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A Chat with Robert Carlyle of “Stargate Universe”

To the world at large, Robert Carlyle is best known for his roles in “The Full Monty” and “Trainspotting,” though James Bond aficionados likely remember him more fondly for his villainous turn as Renard in “The World Is Not Enough.” Since 2009, however, sci-fi buffs have been thrilling to Carlyle’s work on “Stargate Universe,” where he plays the ever-scheming Dr. Nicholas Rush. Premium Hollywood had a chance to chat with Carlyle just as the series returns for its second season, and in addition to offering up a few ideas of what we can expect to see from Rush in the near future, he discussed his opportunity to direct an “SGU” episode, which actor on the show he’d like to work with more often, and what led him to venture away from motion pictures and take this gig in the first place.

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Premium Hollywood: Hello, Robert, how are you?

Robert Carlyle: Very well, thanks.

PH: It’s good to speak with you again. You and I chatted briefly a few years ago when you were at the TCA tour.

RC: Oh, right, okay!

PH: Well, you’ve been talking up Season 2 of “Stargate Universe” since Comic-Con in late July. You’ve got to be glad it’s finally here!

RC: Yeah! You know, it’s one of these things where suddenly it’s upon you! You get in the middle of it up there in Vancouver, and then it’s, like, “Okay, we’re on!” (Laughs)

PH: I’ve read some of the reports about your panel there. It sounded like you guys had a good time.

RC: Yes, absolutely! But, I mean, I enjoy everything about this. I really, really do love everything about this job. There’s nothing at all that’s upset me so far, or else I’d be gone. I wouldn’t be here. (Laughs) I’d be off doing something else. But this is all good .

PH: Do you enjoy the Comic-Con experience?

RC: Well, you know, you’re supposed to say that you don’t. Actors are supposed to say, “Nah, I hated it.” To be honest with ye, the first time ‘round, the first year, was a wee bit strange. It’s a strange, strange world. This time, I really enjoyed it. I really began to understand it a little bit more, what the convention’s about, and understanding that a lot of these people, the fans that come to these things, they meet each other at other conventions, and there’s kind of like a little community…and I felt kind of honored to be part of that this time. So I enjoyed it. I sat beside my wife one night, and the zombie parade came past…like, a thousand zombies came past the table. That’s not something you’re going to see every day, you know? (Laughs)

PH: Plus, you’ve got zombie street cred, thanks to “28 Weeks Later.”

RC: Well, you know something? I’m sitting there, I’ve got my shades on and my beard, but there were still zombies who stopped to shake my hand as they walked past. (Laughs) I thought, “My God, you’re real fans of that genre, aren’t ye?”

PH: So how many times would you guess that the word “Machiavellian” has been used to describe your character on “SGU”?

RC: (Bursts out laughing) What, do ye mean today?

PH: (Laughs) Touché.

RC: I think it’s a good word, though. It does get used a lot, because I think…a lot of characters I’ve played in the past, you could’ve used that word, maybe for the wrong reasons. This guy, though, is the absolute meaning of that, isn’t he? He’s…pragmatic, I think. I like to use that word a lot as well. He’s the most pragmatic character I’ve ever played, that’s for sure, with the idea of the greater good and everything being done for the greater good. “You might not like this, but there’s a perfectly good reason behind it,” that kind of philosophy. I’m enjoying it.

PH: Actually, that leads right into what I was getting ready to say: he’s a character whose apparent lack of compassion often makes him imminently unlikeable. That’s something you don’t really see on TV a whole lot.

RC: I know. Absolutely.

PH: To my mind, though, he’s kind of a more serious take on the Dr. Smith from “Lost in Space.”

RC: Oh, right, yeah, very good! I hadn’t really thought about that. Interesting, interesting. Yeah, I think so. He gives it a bit of believability, a bit of reality. He always kind of brings it back to the basics.

PH: Is it a challenge to try and make him likable?

RC: Oh, I don’t try to do anything, and I certainly don’t try to make him likable. At all. (Laughs) That would be a disaster to try and do that with Rush. No, he just has to be what he is, and I think that what saves him from tipping over the edge is this…well, what we were saying earlier: this pragmatic, greater-good quality. Yeah, maybe some of the stuff he does is, y’know, questionable… (Laughs) …but he’ll have an answer to that question. So as long as that’s always there with him in the script, I don’t think we’ll have any worries with that.

PH: Has there ever been a moment where you found yourself saying, “This is too much even for him”?

RC: No. There’s not enough. (Laughs)

PH: I understand that, as an actor, you’re not a fan of spoilers…which is to say that you tend to prefer waiting until you get a script to find out what’s going to happen with your character.

