Robert Carlyle – Walking With Giants
Hi, this is Robert Carlyle. You’re walking with me today in my old neck of the woods here in Glasgow. I hope you’ve got your thermals with you because it is freezing here today, must be at least 25 below. This area played a huge part in my life, and what I want to do today is take you for a wee walk and tell you basically where I came from, and where I went to.
It’s actually very unusual for me to speak about pretty much anything in my past, so what I’m going to talk to you about today has never been heard before, and I think it’s important for me to do this for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason of all if my father, God bless him, he passed away four years ago. When he was gone it suddenly occurred to me that no one else knew this story other than me, and if I was to suddenly get hit by a bus tomorrow, my children would have no idea about where I had come from, and where my father had come from, where my grandparents had come from, so this seemed to me to be a worthwhile to do.
This first thing you should know about me is when I was three years old my mother left me and my father. And that was traumatic obviously for my father; my father suffered a nervous breakdown in fact at that time in his life. He had come from stock standard working class background in Glasgow, but he was a shirt and tie man, he worked very hard my father, but when the marriage ended he went on a kind of spiral and took me off with him on what was quite an incredible journey.
So the first seven years of my life were spent in the east end of Glasgow, and the east end of Glasgow was a particularly hard, rough place to be. We had less than nothing; we were poorer than poor. So as this wee story I’m telling you is all about walking, about my journey, we really began walking from that age of three or four. We would walk for miles and miles looking for anything we could find.
I’ll tell you a story I remember particularly to show how hard this was. Brooke Bond tea packets used to have little stamps and if you saved up enough of these on a little card you could get a box of groceries. So we would spend literally months raking through dustbins trying to find tea packets that still had a stamp. Whenever we would be wandering, maybe we would come upon a skip, my heart would kind of sink because I knew my dad would find something in there to pass down and to sell on, and it didn’t really matter what that was, my wee dad would get a wardrobe on his back and I would be helping him and along we would go, back to this absolute gutter that we lived in.
Why were we so poor? Why was my dad not working? Well I have to tell you, simply because he had to look after me. There was no option. There was no family, when my mother and father’s marriage broke up, my father’s family kind of rejected him, so he had no back up, he had nothing at all. And of course, the notion of a single parent family even then was very vague, so there was a certain element of distrust toward my father from social security-type institutions and stuff like that would continually try to take me away. And my father would then move from address to address basically to escape. I have to be honest, we survived through stealing a lot of the time you know, he would nick stuff, he would sell it on, and that would keep up going for a week or two. It was living on your wits you know, it was very much living on your wits and my father was brilliant at that. He did some things which were quite extraordinary, and this is maybe the first indication of any sense of acting in my life.
What my dad used to do was he would take me to what was called the welfare, and he would say to me on the way, “I’m going to make a bit of a scene here, I’m going to scream and shout a lot, I’m going to threaten to leave you, but don’t worry son, I’ll be coming back to get you”. Now these institutions then were grim, it was Dickensian almost you know, and you would sit there and be humiliated basically, and at that end of the day you would get again a box of groceries. But trying to get that was quite a skill. So several time my dad would take me, and he’d say “look we need this, we need money”, “we can’t get you money Mr. Carlyle”, “Okay, you take him”. And I remember seeing these people laugh going “ don’t be ridiculous, what are your talking about that’s your son”, and saying “it is my son, but a can’t look after him any more, it’s up to you, bye” and he’s off. My dad was like a greyhound, out the door and away, and I was left sitting there watching this, and even though I know he’s coming back he’s so convincing that I think he’s away. At the time it just seemed like everything was against us you know, it was me and my dad against the world, that was all it was.
My mother in actual fact made a reappearance when I was about six years old. And I remember sitting at home with my dad when this woman walked in, she had a fur coat on. It had only been three years but I didn’t know her, and my dad said “that’s your mum”, and I just remember her coming up to me and covering me up in this fur coat, and I remember the feeling of the fur, the smell of the perfume, and even though I was just a wee boy, just six years, I remember feeling happy. And you know I thought she was back for six months, and I’ve only just found out in recent times that she was actually only back for two weeks. I wish I could ask them now. If there’s anything you want to ask your parents, ask them before they go, because once they go, they’re gone.
