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Robert Carlyle, the most recent recipient of the Maverick Award, discussed his early interest in acting, his career, and 'The Legend of Barney Thomson.'

Whistler Film Festival Signature Series: Spotlight on Robert Carlyle

Robert Carlyle
Robert Carlyle at the Whistler Film Festival. Photo: Pat Cuadros

The Whistler Film Festival held a Spotlight on Robert Carlyle earlier this month in British Columbia, Canada. As part of the WFF Signature Series, the actor-director was presented with the Maverick Award. Carlyle’s directorial debut, The Legend of Barney Thomson, was screened later in the evening for its North American premiere.

The event included an intimate conversation with critic Jim Gordon of CTV, a major news network based in Vancouver. Much of the focus on Carlyle these days seems to be on his work with Once Upon a Time and the upcoming Trainspotting 2, projects that he himself appreciates. “One of the lovely things about Once Upon a Time is that [my family and I] can all sit and watch it on a Sunday night together. You can’t really do that with Trainspotting,” he remarked.

But his talk with Gordon also shed light on the other aspects of his career. To top off the session, it was incredible to watch him shift into spot-on impersonations of Barney Thomson co-star Ray Winstone and the late Peter O’Toole. Let’s do a run through of some of the highlights from the evening.

“Back in those days in the U.K., you could actually sit through a movie as many times as you liked. So my dad would take me to see any film at all, as long it was a Western,” Carlyle recounted of his interest in cinema as a “wee boy,” Glaswegian accent to boot. (Longtime friend and fellow WFF honoree Kiefer Sutherland also shares a love of Westerns, as revealed in a recent Blogcritics interview.)

However, it was a 75 pence copy of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible that really piqued the Scottish actor’s curiosity about acting when he was twenty-one years old. At first, he hadn’t realized that he’d even bought a play, mistaking it for a regular book. Carlyle was confused and nearly put off by the “wee speeches” he saw. Yet he found himself intrigued by them as he read on, explaining, “I thought what an amazing thing it was to be able to disguise something so completely but be talking about something else!”

Jim Gordon and Robert Carlyle
Robert Carlyle considers a question from CTV critic Jim Gordon. Photo: Pat Cuadros

Dissatisfied with landing parts in the same plays over and over again, Carlyle later established a theater company in Glasgow. “I was interested in devising and improvising,” he said. “That’s what I became known for on sets.” His unique style eventually landed him parts in Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff and then Cracker. The latter was doubly important because it’s where he met his wife, Anastasia Shirley, and unknowingly first gained the attention of Trainspotting director Danny Boyle.

Carlyle took time to impart some advice to aspiring actors in the audience, sharing his longtime attitude on choosing his roles. “I want to do what’s right by me, rather than what’s right by everybody else and what they want,” he said. “Be careful. Don’t just jump for the money. It’s very tempting.”

Occasionally, his decision to stay on his own course did coincide with a major and popular franchise. “If anyone ever has an opportunity to work in the Bond franchise, grab it!” Carlyle exclaimed to the crowd. He played the baddie opposite Pierce Brosnan in The World is Not Enough, an experience he characterized as “a bit like being in MI-5.”

Later in the hour, he addressed the challenge of portraying real, complex figures like Adolf Hitler. “You’re normally putting your own take on it,” he said about acting. “You can’t do that [with Hitler]. He was what he was.” Carlyle also pointed out some of the Nazi leader’s odd habits of very long walks, heavy meals, and a love of Charlie Chaplin movies. “[Hitler] is the monster and the villain. That’s undoubtedly what he was, but there’s more to it than that.”

As can be expected, the interview concluded with stories about The Legend of Barney Thomson, the Scotsman’s latest film. (Cue the Ray Winstone impersonation.) Working with Emma Thompson seemed to be years in the making, considering his first contact with the legendary actress in the 1990s. “She does her own cards and this card came through the door. Emma Thompson, this wee piggy thing,” Carlyle recalled. “She said beautiful things in this card: ‘Well done, so proud of you.’ I’d never met Emma!” He included a handwritten note with the Barney Thomson script that he sent to her.

Robert Carlyle remains one of the most versatile and daringly creative actors today. His passion and dedication for his craft certainly makes him fully deserving of the Maverick Award. In the coming year, he’ll be working on Once Upon a Time and Trainspotting 2. Beyond that, one can still expect him to capture our imaginations with exciting and intriguing roles on his own terms.

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is a young professional aspiring toward a career in media. In addition to film and television reviews, she focuses primarily on events in Washington, D.C. Highlights in Pat’s blogging adventures include meeting Peter Capaldi and Stan Lee, as well as interviews with Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle. In 2017, she made her debut as an Awesome Con moderator, managing a Q&A for voice actors Sean Schemmel and Christopher Sabat. Pat earned a B.A. in Art History on a full scholarship at the University of Virginia.

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