Method in his madness

He's played the idiosyncratic cop, the vicious foulmouth and the psycho. He's astute and he knows he's good. And he's got great hair. Serena Mackesy meets Robert Carlyle
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If the variety of an actor's work can be judged by the variety of his haircuts, then Robert Carlyle wins the Kevin Costner Award for Tonsorial Adventurousness. The man actually has very nice hair - straight, Celtic brown and slightly floppy - but you'd never know it from the growing list of his film and TV appearances. He has recently sported a moleskin as the Hillsborough survivor-turned-psycho Albie in Cracker, a thinning greaseball with matching 'tache in the role of the pub psycho Begbie in Trainspotting, and one of those dreadful-but-respectable crops you see when a policeman sheds his helmet in the wonderful Hamish Macbeth, which returns to BBC1 on Sunday. The Costner tendency to make really bad films, however, doesn't seem to be much in evidence; nor, mercifully, does the Costner ego.

Which is not to say that he doesn't think that he's good. Robert Carlyle knows that he's good. After rave reviews for his role in Ken Loach's Riff Raff, comparisons with Robert De Niro after Cracker, and catapulting to heart-throb status as the dope-smoking country copper, anybody would have an inkling. The Scottish scene is currently producing a crop of charismatic scene-stealers - Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner and he regularly acted each other off the screen in Trainspotting - and Carlyle is right there in the forefront. He has just returned from Nicaragua, where he played the central character in Ken Loach's latest film, Carla's Song. He has two more film projects before Hamish goes on location for a third series in June.

So busy is he that he is able these days to turn down roles, and is astute about what he will take on. He even resisted the temptation to tuck the cheque into his back pocket and run when offered parts in Mc-Hollywood blockbusters Rob Roy and Braveheart.

"I wasn't tempted in the slightest, really," he says, drawing on a very un-Hollywood red Embassy. "I knew they were American-type films, and they're set in a historical context. They're valid and worthy in their own right, but it's just not something that interests me. I know my Scots history. It's rich and varied, but I do feel that, if you're going to talk about Scotland, there are much more interesting subjects to be tackled."

He is a sharp interview subject: he thinks about his answers and employs almost painful tact; no one's going to get Robert Carlyle for dissing his colleagues. But the point is made. Hollywood has an alarming tendency to people the Celtic fringes with cartoon characters: noble but rough- hewn warriors, suffering peasants, wandering bards. The stereotypes of the bad end of Leith are a lot more interesting. Begbie was both demanding and fun.

When Danny Boyle first approached him for the role, he was unsure. He was immensely keen on Irvine Welsh's book, but "I'd seen the guy as being huge... a huge bullish guy. But, in Danny's words, small psychos are the best." (Like most thespians, he can project a physical presence on screen that the reality doesn't match.) "I think if you were to play Begbie from the book it would be too much. You couldn't take that kind of character. The guy is obviously a complete scumbag. So I created a cartoon image, particularly in the first third of the film. Pringle jerseys, Sta-prest trousers. And then, after the baby dies, things begin to change. The clothes become darker and the suit goes on, and by the end, the last scene in the pub [in which he pulps a London barfly for the kick of it], you're left in no doubt that this guy is very dangerous. He's not really fun at all."

The effect is totally convincing. You would never recognise this thoughtful individual or the inept but basically cool Hamish as big-mouthed Begbie were it not for the extraordinary, battered but thoroughbred nose that graces his fine-boned face. He has the ability to transform his appearance completely: Begbie has a psychotic smirk and the jerky head movements of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. The damaged Albie swings from threat to wide-eyed vulnerability with the speed of a Rottweiler.

This is the sort of role for which Carlyle was receiving plaudits before Hamish. After Riff Raff, "I was offered about 10,000 Glaswegian nutters, which I declined", and instead played first a victim of homelessness in Antonia Bird's Safe and then Linus Roach's gay lover in the controversial and moving Priest. Does he find it ironic, then, that he should achieve the break to stardom by playing someone on the comfy side of the law?

"No. I like Hamish very much. He's a really interesting guy. He's full of contradictions. I think what really interested me initially was that here was this guy who had been brought up and joined the police force during the Thatcher years, and yet he had no ambitions at all. And there were other idiosyncrasies... the hash thing, for instance, and the way he finds it very difficult to communicate with people, particularly women."

Hamish Macbeth, although it fits comfortably into the post-God slot, has an edge of sickness, emotional incompetence and satire which raises it above the average prime-time offering. It is also written, in the main, by Boyle, which means that it is very, very funny. Obviously, though, Carlyle had some initial doubts; not that he's going to let the tact slip for a moment. "Well, a Sunday night show about a policeman in a rural setting. It didn't take a genius to work that out. No disrespect to that programme or Nick Berry; he does a fine job and it's a popular programme. It's just not the kind of thing that I'd be interested in personally."

But he allowed himself to be persuaded, and now millions are awaiting the outcome of the Lochdubh love triangle. Is Hamish going to get his act together? "It's more than my life's worth to talk about it." Which, presumably, means not yet: they have another six episodes to string out, after all.

Carlyle was brought up in the nomadic and bohemian manner of the hippy era. He left school at 17 and became a painter and decorator, but, "I knew I didn't want to do that for ever". At 20, he got into AmDram, got a grant and went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. "It was a three-year nightmare, really. Any latent ability I had was based on raw energy and they tended to try to squeeze that out. It took me four or five years after leaving to get rid of it." Then Ken Loach "discovered" him and he has scarcely stopped working since.

He has a bit of a reputation for employing method. He's dismissive, though, about this. "I wouldn't describe myself as a method actor. It's such an abused term. I've worked with actors who are supposed to be method actors, and you just want to slap them about, you know? I would cringe to be called that." None the less, he takes his roles seriously enough that, on the set of Cracker, he clung to his Liverpudlian accent so tightly that he was said to have actually answered the phone at night in Scouse.

"Well, yes. If there's an accent to be done I'll put a lot of research into it. I'll go to the city and go up to barmen and say, `D'you mind just talking into this tape?' Of course, it's more difficult now, because people recognise me. It was easier before."

Certainly, his existence as a private individual has been curtailed. He is typically philosophical about it. "Of course I find it hard. I value my privacy and it's difficult to exist that way. It's a small price to pay, though, and if I wasn't receiving recognition I wouldn't be doing what I do. And anyway, 99 per cent of the people who come up and talk to me are really lovely."

He's less sanguine about the media. He had a run-in with the tabloids during the first series of Hamish Macbeth, when someone tracked down a long-lost relation and interviewed them at length about him.

"I hate that," he says. "Every time I'm on the box - and Hamish is always the danger point - I walk into the paper shop on Saturday morning feeling sick. I'm pretty boring, really, but of course that doesn't stop them. They just fucking make it up anyway."

n A new six-part series of `Hamish Macbeth' starts this Sunday on BBC1 at 7.15pm

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