RC: That’s right. I mean, that was something that I…I kind of started off that way many, many years ago, working with people like Ken Loach and stuff, back in the UK independent cinema, where you don’t get a script at all. I got kind of used to working like that. Of course, that’s very, very difficult to do that. Most things, you get the script, there it is, and you’ve read it. But with this, with 20 episodes, there was an opportunity for me to do that and to put it into practice. Now, if anyone had said to me that I’d be able to use Ken Loach techniques for “Stargate Universe,” I’d’ve thought they were crazy. (Laughs) But because I don’t know what’s happening for the whole season, it gives me the opportunity to play the moment. I don’t think about what’s ahead or what’s around the corner. What’s important is what’s happening right now…and that’s true for any piece you do, really.

PH: Well, that being the case, you must’ve been pretty excited when you finally did get the opportunity to read the script for “Human.”

RC: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That let Rush go back, and it gave the audience…well, not an excuse, but it gives them something else to think about in terms of Rush. Now they’re thinking, “Well, the guy’s been through a lot, and there’s a reason he is the way he is.” In fact, in Season2…I’ve just completed the episode that’s called “Seizure,” I think it’ll come around about Episode 15. His only surviving love from Earth is on the ship – Amanda Perry, who was there, in actual fact, in Episode 16 in the first season – and she’s the only person left that…she is Rush’s life, love, everything in this one little world, and that is even beyond human in terms of what you see of Rush. Hopefully, it’s always been there, but with this character of Amanda Perry, it brings out this softness in Rush, and it really is a beautiful episode. I think that anyone who’s thinking, “Oh, he hasn’t got any heart,” once they see this, they’ll change their mind.

PH: I understand that you got a chance to direct this season.

RC: Yes, indeed!

PH: Was that something that came about rather suddenly, or had you been hoping for it to happen for some time and the opportunity finally presented itself?

RC: No, it was something that had been spoken about in the early days of the contract, but it wasn’t something that I was really… (Hesitates) It was a sweetener. It wasn’t something I was going to hold them to. But I think once Robert Cooper got to know me last year, the trust for there for me to do that. Plus, I directed in the theater for a good seven or ten years, so in terms of about working with the actors, that was never going to be a problem. The technical side of it was where I had to rely on the crew…and, of course, what a fantastic crew. I mean, they’ve only been doing it for fifteen years. (Laughs) They knew exactly what they were doing, so it was kind of easy, in a way, to marry these two things. It was very enjoyable in the end. I certainly enjoyed the working with the actors. My episode takes place mostly on Earth, in actual fact. David Blue features very heavily. So does Ming Na. I really enjoyed working with those two.

PH: I presume it’s relatively light on Rush story.

RC: Yes, it is. But not light enough for me. (Laughs) One of the things I said to the guys was, “Yeah, I really don’t want to be in it. Rush can be in the infirmary with a bad back or whatever.” And they said, “Yes, yes, yes.” But, of course, when the script came in, there were about a dozen scenes or so that he was in. That was the most difficult thing to do. As an actor, you’re inside this thing. As a director, you’re asked to be outside of that and looking in on it, and it was quite difficult to do both at the same time. For those scenes, I relied quite heavily on Robert Cooper, in fact. Robert sat with me most of the time, and he was a great help when I was actually on camera. He said, “I’ll take care of this for you, instead of you running back and forth to the monitor.” So it was an interesting experience, but if I was going to do it again, I think I’d say, “Look, I’m going to put a gun at your head this time: I don’t want to be in it. I just want to direct!” (Laughs)

PH: You mentioned David Blue a moment ago. I particularly enjoy the scenes that you and he share. Your characters are so different that it makes for a really interesting dynamic between you.

RC: Absolutely. I think they’re fascinated by each other, you know? I think Rush is fascinated by Eli because he’s confronted by this guy who’s a genius but shows no other signs of that in his life. He doesn’t read, he plays stupid games, he’s concerned with little more than nonsense, as far as Rush is concerned. And he can’t quite understand that. I think he finds that very, very difficult. And I think Eli is the same: he’s looking at this man as some kind of mentor, in a way. I remember (executive producer) Brad Wright talking about it as a Salieri / Mozart kind of relationship, and I quite like that. I can see that. Salieri was never the musician that Mozart could ever be, but he had a hold over him somehow.

PH: Is there any character that you’d like to see Rush get the chance to interact with more on the show?

RC: Yes, in fact, just because we’re great friends as well. I’m a great friend with Jamil Walker, and I think Jamil does a fantastic job as Greer. Rush and Greer…it’s pretty much “never the twain shall meet” with those two. There’s a bit in the first few episodes of the first series that you say, “Well, these guys should stay away from each other,” you know? But what I would like…and I’ve actually mentioned this to Brad as well, so we’ll see what’s going to happen…is for the two of them to get left somewhere alone, so they’re kind of forced to talk to each other and come to some sort of understanding about what each other are.

PH: I know a lot of old-school “Stargate” fans weren’t immediately enamored with “SGU,” but as someone who hadn’t really investigated the franchise before, I loved it. I thought it was often more of a psychological drama than a sci-fi series.

