Robert Carlyle has been responsible for two of the most enduring characters of recent British cinema: Begbie, the foul-mouthed psychopath in Danny Boyle’s sensational adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult book Trainspotting, and Gaz, the mild-mannered father and unemployed Sheffield steel worker turned reluctant stripper in Peter Cattaneo’s blockbuster The Full Monty. With a CV that also includes memorable roles in movies as diverse as Face, Ravenous, Carla’s Song, The Beach, Angela’s Ashes, and The World Is Not Enough, as well as Durza in last year’s hit Eragon, the 45-year-old Scottish actor has continually proved his versatility and talent on stage, TV and in the movies. “I think he’s one of the great actors of my generation, he’s always good,” says 28 Weeks Later producer Andrew Macdonald. “And he’s a bit of chameleon, so he’s always a bit different.” In 28 Weeks Later, Carlyle plays a role that seems to bring together his greatest roles into one terrifying part. As Don, husband of Catherine McCormack’s Alice and father to Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and Tammy (Imogen Poots), Carlyle’s character survives the original outbreak by holing up in a country cottage, before being reunited with his two children in an “infected”-free London that’s now under the command of the US military. When the virus breaks out again, Don becomes one of the “infected”, a role that requires him to wear red contacts and to try and kill his kids. I spoke to him on the set of 28 Weeks Later.
Why you were interested in playing Don in 28 Weeks Later?
RC: The initial thing was an obvious one: it came through Andrew [Macdonald] and I knew that Danny [Boyle] and Andrew were the executives. I thought Danny was directing it at first, then realised he was an executive producer. I know it’s not a reason to do a film but it was enough to get the ball rolling; I’m always interested in working with the guys. So I read the script and I think Don is a really interesting character. It’s difficult to talk about this because it gives the game away but he’s very human in the respect that he gets scared. He’s run away from his wife and that is haunting him. The thought of me as an actor, imagining that… [that’s] horrific to carry that around with you. And [then] in your worst nightmare she returns. And it was two scenes: a lie that he tells to his kids about what’s happened, and then the scene in the quarantine chamber. [It] was the two scenes when I definitely thought I’m going to do it, because they’re great moments, just great moments, and films are made up of moments, and the more moments the better. And doubly, the audience know what’s happening before he does. And that’s drama. It’s one of those ‘Oh fuck’ moments in the cinema, when people are watching it [going] ‘Don’t…’ ‘Don’t open the door…’ So it’s nice that… the audience gets very close to this character. I’m always into confusing the audience: what do you think of this character?
He undergoes quite a physical transformation too.
RC: Completely. He goes through a big range. That’s what I like about the ordinariness of the first scenes in the country cottage, in the way he’s got himself dug in. He’s quite content, doesn’t want to open the door, to anyone, and again that’s another part of the attraction to the script is when they open the door, the audience know they’re in fucking trouble. A lot of second-guessing goes on in the script. But when you get towards the end of it, there are a couple of moments you’re not going to expect… So it’s a question of all these things, good scenes, good moments, pretty entertaining moments, Danny, Andrew, Juan Carlos seemed a cool guy. I’d seen his movie, Intacto, liked it, thought this was worth a gamble.
In terms of getting into character, how have you tried to humanise Don as one of the “infected”?
RC: When I met Juan Carlos, I was 90% going to do it, but if there was a 10% it was about halfway through [the script] he’s a scary monster and one of the first things Juan Carlos said, without me talking about this, I really feel for the infected and I was like, Right, I thought that was quite cool. And I thought if he’s coming at it from that angle then Don’s going to be protected in a way and so far so good. And the difference this time from the previous film is this time the infected have a logic through this character; you can see that there’s logic there. It’s just something I felt quite early on, when this happens to him, he’s lost his kids again, right. Not only has he lost his kids, they’re away with a soldier and a military nurse and a wee family has formed, a wee unit, so that anger and that rage is then directed at them, for taking them away. And then the logic goes a stage further. If he can bite them, he has them back. So it’s not as simple as ‘Kill everybody’. There’s a reason why he wants to kill the soldier [played by Jeremy Renner] and the nurse [Rose Byrne], and there’s a reason why he wants to have a bite, a reinfected family.
