Twenty years after Trainspot­ting made him a star EWAN MCGRE­GOR is back as Renton. Can he still hack it?

Twenty years after the era-defin­ing Trainspot­ting made him a star – and the poster boy of ’90s ex­cess – Ewan McGre­gor is back as Renton. Can he still hack it?

Emirates Man - - FRONT PAGE - By MA­RINA HYDE

Re­cently, I was in a cin­ema when the trailer for

T2, the new Trainspot­ting film, was played. The whole room erupted into cheers. Per­haps your ex­cite­ment is not as deliri­ous. There are many who are dis­miss­ing the film be­fore it’s even been screened. But I have a feel­ing that your an­tic­i­pa­tion lev­els are linked to how you spent your 1990s.

Trainspot­ting, the 1996 orig­i­nal, re­mains the quin­tes­sen­tial mid-’90s movie. Like Oa­sis and Blur, like Kate Mos and Firestarter, it was of its time and cap­tured that time’s cyn­i­cal yet op­ti­mistic, he­do­nis­tic heart. Though the story was about ad­dicts, the feel of the film re­called ex­pe­ri­ences. There were real-un­real trippy se­quences about los­ing pills in a toi­let or go­ing cold turkey; up­lift­ing ones about club­bing. Plus fan­tas­tic mu­sic: Iggy Pop, Pri­mal Scream, Left­field. Trainspot­ting wasn’t shal­low, but it didn’t dwell; it was al­ways mov­ing, like a long, clever pop video.

The char­ac­ters were peo­ple you felt you al­ready knew. There was Beg­bie, played by Robert Car­lyle, the booze-fu­elled, un­pre­dictable psy­cho, a small-town Scot­tish ver­sion of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Spud (Ewen Brem­ner): hap­less, sur­real, a lov­able, ad­dict, loser. Sexy Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), out for what­ever he could get, mostly women and trou­ble. And Renton, played by Ewan McGre­gor, the an­ti­hero, who kept kick­ing his habit and then go­ing back, and do­ing the same to his mates, un­til he fi­nally robbed them all (ex­cept Spud) and ran away.

What’s re­mark­able about Trainspot­ting is that even if you haven’t watched the film in years (I hadn’t), you’ll re­mem­ber each char­ac­ter’s defin­ing scene. Beg­bie’s was the freeze-frame where he chucked a beer glass over his shoul­der into a packed pub. Spud’s was the job in­ter­view (“my plea­sure in other peo­ple’s leisure”) and the un­for­tu­nate bed­clothes-across-the-break­fast-ta­ble mo­ment. Sick Boy, the slip­peri­est of a se­lec­tion of born-slippy char­ac­ters: snog­ging a girl with a pill on his tongue.

And Renton? Renton had many. His rant about Scot­land in the beau­ti­ful High­lands, The Worst Toi­let In Scot­land: “Ya dancers!” And, of course, his voiceover: “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a ca­reer…”

Trainspot­ting was one of the high­est-gross­ing Bri­tish films of the decade. It made ev­ery­one in­volved a star, but McGre­gor be­came the big­gest. He and di­rec­tor Danny Boyle had al­ready made one film to­gether, 1995’s Shal­low Grave, and they made one more af­ter­wards,

A Life Less Or­di­nary. But when Boyle and his team cast Leonardo DiCaprio for their next film, The Beach in 2000, McGre­gor was very hurt. He never worked with Boyle again. In­stead, he went mega, play­ing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars pre­quel tril­ogy, singing with Ni­cole Kid­man in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and se­cur­ing his rep­u­ta­tion as a Hol­ly­wood star.

Twenty years on, McGre­gor lives in LA, where I meet him at the pho­tog­ra­pher’s stu­dio. He ar­rives and leaves on his mo­tor­bike, with min­i­mal fuss. (A wait­ing fan, dressed in a Star Wars cos­tume, is dis­missed be­fore McGre­gor spots him.) Though he is 45, he looks young and re­tains an up-for-it, let’s-en­joy-life, un-adult charm. Many stars bring an at­ti­tude. McGre­gor brings the fun.

I’ve not seen the new film, and when we meet McGre­gor has been shown only a rough cut. But the themes ap­pear to be nos­tal­gia and friend­ship. In the trailer, there are call backs to the orig­i­nal film: two skinny lads run­ning, like Spud and Renton in the orig­i­nal; Un­der­world’s mu­sic pump­ing be­neath; and, once more, Renton’s

sud­den laugh in the face of a car. And, of course, not only does the new film re­unite the char­ac­ters, it re­assem­bles the real-life pro­tag­o­nists: the same ac­tors, di­rec­tor, pro­ducer, writer. It’s like a band re­union after years of snip­ing, with all the wari­ness and sen­ti­men­tal­ity that such an oc­ca­sion can bring.