RC: Well, I think so, too. I think an awful lot of that was judging a book by its cover, and I think that the people who actually stuck with it were rewarded for that. And people like yourself, like you were just saying, you didn’t really know it before, and then suddenly you say, “What’s this?” That was certainly what I wanted from it. I wanted people, particularly back home in the UK, to be looking at this thing and say, “I’ve never seen this before, but, my God, this is a good show!” So, yeah, I think that it’s certainly found its feet very quickly.

PH: What can we expect to see in the early episodes of Season 2? I know you don’t want to give away too much about what’s coming up, but…

RC: Sure, I can give you an overall. The biggest thing, I suppose, in terms of Rush and the ship, is that he has discovered the whereabouts of the bridge. Of course, in typical Rush fashion, he hasn’t told anyone… (Laughs) …so he’s up there, steering the ship, flying it along quite merrily. And at the same time, he has discovered something else. This becomes more and more important as the season progresses, somewhere around Episodes 7 and 8, but…not only has he discovered the bridge, but he’s also discovered that there is in fact a mission. And there always has been a mission. It’s never, ever been about going home. The idea that they’re going home is, frankly, ridiculous…and what he reveals to Colonel Young and the rest about this mission is so extraordinary that they’ve got no option but to come on board with Rush. It is, as they said to me back in San Diego, a game-changer. (Laughs) See, I even know the jargon!

PH: Well, I’ll start to wrap up by asking a few non-“SGU” questions. First off all, what would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

RC: Oh, that’s a good one! Well, I made a little movie a couple of years ago called “I Know You Know,” and it was the director’s own story, in fact. I played the director’s father, as it were, and the director’s father was mentally ill, and he believed…and convinced everyone in his family…that he was working for the Secret Service when, in fact, he was a travel agent. When they sent me the script, the first 30 pages went by, and I had to go back and re-read them when I realized that everything he’d said was a lie. So it was a beautifully written thing, a labor of love by the director himself…and it was, in typical UK film industry fashion, kind of ignored. It got a couple of weeks release somewhere, but it was basically seen by no one…and, perversely, that’s actually one of the reasons that I’m here talking to you just now. ‘Cause I thought, “I ain’t doin’ that anymore.” I’d had a couple of experiences like that in the past couple of years, films that you put an awful lot of work into, and anybody who knows me will tell you that I give 130% every day. It takes a lot out of you, that kind of stuff, and for it not to be seen…? Well, I’m not one of these artists who paints a painting and then throws it under the bed. That’s not me at all. So when this show came up, I thought, “Well, here’s an opportunity for me to do something that’ll actually be seen!” So back to your original question, that was the thing that upset the most in recent years: “I Know You Know.”

PH: Unrelated to acting, but I was just wondering if you have any favorite Scottish bands. I myself am a huge fan of the Trashcan Sinatras.

RC: (Laughs) That’s a good one! Oh, there’s so many little bands that you’ve never heard of.

PH: But those are the best kind!

RC: I guess so, I guess so. I’m a wee bit out of the loop the last couple of years, to be honest. And if I say someone and then leave someone out, I’ll get hell for it when I get back home. (Laughs)

PH: Fair enough. Then who were some of the bands you used to listen to when you were younger?

RC: Well, my musical taste goes way back to…let’s see, ‘round about 1965, 1966. I’d say the Faces were the first band that I ever remember really listening to as a wee boy, after the Beatles and all that kind of stuff. And then I became a big, huge Rod Stewart fan right up until about 1972, when he changed his career entirely and became something else. But when you look back to that time then, that was kind of what it was all about. And then my love of Rod Stewart turned to people like Nick Drake, John Martyn, Bob Dylan, and people like that. In recent times, I’ve become really fond of a couple of bands: one called The National, and I also love Arcade Fire. These two bands, for me, are near and dear at the moment. They’re pushing the envelope in terms of alternative, independent music. I was fortunate enough to see The National just a couple of years ago as well, and what a tremendous performance by Mark Berninger. What a fantastic, fantastic singer. Wonderful.

PH: And to close, when you were growing up in Glasgow, did you ever imagine that you would someday be a Bond villain?

RC: (Cackles) No, I never would’ve imagined that, but I’ll tell you what: I can positively say that I hoped. (Laughs) When I was a youngster, for sure. My dad used to take me see the Bond movies, and Sean, he was the man. He was the only Scot on screen at that time, really. But I was taken back then with Donald Pleasance. I always loved Donald Pleasance, and I always thought, “What a remarkable little man!” I mean, he doesn’t look like a movie star, he doesn’t sound like a movie star, but he was. And to have followed in the footsteps of Donald Pleasance…that was a dream come true for me. If I’d done nothing else in the rest of my career, I could still die in great happiness. (Laughs)

PH: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you again, Robert. I look forward to seeing how Season 2 of “SGU” unfolds.

RC: Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy it!

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