought well that’s perfect. So even though she’s only a couple of years older than me, with the help of Mark Coulier, who’s a multi Academy-Award winning make-up designer and artist, he transformed her in to what you see in the film. She was just fantastic.
Q Audiences are in for a treat, there’s great comedy but quite tense at times as well…
Robert: It’s kind of bittersweet I think, it’s funny and suddenly then you ask yourself is it funny? Particularly the relationship between Barney and his mother, it’s really tense. Again Emma, a tremendously brave performance, that gets the audience thinking I like this character and then asking themselves but do I like this character? And that takes a particular type of actor to do that.
Q What’s up next?
Robert: I’m just about to go to Vancouver to start Season 5 of Once Upon A Time. It’s a fantastic thing for me to be doing, particularly for my wife and my family. My kids who are all young, they love it, they love my character of Rumpelstiltskin, so I’m happy doing that for a bit, but I’ll be going back to film next year for sure.
Q And there’s also been a lot of talk recently about Trainspotting 2. Almost 20 years ago now, can you believe first of all the impact that that film had on your career and life?
Robert: I think it would be an amazing thing Ewen Mcgregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and myself 20 years older. I don’t know if that’s ever been done before, I don’t remember seeing a sequel ever like that, you know these characters so well, and Trainspotting was such a big generational film, you’ll have this audience 20 years older watching these characters 20 years older and that would be an amazing thing to happen. I think it should happen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
Q When did you know you really wanted to get in to acting, was there a spark, or was it always just there?
Robert: My mother left when I was a wee boy, so my father brought me up. This was in the 60s and in order to take my mind of the fact that there was no mother around, and to take his mind off it too, my dad used to take me to the cinema all the time. So we used to go four or five nights a week. And back then in the day, you could just sit through the film and watch the next show and the next show. I’d look at my dad and he’d be sitting through the next show of the same film, and I’d think oh we’re gonna watch it again, so I’d see films two or three times and then we’d go back the next night and see it two or three times more. In amongst that there were cowboy films, westerns, which my father loved, and I grew to love as well, so I guess those were my earlier influences, westerns and actors like Yul Brynner, Jack Palance, these were my heros when I was a wee boy. And of course Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, I can remember seeing that, and that was a big deal for me. But as things progressed from that I’ve always been a fan of films from the 50s and 60s, and that’s probably my biggest influence. I love British films too, and they were unique in the way they were shot and the way they were done back then so I suppose from a filmic point of view that’s where I come from.
The Legend Of Barney Thompson is in cinemas now.