“I felt like Renton, go­ing back,” McGre­gor says. “I had th­ese feel­ings like, ‘S**t! I haven’t lived in Scot­land since I was 17!’ I moved to Lon­don to go to drama school, and I go home ev­ery year, be­cause my par­ents are there, and my brother and his fam­ily, and I love it, but I haven’t lived there, and… Of all the char­ac­ters I’ve played who’ve been Scots, Renton is the most Scot­tish of them all. And I sud­denly thought, ‘What if I can’t do it? What if I’m not Scot­tish enough any more?’”

In the film, Renton re­turns to Leith, Ed­in­burgh, after liv­ing in Am­s­ter­dam for years. He’s been hid­ing from his past and his old friends for two decades, and now he has to face them. In this and other ways, it par­al­lels real life. Be­fore the film, McGre­gor hadn’t seen Robert Car­lyle, “not since the pre­miere for Trainspot­ting, and I don’t re­mem­ber the pre­miere for Trainspot­ting, so I don’t know if I saw him there or not”. He has worked with Brem­ner a few times ( Black Hawk Down, Jack The

Gi­ant Slayer), and he had a pro­duc­tion com­pany in the early 2000s in which Jonny Lee Miller was also in­volved. But Boyle, his pro­ducer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge, McGre­gor avoided for years. “How many? Ten, maybe more? A long while.”

Though he de­nied it pub­licly, he was too up­set to make con­tact. At one point, there was an en­counter in the Union club in Lon­don’s Soho. McGre­gor was hav­ing lunch with a young di­rec­tor. They hap­pened to be sit­ting at the same ta­ble where Boyle told McGre­gor he wasn’t needed for The Beach.

“And Danny walks in,” he says. “And I went white. I got up and went over and he said, ‘Oh God, you’re not sit­ting at that ta­ble, are you?’ It was ex­actly like bump­ing into an ex. Be­cause it was re­ally a bit like that, a love af­fair. He’d been my first di­rec­tor, and my favourite di­rec­tor and I… I was in love with him, like, I re­ally liked him.”

Things re­mained awk­ward, even though they kept bump­ing into each other. Once, in 2009, they were both on a long-haul flight back from the Shang­hai film fes­ti­val. There were four peo­ple in the first-class cabin: McGre­gor, his wife, Eve, Stephen Daldry and Boyle. “And Daldry put his light off and went to sleep, then Eve put her light off and went to sleep, and I was just sit­ting, me, and there’s Danny on the other side of the aisle with his light on. And I was think­ing, ‘This could be the mo­ment where we talk about it and put it to bed.’ Hours went by, and I was like, ‘Just go and eff­ing talk to him, say some­thing.’ But I couldn’t get out of my seat.”

Soon after Shang­hai, McGre­gor was asked to present Boyle with a Bafta for Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire. He ig­nored the script he was given – “Some garbage: th­ese jokey things you’re meant to say” – and in­stead spoke from the heart. “About how much I’d loved work­ing with him, and how happy I was al­ways to look over and see him on the set, and how I trusted him and how he got me to do my best work. And then I said, ‘After I stopped work­ing with him, he went on to make…’ and I listed all his movies. I’d learned them in chrono­log­i­cal or­der.”

Since then, things have been OK, and a few years on, hav­ing re­sisted for ages, McGre­gor felt open to mak­ing T2 Trainspot­ting. His reluctance also stemmed from the fact that he hadn’t liked Welsh’s next book, as much as Trainspot­ting. “I wasn’t touched by it in the same way, and I didn’t want any­thing to tar­nish the film. No one wants to make a s***e se­quel. Trainspot­ting was the Oa­sis of the film world, some­thing quite amaz­ing.”

I in­ter­viewed McGre­gor a cou­ple of times in the 1990s, and what struck me then was how un­starry he was – mean­ing, in­ter­ested in other peo­ple, no mat­ter their sta­tus, want­ing to make ev­ery­one happy – and also how deeply con­fi­dent. Con­fi­dent to the point of swash­buck­ling. Such self-as­sur­ance is of­ten ab­sent in ac­tors, who re­quire other peo­ple’s words to feel in con­trol.

