Robert Carlyle has had 20 years of being followed round by cult roles and cult films. Be it crazed Begbie from Trainspotting, the psychotic Liverpool fan Albie Kinsella from Cracker or warm-hearted Gaz from The Full Monty, he’s grateful for them all.
He was stalked by Barney Thomson, too, but in one of those quirks of the actor’s job in which a potentially great role just won’t go away.
Barney Thomson is, according to the 54-year-old Glaswegian, “a hapless middle-aged barber who hasn’t had his kick in life. And through a series of mishaps and accidents he ends up accidentally killing people.”
Based on a novel by Douglas Lindsay, The Legend of Barney Thomson marks Carlyle’s debut as a film director and takes him back to the days before he became one of the UK’s hottest movie actors.
“I’d been offered this film purely as an actor four or five times over the last 10 years. It just kept coming back but I was always doing something else. I ended up working for American TV and there was a producer, John Lenic, who told me that there was a Glasgow script that I might be interested in. It was Barney again. I thought, ‘I can’t get away from this thing!’”
The proximity of the project and its Glasgow backdrop – Carlyle’s home town – led to him developing the script. When finance suddenly materialised but no director was on board he took his producer’s advice and signed up to wield the megaphone. “At first I didn’t think it was a good idea but the further it got on I thought, ‘I probably know this script better than anyone now’. The performance of Barney Thomson wasn’t going to be angst-ridden – not that it was going to be easy – but it was manageable and so I ended up doing it.”
The film took him back to his old stamping ground and the city that still means a great deal to him. It also meant reconnecting with a mode of working that he’d once considered as a very real ambition: directing.
“I directed in the theatre for many years. That was what I was going to do. And then Ken Loach came in to town around 1990 to do Riff Raff and after that all this acting work came in. So it wasn’t entirely new to me [although] certainly new to me in terms of film work.
“It’s very difficult. Even though I’d done so many films myself, I had no idea [of] the work that actually went in to it, which sounds ridiculous but you just don’t know until you do it. You’re responsible for every single nut and bolt. It took up an awful lot of time. It would take something pretty special to get me doing it again.”
Much has been made of the film’s cast, which includes Ray Winstone in full-on gruff cockney mode and Emma Thompson, in reality only two years older than Carlyle, as his monstrous mother, Cemolina.
A combination of prosthetics and lack of vanity ensured the 56-year-old double Oscar-winner succeeded in playing what Carlyle refers to as “generally a guy’s part”.
“Emma Thompson... she’s the jewel in the crown of the film, there’s no doubt about that,” says Carlyle.
“She’s absolutely brilliant in it. I’ve always been a big admirer of Emma. The relationship between Barney and his mother, it’s really tense. Emma gives a tremendously brave performance. It gets the audience thinking ‘I like this character’ and then asking themselves ‘but do I like this character?’ It takes a particular type of actor to do that.”
• The Legend of Barney Thompson (15) is out now.