It was 1997, and Robert Carlyle was in his mid-30s, when he first played the stripping Sheffield steelworker Gaz in The Full Monty. Last year, to get ready to play him again – this time for an eight-part TV series – he sat himself down to watch the film. He seems slightly embarrassed to admit it – he’s not the kind of actor who likes to watch himself. “And I’m not about trawling back through something from 20-odd years ago,” he says. But The Full Monty was calling him to South Yorkshire, so trawl back he did. He decided that he would watch a few minutes, then he would move on. “And I sat there and watched the whole thing.” He was surprised to find that it still worked, even after 25 years. “I don’t know if I can say this, but I really enjoyed it. It really stands up.”
The original Full Monty told the story of six unemployed men from Sheffield who put on a DIY strip show at the working men’s club. It was an indie film, shot on a very small budget, and it almost went straight to video; a last-minute re-edit saved it from obscurity and it went on to be a staggering global success, making £200m at the box office. Carlyle’s Gaz is the ringleader, a schemer and a dreamer trying to keep enough money in his pocket to put the heating on when his son comes to stay.
I had misremembered it as a film about men getting their kit off, a bawdy hen night of British comedy. But rewatching it I was struck by how political it seems now. Three decades later, in the new series, people are still broke and Gaz is still scheming, but the working men’s club has shut down, the school is crumbling and children are going hungry.
“It’s easy to forget that the film is quite heavily political,” says Carlyle. “It makes a point. And I think the same applies to the TV show. These people have lived through what seems like 25 years of austerity.” He credits the writers, Simon Beaufoy and Alice Nutter, with its gallows humour. “But you see that the older people’s lives have been pretty tough for the past 25 years, and then there’s 20 years of what Simon calls the Young Montys, the younger characters, heading for the same shit. So it’s good that this has been made. It shows what people go through to survive the day to day.” Not just men getting their kit off, then. Does he strip this time? “Nobody wants to see that,” he says, with a grin.
Carlyle is a great talker, open and funny and relaxed. He admits he was not always this way, particularly when it came to the press, though he did have his reasons. He’s calmed down a lot since his wilder days, in part because he is, as he says, “125 years old” (he’s just turned 62, though he looks younger) and also because he now lives in Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada. “There’s a laid-back attitude and quality here I enjoy,” he says. He moved there to film a TV series, Once Upon a Time, in 2011, with his wife, Anastasia Shirley, and three children, and found that he liked the city, though he has kept a home in Glasgow, where he grew up, and the family splits its time between the two. His kids are 21, 19 and 17.
Do they have Canadian accents? “Aye, they do,” he laughs. “My eldest son’s got this strange – hang on, let me see if I can do it – this half-American thing with a bit of Scottish thrown in, you know?”
Carlyle is at his happiest when he’s at home. “I’m a homebody, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “I’ve got loads of friends, particularly in London, and I enjoy it when I get to meet up with them. It’s brilliant. But I’ve always been a bit of a loner to be honest.” Carlyle was brought up by his father; his mother walked out when he was a child. He has spoken before about moving around a lot, living in communes. “I always think about it as darkness and light, my life, because the first part of it was pretty dark. My mother had left when I was a wee boy. I was brought up by my dad alone in Glasgow in the 60s, and the single- parent family, there was not a lot of that around, especially a single-parent family with a father. That made me instantly different from the rest of the people who were around me.” He seems surprised by his own candour. “Genuinely, I’ve never really spoken about this before. But I guess that’s probably where it started.”
I still love Begbie. It was such an explosion. An absolute avalanche
Did he feel like an outsider at school? “When I was very young, yeah, definitely. It’s the little things.” He has a teacher friend and he says he is pleased to hear that things are very different now. “But back in the day, if you had to get permission for something, the teachers would say, bring a note in from your mum. Stuff like that. Of course, when you don’t have that, that really hits home, even when you’re a wee boy.”
Carlyle left school at 16, became a painter and decorator, and worked with his dad. At 21, he came across a copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and it lit something up inside him. He went on to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and set up his own theatre company. For a loner, he has picked a very sociable job.
“Yeah, but I’ve been doing it for so long that I’ve become very good at separating those things. I love it when I dive into a job, whether theatre, film, TV, whatever. You’ve got a little family unit, you love each other to bits and you think you’re going to be friends for ever. Then two months later you never see them again,” he laughs. Family means a lot to him. “I’d always wanted to have a good family unit, to be able to connect with each other and be pals with each other,” he says, talking about his three children. “Thankfully, we’re great friends.”
In 1991, he was cast as the lead in Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff, and worked steadily through the 90s, playing a serial killer in Cracker, which set the tone for more villainous roles to come. But nothing prepared him for the double whammy of playing the sadistic maniac Begbie in Trainspotting at the end of 1995 and Gaz in The Full Monty, 18 months later. “From that point on, they were massive shadows that then followed me around for the rest of my life, the rest of my career,” he says. “So it was something that I had to get used to, the whole fame thing. Because I am, as I’ve been saying, quite a homely guy, a family man, it took me a long time to get used to that.”
