Robert Carlyle has been a stripper, a psychopath, and Rumpelstiltskin. Now he’s a man of science in ‘War of the Worlds’

When Robert Carlyle was a teenager, a friend’s father had a record album he became entranced with: “Musical Version of the War of the Worlds” by Jeff Wayne.

“We’d sit and listen to this over and over again,” the Scottish actor recalled in a phone interview. “I was kind of enthralled by the story.”

And when he realized the album was based on a book, H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” he read that, too, and then discovered Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of the tale.

He and his friends, Carlyle said, became “kind of junkies” when it came to the story.

How serendipitous then, that a script for a new adaptation of the tale of a Martian invasion of Earth landed with Carlyle’s agent as the actor was shooting the last few episodes of the TV series “Once Upon a Time,” where he played a version of Rumpelstiltskin.

Carlyle plays Ogilvy in the three-part British miniseries, which debuts Sunday in Canada, an astronomer who spots an explosion on Mars through his telescope just before a large round object crashes into a field near Woking in Surrey, England.

Robert Carlyle plays an astronomer in a new BBC adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds."

The role, like the Martian sphere, “came out of the blue” for Carlyle and he was “absolutely delighted” when it did.

His pleasure related not just to the subject matter but the fact the Glasgow-born actor would be working in the United Kingdom again — he had worked there only once in about eight years, he said, on a 2015 film he directed and starred in, “Barney Thomson.”

“The first thing that I noticed, of course, was the length of the working day was so much shorter than I was used to. I’d been working a U.S. TV schedule for the last 10 years pretty much,” Carlyle said.

“Suddenly it was an 11-hour day plus an hour for lunch. I was looking at my watch: ‘What, we’re finished?’ ”

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Most of that decade of 14- to 16-hour days actually happened in Vancouver, where Carlyle shot the TV series “Stargate Universe” (a Canadian co-production) and “Once Upon a Time,” essentially back to back.

But if you didn’t watch those shows, you’ll still recognize Carlyle from the rest of his three decades of film and TV work. The 58-year-old has played everything from a male stripper (“The Full Monty”) to violent sociopath (the memorable Francis Begbie in “Trainspotting”) to a Russian terrorist (“The World Is Not Enough”) and even Hitler.

His break came portraying a serial-killing skinhead in the 1990s British crime drama “Cracker.” Soon after, he took the lead in the quirky Scottish drama “Hamish Macbeth,” as a small-town police constable.

Most recently, he played a British prime minister in the yet-to-debut U.K. drama “Cobra.” The key, the actor said, is to “try to play different parts and different people from different times.

“I’m always looking for that … something which is gonna challenge me or take me off in a different direction.”

He calls Ogilvy in “War of the Worlds” “a really interesting kind of character.

“I think he’s almost ahead of his time … He has a female assistant. In 1905, that would be a pretty risqué thing to do. It’s intimated in the first episode that he’s possibly gay. That would be a terrible secret he would have had to hide.

“Then he’s got this tremendous knowledge of chemistry, the stars and science. He seems to welcome the idea of something coming from Mars.”

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Until the aliens start killing people, that is.

The setting of this adaptation is relatively faithful to Wells’ novel, whereas some of the better-known versions — including the 1953 film, the Welles broadcast and the 2005 Spielberg movie — moved the action to the United States and their own time periods.

That was another attraction for Carlyle.

“This notion of the Edwardian landscape being bombarded by Martian machinery, it’s absolutely fantastic,” he said.

The War of the Worlds debuts Oct. 6 at 10 p.m. on T+E.

Debra Yeo

Debra Yeo is a deputy entertainment editor and a contributor to the Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo


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