Robert Carlyle is thinking about whether we should have more sympathy for our politicians.
Born and bred in Glasgow but having lived in Vancouver, Canada for the past 10 years, the actor says he considers himself lucky to have been away as the “crazy” mess of Brexit has unfolded over the past few years.
So if you’d asked him a few years back for his thoughts on sympathising with those in the corridors of power, he would most definitely have said no.
“I mean, they want to be in that job,” he tells Sky News. “What is it they say; they want to climb to the top of the greasy pole. They all want that top job, or most of them seem to want that, so some people would say, well, you deserve what you get.
“I would say my opinion probably has changed to some extent because I’ve been immersed in this for so long. But I’m not gonna speak up for them all. Some of them deserve what they get.”
The “this” he is referring to is new disaster drama thriller COBRA, in which he stars as UK Prime Minister Robert Sutherland – the man in charge as a national crisis of a power-wiping geomagnetic storm hits. To add to his spinning plates, there’s a pretty serious personal crisis at home to deal with – and try to keep a lid on – too.
In an age where we caricature our politicians, the show aims to show their human side as the world around them very quickly descends into chaos.
“We tend to kind of not see politicians like [human beings]; sometimes quite rightly, we don’t see politicians like that,” says Carlyle. “In recent times, we certainly don’t see politicians like that.
“But when we were shooting [COBRA] was when Theresa May was in power and she was going back and forth to Brussels [with] this whole Brexit business, and you could see that she was ageing by the day.
“I don’t know how I would have felt about it had I not been playing this part, but because I was, I was looking at this thinking, she’s just a person, you know. She’s really just a person at the end of the day. And of course, she’s an important person, she’s [got] massively important decisions to make, but to see someone kind of fall apart like that in front of your eyes is quite sad.”
Carlyle wanted to show that human side to Sutherland: “That he is scared, you know, he’s frightened by what’s happening, he’s as scared as everybody else. That’s something you don’t normally see.
“You see the face the politician, the prime minister, or president, will give you. We will rarely see the panic behind the eyes.”
Carlyle says being a visitor to the UK has given him “almost like little postcards of the country” each time he has been back, and that it has been “really, really sad to see what’s been happening from afar”.
“It’s really kind of torn us apart as a nation and I think that’s terribly sad. I don’t know what the answer to that is, there isn’t an easy fix to that.”
However, he is reluctant to discuss politics in detail. “You come down one side or the other, you’re going to get all sorts of abuse from one side. It’s just very sad that this thing has happened,” he says.
Would he want another referendum? For the UK or for Scotland?
“Here’s the thing. I’m really not the person to ask because I’m only one person. Of course my personal opinion is as valid as anyone else’s. But the problem when you’re an actor and you give your opinion is you get thousands of people who are going to condemn you one way or another. So I’m gonna be Switzerland in this case and I’m going to say nothing.”
He says he wouldn’t want to put his family in a position where they could be in line for abuse: “So as a result you tend not to comment about it. And I think it is true for people in general, but certainly people in the public eye. You know, it’s a dangerous time to kind of be one way or the other.”
Carlyle dips his toe into social media every now and then, mainly to highlight his work – “for business”, he says – and for thank yous to kind words from fans.
“I’ve got a social media presence, but I certainly don’t get involved in any kind of political discussions with anybody,” he says.
“I don’t get involved with anything in actual fact, most of the way that I use it is for business and business purposes. But I see others, I see friends who get involved in stuff, with comments and stuff. [I think] Why are you doing that? Why are you putting yourself in that position? Just leave it.”
Sutherland is Conservative, it should be noted. Carlyle is “not a Tory – anyone who knows me will you that”. So he is aware he is an “interesting” choice to play the role.
The actor accepted long ago his forever links with Begbie, the moustache-wearing psychopath who made him famous in Trainspotting; not least because he is selective about the work he chooses, and isn’t on screen nearly as often as he could be.
There was The Full Monty too, of course, and his role as James Bond baddie Renard in The World Is Not Enough, plus a regular gig as Rumpelstiltskin in US fairy tale drama Once Upon A Time, which he starred in from 2011 to 2018.
But Sutherland is a very different kind of role.
“Yes, well, I am an interesting choice, I think, for a Conservative prime minister,” he laughs. “There are not too many Tories in Scotland at all. So from that perspective alone, I think it’s an interesting choice.
“[But] they wanted someone who was less obvious, maybe not what you would imagine a Conservative prime minister to be.
“[Sutherland] has difficult choices to make through the whole series… his politics are to the right, but he realises that there’s another world out there, a different way of being, and to try and convince the people, the public that to vote for, to continue to vote for the Conservative Party, then things have to change.
“I think it’s not specific, but I’d imagine COBRA sitting maybe 10, 15 years in the future. And I suppose that’s what he’s trying to be, is to try and be a different type of Conservative, or a different type of politician. And I’m sure that’s what we all want.”
With COBRA showing the politicians juggling their own lives against the catastrophe unfolding, does Carlyle think he has got the balance right?
“You hope,” he says. “I’ve always tried to keep myself separate from my public self, if you know what I mean. I very rarely do chat shows and stuff like that. That side of the business is something that’s never really interested me. I’ve never really been interested in being a star, as it were.
“The most important thing to me is has always been my family, it’s the most important thing in my life. Anything that infringes on that or gets in the way of that is no good to me. So, um, you know, Robert Carlyle is very different guy to Bobby Carlyle.”
The plan one day is to return home he says, once his children have finished their education.
“I’ll always come home,” he says. “You know, this is where I’m from. I love this place, I’ll always be back here, and I look forward to the day where I come back and retire here, there’s no doubt about that.”
And after the huge success of Trainspotting 2 in 2017, are there plans for a third?
“I love Danny Boyle, he’s a great friend and I love him to bits, I’d do anything for Danny any day of the week,” he says. “So it would all come down to him for me.
“I’m sure that the other three boys would say the same thing. We’re a team so it would take all four of us to want to do another one. I can’t imagine when that would happen. I think it would be set in a rest home by the time we’re all ready to do it. Who knows?”
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Despite playing the most important man in the country, Carlyle is happy to be known as Begbie.
“It never gets annoying,” he says. “Maybe when the first one came out, you know, 120 years ago or whenever it was, that was kind of difficult at first because… the actor I was back then – ‘I am more than that, you don’t want to be seen as just the one thing’, you know.
“But as the years went by I’ve grown to love Begbie. He’s like a real friend of mine now. It’s difficult. People know you from different things. People in the street, there’s always something different and Begbie is probably the one that if you balanced it all out, is the one that probably comes out on top.
“This is a long, long time ago, but I was making a film in Sofia in Bulgaria. And I’d just arrived there. The first day I was going to come out the hotel just to kind of have a look at Sofia. I got two steps outside the door to the hotel and this guy went, ‘Ohhh, Begbie’. This Bulgarian guy.
“This is crazy. This character, these characters, you know, really sort of travelled throughout the world. It was amazing. Because when we did it, the first film, I thought, well, maybe it’ll do okay in Scotland, people there may like it.
“Who knew that it was gonna take off the way that it did? So here’s to Begbie.”
Watch our full interview with Robert Carlyle on Sky News on Saturday. All episodes of Sky original COBRA air on Sky One and NOW TV from 9pm on Friday 17 January