“I have my un­con­fi­dent mo­ments on my own, I guess,” he says now. “Lead­ing up to a job, there are great mo­ments of, ‘Oh, what have I done, I’m not go­ing to be able to do it!’, a pe­riod of ner­vous­ness and fear. But of all the things in my life, I’ve al­ways found that my work, I don’t ques­tion it. I’ve al­ways wanted to do this, I’ve made it my life’s fo­cus to be an ac­tor and to try to be good at it and en­joy it, and I have a very in­stinc­tive way of do­ing that. I’m not tor­tured. I’ve never been one for a great deal of prepa­ra­tion. I don’t sit in a li­brary or do a lot of in­tel­lec­tual in­ves­tiga­tive work. I’m much bet­ter in the mo­ment, with the other ac­tors on the set and the cam­eras rolling – that’s where I love it, and I trust that. So… I am quite con­fi­dent about it.”

McGre­gor has al­ways cred­ited his un­cle, the ac­tor De­nis Law­son, for stir­ring the idea of per­form­ing in him. McGre­gor grew up in Crieff, a small, con­ser­va­tive town near Perth, where his par­ents worked as teach­ers. Law­son would sweep through, in a swishy Afghan coat and no shoes, and the young Ewan wanted some of that. So he dropped out of school after his O-grades, stud­ied drama

at Kirk­caldy Col­lege Of Tech­nol­ogy, and then, at 18, moved to Lon­don to go to Guild­hall School Of Mu­sic And Drama. He lived in the YMCA at the Bar­bican (now shut), next door to two Scouse brick­lay­ers. He’d hear them with dif­fer­ent girls at the week­end, which was grim enough, but then, “I heard some­body’s head bang­ing against the wall, and she was go­ing, ‘Stop it!’ And he shouts, ‘Shut up!’ So I banged on the door and then I had to bolt my room be­cause there was a ruckus and they were ham­mer­ing on my door.”

He moved to Snares­brook, way out on the Cen­tral line (“There were cows in the high street. I don’t think I imag­ined that”), and from there to Ley­ton, to an il­le­gally rented coun­cil flat. One night, he was on the bal­cony and some­one drove down the street re­ally fast and smashed into a wall. Two peo­ple scram­bled out of the wreck­age, looked at each other over the car roof and burst out laugh­ing. “Like Trainspot­ting, be­fore

Trainspot­ting.”

And then, be­fore he’d even fin­ished his drama course, he got a job: the star­ring role in Den­nis Pot­ter’s

Lip­stick On Your Col­lar. His un­cle De­nis sat him down and ex­plained every­thing: your eye-line rel­a­tive to the cam­era, hit­ting your spot, what each per­son does and why. After that, he bor­rowed De­nis’s car, put all his stuff in it and moved into a one-bed flat in Prim­rose Hill. “That’s when all the shenani­gans started.”

The shenani­gans. Ah, yes. When you saw McGre­gor out dur­ing the ’90s, he was al­ways in full ef­fect: rois­ter­dois­ter­ing, pulling ev­ery­one into his or­bit, a full-on, one-man party. “I loved it. I mean, to the point where I had to stop it, drink­ing and every­thing, be­cause I liked it too much. I liked it to the point where I didn’t ever want it to end, so I would find my­self in places at seven in the morn­ing, not know­ing any­body, just be­cause I had this hunger. An ex­cite­ment about go­ing out. A stupid teenager ex­cite­ment, but in the body of an early 20s man.”

He gave up drink in 2000, after his se­cond Star Wars film. He’d tried to cut down be­fore, but it hadn’t worked, and dur­ing Moulin

Rouge, which was filmed in Aus­tralia, “that was the dark­est time, re­ally. The film was one of the big­gest and most amaz­ing things I’ve ever been in­volved in, but I was out of con­trol. I couldn’t keep all the balls in the air, if you like. Be­ing a dad, be­ing a hus­band, be­ing an ac­tor and be­ing a drinker just didn’t fit to­gether. So I just kicked it.”

