Home / Film / Once Upon a Time‘s Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin

Once Upon a Time‘s Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin

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I have to confess. My favorite character on ABC’s new series Once Upon a Time is not one of the series good guys: Snow White/Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), or Jiminy Cricket (Raphael Sbarge). It’s not even the deliciously evil Evil Queen (Lana Parilla). I’ve got a thing for Rumpelstiltskin. 

Every once in awhile an actor catches my eye whose talent just blows me away. The ability to play the epitome of evil, the most guileless of men, and, particularly, the many shades of gray in between, makes me pause and take immediate notice. He may not be the hottest (either in popularity or appearance), but there’s just something.

When I decided to cover the new ABC series Once Upon a Time, it was for two reasons. First, I’m a sucker for the genre; dark fantasy sci-fi is one my favorite vices. Second, there is the House connection with Jennifer Morrison taking one of the lead roles in the series.

But I found myself intrigued by Rumpelstiltskin and drawn to his modern-day alter ego Mr. Gold. He only has a couple of scenes in each of the first two episodes, but there’s just something, well, magnetic. I should, of course, mention that this dual role is played by the equally intriguing Mr. Robert Carlyle.

The soft-spoken Scottish actor has a wonderful role in Once Upon a Time. With secret motivations that lurk beneath his deranged Enchanted Forest persona and within the overtly sinister demeanor of his Storybrooke counterpart, very few actors could pull it off with such style and grace. Far from simply evil, there is much more to both Rumpelstiltskin and Mr. Gold.

In the series’ second episode, which aired last night, we learn about the origins of The Evil Queen’s (Lana Parrilla) curse—the one that froze in time the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest, while making happy endings completely elusive for the storybook characters now transported to Storybrooke. Turns out that she required a consult with the gleefully demonic Rumpelstiltskin, who warns her about using the curse. He should know; after all, he’s the one who gave it to her in the first place! And it’s a dire warning. Yet, he tells her how to execute it, at least for a price. On the other hand, this is the same Rumpelstiltskin who gave Snow White and the Prince the information to ultimately save them all.

We also learn that the quietly menacing Mr. Gold is no ally of the Mayor, despite the fact that there seems to be some sort of symbiotic relationship between the two of them. Is it possible, as Mayor Regina accuses, that he’d engineered Henry’s placement in Storybrooke so that the story, as it were, would all eventually fall back into place at the appropriate moment? Hmm. I want to know more. And that’s a good thing.

I love characters like this, whose motives are unclear and whose apparent single-minded self-interest seldom is. Carlyle is the perfect actor to fill what is possibly the series most complex role. This is a man who has portrayed evil incarnate as Adolph Hitler (Hitler: The Rise of Evil) along with a whole host of other bad men. But he’s also played sweet and romantic, generous and compassionate. And conflicted.

Before Once Upon a Time, I’d been unaware of Carlyle’s work on film and on television either here or in the U.K. Of course I’d heard of Trainspotting (which made Ewan MacGregor a star), and The Full Monty. But I’d not seen either of them. And so, as I generally do when I “discover” an actor who intrigues me, I went exploring, thanking my lucky stars for Netflix, an Amazon Prime account, and IMDb Pro.

Carlyle has played such a wide range of evil men and nice guys; blokes and brilliant scientists, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. But I will suggest, if you are similarly intrigued, as good a place as any to start is with the Syfy Network’s Stargate Universe series, which ran until earlier this year. I’m sad to say, I’ve only just discovered the series myself.

In SGU (as it’s often called) Carlyle portrays Dr. Nicholas Rush, a genius scientist with often difficult-to-read motivations. Machiavellian on the one hand, Rush can be self-sacrificing when it concerns some greater good. But his motives are often self-serving, and it’s hard for his shipmates to trust him or his motives. Rush is driven by his pursuit “the work” and greater knowledge. But he is also wounded by the death of his wife. Lonely and isolated from the social life aboard the spacecraft Destiny, we learn that despite his secrecy and sometimes machine-like rationality, Carlyle imbues Rush with a fine streak of humanity. Cynical about many things, Rush is also a visionary whose thirst for knowledge sometimes pushes his shipmates’ patience and has often cost him their trust (and with good reason). But when the script brings out Rush’s more vulnerable side, it rings true. Of all the characters among SGU’s ensemble cast of characters, Rush is easily one of the most interesting to watch over the 40-episode series run.  

