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?
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
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
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