You won­der, if he’d kicked the booze ear­lier, whether he would have set up his pro­duc­tion com­pany, Nat­u­ral Ny­lon. McGre­gor started it in 1997 with his ac­tor mates Jonny Lee Miller, Jude Law, Sadie Frost and Sean Per­twee, plus two pro­duc­ers, Da­mon Bryant and Bradley Adams. They made one good film, Nora, which had McGre­gor play­ing James Joyce to Susan Lynch’s Nora Bar­na­cle, but not many more. McGre­gor left in 2002, be­cause, he says, “no one was get­ting paid. Maybe it felt to the oth­ers like a bit of a Renton-es­que move on my part,” he says, “to leave like that. I just f****d off and the com­pany slowly fell apart.” Any­how, he was, by then, a Star

Wars em­ployee. Not an easy job. McGre­gor found “green screen” act­ing hard – he had to imag­ine the whole of space! By the se­cond movie, he had to imag­ine Yoda and R2D2 as well – and he men­tioned this in in­ter­views. Th­ese days, it is com­mon for the stars of a ma­jor film to sign agree­ments that they won’t say any­thing neg­a­tive about the project; I’d heard such le­gal­i­ties came about be­cause of McGre­gor’s early Star Wars com­ments. But he says he doesn’t think so. He stopped be­ing neg­a­tive of his own ac­cord, once he re­alised how im­por­tant the whole she­bang was to young fans. “You don’t want to be telling kids that Star Wars isn’t fun.”

Though he likes the vast land­scape of big movies (and the money), indies are his nat­u­ral habi­tat. Two years ago, he ap­peared in a film called

Last Days In The Desert, “a beau­ti­ful movie”, and, for him, part of the beauty was shoot­ing it in an in­tense five weeks, with a 12-per­son crew, in the desert south-east of LA. With smaller films, he feels he can con­trib­ute more. Also, I think, he liked the wild­ness. There’s a slight wan­der­lust in McGre­gor and he’s made a few travel-style doc­u­men­taries, in­clud­ing two long mo­tor­cy­cle trips with his friend Charley Boor­man. They were

He stopped be­ing neg­a­tive of his own

ac­cord, once he re­alised how im­por­tant the whole she­bang was to fans. “You don’t want to be telling

kids that Star Wars isn’t fun”

“When Renton is back

with Sick Boy, there’s some­thing com­plete about them again. There’s shots of me and Jonny watch­ing telly on the sofa… It all

came back”

go­ing to do them on their own, but got a TV com­pany in­volved, he says, “be­cause then some­one else could get all the visas, do all the pa­per­work”. (This is very McGre­gor: look­ing for the most fun way around a prob­lem.) “Look­ing back,” he says, “it was a de­sire to step off the tread­mill. I was mak­ing a lot of movies, prob­a­bly slightly big­ger ones than I make now, and they can feel more soul­less. They’re slower, and they need more pro­mo­tion, and ul­ti­mately, I sup­pose, they’re not re­ally my bag. So the first trip was the an­ti­dote to that.”

They sneaked the idea of a long trip past their wives. They were all hav­ing a meal, and he and Boor­man started look­ing at a map qui­etly in the cor­ner. And then, “later that night, be­cause they’d had a few glasses of wine, I went, ‘I was think­ing about do­ing this with Charley, what do you think?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, what­ever.’ So we sort of slipped it in”.

Ac­tu­ally, when I watched those docs, I thought of McGre­gor’s wife, at home with their daugh­ters. Eve Mavrakis ap­peared at the end of the se­ries, to meet him: a wry, beau­ti­ful French woman, clearly her own per­son. They met on Ka­vanagh QC (she is a film pro­duc­tion de­signer), mar­ried in 1995; and, after liv­ing in Lon­don for many years, moved to LA in 2008. They’d bought a “1920s Span­ish-Cal­i­for­nian house” there in 2005, when McGre­gor was feel­ing flush after Michael Bay’s The Is­land. For a while, they rented it out, “and then some­thing hap­pened with my love af­fair with Lon­don”, McGre­gor says. “I’ve been a huge Lon­don­phile over the years – I think it’s the best city in the world – and then some­thing cracked. When you’re recog­nised in Bri­tain, there can be a cer­tain amount of, ‘Who do you think you are?’ and I don’t think I’m any­one. That had some­thing to do with it. I re­alised that I spent a lot of time with my head down, walk­ing quickly with the ear­phones on.”

They were only go­ing to stay two years, but now they’re well in­stalled, with their el­dest, Clara, go­ing to univer­sity in New York, and their other three daugh­ters at school in LA. He loves it, for the mo­tor­bik­ing and be­cause “all the schools are like Grease”. He’s even made the move into di­rect­ing, step­ping up to the plate last year for Amer­i­can Pas­toral, an adap­ta­tion of the Philip Roth novel, after Phillip Noyce dropped out.

