‘I always feel slightly sick when I hear actors talking politics,’ says Robert Carlyle — that polished Glaswegian burr sounding no less arresting over a slightly patchy Zoom connection. ‘I mean we’re all entitled to an opinion,’ he continues, sounding for a second as though he might be about to opt for a more diplomatic track. ‘I just find that too many actors find it difficult to get theirs across without sounding like a twat.’
It’s a fair point, you might think. But for Carlyle, it’s also been a good professional move. Reflecting on his career, he credits this aversion to mouthing off with inspiring his long-term commitment to keeping his head down. Not only, he says, has this helped him maintain the healthy mystique necessary for a serious actor, but it’s also stopped him from stumbling clumsily into public debates.
After three decades on screen, that would be an impressive feat for anyone. But particularly so for someone whose rise to fame coincided with the drug- and ego-fuelled Cool Britannia era (and who starred in two of its most iconic films,Trainspotting and The Full Monty), and whose solid proletarian credentials must have been sought by countless campaigns over the years.
His aversion to talking politics has been slightly complicated, though, by his latest posting: playing a (fictional) Consrvative prime minister in a high-budget disaster drama penned by one of the graduates of BBC1’s old spy thriller Spooks. All of a sudden, as he’s finding out in publicity interviews, you’re expected to have opinions on all sorts of things. The actual Prime Minister included.
You can understand his desire to stay above it all. You don’t have to watch more than five minutes of Cobra (whose second season is now airing on Sky) to realise that Carlyle’s PM has his mind on more important things, including — to name but a few — an impending cyber-war, the geopolitical strife from an oligarch’s assassination and a Beirut-grade explosion caused by a long-dormant second world war munitions ship found off the coast of Scotland (‘It probably won’t blow up,’ one character had predicted, with the kind of portentous optimism typically found in the opening minutes of Casualty).
Was he surprised to be offered the role in the first place? ‘I think it was a brave casting,’ he confesses with a smile. ‘Particularly given my background.’ Working with the show’s creator, Ben Richards, he helped shape the character’s back story to make him (in his eyes) more plausible. Their joint creation, Robert Sutherland, retains Carlyle’s irrepressible Scottishness but not his Glaswegian heritage, hailing instead from the quieter Stirling. ‘It’s a place where a lot of English families settled historically,’ he adds. ‘And I always imagined Sutherland’s parents were English.’
The first season of Cobra aired in January last year, and attracted a bit of stick for being implausible (due largely to the plot revolving around a solar flare paralysing much of Britain’s infrastructure). That was, of course, pre-pandemic: back in the days when the idea of a prime minister having to make a televised emergency broadcast to a terrified nation felt hacky in its own right. But does the point still stand?
Carlyle — whose first big role was for the king of realism Ken Loach — insists the plausibility snobs miss the point. ‘It’s an entertaining show,’ he says. ‘It’s the sort of programme you can sit down with a glass of wine on Friday and just enjoy.’ Just the sort of thing, he adds, that he appreciates more these days, having quietly relocated with his family to Vancouver after bagging a role in a US fantasy series.
‘And honestly, you should see some of the other scripts that come through,’ he says. ‘Some of them are so bleak you find yourself asking: “Why would anyone watch this?” I think too many people forget that, at the end of the day, we’re there to be storytellers and entertainers first of all.’
Could it not be even more fun for him though? After all, throughout the first series, Sutherland spent much of his time pawing over security briefings and brooding over moral dilemmas. Would Carlyle not like to see a bit more of that explosives budget that Sky has generously beefed up since the first series? ‘Honestly, at my age I’m happy to just be behind a desk,’ he says.
His top billing in Cobra comes at a time when his cinema work has dropped off slightly in Britain. His last role, back in 2019, was an uncredited (albeit actually rather moving) cameo as a middle-aged John Lennon in Danny Boyle’s shamelessly twee Yesterday. Prior to that, his biggest outing was joining the old Trainspotting crowd — Ewan McGregor, Kelly Macdonald, Jonny Lee Miller and Ewen Bremner — in attempting that most treacherous of cinematic feats: the latter-years sequel.
Back in 1996, it had been Carlyle who had stolen the show, with his suitably kinetic and terrifyingly bug-eyed performance as local hardman Franco Begbie. ‘Oh, Begbie,’ he laughs when I (inevitably) bring it up. ‘That’s a character who’s followed me around for a long, long time. And he’s become a very close friend of mine too.’ But when the second film landed it was slightly different. Despite having big billing in the trailer, Franco Begbie ended up partly sidelined in the film, his main scenes reduced to cartoonish violence. It was a move as seemingly unconscionable as the decision to give the film the ludicrous name T2.
If Carlyle was disappointed, he doesn’t let on. But he does mention he’s been in touch with his friend Irvine Welsh (the creator of Trainspotting) about starring in an adaptation of his 2016 novel, The Blade Artist. Set some 30 years after Trainspotting (conveniently), the novel begins with a middle-aged Begbie living in North America (also rather convenient), where his dab hand with all things sharp has helped him forge a living as a successful California sculptor. It also delves deeper into Begbie’s childhood to find out more about where his taste for violence came from. ‘It’s such a sprawling tale, which makes it difficult to imagine doing it as a film,’ Carlyle says. ‘So we’ve been talking with producers about something longer. Maybe a six-part series.’
And that’s not all. ‘We’ve even been speaking about maybe doing Trainspotting 3,’ he lets on. ‘Although that’s something for a time down the line, when these guys are much older.’ Would that really work? A film about geriatric former heroin addicts on yet another caper set to a revamped Britpop soundtrack? Then again, compared with a magical John Lennon and a prime minister battling both a solar flare and a cyber attack, it all seems positively sane. And at least he’d have a lot of fun doing it.
Cobra: Cyberwar is available on Sky Max and NOW.