To say the films were hits is an understatement. Both were phenomena that travelled around the world. One of the strangest things about watching The Full Monty again, he says, is that it took him right back to that time. “It’s looking at yourself in another life, and all the things that were happening in my life back then. I mean, we can all look back in photographs, but I’ve got this living, breathing thing in front of me.”
What was happening in his life back then?
“Ha!” It was the height of the Britpop era, and because of those films, Carlyle was right at the heart of it. Back in the day, as he puts it, he was invited to everything and went to most of it. “I met all the personalities of the day, the Oasis lads, Damon Albarn, who’s still a great friend. I was right in the middle of that whole thing, enjoying that life.”
Was it as hedonistic as it seemed? He doesn’t pause for breath. “One thousand per cent,” he grins. “It was incredibly hedonistic, but it was exciting. If you think about it politically, we’d just come out of Tory rule. Blair was there, everything seemed to be on the up. And I can remember that feeling.” He appeared in an Oasis video, for the song Little By Little.
Was it easy to be friends with Blur and Oasis, given their famous rivalry? “Hahaha. To be honest with you, I was really good at not getting involved. But I remember when I did Little By Little, Damon was like, ‘Why the fuck did you do that? Come and do one for me!’ I said, ‘But you never asked,’ which was true! And that was the end of the conversation.”
“It doesn’t sound like you were a homebody in those days,” I say. He laughs again. “No,” he says. “There wasn’t so much homebody then. I certainly wasn’t shy in getting out the door.”
But there was a darker side to that era. His fame made him a person of interest to the tabloids. He says it’s nothing compared to what some people experienced, but still it sounds unpleasant.
“At the time, going through that was horrible, to be honest with you, because I didn’t understand it. I was suddenly in this world and I was very open. Probably too open, at times.” The papers responded by reporting on his private life and his family. “They got in touch with my mother and pulled her out the dark, and that was really upsetting. So I slammed the door shut for a long time, because I just hated it.” He was tight-lipped in interviews and wouldn’t do chatshows, though he will say he still regrets saying no to Michael Parkinson. “I think that was probably quite clever, because then you do keep a little bit of yourself. I mean, you see people on these chatshows and everything comes out and you go, ‘My God, I don’t know how you can live your life like that.’”
He does them these days, however. “Because I’m 125, I’m more used to it,” he jokes. “I can do it better now. Time and age is a great thing.”
Is it just time? Has he mellowed with age?
“It’s family, children. My children came in the 2000s, so all the stuff in the 90s, there were no kids then, but once children arrive in your life, everything changes overnight. So that becomes more important. That becomes your focus. And you begin to think, ‘Oh, the other stuff’s not actually worth bothering about.’”
Carlyle has had the chance to go back to two of his most iconic characters. He revisited Begbie for T2, the Trainspotting sequel, in 2017. A sequel was always planned, and Carlyle says he and Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Sickboy, wanted it to be sooner. “But Danny Boyle [the director] always said, we’ll do it, but when you’re older. He was obviously right, because it’s in the face. You can see that life has been lived.”
Even more so than Gaz, the terrifying Begbie is the character who has followed him around the longest. “The terrifying Begbie!” he laughs. “I love Begbie. I mean, who knew? Who knew what was going to happen with that character? It was such an explosion, Trainspotting. An absolute avalanche.” At the time, he knew that the film was going to be something special. “I thought this character is gonna be around for a while. But I thought, maybe a few years.” Yesterday, he says, he went to the butcher’s near his house, and the man in the shop, in his 20s, from Bilbao, recognised him and said he loved him in Trainspotting. “He said, ‘I’ve got a T-shirt of you, of Begbie with the glass.’ This thing I thought was going to last a few years, is still there, in people’s minds, 27 years later.” Wherever he goes now, people still recognise him as Begbie. “That mad character!” He’s not exactly a teddy bear, is he? “I mean, this is a line from the film – he’s a psycho, but he’s a mate, so what can you do? I do love him. And Gaz. Both these characters have given me a tremendous career and a tremendous life, and you’ve got to love him for that.”
Besides, Begbie’s not dead yet. There is a six-part TV series, The Blade Artist, in the planning, about Begbie’s post-prison life as an acclaimed artist in California. Carlyle is working on it with Irvine Welsh and Hex author Jenni Fagan.
“It’s been brilliant, this one. I mean, let’s face it, Begbie is me. So to be right in at the beginning of that and be able to go, well, actually, maybe change this, change that… that’s where we are at the moment.” He thinks they’ll start shooting in the next year or two.
For now, he’s off work, relaxing in Vancouver, travelling with his wife, spending time with his family. “Back in the day, it was all about the next job, next job, next job and I don’t think so much like that any more.”
Recently, he’s been playing the British prime minster, Robert Sutherland, in the political thriller Cobra. “Who would have thought? Begbie, Gaz, the prime minister…” he says. In the original Full Monty, Gaz explains that he can’t go shoplifting because “I’ve got serial killer written on my forehead.” Carlyle nods. “That’s right. That’s probably my issue with parts. Certainly with Sutherland, when he gets angry, I’ve got to really pull it down. Don’t get Begbie-angry,” he says. “Begbie as the prime minister!” I wouldn’t put it past him.
The Full Monty will be streaming on Disney+ from 14 June