The Full Monty I’m obviously grateful for, for my entire career. What struck me was I was 32 when the Monty came up, I think my father was round about the same age when his marriage started to fall apart and he had me, and I suppose then was my first real indication to me of how much my father loved me. He’d have done anything for me, he’d have killed for me, but I suddenly began to get it. And of course Gaz in the Full Monty would do anything for his boy, he eventually takes his clothes off in public, but you know if, I’m sorry that’s my agent.
So there comes a point where my father decides to leave the east end of Glasgow. There was such an atmosphere of violence, and my father could see that even at the early early age of six or seven that I was getting pulled into that. I remember seeing these vicious, ferocious gangs squaring up to each other. Now it was like the charge of the light brigade. Us as wee boys, we’d be underneath cars and tenement watching on us, and I remember seeing this boy, I don’t know what eventually happened but I’d just seen this massive bully aiming don’t toward this boys arm and it certainly hurt and I know I’ll never forget the scream that came out of this guy. I was really shocked by that, and it was very very soon after that that my dad thought “right, we’re getting out of here”, and we ended up in the west end of Glasgow, which was certainly a much more peaceful are to live. Haha just looking at a dog, a very typical Glasgow collie there, give me my ball or I’ll bite you.
I do tend to divide my childhood into darkness and light, and the first seven years were certainly the darkness; the west end of Glasgow was in technicolor, it was brighter than bright. As we’re walking along here at Botanic Gardens was kind of where it all began for me. My dad was rubbish of all other aspects of his financial life, but he’s pretty good at paying the rent. But what had happened was that the landlord hadn’t showed up, two or three weeks went by, and I always remember this man his name was Mr. Macooloo, and he was reputedly from Nigeria, but something had happened with his life back home and Mr. Macooloo was gone, and suddenly this Victorian town house was left abandoned.
We had been in houses before that, little crummy houses, this was the first time that we were actually in a bed-sit, even my dad didn’t really know what this was, and I certainly didn’t know what this was, other people were in this house but we didn’t necessarily talk to them. So my dad started to chat the doors. And each door that opened up the people were more colourful and kind of spectacular in their own kind of way, and they kind of looked at him and said “so you’re the father of the kid”, “yes”, “where’s the mother?”, “she’s gone”. So my dad and me we became celebrities within this house, coming from the east end, struggling to eat. Me and my father survived for a week on custard powder made with water. I can’t tell you what that’s like, try it yourself, kind of translucent orange kind of colour and I remember eating this slop.
Now we came from that to be on the street, and suddenly it was like my father had a family. An interesting sight, this makes me laugh anyway to show you how bizarre the world was that I’d stepped in, I remember coming through this darkness of the east end of Glasgow, suddenly we were in the west end in this house, and there’s a couple there called Roger and Rosemary, and Roger and Rosemary had a chameleon. Imagine that as a wee boy this was incredible. They morph, they change their colour and stuff like that, and I used to sit, staring at this chameleon for hours and hours and hours trying to see it change into the colour of the wallpaper, and of course it escaped. And I’ve always kind of thought “I wonder what happened to that wee chameleon”, maybe it met another kind of lizard and they started a wee family and there’s loads of kind of strange chameleon type creatures wandering about Glasgow suddenly.
So it was fun. 1966/67 had happened - the summer of love had taken place, and the whispers of a new kind of life was sweeping its way across the ocean, and my father embraced this. He started to listen to Dr Timothy Leary. He turned on, he tuned in, and he dropped out, and within a year the collar and tie were gone, his hair was down to his bum in fact, his beard grew down to his chest, and all the people that were round about me looked like that. And here we were, we were suddenly getting called hippies. There was other women in there you see, mothers and daughters, so suddenly it was like looking in the mirror, I had friends for the first time, and my dad, for the first time in many many years, he could actually leave me with people and get on with his life a wee bit. We started doing a bit of painting and decorating and stuff like that, making a wee bit of money. But of course you know, all good things come to an end. The days of Belmont Street are nearly over, Mr Macooloo’s house was going to be sold.
