METHOD IN HIS MADNESS

Profile: Actor robert carlyle talks with James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
The writer Jimmy McGovern recalls the extremes to which actor Robert Carlyle goes when playing a part. During the filming of Cracker, Carlyle, a native of Glasgow, vowed to speak in the Liverpudlian accent of his character, Albie, 24 hours a day. "To test him out," McGovern recounts, with something approaching awe, "Ricky Tomlinson, another actor, phoned Bobby up at three in the morning - and he still answered in Scouse."

Carlyle confirms the authenticity of the anecdote. "I must have been dreaming about Albie," he laughs, remembering the haunting sociopathic skinhead he embodied. "I spoke in a Liverpool accent the entire time. It becomes second nature. It's much easier like that. It seems to me common sense rather than extraordinary."

Most people would beg to differ. His spectacular level of research puts you in mind of that other master of the Method, Robert De Niro. Just as the American actor earned a yellow cabbie's badge for Taxi Driver and put on several stone for Raging Bull, so Carlyle passed the Passenger Service Vehicle Licence test to play a bus-driver in Ken Loach's Carla's Song and lived in Cardboard City as background for a part as a homeless man in Safe.

Carlyle, an appealingly shy man almost trying to take cover in a huge, blue puffa jacket, pulls on a cigarette and shrugs off comparisons with De Niro. "If anyone mentions my name in the same sentence as Robert De Niro, I laugh, because he's the man. One of my favourite films is Raging Bull. The lengths to which he went to play that man [Jake La Motta] paid off in spades. It's one the greatest performances ever. If that's what it takes, I'll go down that road."

Research for Carlyle is not just an optional extra - it's his oxygen as an actor. "Rather than extra-curricular, I see research as part of the job," he declares,"whether it's into MS, driving a bus or homelessness."

Carlyle's investigations into characters have produced some of the most incendiary screen performances in recent years - think of the burning, murderous Albie, Cracker's dispossessed Hillsborough survivor, of Nick, the achingly real MS sufferer in Go Now, or of Begbie, the headcase from Trainspotting.

Industry insiders talk in hushed tones about Carlyle as the finest actor of his generation. "Not since Gary Oldman have I worked with someone like Bobby who can do anything," comments Scott Meek, an executive producer on Hamish Macbeth, the charmingly off-beat Highland policeman Carlyle plays. "He has that ability to become someone else. When I watch Trainspotting, I see Begbie not Bobby - and Bobby's been a personal friend for years. Begbie still scares the shit out of me, and I know he [Carlyle] is a very nice man. The sheer animal ferocity of Bobby's dark characters doesn't leave your head very easily."

That magnetism has been known to send female admirers weak at the knees. Although he would pooh-pooh the idea, Carlyle is Scotland's sexiest export since Sean Connery. "Why do people find him sexy?" Meek wonders. "Because he looks like there's a lot going on inside. He appears to have lots of depth to explore. He gives off the notion that there is a darkness there, that there would always be another aspect to him that you'd never get to grips with - women find that very attractive. Also, he clearly has a sense of humour. The ability to be funny and have a bit of a tortured soul is something many women can't resist."

The other thing that has stood Carlyle in good stead is his impeccable choice of roles. You can check his CV in vain for duds. "The depth of the part is something that is vital to me," he avers. "There have to be three dimensions. I try to look behind the lines. What's not being said is more interesting than what's being said. Acting can be very frivolous, but if the project you choose contains social worth, that makes it easier."

Many of Carlyle's most memorable roles have had a heart of darkness. Even Hamish Macbeth, despite the gorgeous scenery and the Sunday night family drama slot, "has a dark side to him," according to the actor. "That's what kept me going in the part; he's no sugary guy. Sometimes the dark characters are the most interesting because there's more going on. Look at Albie. Even though he's a psycho, you can see he has a heart. Out of all the parts I've played, he lived with me the longest. I felt so much for the guy. I knew where he was coming from. His tangible sense of grief stayed with me."

But doesn't all this immersion in long dark nights of the soul mess you up? "Believe it or not, it is enjoyable," says Carlyle, flashing a winning smile. "Trying to be as believable as I can is a great pleasure. It's not all about twisting my mind. The greatest thrill is to try to disguise myself. Maybe I like confusing people. I like the idea that people can't get a handle on me. The biggest compliment is when people don't recognise me - `Is that the same guy?' they say."

Notoriously publicity-shy, Carlyle would rather take a part in Take The High Road than cosy up on the sofa with Richard and Judy. "The more people see you as you are, the less believable you are as an actor," he asserts. "I've never set out to be a star or, heaven forbid, a celebrity." He utters this last word as though his nostrils have just been filled with a most unpleasant smell.

"That prevents you from disguising yourself," he continues, "and it becomes impossible for the public to accept you as anything else. Someone I've got great respect for is Hugh Grant. He's suffered press murder. He's a good actor, but you'd never know that. He'll only ever be `Hugh Grant' and he won't get a chance to be anything else. That's what I want to avoid."

That shouldn't be too hard. Somehow you can't see Carlyle ever swanning about Hollywood with a posh girlfriend on his arm. "It's not my world," he insists. "I live in the dark streets."

The third and final series of Hamish Macbeth continues tomorrow on BBC1 at 8pm. Carla's Song is on general release

EYE TEST

1961: Born in Glasgow. Brought up by father in various hippy communes

1970s: After leaving a tough school in Maryhill, Glasgow followed father into painting and decorating.

1980s: Aged 21, picked up copy of The Crucible for 75p - "I realised I could see the characters" - and joined amateur-dramatics club in Glasgow, before getting into Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. On leaving, formed cooperative theatre company called Raindog with friends including Caroline Paterson (Ruth in EastEnders)

1990s: Big break as labourer in Ken Loach's comedy, Riff Raff, followed by further screen success with Safe, Priest, Cracker, Go Now, and Carla's Song. He could not understand the furore surrounding Trainspotting - "I'd say it's the finest anti-drugs film ever made. If anyone wants to try heroin after seeing it, be my guest."

1994-7: Three series of Hamish Macbeth, which has become a worldwide hit for the BBC. In Australia, a Wee Jock Appreciation Society has been formed and a Hamish Macbeth home page has been started on the Internet. Forthcoming roles in feature films: The Full Monty, about male strippers, and Face, about East End gangsters

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