I’ll do a more detailed profile of Carlyle’s impressive body of work soon, but in the meantime, catch him in Once Upon a Time Sundays at 8:00 p.m. on ABC.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her debut novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse comes out October 11 from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • I thought his work on SGU was great. Carlyle is one of the best actors when he is working in that grey space between good and what can be perceived as bad. Even on SGU is was hard to tell if any decision he made was for the greater good, or for himself. He was the only reason to watch SGU. Any episode that didn’t feature Dr. Rush was a waste.

  • sara

    Great article! Robert is simply amazing.
    I love all of them: Jennifer, Ginnifer, Lana, Raphael, Robert etc
    Great show and great cast XD

  • oldhousegeek

    Thanks for the spot-on comments about Robert Carlyle. He is one of the great unappreciated actors. It was a tragedy that SyFy pulled the plug on SGU, where he did some extraordinarily nuanced work portraying a very complex character.

  • Thanks for your comments, all. I love “discovering” an actor I’ve never seen before. He bring an enormous intensity to the performance as well as lacing even unlikeable characters with humanity and even charm.

    I’m an indie flick kind of girl, and it’s fantastic to see someone (who could be a big star) be dedicated to cranking out some fantastic independent work (along with the more commercial endeavors that allow him to do it). Looking forward to seeing his new film when it’s released.

  • DebbieJ

    Hi Barbara. Although fantasy/sci-fi is my least favorite genre of any medium but I decided to give OUAT a try due to word of mouth and positive previews. I’ve only seen the Pilot (my dvr crapped out on me for Episode 2 – I’ve got to catch it on imdb). I really want to give this a chance as I was intrigued by all of the dual characters.

    Will you be doing reviews/analysis on it as you do with House?

    I’m not very familiar with Robert Carlyle as I’ve only seen him in The Full Monty and Angela’s Ashes. (Do yourself a favor and watch them both!) But I agree with your assessment (for as much I am familiar with him). He seems to capture your attention no matter how many other characters are in a scene all the while with subletly.

    Jennifer Morrison does okay here, IMO. Much better than when she was on House. Don’t know if it’s because she’s got a few years of acting under her belt and has improved or if this character is better suited for her.

  • Hi Debbie,
    I’ll probably be doing a regular column on OUAT, but I haven’t quite yet figured out the angle I’ll take with it.

    I will have to check out Angela’s Ashes and The Full Monty as I wend my through the stack of movies on my coffee table!

  • Toni Roberts

    Hi, Barbara. Thanks for the article on my favorite actor. He’s amazing to watch, even in low budget movies where the film is too precious for multiple takes, no time to rehearse, etc. You want to see nuanced? Watch “To End All Wars” with Kiefer Sutherland. I have a dark and goofy place in my heart for “Ravenous” too. I am desperate to see “Summer” which he describes as some of his best work. Rush may be my all-time favorite character…and as for Rumplestilskin…PURE GOLD! (so to speak.)

  • sara

    ”Jennifer Morrison does okay here, IMO. Much better than when she was on House. Don’t know if it’s because she’s got a few years of acting under her belt and has improved or if this character is better suited for her.”

    Sorry but I disagree, she was great in House, wacht again season 1, she is so intence, rich with expressions and emotions.
    I hate many people hates Cameron /Jennifer just because she try to be good, good, compassionate, respectful of others, these are good quality. She sometimes did things wrong because they could not build because Pollyanna but she have a great heart, she is in pain with patiences and injustice, she is a moral compass of the show!
    Hurt me all this hate about her!
    Of course the real Cameron is Cameron on the series 1-3 because the real house md is the series 1-3, then it became, but everything was great in the golden years, the first three years.

  • anja

    youre gonna love him in the “still small voice” episode.

    Man has

    Panache. Artistry.

    its rare these days with all these wooden straight up straight down actors,

    give me some delightful complexity, fluidity!

  • Liz Kimberlin

    Barbara, was glad to read this piece. OUAT has kept me because of Robert Carlyle. Both characters creepy, repellent, utterly compelling, weirdly erotic. You can almost smell Rumpelstiltskin’s fetid breath across the screen. I wonder what Mr. Gold’s first name will be. I suspect after just a few episodes poor Robert is already suffering the same fate as Alan Rickman/Snape and become the new darling of Internet fan fic porn. James Marsters and Spike may now have a run for their money.

