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Interview: Robert Carlyle on The Legend of Barney Thomson

BY Farhana Gani

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Interview: Robert Carlyle on The Legend of Barney Thomson

Actor Robert Carlyle has won 11 major awards for his numerous roles across theatre, film and TV. He makes his feature film directorial debut with the BAFTA-winning The Legend of Barney Thomson, in which he also stars.

Robert Carlyle is probably best known for his roles in The Full Monty, Trainspotting, Hamish Macbeth, Cracker and the cult favourite Looking After JoJo, which is at last available on DVD for the first time.

Carlyle plays the ill-fated barber in The Legend of Barney Thomson, his directorial debut, alongside an all-star cast including Emma Thompson, Ray Winstone and Tom Courtenay. His film was nominated for Best British Feature Film at the 2015 Edinburgh International Film Festival. The film recently won two Scottish BAFTA awards, for 'Best Film' and 'Best Actress'. 


Reader's Digest: The Legend of Barney Thomson marks your feature film directorial debut. Why this particular film and why now?

Robert Carlyle: I’d been offered this film purely as an actor about 4 or 5 times over the last 10 years, it just kept coming back, but I was always doing something else.

Then I ended up in Canada working for American TV and there was a producer out there, John Lenic, who I’d become friendly with and he told me that there was a Glasgow script that I might be interested in and it was Barney again. I thought, ‘I can’t get away from this thing!’ but I knew there was something in it, and I started to get more heavily involved in it about 3 years ago.


RD: You’ve worked with Ken Loach and Danny Boyle, pretty amazing people to work with, do you think some of that has seeped in and you’ve been influenced by them?

RC: Well I would never ever think of putting myself in that category but you hope so, you hope you learn from the good people around you, in any walk of life, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to see Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, Alan Parker, people like that at work. You take little things from them all.

Particularly Danny Boyle in terms of this film, his enthusiasm, the way he directs. It is a wonderful experience to work on his set because he is so enthusiastic with every single person that people will follow him anywhere. So I had always thought I would try and take that bit of Danny with me. 


Robert Carlyle


RD: Tell us a bit about the film and the character of Barney Thomson and how he fits in?

RC: Barney Thomson is a hapless middle-aged barber who in Barney’s own words hasn’t had his ‘kick at the ball’ in life. He’s got a mother who’s difficult, to say the least, and at the point where you join the film, he’s under threat of losing his job. If he loses his job, he’s basically got nothing at all.

Through a kind of series of mishaps and accidents, he ends up accidentally killing people. It’s a great character to play in a sense because everything happens to him, although he’s the one that’s responsible for killing these people as it were, he doesn’t do anything deliberately, it all kind of happens to him.

So he bounces around a bit like in a pinball machine from then on in. 


RD: This film has a real timeless quality about it, it could be set in any time, and he is a timeless character isn’t he?

RC: Thank you. That’s what I deliberately tried to do in terms of the production values. It came across to me the more work I did on the script with Colin Mclaren that it’s kind of timeless, it’s old-fashioned really, almost 50s or 60s style, and it was important to me to capture that.

Actors were given the platform to really express themselves in the 50s and 60s, and I thought well let’s try that. So equally you don’t see any mobile phones, any modern cars, and the barbers’ set in particular, that’s such a timeless place.

It’s one of my images of my childhood going to those barbers with my father, boxing pictures everywhere and it could have been 1920, 1930, 1940, 1960, it didn’t matter it could have been anytime, so that’s what I endeavoured to do.


RD: It’s an incredible cast, but I’ve got to ask about Ray Winstone and the inspired decision to cast Emma Thompson as your mother. She’s only a couple of years older than you and yet she’s totally convincing in the role…

RC: Ray and I go way back, we’re great friends, and I was really pleased that he wanted to come on and do it. He doesn’t get a chance to do a lot of comedy, because he’s generally cast as ‘the Daddy’ but I know him well and Ray’s a very funny guy so I thought he would enjoy that and he did.

He was perfect for that role, a quintessential cockney. Put him in Glasgow and see how he gets on. Basically, he is stuck in the city because of his wife. It was wonderful to watch Ray up close and to see how much effort and passion he puts into everything that he does.

Emma Thompson she’s the jewel in the crown of the film, there’s no doubt about that, she’s absolutely brilliant in it. Cemolina, the character she plays, is generally a guy’s part, a mad crazy serial killer-type man.

There are very few parts written like that for women. So I knew I needed to find someone brave to do this.




RD: There’s great comedy but it also gets quite tense at times…  

RC: It’s kind of bittersweet I think, it’s funny and suddenly then you ask yourself is it funny? Particularly the relationship between Barney and his mother it’s really tense. 

Again Emma, a tremendously brave performance, that gets the audience thinking I like this character and then asking themselves but do I like this character? And it takes a particular type of actor to do that. 


RD: When did you know you really wanted to get into acting, was there a spark, or was it always just there?

RC: My mother left when I was a wee boy, so my father brought me up. This was in the 60s and in order to take my mind off the fact that there was no mother around, and to take his mind off it too, my dad used to take me to the cinema all the time. So we used to go four or five nights a week. And back then in the day, you could just sit through the film and watch the next show and the next show.

I’d look at my dad and he’d be sitting through the next show of the same film, and I’d think oh we’re gonna watch it again, so I’d see films 2 or 3 times and then we’d go back the next night and see it 2 or 3 times more.

In amongst that there were cowboy films, Westerns, which my father loved, and I grew to love as well, so I guess those were my earlier influences, Westerns and actors like Yul Brynner, Jack Palance, these were my heroes when I was a wee boy. And of course, Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, I can remember seeing that, and that was a big deal for me. 

As things progressed from that I’ve always been a fan of films from the 50s and 60s, and that’s probably my biggest influence. 


Robert Carlyle


RD: The first time I remember you, you were in Cracker, and you were very frightening, do people still talk about that?

RC: Yes that’s another thing that get’s shouted at me often, L-I-V-E-R-P. To get the opportunity to do that was massive.

In terms of things that that propelled my career, that’s right up there, because that was the first time I wasn’t speaking with my own accent, and I remember going along for the audition back then, and it was a guy called Tim Fywell who directed that. 

It was the beginning of my association with Jimmy McGovern as well.  It was a fantastic piece that, and even though it was 21 or 22 years ago people still talk about that.  It was a big deal for me.    


Win a copy of The Legend of Barney Thompson novel and DVD 


Browse through our film & TV DVDs starring Robert Carlyle in our shop, including Looking After JoJo:


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