How do you get that humanity across? Seeing you play the role, there seems to be something in the eyes of Don as the monster…
RC: Well this is the beginning in a sense, it’s just happened and the infection’s started to break out, and there’s a couple of wee moments where he appears and he’s watching, and those are the moments I’m going to focus on, in terms of the eyes. I’ll drop a lot of the physicality of it, the cosmetics of it and just concentrate on getting something out of these red eyes, which is quite hard to do because you’re fighting against the make up in that sense, but I’m going to give that a go, so you can see something of hurt in him. I’m going to try and do, show the audience that he’s hurt, he’s not just a raging maniac monster now. Yes he is, but he’s also hurt by that.
You’ve dabbled in most genres and yet Ravenous is the only other horror film you’ve starred in apart from 28 Weeks Later. Is it a genre you’re interested in? Were you a fan of 28 Days Later?
RC: Again it goes back to your first question and the reason why I loved the first one. I thought it was great, I thought it would have nice to have been involved in it. It’s a nice companion piece to the first film, [it’s] taken the story a wee bit further. But Ravenous is probably where my real love of that type of film lies, it’s more psychological and more kind of mind fuck type film, and of all the films I’ve ever done, Ravenous is my favourite. There are just moments in it where the visuals and the acting and the music and all the rest of it all come together. And I’ve been fortunate to be involved with other films like that but there’s just something about the double character in that and the moments of madness in [my character] Colqhoun which is pretty fucking scary even for me to look at. Ravenous, if I say so myself, [is] a top film.
A lot of actors say they enjoy playing “bad guys” more than playing the hero. Would you agree?
RC: Yeah, most of the time. Not always, but most of the time. They’ve got more of a journey in the story, they’ll come from some place and end up probably badly or dead or something will happen and that journey will be interesting. Whereas when you’re playing, for want of a better word, the good guy, the good guy’s got to be the good guy. Even myself, I try and subvert that as much as I can. If I’m playing a good guy I’ll try and put a bit of darkness in there but it’s hard to do that because then you start blurring it all and the audience don’t know where they stand, so it’s easier with the villain in a sense to lose yourself, to become something else, to become somebody else, you know. Psychologically it’s a more interesting journey.
Going back to Don in his “infected” state, have you tried to bring any particular physicality to the role?
RC: We were talking about a visual thing, and you’ll see very little of these people in close up, most will be in mid shot and wides. For myself it’s less about that. If I get too involved in that then I’ve lost the humanity entirely. I thought about it. Before I started, I thought about a stance and a posture and all that, but it started getting in the way. The way I’m thinking about the physicality with Don when he’s infected is there are moments of real stillness in him, and if you can make it slightly different from the first film as well, you see the face and then the attack happens. So I’m playing it up here [the face], I’m playing it in close up.
What differentiated the “infected” in 28 Days Later from the creatures in zombie films was their speed of moment. But if you have the speed, you can’t have the humanity because you can’t see it.
RC: Yeah, that’s it precisely. If you go down that road, the 1000 miles an hour, you’re fucked, and it just becomes that rage thing which is fantastic and it works extremely well but I think there’s enough of that going on in the film that I don’t have to do that. You’ll see it a couple of times, to know he’s capable of that, but again for me that’s page one acting, just show enough, not too much. Once you’ve shown enough, it’s there.
How have you found working with Juan Carlos? The producers very purposefully tried to get what they term a “real” filmmaker who could bring a new take on the material.
RC: I liked the first film and I think the most successful element of the first film was the high rise block with Brendan and the girl and I thought that unit as very, very interesting and I think that’s what Juan Carlos probably saw it as well, because he’s really concentrated in the family aspect [in this one] and what that actually means. It’s interesting sometimes working with European directors because they cut differently and you can see that sometimes with the crew going Huh, is this going to cut together? They don’t care so much, they’ll chop at it to make it work, so I’ll appear… the scene where I’m attacking Catherine, if he showed that way we shot it, it isn’t going to work, but I’m confident he’s going to cut it to bits, so it will work and it’ll work well and it’ll probably be quite stylised in the end.