  • Hi Liz,

    You may be right, but I think he’s already got his share of fanfic from his tenure on Stargate Universe. I’ve got a new piece coming out tomorrow that’s a more of a filmography–now that I’ve seen most of his movies πŸ™‚

  • Barry

    I have to agree with that Carlyle is a perfect fight for the role of rumple.. I loved him in SGU. I did not even know he was on Once Upon A Time until I watch the first episode a week late. I have since been keeping up with the show. I since got my cousin to watch it with me. He also agrees that it is a fitting role for him.

  • LadyKathryn

    Did you miss him in Eragon? Oh, he was wonderful there also.

  • Lady Kathryn. I have not seen Eragon yet. I did however just see Antonia Bird’s Face. It’s a really good movie, and I loved RC in it. A lot.

  • jansumi

    I am distraught to hear how many people hear haven’t seen or heard of Carlyle before. Loong one of my favourite actors I tuned in to this specially because I heard he was on it. Brilliant actor – I’ve tried never to miss an opportunity to see him. Even his recent bit part in the Stone of Scone…

  • Erin Navan

    I love your article.

    For a while now, I am pondering over his role in OUT. I first thought he was evil, especially with the light that conversation between Evil Queen and Maleficent throws on him.
    But lately, considering that without him, Henry would never come to the Storybrook, which would probably cause Emma never to come, even less stay, and also the fact that he gave the advice to the Charming and Snow…

    I think he might be a balance, not good, not bad, just higher power, as he is more powerful than anyone else there. He always says “all magic comes with a price”. Could he be sort of magical debt collector? In most supernatural movies and shows that include magic, it has always been made clear that all magic does come with a price.

    Somehow, I got feeling that he is there to make sure that in the end everything will fall in its place.

    And on top of everything, I really like Carlyle, saw him first time in the Full Monty over ten years ago and he got me there. He is amazing actor.

    (and I do hope he, as no one else but him would be able for something like that, had anticipated Regina’s actions in the 7th episode, and did something to protect Graham’s heart/life or provided possibility to bring him back somehow… what else he did in the woods?)

  • Brighid45

    Robert’s work in OUAT is wonderful. He’s having fun with being a Trickster figure, playing both sides against the middle and enjoying the resulting clashes and chaos. Dark, creepy and compelling–what’s not to like? πŸ˜€

  • Denise Baez

    I am also captivated by Robert’s work. He too has become my favorite character on the show and I am eager to see more of him. I have not been so captivated by an actor’s performance (that is able to draw you so into the character) since Michael Emerson and Terry O’Quinn on Lost.

  • Samantha

    I loved him as Begbie in Trainspotting… such a darkly psychopathic and violent role.

    He’s strangely sexy too, in a very unconventional way.

  • Samantha–I know a lot of people loved his Begbie. He was fantastic (and incredibly frightening). I tend to like (which pretty much encompasses mostly everything else he’s done) his more layered characters.

    Having just seen Cracker, I am stunned by the degree to which I sympathize with Albie. RC makes us feel his anguish, even as he murders again and again.

  • DebbieF

    I’ve seen Robert Carlyle in so many things since the mid 90’s. I see things just because he’s in them. I love the Full Monty, but one of my absolute favorites is Hamish MacBeth. He’s brilliant in that, and it was a series for at least three years. He’s the biggest reason I watch OUAT (oh, and the biggest reason I watched SGU).

  • Bonnie

    I can’t help but feel that Rumplestiltskin isn’t evil at all, sure he’s done some bad things, but heck who hasn’t. And most of the bad he’s done was because of what happened to his son. Rumple, as my sister and I call him, is by far both of our favorite character. Last night’s episode was the BEST yet.

  • Kerry Bartell

    Caught middle of Once Upon A Time whilst flicking through tv channels in a hotel in Cancun. it left me wanting more! I have always been a fan of Robert Carlisle so will be watching him in this role back home here in England.

  • Hi Kerry, I understand that Once has been picked up in the U.K. for broadcast!

  • Sonia Vining

    Hi, Barbara — thanks for the piece on RC! I, too, am captivated by Rumpel/Mr. Gold, and am using my week off to watch SGU. I’ve just finished the episode where he tags “Mandy” to come and help fix/bypass the FTL drive. So awesome to see the human side of Rush — although I’ll admit, I was primed to take his side anyway, since I’m watching the series because of Carlyle.

