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Arts & Culture for Scottish Actor, Hitler Role Was One He Had Avoided Until Now

May 6, 2003
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Robert Carlyle, of “The Full Monty” and “Angela’s Ashes” fame, gives a striking performance in the title role of the CBS miniseries “Hitler: The Rise of Evil.”

In an interview with JTA from his home in Glasgow, in which he allowed his pronounced Scottish burr — suppressed in the film — to come through, the 42-year old actor discussed the challenges and rewards of his role.

Q: What were your thoughts when you decided to take the role of Hitler?

Carlyle: At first I was frightened because I realized the potential dangers and pitfalls. But I decided I wouldn’t do a carbon copy of Hitler. I would do my own interpretation, that I could explore him like any other character. Then a window opened up and I wasn’t frightened any more.

Q: One of your fellow cast members, Peter Stormare, said, “I can’t imagine being” Carlyle “and having to look at himself as Hitler every day because of all the images that flash before your eyes, all the time.” What were your feelings?

Carlyle: Once shooting began, in my quiet moments, I tried to empty myself of the character on a daily basis, rather than store it up for four months. Also, as Hitler, I didn’t look at all like myself. I had the moustache, a false nose, cheek pieces and more weight as Hitler got older.

Q: What was your working day like when you were shooting the film in and around Prague?

Carlyle: It took around one-and-a-half hours for the makeup and I worked 14-15 hours on an average day. As we went further along, the days got even longer.

Q: I understand that you were offered the role of Hitler three times before you took this one.

Carlyle: Yes, the first time was about three years ago but it didn’t come to anything. Another time was for the film “Max” [in which Hitler was played by Noah Taylor]. Five months before I started the CBS job, I worked for three months on a BBC television production which started with Hitler in the bunker and we flashed back to his earlier life. So I had already learned a good deal about the character.

Q: I believe the BBC project was cancelled, partly due to strong Jewish protests.

Carlyle: I’m not sure. I heard that there were funding problems because the American studio partner backed out. I don’t know about Jewish protests, but if there were any I would understand that.

Q: One of the concerns raised when CBS announced the project was that any good actor would try to find the human elements in Hitler and therefore make him more sympathetic.

Carlyle: It wasn’t a question of searching for the human traits. I didn’t have to find that to get close to the character. I thought Hitler was very cunning and had a belief of you’re-either-for-me-or-against-me. I tried to focus on these things.

Q: Were you aware of the objections raised by some Jewish spokesmen and organizations in the early stages of the CBS project?

Carlyle: Not at all. I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. But I knew from the beginning that if I gave as honest a portrayal as I could, it would be all right. I didn’t want to upset anyone.

Q: After you finished shooting, did you go through a decompression stage?

Carlyle: Yes, I took off and spent a month in the country. A few weeks ago, I went back to London for some final dubbing and suddenly saw “my” Hitler on the monitor. And I said to myself, “Jesus, what a pompous little prick” — and then, “You’ve done your job.”

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