Robert Carlyle on BBC One’s ‘War of the Worlds’: This version will ‘make you think deeper’

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Scottish actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty) has always had a slight obsession with famed story The War of the Worlds.

Originally written in novel form by H.G. Wells in 1898, and then famously retold over the radio in 1938 by Orson Welles, Carlyle developed a fascination with the tale after he stumbled upon it as a teenager.

It’s poetic, then, that Carlyle is starring in the BBC One iteration of The War of the Worlds, a three-part series set in the story’s original time, early 1900s Edwardian England. The series will air on T+E in Canada. In the series, he plays Ogilvy, an astronomer who spots an anomaly on Mars right before something large crashes into a nearby field. We all know what happens next.

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Global News spoke with Carlyle about the series, the uphill battle of scientists and his own personal thoughts about extraterrestrial life.

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Global News: The War of the Worlds has been made and remade multiple times. What stands out about this version?
Robert Carlyle: This is the very first version set in its original time, which is 1905 in Edwardian England, the same time that H.G. Wells’ novel was written. The previous adaptations of The War of the Worlds have always been done slightly in the future; it has never been set back to where it came from. Not only it this version set in the correct time period, but also the place where it was written, which is Woking in the south of England, where most of the action takes place in this series.

This version truly reflects the book, so I think that’s what sets it apart from the other versions. I think this Edwardian England view of the future and technology is very fascinating.

Do some elements of the story have any particular resonance to today’s society? If so, how and why?
I think it’s hard to say if this series has resonance to today’s society. If I had to look at one element, it would probably be looking at technology and asking the question if we welcome it into our world or not. For my character Ogilvy, at first, he welcomed technology and he’s delighted and excited by this notion of something unexplained coming to Earth from Mars.

A big takeaway is that you have to be careful what you wish for, because what comes afterwards is something truly horrific that wants to destroy the Earth. Speaking personally, I mistrust technology, I really do. I have a deep mistrust of the internet; I think it can be a bit of a beast that has almost outgrown us as people. I think it has a damaging effect on us and in particular a damaging effect on young people.

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Hopefully, if The War of the Worlds teaches people anything, it’s that they should be a bit wary about welcoming technology into their lives. If it does that, for me, it will have done its job.

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Even in contemporary times, scientists are maligned, or worse, ignored. Does Ogilvy face these challenges? How does he deal with them?
What appeals to me about Ogilvy is that he is very much a man of today. I think he would exist quite easily today in 2019, never mind in 1905. Ogilvy has a female assistant, for instance, Amy [played by Eleanor Tomlinson], which is something that would have been frowned upon back then. He is open to her ideas and he takes them on board in his work.

There is also a subtle suggestion that Ogilvy is gay. This would have been a terrible secret for him to carry back then in 1905 — it would have been illegal back then. He is very much a modern-day man — a gay man with a female assistant — living during Edwardian England, that is quite a notion. I’m sure Ogilvy would have been fighting many causes in scientific exploration and I’m sure he would have been fighting against a lot of old-fashioned attitudes.

Can you describe your character Ogilvy a little more in-depth? How does he transform over the series?
What is very interesting about Ogilvy is his notion of God; it’s something that he entirely denounces. In this series, you will see him have arguments with priests because God and Christianity mean nothing to him in the end.

Ogilvy is a man of science and he understands what is happening to be a scientific thing and it has nothing to do with God’s wrath. He knows the events unfolding aren’t happening because of judgement from God.

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Robert Carlyle stars as Ogilvy in ‘The War of the Worlds.’. Joseph Scanlon © Mammoth Screen

Where was the majority of this shot? Did the setting lend itself to the subject matter?
The series is set in Woking, south England but the majority of this series was shot in and around Liverpool, which is the northwest. They are entirely different landscapes, but you get some similarities here and there.

Most of the special effects were done inside a production studio because we couldn’t go and obliterate the countryside [laughs]. When it comes to episodes two and three, there is a red hue that takes over the colour palette and everything is grainy and reddish and this is to suggest the similarities to a Martian landscape and them taking over the Earth, killing the plants and eroding the soil. That had to all be done inside a studio so the special effects team can contain the red fog and mist on set.
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What’s your personal take on extraterrestrial life?
My own personal take on it? [Laughs] Well I don’t think I would be doing what the young kids of today are doing and attack Area 51, which I saw on the news a few weeks ago. But, I think it would be foolish to think that there isn’t something else out there; you know, there are billions upon billions of planets out there. I’m sure somewhere there could be someone just like you and I having a conversation just like this one in some other universe and I think that’s quite an interesting notion [Laughs].

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Did shooting this series mess with your psyche at all? Any nightmares?
No, being the ripe old age of the man I am, I don’t get frightened by these things anymore. I also tend to be the scary person in most films anyway! [Laughs]
I remember being taken by the story of War of the Worlds when I was younger; my first experience was through the record [Jeff Wayne’s]. It was a big part of my childhood. As kids we used to love playing the record and the whole idea of Martians coming to Earth. And then getting a hold of the Orson Welles video version of the whole thing [War of the Worlds] was wonderful.
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Back then, I suppose, when I was a teenager, it was easier to be more afraid and enthralled by these things, but of course the way the world is now and the way technology is now, it takes us so far away from these feelings; we aren’t as phased by things.

Some people might dismiss this show, thinking they’ve already seen it. What would you say to them to change their minds?
I think that most people may think they’ve already seen it, but they certainly haven’t seen it set in its original time and that’s what makes this version so different and that’s what you can hang your hat on. This version is set in 1905 and sees high-tech Martians coming down trying to obliterate the Edwardian England landscape. From the BBC, we are so used to seeing wonderful period dramas from that time, from Victorian England and Georgian England, but audiences have never seen them do a series from this era where characters are getting detonated by Martian machinery.

Every other version that’s ever been done has always been set in the future. In the Tom Cruise version [War of the Worlds, released in 2005], the Earth has high-tech weaponry to combat the enemy. In the original version that H.G. Wells wrote in 1897, there was no hope in combatting these Martians and the Earth was dying. This version is not Independence Day, it’s not the Tom Cruise version, it’s something a bit more cerebral than that and it’s something that will make you think a bit deeper.
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Catch the North American premiere of ‘The War of the Worlds’ on Sunday, October 6 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on T+E, rolling out every Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

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