EXCLUSIVE: Robert Carlyle reveals his 5 most 'method' acting roles ever
What happens when actors go too deep?
Going "method" can mean an actor putting their life on hold, devoting it to an entirely new path, or even losing themselves for a period of time. For Robert Carlyle, it’s all part of the job.
He had real teeth removed to play the menacing Begbie in Trainspotting, won the Best Actor BAFTA for The Full Monty, and it took him months to recover after going deep to portray Hitler.
In Sky's latest original drama COBRA, Carlyle is the UK Prime Minister leading a country in crisis amid a national disaster. You might think that, short of taking up a seat in the Monster Raving Loony Party, method acting might not be so doable for this role.
Not so – the Scottish star did his due diligence in real-life politics, meeting Scottish politicians to embody the part. After this interview, in fact, we’d expect nothing less from the Emmy winner.
COBRA is the assignation given to real top-level secret government meetings that happen out of public view. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that though. Carlyle didn’t either. “I genuinely had never heard of a COBRA meeting, and honestly, when it came through, titled ‘COBRA,’ I thought it was a snake thing,” he tells Shortlist.
“My pals asked what I was doing, and I said this thing called ‘COBRA’, and they were like, ‘What, about snakes?’ Instantly. I said, ‘No, it’s got nothing to do with snakes. Why would you think I would do something with fucking snakes?’”
In fact, COBRA stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A - the place where top secret government meetings go down when an impending national crisis is on the cards. And, most terrifying of all, there could be a real COBRA meeting going on right now…
The real-life links are enough to make the new Sky series even more nail-bitey. It will have you clinging to the edge of your seat much like Sky’s award-smashing, critically acclaimed Chernobyl did last year.
From ‘COBRA’ to ‘Trainspotting’, here, the ever-game star reveals his most method acting experiences of his career.
– Watch Sky original COBRA now on Sky One and NOW TV.
Acquiring unrepeatable government intelligence to play the PM (COBRA, 2020)
“I was surprised to hear how these things are convened quite a lot - these things that we don’t know about are happening all the time. So I spoke to Scottish politicians about what happens in these COBRA meetings, and some of the stuff, you'd be surprised at!
"There's some stuff I can't even talk about, to be honest with you, because it's really, really bad, and the way that they talk to each other is beyond what you see even in our piece. They can they can get quite vicious. The hatred that they have for each other, that was the thing. It was very interesting. You see that with Archie (David Haig) and PM Sutherland in our show, to a certain extent, but that gave me a good grounding in terms of how to play this, knowing, 'This guy hates me, this guy wants to see me dead'."
On the streets for weeks (Safe, 1993)
“Years and years ago, I was a bit more method-y. Every actor has got their own methods, but back in the day when I was younger and a bit more stupid, I thought I had to do this to really feel it: You have to become this thing. I did a film called ‘Safe’ a long time ago, about homelessness and I've never been homeless homeless before. I've been 'without a home,’ staying on my mate’s floor while getting another flat. But I've never been on the streets.
"So, I lived on the streets, here in London, for two weeks. Which seemed like two months. I still remember that experience. To this day, I can still smell it. It was a very, very, very grim couple of weeks.”
“It was something I felt I had to do back then to understand this person that I was playing, and that kind of method acting can certainly help in that respect. But of course, you don't have to kill someone in order to know what it’s like to be a murderer! Eventually, as you get older, you leave all that behind. I mean it would be impossible for me to be homeless on the street now. You could disguise yourself to a certain extent, but people might go, ‘You’re Robert Carlysle!’ and it’s ruined then, isn’t it?”
Double decker driving with Ken Loach (Carla’s Song, 1996)
“It was important to drive the bus for real at the time, because it was a Ken Loach film, and with Ken, it’s all about trying to get as real as you can. Part of that was, 'You better pass the test’. I enjoyed that.
"The interesting thing about the bus test is that it’s condensed in just one week: you drive 9-5 for four days, and then you do 9-1 on the Friday, and then you sit your test, so it’s pretty quick. I thought. ‘I’m fucking never going to pass this!’ You’re out on the road in an hour in this beast of a thing. I thought, ‘Oh Jesus!'
“The biggest problem is you've got to remember is that the wheels on a bus are behind you - in a car they’re in front - that’s crucial if you’re ever driving a bus. If you turn at the normal point of a car, you're going to squash somebody. I was constantly doing that. The instructor said, ‘If you keep doing this, you’re going to kill somebody.’ I don't know how the hell I passed it on the last day. I think God smiled upon me in that moment.”
Combining real people for Begby (Trainspotting, 1996)
“Begby is not one person. For me, he's a collection of four or five people that I knew in my life, and if you speak to Irvine Welsh, he’ll say the same thing. The mustache came from a guy that I knew, and I thought that would be interesting because it made him look vaguely ridiculous. And of course, the clothes - that was another person that I knew. This guy used to dress provocatively to get a reaction: and I thought, this is quite good for Begby, that even his clothes were a provocation.
"That’s all it takes. Just one look, and he gives a ‘What are you looking at?' instantly. And that is Begby. Especially in the first ‘Trainspotting’ film, he just reacts instantly; anything at all would be a provocation. His clothes were a provocation, his mustache, everything about him is a provocation. I've never really spoken about that before.”
Having Hitler in his head (Hitler: The Rise of Evil, 2003)
“When I’m playing a vicious character, I stay on my own because it's difficult to to dredge it up everyday, and you don’t want to be near your family - I would never want my family see me like that.
“Playing Hitler was difficult. You don't want to want to be around anyone. We shot that over in the Czech Republic for six months, so I was away from my family for a long time. You know you're playing something that you're really aware of the history of, and you try and get that as right as you possibly can, because you dont want to fuck around when you're doing that kind of stuff.
"I was probably right and not right to stay in my head for that. I was right in a sense, but it was the aftermath of that which lived with me for too long. It took a good couple of months to get it out of my head once it was finished. I kept thinking about it all the time. You replay the big speeches in your head, and it can drive you crazy.”