'Listening to Robert Carlyle talking about Malachy McCourt, the character he plays in his latest film, Angela’s Ashes, one can’t help but wonder if he realises the irony of his observations. Malachy was a drunken ne’er-do-well, struggling to bring up his family in Limerick, Ireland, during the Depression of the 1930s. Unable to get work or sustain a job because of his alcoholism, he abandoned his family.
Alan Parker’s film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Frank McCourt, Malachy’s eldest son. Carlyle had many conversations with him to capture the essence of the man he was playing.
“The main thing that came out of my conversations with Frank is that all the children loved their father until the day he died,” says Carlyle.
“They never forgave their mother Angela because of the relationship she later had with her cousin, but they forgave the father who walked out on them. He left because he had nothing to offer them.”
Carlyle’s analysis is particularly interesting when you consider his own circumstances. When he was a toddler, his mother Elizabeth walked out on him and his father Joseph. To this day, he refuses to mention her name. All he has said is: “I regard her as having died.”
But there is no doubt that this childhood trauma has formed his adult life. After his mother left, he travelled the country with his father, living in communes and never really forming any close relationships with anybody apart from his father. So it is hardly surprising the characters he has played so convincingly have at best been unconventional, at worst, dysfunctional. From the psychotic Begbie in Trainspotting, the psychopathic Hillsborough survivor Albie in Cracker and the equally psychotic villain in the latest Bond film (The World Is Not Enough), to the inadequate Gaz in The Full Monty and the hash-smoking Highland policeman in the TV series Hamish Macbeth, his roles have been far from safe or cosy.
Carlyle himself is not much given to introspection. But he acknowledges that he finds it easier to identify with losers than winners.
“I have always been interested in people who are marginalised in some way, people slightly outside society. My father loved Westerns, and in the ‘60s he used to take me to cowboy films. My heroes were Yul Brynner, Anthony Quinn and Steve McQueen. They played guys who did their stuff, rode off into the sunset and you didn’t know too much about them. And if you look through the work I’ve done there are similarities. When I look back, I think what an obvious choice it was to become an actor, and yet it didn’t occur to me till I was 22.”
Although Carlyle is an intensely private man, there is a warmth and sensitivity behind the dour demeanour. There are glimpses of it when he talks about his father, a retired painter and decorator.
“My dad has always encouraged me, probably in a way he doesn’t even realise. When I was a painter and decorator and announced, at 21, that I was going to drama school, everyone I knew laughed. The only person who didn’t was my dad.
“When I started doing research for Angela’s Ashes, he was incredibly helpful. He was born in 1930 in Glasgow to a family of 13 who lived in one room. He went to school shoeless and lived the life the McCourts lived. So he gave me an insight into that way of life. He has always been there for me. That’s why it was so wonderful to be able to take him to something like the Bond premiere in London. These were films he used to go and see in the ‘60s, and there was his son, up there playing the villain. He loved every minute of it.
“Three years ago I bought him a house. On the night we gave him the keys, my wife and I went to an electrical store and bought up the place. When we got to the house, my dad was standing in the doorway, crying, as all these things arrived. That’s a memory I will take with me for the rest of my life. That was me being able to do the right thing at the right time in my life for a man who has done so much for me.”
Despite his father’s encouragement, the path to film stardom was never going to be an easy one for a kid from the rougher side of Glasgow. Because of his erratic schooling, his teachers had written him off by the time he was 17.
“I’m sure every one of them would be shocked by what I’ve achieved. The careers advice people told me my best option was to join the Navy. I got as far as the door of the office, ready to sign up, and then I turned away. I’ll never know why.”
He is now one of Britain’s most bankable actors and was awarded the OBE last year.
“I’m the last person in the world you would have expected to be given an OBE, but it is a gift that has been bestowed on you and it should be taken with dignity. I certainly don’t think I deserved it, but maybe it’s because the films I’ve done have made a great deal of money for the country and I’ve decided to stay here making films.”
And, as he gets nearer to 40, Carlyle’s thoughts are turning to starting a family. He and his wife, Anastasia, have been married for two years.
“Until now I’ve been too selfish to want kids. Every actor has to be, to a certain extent. But, God willing, becoming a father is something that will happen in my life.”’
What’s On liftout, The Courier Mail newspaper (Brisbane, Australia), Thursday, May 18, 2000