Squatters rights – they couldn’t kick you out if somebody was in the house, this particular day everybody was out, they came and locked the whole place up, we were out on the street – again. Well en masse we decided we were going to go to London because one of the guys in the commune knew this guys called Dingo who owned a town house on Ifield road in Chelsea which he’d won in a card game. So the whole bunch of us, about 20, went and lived in this beautiful but dilapidated town house in Chelsea. And if there was colourful people in the Glasgow commune, you can imagine what I was confronted with in London. Buddhists, Jamaicans, people that I’d never seen before in my life! That lasted a couple of years, and we moved again en masse down to Brighton. And everything I’m telling you is true, on my children’s life this is true. We slept on Brighton beach for about eighteen months, there must have been maybe fifty, sixty people that were sleeping on the beach underneath this pier, and when it rained, what my dad used to do is he used to wrap me up in plastic bags like a crispy roll, and he’d carry me up to the prom, pull back the canvases which were covering up the deckchairs and he’d stick me in there, and that would be me for the night.
I can remember me and my dad walking for miles to the cinema that let you in for lemonade bottles. He always said that he did this to take my mind of that fact that my mother wasn’t around; it was probably to take his mind off it as much as anybody else’s. And my dad would take me to see any movie I wanted to see as long as it was a western, and that love of westerns and cowboys has stayed with me my entire life. I loved the idea of the man in black riding into town, nobody knew who he was, nobody knew where he came from, and you always knew that he was going somewhere, but you never knew quite where he was going. I still love that notion, and I think that’s actually reflected in an awful lot of my work. You see my story, and the story I’m telling you today, I can laugh about this now but you see at the time I was ashamed. I didn’t like my story, so the cowboys and the world they inhabited seemed to me a much much better story to tell. And one of my early pieces actually was a character called Hamish Macbeth. Now if ever there was a cowboy, there he was. I was even able to dress him in black. He became Yul Brynner to me, Hamish Macbeth.
How do I explain to you how I became an actor? At sixteen years old suddenly I was confronted with reality, which was what are you going to do now? I was a butcher for a morning; I worked in an ironmongers for a couple of months; I worked on the buses, I was one of the last of the Clippies bus conductors in Glasgow. And then, nineteen years old, it was my birthday, and someone had got me some book tokens, so this is the book that I wanted, it was called Hollywood: The Pioneers, and I had 75p left over from this book token, and beside the Hollywood: The Pioneers book there was drama scripts. And I was looking all along and I seen this one called The Crucible, and I thought I think I know that, I know that from somewhere, and I’d remembered it from school, and I also had remembered the name Arthur Miller. This goes back again into the commune days – there’s a Glasgow dog attacking us as we walk, how respectful is that? The Crucible, I thought “I remember that”, I was thinking it was a book, and I thought well I’ll get that, and I took the script, first one I’d ever looked at. And at that point I’m nineteen, I’m getting quite politicised, this was about the McCarthy witch hunt in America in the fifties, this guy has been able to disguise what he’s actually talking about and take it to Salem. So I thought “how absolutely fantastic to actually be one thing and pretend you’re another”. I cannot tell you how big a moment that was in my life that. I’ve never been to the theatre, my friend says “well why don’t you go and see some plays then, maybe you’ll enjoy it”. And there was a place called the Citizens Theatre, and I would go, and I would see all these wonderful plays that I’d had no knowledge of. And so over a period of about two years I became quite literate in terms of drama, something which I’d thought “well that just ain’t for me”.
