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Robert Carlyle and director Marshall Lewy discuss California Solo, their serendipitous collaboration

Robert Carlyle and director Marshall Lewy met in Los Angeles for California Solo’s premiere and press day.

When indie director Marshall Lewy wrote the script for his new film California Solo, about an ex-Britpop rocker who finds himself struggling with his immigration status after twelve years of living in Los Angeles, he created the lead character with Robert Carlyle in mind. He had no idea that his scrawny, archly charismatic muse was so closely linked to the world of Britpop music in his real life – that in fact, Carlyle was friends with Oasis’ Liam and Noel Gallagher in their heyday, and that he met his wife at the famous Hacienda nightclub in Manchester where the musical movement flourished.

After years of admiring him from a distance, Lewy simply believed that Carlyle had the acting chops to take on the delicate role of Lachlan McAldonich. The film finds the character years after the decline of his stardom, working on an organic farm on the outskirts of LA and living an outwardly fulfilling life that turns out to be a scheme for escaping demons past. When Lachlan gets caught driving while intoxicated and is threatened with deportation, he balks at the thought of returning to his homeland. There is something there waiting for him that he finds sinister, terrifying, and impossible to face. “I felt like he had a range where he could be very, very human and available and charming and also have the volatility of some of the characters that he’s played,” Lewy explains. “Lachlan is really a contrast in both. He’s a guy who has that volatility but that’s not where he is today.”

While he may be a household name in the UK, Glasgow-born Robert Carlyle has maintained an aloofness to Hollywood style fame mongering and largely avoided celebrity status stateside. After starring in two of the most successful UK films of his generation, The Full Monty and Trainspotting, each time earning rave reviews for his respectively endearing and explosive performances, he has stuck mainly to small-scale independent projects that focus on working class UK neighborhoods, with a few exceptions. One notably atypical role is his current portrayal of Rumpelstiltskin on the American hit fantasy television series Once Upon a Time, a performance that has earned him increasing recognition in Hollywood as of late.

As it turned out, Lewy’s hunch that Carlyle would fit nicely was accurate in terms of more than just his emotive range. Carlyle had also been keeping an eye out for a script drawing from the 90s music scene. “It’s something I kind of wanted to do because of my knowledge of that time and who my friends are,” he says. In addition to members of Oasis, Carlyle is connected with Ian Brown of The Stone Roses and Paul Weller of The Jam, among others. “It was easy for me to tap into that,” he says. In the script, Carlyle also found traces of the underprivileged angst he is so known for. “I wanted to give [Lachlan] a bit of a hard edge, because that is one thing that runs through all those guys. They’ve all got a hard edge to them. Most of them come from pretty hard backgrounds and fought their way up with their guitars to be who they are.”

In spite of Lachlan’s dark side, Carlyle was relieved to find that the tailor-made script didn’t feature him as an irrecoverable psychopath. After showcasing his ability to harness a magnetically violent, wild card energy as Francis Begbie in Trainspotting, he has subsequently played a bone-chilling James Bond villain in The World Is Not Enough, and was Emmy-nominated for his performance as a Russian criminal mastermind and slave driver in the miniseries Human Trafficking. Against his own volition, he finds himself typecast today as a maniac, and must seek out roles that reveal his softer side. He laments, “I was really thankful and respectful of Marshall that he didn’t choose to write a film with me in mind and make the character fucking crazy. I’ve done too much of that. I don’t want to do that. That isn’t me at all. I mean, I’m not exactly innocent. But reports of my craziness have been grossly exaggerated.”

The only aspect of the role that feels a bit incongruous is Carlyle’s playing a Scotsman fighting to stay in LA, while the actor himself has staunchly opted to remain in Glasgow with his family and travel back and forth to Tinseltown as necessary. “I definitely wouldn’t say that I dislike [LA]. I certainly don’t dislike it,” he protests, “But it’s not my land. It’s not my world. If acting is a very innocent observation of life that’s going on about you, then most of the life that I’m going to be depicting is back home. There’s no point for me to come here to be amongst lots of other actors inside an industry town, because you’re not getting a true reflection of life then.” The observation may be so, but there’s no denying that Carlyle has sacrificed a certain level of status due to his penchant for smaller projects.

Seemingly unprompted, the actor mentions that he has been offered to play the role of John Lennon a few times and refused it. “I said no. I’ve seen a couple of very, very good actors have a go at it and fail. It’s just a difficult, difficult role,” he justifies.

One can’t help but wonder if perhaps it is not fear of failure that gives Carlyle the most pause, but fear of runaway success. For when he cautions that the role is “too big,” it seems impossible that the universally lauded actor could doubt his ability not only to embody Lennon but to imbue the role with the perfect balance of tortured creative zeal and effortless wisdom. But then, the quickly disintegrating cult status of Robert Carlyle would fall away, and he would lose the option to fly California Solo.