  • Rhonda

    Holy crap! I thought I was the only one who loves him. He is so very much more than a little evil dude in this show.

  • Oh Rhonda, there’s a whole cadre of us, dearie :). He’s so not evil and so much more to him!

  • Rhonda

    So much more. The episode with Belle was my favorite so far. It really made me cry.

  • autumnja

    Dang it! Now I don’t feel special anymore. It would seem I’m years late to the Carlyle party. Well, one good thing is I can stop thinking of myself as a creepy stalker type as I have plenty of company in my new found obsession. One perspective I would add (forgive me if someone else already has) but Rumple is usually called for the “help” he can offer. And he ALWAYS gives them a word of warning. As is usually the case people want what they want and to heck with the consequences. That isn’t his responsibility..

  • hi autumnja–you are, of course, correct!

  • Sharon Sandoval

    So nice to see that others find RC captivating. His screen presence has been what caught me when I first saw him in Trainspotting. He is oddly sexy too but his acting is great hope OUAT doesn’t catapult him into the spotlight to much. Preferr him a quiet gem.

  • Hi Sharon. I have a feeling that RC will be able to maintain a low profile if he wants to do that. They shoot in Vancouver, so at least it’s not LA, which I’m guessing is fine by him πŸ™‚

    He’s such a fine actor, like you say unconventionally sexy. Very intense!

  • PGuerin

    He is just incredible. He uses his body so well. He moves like a dancer. I love him in UOAT The episode “Skin Deep” when he falls in love with Belle is so heart wrenching. I hope the writers of the show stretch this love affair between Belle and Rump. What a sexy man!!

  • Kelly

    Carlyle is fricking brilliant in Once Upon a Time. I have not seen his other work but also felt like I “discovered him here and had to know more about him. Without Rumple Stiltskin on that show, I’d be bored to death. Mr. Gold is pretty awesome too. His range of character is just pure genius. He kills me! Love him.

  • Kelly, Kelly, Kelly. You must see some of his other work. Make an appointment with your TV and Netflix. Happy watching!

  • Cynthia

    In my opinion Robert Carlyle has the ability to connect with the character that he is playing and completely lose himself, taking on the characters personality. He has often been referred to as a chameleon which I think is as apt comparison.
    He also has an intensity that is unmatched by anyone that I have ever seen. He can play manic or subtle equally well, and has the courage to really put himself out there, not holding anything back. Anyone who has ever acted, knows how frightening it is to let yourself be so vulnerable in front of others.
    I watch OUAT because of Robert Carlyle. By the way I disagree that he is sexy in an unconventional way. I think that he is sexy in the most conventional way that there is. He exudes masculinity, confidence, strength, and intelligence. You can’t get more sexy then that.

  • Hi Cynthia. Everything you say is true about Carlyle. There is a total commitment to every role that is quite amazing. I agree his performances are often incredibly brave, putting his emotions out there, no matter what the character. I think that’s what really draws me in–the depth. Take a character like Nicholas Rush (SGU)– superficially a harsh, cold person. But then he lets his guard down and you see the vulnerability and pain dwelling inside. And it’s so subtle sometimes, which makes it completely in character and believable.

    What I mean by sexy in an unconventional way is that he’s not “conventionally” handsome. Which is fine by me. Personally, I think he has astonishingly expressive eyes–they can be hard or harsh–small and beady, but in the next instant deep, wide and exotic.

  • Cynthia

    Hi Barbara,
    I agree that he is not what is considered handsome by mainstream standards, but I have never been one to go for the pretty boy anyway. I have always found intelligence and confidence to be attractive, and he has both in spades. His face is quite arresting, with it’s sharp angles, and those amazing eyes.

    I also like that he is not one of these hard partying hollywood types. I respect that he is a family man who openly declares his love for his wife and their three children. To me that is admirable.

    By the way my favorite scene in The Full Monty is his striptease to “You Sexy Thing”. Talk about putting yourself out there!! I just wish that it had been longer.

  • Cynthia–agree with you completely πŸ™‚

    I have so many favorite scenes, I can’t even begin to think. But since you’ve challenged me… πŸ˜‰

    The penultimate scene in I Know You Know, before being taken away and us understanding that he is making the ultimate (and ultimately sane) choice for his son.

