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Robert Carlyle in The 51st State: career not on scrapheap, evidently

From football-crazed murderer to Bond baddie in just a few short years, the rise of Robert Carlyle has been as impressive as he is talented. Now he's back, alongside Samuel L Jackson, in The 51st State, hoping to profit from the perfect high.

Anwar Brett gets the full dope.

From Film Review Jan 2002

The 51st State is released on December 7 and is our Film of the Month

The dream of every actor is to earn a healthy wad of cash, get their face known and make it big in Holly wood. Isn't it? Robert Carlyle can claim to achieved all these things, to a greater or lesser extent, yet he is one of those actors who puts the work first, above any notions of career building or some shallow pursuit of fame. The best thing you can say about Carlyle is that you can never be sure who or how he will be in any particular film, you just know he will be utterly convincing.

"They're probably not quite sure what to make of me in Hollywood," he concedes, "or where to place me. But that's always been my goal. To try and remain floating, although it's very difficult to avoid being pigeonholed. Every actor is to a degree, maybe because of the fact that they just do the one particular thing. Other actors diversify, but even within that you tend to get similar types of things offered to you."

From his early break in Ken Loach's Riff-Raff in 1990, through a succession of diverse and challenging film and TV work – his memorable portrayal of Albie, a traumatized Liverpool fan in Cracker, Hamish Macbeth, Begbie in Trainspotting, Carla's Song for Loach again and, of course, The Full Monty – Carlyle has built an impressive body of work. His latest, The 51st State, is an ambitious attempt to blend the chic violence of a Pulp Fiction with a more familiar, more British culture clash comedy.

And despite the fact that Carlyle is just one among a strong ensemble headed by Samuel L Jackson, and featuring the likes of Emily Mortimer, Sean Pertwee, Rhys Ifans, Ricky Tomlinson and Meat Loaf, he dominates the screen as Scouse gangster Felix DeSouza, investing the role with equal parts charm and menace.

"I don't think Felix is that much of a hard man at all," opines Carlyle. "He's in it for the ride. He's a petty thief, trying to make a few bob and trying to get to see Liverpool play Manchester United. That's all it is for him. He's a simple guy."

He also makes for an unlikely partner to designer drug-creating chemist Elmo McElroy (Jackson) who arrives to seal an important deal attired in his `clan' tartan kilt, his beloved golf clubs over his shoulder.

"It was very strange seeing Sam in a kilt," smiles Carlyle, the only Scot on the production. "His bravery knows no bounds. By the time we finished it was December in Liverpool, so it was freezing. You've got to know what you're doing when you're working with guys like him. He's physically powerful and very tall. Of course you play on that too, I'm not as small as people think I am, but you play on it. I think the one sequence in particular I remember is on the barge where we're bawling at each other. I really enjoyed it, I got off on that."

Quite capable of looking after himself on screen and off, the 40-year-old actor exudes an air of quiet confidence when he talks. The fiery youth he might once have been has mellowed with age, though he remains an impassioned, politicized actor whose work reflects a thoughtful commitment to his working class roots.

"It's a dangerous thing to play celebrity politics, you know. Early in my career I was a bit too vocal about that, and I just didn't like to read it in print. I've got as valid an opinion as the next man, but no more so. Just because I do what I do doesn't give the right to spout off about my politics in print. And, of course, as soon as you do you've nailed your colours to that particular mast for the rest of your life, no matter what changes you go through in your life."

It's a question of priorities. The best projects are those which entertain but also have a point – in that order.

"If you can find that middle ground," he argues, "that combines something you care about with a very commercial film then you're a lucky man..."

Film Review Oct 2001 issue• For the full five-page version of this cover feature, read on in the January 2002 issue (#613) of Film Review...

• Visit the UK microsite (courtesy of FHM)

The 51st State is copyright: Alliance Atlantis Pictures / Momentum 2001. Not for reproduction.

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