There was an ad in the paper for this place called the Glasgow Arts Centre, they were going to do some plays and stuff like that, and I remember going in for the first night into a room of about 100 people all screaming and shouting “look at me me me me”. I nearly turned on my heel and walked right out. But I persevered and I sat that and about six months went by, and this wonderful woman called Maggie Kinloch came up to me one night and said “what you doing here?”, and I said “well I’m just coming for the drama”, she said “are you? You’re just sat there you’re not doing anything”. And she was really harsh, and I thought “okay, I need to do something here”. It took another month or so to pluck up the courage. The very first thing I did: I made people laugh, and in actual fact I could see myself shaking. And from that point, everything changed in my head. I started to think, you might actually be quite good at this. Then Maggie Kinloch and another guy called Robbie Molson, they said to us “why don’t you try for drama school?”. And this is that beginning for me having a bit of determination to hold on to this accent that you can hear here, because from the minute I walked into drama school I was told “if you continue to talk like that you’re never going to work”, and this was just horrific as far as I was concerned. There was only about three Scots in actual fact in the year; two other boys from Glasgow, one boy from Castlemilk, which is a hardened area, and he did it. One day he was speaking like me, and the next day he came in and started to talk like that. I had so many fights over the next three years with the lecturers and with the tutors in there, but I was determined to make it work. I’m not going to run away with my tail between my legs any longer. I’m going to face it, I’m going to front it, and I’m going to pursue this career in the way that I see fit.
So what does the future hold? What do you think? I guess you know, the thing to say to you is that honesty, believability, dynamic. Things can get put in your way that take you further and further away from that target, so whether you want to become a bricklayer, or whether you want to become an athlete, then you have to remember what is true, and what is honest, and what is valid.
You know, one of the great directors I have worked with – Danny Boyle – Danny Boyle’s greatest quality is his enthusiasm for anything that you give him. I’ve lost count of the amount of times during Trainspotting and The Beach and 20 Weeks Later in fact that we cut because Danny was laughing because he was enjoying it so much. See when someone gives you that pat on the back, everybody needs it, doesn’t matter how confident you are you need a slap on the back. Danny was great for that. So if I see a wee sixteen year old Robert Carlye walking up this path today I’d stick my hand on his shoulder, squeeze him and say “son, go for it”.
I guess, if I’ve got any role to play, I think I have to give a voice to the people who don’t have a voice. Thinking back to my childhood, the wee guy from the east end of Glasgow, this wee guy who was nothing, well I’ve made a career out of playing guys who are less than nothing. You know when you’re thinking about “is it possible for someone to come from nowhere?” then the answer is absolutely yes. But I tell you this: don’t think back. Thinking back can tie you up in knots and make you doubt yourself. Keep going forward, keep that water moving. One person who stuck by me all the way though from the very beginning was my father. And you know what he did, this was many years later, I think I had done Full Monty, Trainspotting and even Bond by this point, and I was sitting with my dad one night and he said “you’re doing quite well son eh” I was like “Things have gone alright dad”, and he said “you know” and he pulled this bank book out of his pocket, and I look at it and its got £3000 in it. And he said “when you decided to give up the painting and going into the acting, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen for you or not so I saved you up a wee bit of money, in case it didn’t work out, I was going to get you a wee van, a wee set of ladders some brushes and you’d be on your way.” And I’m pausing now even thinking about that, that he would do something like that for me you know. I said to him “Dad, I genuinely don’t need the money any more”. By this point I’ve already bought my dad a house. I was like “daddy just spend it” and that was I think one of the most beautiful things that anyone could ever do for anyone, certainly for a father for a son. I really want to say, my father was a very very honest man, and to me, if that is all you leave behind in your life, that’s a wonderful rich thing to leave behind. And that is I hope, something I can pass on to my children. My children are everything. I love them more than is healthy, I want everything for them. Family is an important thing for me. I never had one, I want to make the best family I can possibly make.
Well, this is us coming to the end of our walk together, but I have to say I’ve enjoyed this today. Believe it or not, this is four years today that my father passed away, so I really hope that it means something to you, it certainly means something to me. I’m going to head off now, but wherever you’re going, keep walking, and have a good one.