    All of Summer

    Most every scene in Might Celt and all scenes with Marisa Tomei in Marylin H.

    In Full Monty, I’d have to agree with you there about a favorite scene. It’s funny and sweet at the same time.

    I have many faves in SGU. He’s just brilliant in all of it. And in Hamish, I think the episode “No Man is an Island” from season two.

    There are so many others, of course…

  • Thanks so much for this article! I’m feeling much less like a stalker-fan-girl now after reading all of the comments.
    I’m still catching up on his movies, but so far I haven’t seen anything I didn’t love.
    So talented and seems like a genuinely nice person. (after watching a couple of interviews from Comicon, frankly I could sit for hours just listening to him talk. what a voice!)

  • James Sutton

    i have to agree! Robert Carlyle brings amazing characterization to Mr Gold and Rumpelstiltskin. he brings something new to the character. He is so believable in that character

  • tom

    People having a go at Jen Morrison is unfair. Shes a good actress who as she mentions in an interview from Paley 2012 shes been heavily informed by Hugh Laurie from whom they worked together on House– therefore i think she’s improved a lot, but you have to take into account these are different characters.

  • Noahlady

    He looks like he could be a brother of Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys.

  • FranniCat

    Robert Carlisle grabs your attention in OUAT & takes you on a roller coaster ride of merriment, intrigue, frightening fantasy with a heart destined toward those he loves. His Scottish accent draws you in like that of my favorite historical romance books characters. When he said, “My beautiful boy” to his grown son I cried and when he said, “You aren’t my son” I felt so much sorrow for him. I love him even when he’s hateful. Keep me entertained and teach others to be “that good”. πŸ™‚

  • Kate

    I, too share your enthusiasm for Mr. Carlyle and his acting. Hence, I Googled his name because he intrigued me in the role of Rumplestiltskin in Once Upon A Time. He plays a depth of character that even though one knows his evil side one is strangely rooting for the guy! Excellent portrayal and addicting!

  • patricia

    robert caryle is totally hypnotic in this fantastic programme,love him and the evil queen ,their on screen chemistry is amazing!I also adore the costumes they are magnificent! so loving this great tv series.

  • mael

    i’m from scotland and if you like carlyle watch hamish macbeth – he plays a policeman in a highland village. for you americans its a show a bit like northern exposure. hes a total cameleon as an actor.

  • mael

    actually carlyle was why i started watching ouat and now i’m hooked. totally puzzled with where its going, every episode adds a layer and adds more questions. i totally guessed that he knew but once confirmed opens up more questions, hope it keeps being well-written

  • cbeach

    My 23 yr old daughter and I have both fallen in extreme love with Robert Carlyle, having never seen any of his prior works. He is terrifically poetic in his lines, lyrical and rhythmic. He’s absolutely the hottest and sexiest man around Storybrooke! Powerful and rich doesn’t hurt either on this show, especially more powerful than the evil Queen who we love second to Mr. Gold. His presence is very strong, magnetic and commanding. You cannot help but get caught in his gaze. We hope he has a true love story with Belle. Watch out for Rumplestiltskin, Dearie!

  • Absolutely. Thanks for reading. Be sure to read my latest interview with Jane Espenson, just posted this evening!

  • Whitney

    I’m in love with Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold! He is the best thing about the show! I’m just now watching the first season on Netflix and I’m like halfway through. I love the episode with Belle! And the whole beauty and the beast angle.. Robert Carlyle is amazing in this role! And i think he is hott!! Even as Rumpelstiltskin! He makes you love him! The character just comes to life with his talent! I totally would love to be Belle! Im only 27 but i would fall in love with him too. In that episode he really manages to portray that inner turmoil when she looks into his eyes…like there is so much more to Rumpelstiltskin.. He is just amazing! I cannot wait to see the rest and catch up with season 2!

  • Hi Whitney! Welcome to the club. Carlyle is an incredible actor, whether he does film, television, or whatever–in whatever genre. You need to check out his other work as soon as you’re caught up on OUAT. Some is available on Netflix, some on Amazon, but some of it is very rare and hard to find in the U.S. But it’s all worthwhile checking out!

  • Sarah

    I think he’s one of TV’s best written characters πŸ™‚