The accepted Timetable for Hollywood Success belongs to the ingénue or breakout star. Jennifer Lawrence, for example, launches the next installment in the Hunger Games franchise and her skyrocketing career at just 22 years old.
Lawrence or Shia LaBeouf or Kristen Stewart or countless others make up the majority of the entertainment landscape, a community where people are expected to be as successful as possible while being Taylor Swift-young whenever possible.
Scottish-born actor Robert Carlyle is a Late Bloomer exception, a sidelines man thanks to decades of roles in mostly little-seen art-house releases.
Kinder industry pundits call him a longtime underachiever but Carlyle can finally embrace his new status as a Late Bloomer success story thanks to his dual roles as Mr. Gold and his fairy tale alter ego Rumplestiltskin on the hit ABC fantasy Once Upon A Time and an acclaimed leading role as Lachlan MacAldonich, a former '80s Brit rock star trying to get his life back in order, in the new movie drama California Solo, just out in specialty cinemas.
“As time has gone on to the great old age of 51, I’ve reached a very comfortable place where I don’t have to battle anymore,” Carlyle says. “I actually understand what it is to be an actor, to actually understand what it is to work on film and television. It’s always been a voyage of discovery for me. In the past few years, I think its opened up for me suddenly and there’s a difference in my performances from 10 years ago. Thank god, we all want to move on, don’t we?”
At first glance, Carlyle’s work bio is Hollywood typical; one filled with a few quick tastes of early success (Trainspotting, The Full Monty) followed by many missed chances.
Life experiences and the humility of lost opportunities pay off with the middle-aged actor ready to embrace the now-craggy features that set him apart. More importantly, and perhaps for the first time in his career, he admits to understanding how to handle ongoing showbiz success.
“People kept saying to me that Once Upon A Time was going to change my life and I was like, you f*cking think so?” Carlyle says, his heavily accented words taking on a musical lilt. “I’ve been in this business for a long time but I’m experiencing a phenomenon with the show and seeing boxes of fan mail brought into my trailer and I’m happy about it."
Recently, I did two films, I Know You Know and Summer. Summer was one of the best things I have ever done. I think probably six people saw the movie and that’s distressing to me. So I look at Once Upon A Time and I see 9 million people watching and I’m like, imagine, from six to 9 million people!”
Playing Rumpelstiltskin week after week for TV audiences gives Carlyle the most-watched role in his career, a much-appreciated profile boost and with a five-year commitment to the series a level of financial security he’s never provided to his wife and three young children before.
Psychologists tell us that that talents and ability take time to develop, and listening to the Glasgow native talk about all he’s seen and experienced, one begins to consider that early success may be more for Olympic athletes who need young muscle to break world records. For actors and for Carlyle especially, there are priceless skills that come from a variety of life experiences, including setbacks and humiliations.
“There’s no denying that he burst onto the scene at the same time that his character Lachlan would have been bursting onto the music scene,” adds California Solo writer/director Marshall Lewy. “He was part of that British scene. He had his first kiss at Manchester’s Hacienda Club. He knew the Gallaghers from Oasis and Paul Weller. In fact, in the movie he wears a bracelet that Weller gave him and shirts he wore to the Hacienda. People remember him from Trainspotting and that time and I thought it would be interesting to put an incredible British actor in a movie like this and give him the chance to really show his stuff.”
Carlyle is a character actor who built a career providing bursts of colorful drama in support of the bigger story; sometimes a villain; like the James Bond adventure The World Is Not Enough and sometimes a lover; such as Antonia Bird’s melodrama Priest. More often Carlyle settles nicely with an ensemble, contributing his part to a larger cast in classic movies like the amateur male stripper comedy The Full Monty or the Irvine Welsh adaptation Trainspotting.
With the double whammy of Once Upon A Time and California Solo, Carlyle understands that careers can change for the better, even after a drastic, multi-year dip in one’s popularity, and talent can be rediscovered.
Carlyle is in good company with other Late Bloomers. Filmmaker Ang Lee, who’s earning raves with his latest movie Life of Pi, did not direct his first movie until age 38. Ian Fleming wrote his first James Bond novel at age 45 after a successful career in banking and finance.
So there’s a precedent that sometimes it takes years to be confident and to understand what’s important. If anything, Carlyle is one grounded dude and well aware that challenges remain.
He has a growing fan base for Once Upon a Time that includes his own children, and his work in California Solo is considered by many to be one of the best lead actor performances this year; an Oscar nominee shoo-in along the lines of Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart if not for the low profile of the movie.
Meanwhile, director Danny Boyle keeps saying that a sequel to Trainspotting, starring Ewan McGregor, Carlyle, and Jonny Lee Miller, is in the works.
Perhaps Carlyle will help Hollywood development realign with creative development and learn a new timetable, one that celebrates Late Career successes. Perhaps his luck is finally changing permanently.
True to the Late Bloomer vibe we’ve been discussing, Carlyle saves the best spark for the end of our conversation.
“There’s something about these performances in the past few years. In a slight sense it’s about age but without a doubt it has also given me what I used to call weight. I remember when I was in Scotland and I first started acting with these older actors and they had weight. They didn’t have to act. It was just there. I think I’m finally on that path to gravitas.”
Here’s to Late Bloomers, Long Tail Careerists and the joy that comes from achievements long after people started looking the other way.
After all, who really wants to be labeled a Hollywood prodigy?