McGre­gor worked hard, even at the pro­mo­tion, which he dis­likes – “A ma­jor de­pres­sion comes in af­ter­wards, be­cause you’ve given away all this stuff” – but the re­views were not great, with most crit­ics feel­ing the big­ger ideas of the book were re­duced in favour of a con­ven­tional por­trayal of a midlife melt­down. He loved di­rect­ing, and is still “slightly reel­ing” that the film didn’t do as well as he’d hoped. (He doesn’t usu­ally read his press, but for this he felt he had to.) He’d like to di­rect some­thing more lo-fi, but, “I don’t know… As an ac­tor, in LA it’s pretty bru­tal. You’re only as good as your last suc­cess, do you know what I mean?”

So let’s con­cen­trate on T2 Trainspot­ting, which, fin­gers crossed, will be a suc­cess. In terms of re­la­tion­ships, it al­ready is, not only be­cause of the Boyle af­fair, but be­cause McGre­gor was able prop­erly to re­con­nect with Miller. Al­ways the qui­etest of the Nat­u­ral Ny­lon crew, Miller is now a fa­ther and, it ap­pears, a mar­tial arts mas­ter. He is mas­sively fit, reg­u­larly run­ning 50- and 100-mile marathons. (When they were film­ing in Ed­in­burgh, McGre­gor would run around Arthur’s Seat. Miller would run up it.) “It was re­ally lovely to be back with Jonny,” McGre­gor says. And it was made eas­ier, some­how, by the film. “When Renton is back with Sick Boy,” McGre­gor says, “there’s some­thing com­plete about them again. There’s shots of me and Jonny watch­ing telly on the sofa… It all came back. And there’s a mo­ment where I have to come up through rafters and it be­came like com­ing out of the toi­let in the first film. But only in­side me. It wasn’t writ­ten that way. Danny didn’t say, ‘Do it like that,’ it just hap­pened. It was like a di­rect con­nec­tion to some­thing I did 20 years ago. That hap­pened all the time, be­cause Renton is me, and I am him.”

After our in­ter­view, I e-mail Welsh to ask him about T2 Trainspot­ting. He replies that the orig­i­nal film was about close friend­ships and how they help you find your iden­tity, but “ul­ti­mately crush your in­di­vid­u­al­ity, to the point where you have to break free”. T2 Trainspot­ting is the con­se­quence. It’s about how that in­di­vid­u­al­ity de­stroys peo­ple and com­mu­nity, “mak­ing us all nar­cis­sis­tic to the point of be­ing men­tally ill, and [then] makes us seek out those old re­la­tion­ships and rein­vest in them”. It’s a film that “looks back to lost youth and the wasted op­ti­mism of the 90s.” And then won­ders: oh, God – what hap­pened?

Soon after he fin­ished T2 Trainspot­ting, McGre­gor tells me he watched the Oa­sis doc­u­men­tary Su­per­sonic. “And it re­ally slayed me. I can’t de­scribe it, I was so up­set af­ter­wards. Be­cause I was such a huge Oa­sis fan. Like, ridicu­lous, a school­boy fa­nati­cism, when I was a dad al­ready, you know? Em­bar­rass­ing. And watch­ing that film, I re­ally wanted to go back. Just be­ing out there and hav­ing a great time, and be­ing a part of what the 90s has be­come in my mind. I re­mem­ber see­ing Ra­dio­head in Cork in a field, just after Trainspot­ting had come out, and feel­ing like part of it all… Any­way, I loved that doc­u­men­tary. I mean, I loved it and I hated it. Be­cause it made me so sad and it made me so happy.” Nos­tal­gia can do that, I say. “Yes,” he says. “That time has gone, it can never hap­pen again – but it changed our whole ex­is­tence.”

“It was like a di­rect con­nec­tion to some­thing I did 20 years ago... be­cause

Renton is me, and I am him.”

Cameron Diaz, Boyle and McGre­gor dur­ing 1997 MTV Movie Awards in Los An­ge­les

McGre­gor, his un­cle De­nis Law­son and Boyle at a pre­re­lease screen­ing of McGre­gor’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, Amer­i­can Pas­toral, in Lon­don. McGre­gor worked hard, but the re­views were not great

McGre­gor on the set of 1995’ s Shal­low Grave, his first movie with Danny Boyle. When Boyle cast DiCaprio for his next film, The Beach, in 2000, McGre­gor was very hurt

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