Robert Carlyle: Method and madness

Robert Carlyle has made a career out of inhabiting unhinged and unpleasant characters. Now the actor tells James Rampton about his latest incarnation - the megalomaniac King James I
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When he was playing his breakthrough role, the Liverpudlian serial killer Albie in Cracker, Robert Carlyle took his preparation very seriously indeed. The Glaswegian actor reportedly stayed in character throughout the shoot. Eager to test out the level of Carlyle's commitment, Cracker's creator, Jimmy McGovern, rang him at three in the morning. "Hello, mate," Carlyle said, answering the phone immediately in a faultless Scouse accent. Similarly, when he was portraying a homeless man in Antonia Bird's Safe, Carlyle got into the role by sleeping on the streets for a spell. There is not much this actor won't do for his art. Not for nothing has he been dubbed "the Scottish De Niro".

And he has been at it again for his latest role, as the deformed King James I in McGovern's latest offering, the cracking new BBC2 historical drama about 16th-century Britain, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot. The producer, Gub Neal, reveals that before filming began, the Methodical Carlyle insisted on thickening the sole of one shoe to give James a pronounced limp. Neal reports: "The effect of this slight disfigurement defines his whole character, a twisted mind that you can't help feeling sorry for." It would certainly be true to say that - as depicted in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot - James I has a twisted mind. Utterly convinced of the divine right of kings, he manifests a ruthlessness that Pol Pot would have admired.

From the moment that James agrees to the beheading of his own mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in order to secure the English throne, he loses his moral compass. Once installed in London and desperate for money, he becomes even more vicious. In cahoots with his machiavellian adviser, Lord Cecil (Tim McInnerney), James reneges on a promise to show religious tolerance and levies punishing fines on Catholics who try to practise their faith.

Infuriated by this tyranny, a band of Catholics scheme to cause a huge explosion and destroy the King in the Houses of Parliament. However, James gets wind of the gunpowder plot and scuppers it. Triumphant, he is then able to cajole as much cash as he likes out of the now supine Parliament. But by this stage, James is beyond redemption. He has metamorphosed into a megalomaniac and traded in his humanity for limitless power. In Neal's words, "the man's very personality has cancer".

Away from the screen, Carlyle is the polar opposite of his alter ego in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot. More pussycat than snarling tiger, the 42-year-old speaks in soft, mellifluous tones very far removed from the ranting and raving of his character.

The actor is noted for the rare authenticity of his performances - and he achieves this by willing his way into their psyches. For James, Carlyle reckons, the turning point arrives when he is asked to sanction the death of his own mother - this one fateful action transforms him from mollycoddled to monstrous.

"It's too easy to ignore a character if you simply call him a maniac," observes the actor. "The great thing about Jimmy [McGovern] is that he always says, 'Look at the other side.' At first glance, Albie in Cracker seems like a maniac, but Jimmy is urging us to look at what he's saying and why he's saying it. It's the same with James I. There's more to him than there first appears to be.

"The real change came in James when he made the decision to stand back and allow the execution of his mother. That was an enormous event in terms of his character development. He paid the price in his inner soul and became troubled both mentally and physically. He was messed up from that point. There is a telling line in the drama: 'If you wish to embark upon a course of evil and attain your heart's desire, begin by killing your mother.' That's such a classic Jimmy McGovern line! It's a real challenge to find a connection with someone like James, but I really got it when I thought about the execution of his mother. That's when I got into the man's soul. That was my 'in'."

If you look back over his CV, Carlyle has been on first-name terms with an awful lot of psychos - in addition to James I and Albie, he has played the lead in Hitler: The Rise of Evil, the unforgettably deranged violence addict Begbie in Trainspotting, Renard, the impassive assassin in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough, the frighteningly dipsomaniac dad Malachy in Angela's Ashes, and Voraz, a voracious, pitiless cannibal in Ravenous. His James is similarly scary. Even though he is only 5ft 8in, Carlyle has such presence, he seems about a foot taller. I glimpse him between scenes, wandering the corridors of the set in Romania (many times cheaper than Britain, trust me), and am struck by the sheer intensity of the eyes burning out from above a sinister black beard.

When he turns white with anger and proclaims, "I'm the next King of England and no human being, no mere mortal will stand in my way - else I will show them what mere mortal means and put them to the sword," you genuinely quake. He gives off such an air of menace, that you - like me - may find yourself compelled to watch large chunks of Gunpowder, Treason and Plot from behind a strategically raised copy of the Radio Times.

But just why is Carlyle so drawn to the darkness? "I feel fortunate that people want me to play these parts," he smiles. "Something has happened to these characters that gives them extra layers. There's always so much depth to them - they're three-dimensional. So many characters you read are flat, but these damaged people have a vividness about them. They always act in a way that's truly memorable.

"I respect people who do comedy and I enjoy it as a break, but it's not something I can feel committed to." He adds with a knowing laugh, "I don't always want to play psychotic characters, but nine times out of 10, I'm attracted to them!"

The other big pull of Gunpowder, Treason and Plot is the often startling comparisons with today. At one point in the drama, Robert Catesby (Richard Coyle), the Catholic mastermind behind the gunpowder plot, expresses his terrorist aims with a zeal that will have uncomfortable undertones for many viewers. "In a just and holy war, the Church accepts that innocents may have to die," he asserts. "They'll be martyrs." James, in turn, gives an analysis of the plotters that will strike a chord with audiences. "We deal with religious fanatics. They welcome death and martyrdom, for it's their gateway to heaven."

Carlyle says that McGovern has cleverly underlined the parallels between then and now. "What Jimmy has managed to do is take a children's nursery rhyme - 'Remember, remember, the fifth of November' - and examine it in today's context. With all the terrorism going on in the world right now, Jimmy's interpretation of the gunpowder plot makes it seem more dramatic and dangerous.

"Gunpowder was the Elizabethan napalm - it could cut people to shreds. And the treason and plot also have contemporary echoes. If someone were caught plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament today, they'd be shown no mercy. Jimmy's genius is to show us how relevant this story still is."

For his part, Neal argues that "the gunpowder plot was for James I what September 11 was for President Bush. Before then, Bush was seen as a dodgy president who had won a dodgy election. He had nothing to unite his people. But after September 11, he went stratospheric in the polls and no one questioned whether he was the rightful president. In the same way, after the gunpowder plot, James I said, 'I've saved you from this heinous plot,' and he was given carte blanche by Parliament. He hit the jackpot."

Overall, the producer continues, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot "is a fascinating reflection on the very idea of terrorism. The drama shows that however pure their motives, people who perpetrate terrorism are invariably undone by it. Nobody ever wins."

Carlyle is as busy as you'd expect our most incendiary screen actor to be. He has four projects in the can - Dead Fish, Light in the Sky, Benny Lynch and Marlin Hodge's Dance School. And he is preparing Faith, an Antonia Bird drama about the 1984 miners' strike - which he views as "the most significant British domestic event since the end of the Second World War".

However, one part we won't be seeing Carlyle play is Pablo Picasso. He was offered the role of the wild, philandering painter in a new biopic about the artist Amedeo Modigliani (played by Andy Garcia), but turned it down. "He wasn't driven enough for me," Carlyle explains with a wry grin. "Picasso was too normal!"

'Gunpowder, Treason and Plot' starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Sunday and concludes on Sunday 21 March