From vicious in ''Trainspotting'' to sensitive in ''Priest,'' the actor now strips down for ''The Full Monty''

Robert Carlyle takes a sip of Heineken, and for a split second you wince. He is, after all, the guy who played Begbie, the hot-tempered lager lout who jammed a knife between Ewan McGregor’s legs in Trainspotting. And he is sitting in Manhattan’s Ye Olde Tripple Inn, precisely the sort of grog-quaffing pub where Begbie might feel at home brandishing the cracked edge of a beer mug.

But don’t worry. Sure, Carlyle created the most convincing British hooligan since Gary Oldman slipped into Sid Vicious’ combat boots, but the 36-year-old actor is really a calm, thoughtful Scot wielding nothing more than a killer grin. That grin is just about all he gets to wear in The Full Monty, the new British comedy about a pack of unemployed steelworkers who become male strippers. (It averaged more than $29,000 per screen in its opening weekend last month — the highest per-screen average of any movie this year.) But the most thrilling of Monty‘s revelations is Carlyle’s sweeter side: In the movie, he plays a shiftless dad trying to bond with his son. ”He’s a very gentle guy,” assures Monty‘s director, Peter Cattaneo. ”Perhaps the only thing he does get annoyed about is everyone thinking that he is Begbie.”

Actually, it doesn’t happen that often, if only because Carlyle — like Oldman, one of his heroes — has a knack for completely morphing into a character. Even avid Trainspotters would have a hard time spotting him in 1994’s Priest, in which he played a Catholic clergyman’s gay lover. ”I get a big kick out of it when people go and see The Full Monty and say, ‘I thought you said the guy from Trainspotting was in this!”’ laughs Carlyle, a former housepainter who was born in Glasgow but grew up in a nomadic commune. ”That’s the biggest compliment you could be paid, as an actor.”

Back home, where he’s hailed as a budding De Niro, Carlyle is known for taking his Method to extreme measures. Once, while prepping to play a dreadlocked homeless man, he lived on the streets of London for five days, begging for spare pence and sleeping in a cardboard box. When the actor finally arrived at the set in rags, ”nobody recognized me,” he recalls. ”I was asked to leave the set.” Carlyle even took a swig of turpentine and milk, a cocktail he found popular among England’s poor. ”You can’t refuse,” he says, ”so I just swallowed the stuff. And this explosion of fire just burned the f—in’ lining off my throat. I didn’t die, but I felt bad for the rest of the day.”

Carlyle faced a far scarier fate in The Full Monty, stripping down to his shortbread in front of 400 randy, screaming Yorkshire lasses. ”It was absolutely terrifying,” he gasps. ”As we got closer to the day when we were actually going to do the strip, we really began to examine ourselves and think, ‘S—! There’s gonna be 400 women there. It’s too late to go to the gym! I should’ve thought of this months ago!”’

Generally speaking, Carlyle likes to keep his exposure to a minimum — ”I’m not interested in becoming a celebrity,” he says — but that’s getting harder all the time. As the actor polishes off his beer, the bartender sends a tribute his way: A real Scottish bagpipe player marches up to the table in full tartan regalia. ”You know,” Carlyle notes, hollering over the din, ”the bagpipe is still officially a weapon of war.”