The world is in peril. Britain has a new Conservative prime minister. So far, so early-2020s believable. But this PM is… Robert Carlyle. Hang on a second. Begbie from Trainspotting is playing a Tory prime minister? It’s a stretch of the imagination, but the premise for Cobra.
Sky One’s new political drama stars Carlyle as serious-minded Robert Sutherland scrambling to deal with serious times as an environmental catastrophe leads to long-term electricity outages across the country.
If politicians thinking about the public interest first and personal and party power second feels like a distant hope, this could be the TV drama to offer some welcome escapism – albeit into an alternative vision of a world still facing disaster and chaos.
The Big Issue: When you were getting into the acting game as a young man I bet you never imagined playing a Conservative prime minister.
Robert Carlyle: You are absolutely right. Even grown up now. One of the attractions was that it is not something I would normally get offered. It was brave casting by Sky but shows they wanted to do something different with this. It is not the normal prime minister. There is something more human about him, certainly compared to the ones we have had recently.
It seems radical to have politicians portrayed as having the public interest at heart.
It is true. You don’t expect it. And this is the interest for me in Sutherland. In the bigger picture, he is trying to do his best. He is more of a centrist. It is set roughly 10 years in the future. Maybe that is [writer] Ben Richards’ way of saying it is the way the country wants to go, that we want a politician or party that is less about themselves and more about others. It is a dangerous time politically just now. We have got involved in personality politics and these personalities have come to the fore. There has also been a right-wing shift in the world over the past five years, particularly in the US and parts of Europe. You can see that.
Cobra also gives us something new to be shit-scared of at the start of 2020 – extreme space weather and high-speed plasma!
Another fear! It is something that came out of the blue for me. I had no idea that this was even a thing. It is distressing to hear Ben say that maybe this is on the cards. You don’t want to terrify people with predictions of impending doom and disaster, but it is something to keep in mind! It goes in line with the climate change problems we are having – you have to be aware we are living in different times. I am living in Vancouver just now and they are surprised an earthquake hasn’t happened yet. When they go to school, my kids have earthquake drills.
A good way to test politicians is to throw something like this at them… what are the challenges facing Sutherland?
This is leftfield for him. He has only been in power for 18 months so it is thrown at him and it throws him. His job is to cope with a situation which is unthinkable – power being taken away from most of the UK. It doesn’t give too much away to say that power comes back in London but in Northumberland, Wales, Cornwall, coastal areas, the lights do not go back on for a long time. It pits people against each other and starts civil unrest. A small right-wing pressure group appears saying the elites of London don’t understand what is happening.
When societies suffer, cynical politicians pit people against each other. Again, it’s topical.
You have seen this happen in the late 1920s and ’30s in Germany, the rise of fascism. You can see that in Cobra – Sutherland’s job is to stop it taking hold in any way. But at the same time, he has to implement draconian measures, so he has to stop himself going too far. I would not like to be in that position.
How would you fare in his shoes?
I can’t imagine anything worse than being a politician. I ain’t that guy. Not at all.
Has doing Cobra impacted your politics?
I try and look at them a little bit closer as people. When we were filming, Theresa May was going back and forward to Brussels with the whole Brexit thing. Watching her break down, she seemed to age years and years by the day – and remember when her voice was going? If I hadn’t been shooting the show, I might not have cared. But I was thinking more about the human being. This woman was deteriorating as a person and that is sad to see whether you agree with her politics or not.
What was your take on the two potential PMs on offer at the election?
It is very difficult for anybody in the public eye to talk about this. As soon as you say something you are going to get a lot of shit. I don’t need that and my family doesn’t need that. So I will skip it. But what I would say is that British politics has never been in a worse state. That I cannot remember a time when I look at every single leader of every single party and go, ‘pfft.’ You know what I mean? Because none of them fill you with hope.
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When you began your career could you have imagined the range of roles – Adolf Hitler to John Lennon, Begbie to a Tory PM, a Bond villain to Hamish Macbeth?
It sounds funny when you say it. I have been very lucky to have that range of roles to play and attempt to show some kind of versatility.
Did you have to actively work to avoid being painted into a corner?
The two major things that solidified me in this acting world were Trainspotting and The Full Monty. And you couldn’t get two more different people. You have this psycho maniac and this other guy trying to do his best for his son. One very sympathetic, one non-sympathetic. So as a result, the roles bounced back and forward between those two characters. And the more I was able to do that, the more I was seen as an actor, rather than the guy who plays the psycho or the downtrodden Ken Loach guy.
Who have been the big influences?
Ken Loach would squeal if I said this, but in my head, he was a real mentor to me [Carlyle first worked with the director in the 1991 film Riff-Raff]. There is a lot you can take from a man like Ken Loach about the way you treat people and the way you handle this business and this life. And I absolutely love Danny Boyle. I would work with him every day of the week if I could. He is a fantastic man.
Is that why you did a secret cameo in Yesterday?
I have never spoken about it. That is how secret it was. It was because I am a huge John Lennon fan. So when Danny and I talked, I said, why do I need a credit for this, who needs it?
Is part three of any film series we need to know about on the agenda for 2020?
All of this is dependent on Danny, if it is the Trainspotting thing you are referring to.
I am interested. Because there is space for the character to grow. And there is another book – The Blade Artist – which is almost exclusively about Begbie. In terms of the narrative it is one of Irvine [Welsh, Trainspotting author]’s best. Because you know this character so well – and certainly I know the character very well – you buy it. It is a scenario I know to be true – infamous figures have gone into prison and found art and come out as a different being. Irvine would love to do it, he knows I would love to do it, but it is contingent upon Danny.
Would he have to write the other characters into the story?
If I can speak for Danny, he sees it as the four characters – and to take one of them out on their own is less interesting to him. Not necessarily to me and Irvine. But we will see how it goes. If he waits as long as he did between one and two, we are all going to be in a rest home by the time we do three.
You have been in Vancouver for 10 years – is it home now?
The show I did over there lasted longer than I thought [Stargate Universe ran from 2009-2011, then Once Upon A Time ran from 2011-2018]. When it kept on going, we needed to be together – you are only a family if you are together. So everybody came out and the kids went to school there. My youngest was three when we went out there. He is 13 now and says, ‘I’m a Canadian’. But he says it with a Glasgow accent. And I get it. My wife and I decided we couldn’t take them away from all this – my daughter is 17 and is a social butterfly and has a great scene going on. You can’t take that away.
Viewing the UK from afar, how do you feel about the way things are going?
I think it is very sad. I miss it at times, but I’m glad to be away, the way things are politically. I am back and forwards, so it is like I get postcards sent to me and see this thing deteriorating. The saddest thing I have witnessed is the division that has happened. People are really divided, even inside the same family, about this Brexit thing, which has ripped the country apart. I feel very sorry for people who have to live through this.
What is your vision for 2020 personally, politically and culturally?
I would like to see people stop fighting with one another. That would be great. Just put the gun down. It is the polarisation of people that is so sad. We need more togetherness.
What do you focus on when you are looking at who to vote for?
More and more for me it is green issues. Let’s think about the world. Let’s think about the planet. That is where I am right now, let’s think about green issues and the climate.
You are PM, I have just appointed you. What do you do on your first day in office?
Run like fuck! I don’t know. What do you do? I genuinely don’t know. Well, I say I don’t know because it goes without saying to me, but homelessness is what you would attack. You would try and make sure everyone is due a fucking decent education and a fucking decent home. That is absolutely standard. So that is the first two things on the agenda.
Cobra airs on Sky One and is available on Now TV now