Trainspotting star Ewen Bremner talks to Janet Christie about ageing, masculinity and the making of T2.
When you meet Ewen Bremner, it takes a moment or two to adjust, to remember that no matter how much he might look like Spud, no matter how many times you have seen the iconic Trainspotting poster, watched the film, read the books, he is not Spud. Bremner is better dressed, better spoken, an actor who has shed his character’s skin along with his crazy sunnies, but it still takes a moment.
The mental leap is helped by the fact that we meet in the douce surroundings of the Balmoral Hotel, where thick carpets hush voices to a murmur and you know it’s going to be safe to visit the toilets. Even so, we’re only feet away from the scene of Spud and Renton’s iconic Lust for Life sprint, recreated again 20 years on in Danny Boyle’s sequel, T2 Trainspotting, which is released on DVD on Monday.
Spud is the most likeable of the Trainspotters, goofy and loyal with a moral code – if only he wasn’t addicted to heroin. Bremner too is engaging, thoughtful, a bit better spoken than Spud but still his sentences follow a trajectory that rises to end on an Edinburgh “eh?”.
So why is he called Spud anyway, Daniel Murphy?
“I don’t know. I guess it’s a childhood nickname that stuck. Probably Potato Head or something like that. Irvine would know the answer… speaking of potato heads.” He laughs and includes himself in the disparagement, “well I’m one too. Some random vegetable head anyway.”
The gentle ribbing of the absent Welsh is a reminder of the argot of male friendships, where affection is often couched in banter, and leads us into T2, a film about masculinity, friendship, fatherhood and ageing. Who better placed to explore those themes than the original cast, revisiting their original characters, with 20 years of life experience to inform their performances?
“We are old enough to know you don’t go through 20 years without picking up wounds along the way,” says Bremner. “There’s stuff that brings you joy and stuff you struggle with. Spud’s journey is to become a better man, the man his wife and child need him to be and he’s been struggling with heroin, and becoming a father. They’ve all struggled.
“The film opens with that scene in the gym where Renton and everyone else around him is running on a treadmill and that’s sort of become a metaphor. Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud are all trying to outrun their shadows and things that will take them down. Life has become a treadmill and if you stop running you crash. Renton is still running… until he stops with a bang.”
So in the intervening two decades they’ve gone from running along Princes Street to running on a treadmill?
“Yeah, in the first film there was an exhilaration, jubilation, a lust for life, that all the characters had but now we came to it with a sense of the travails of life, we as people in our real lives.
“We came to it with a kind of vulnerability because however privileged our lives as film actors, nobody gets through 20 years without their fair share of knocks. So we recognised that and had a real appreciation for being together and respect for each other.
“We were quite tender about it, kind of like old soldiers that are still marching on.”
Such is the affection and sense of ownership felt about Trainspotting that Ewan McGregor was probably voicing the sentiments of a nation when he told Boyle during filming that “it’d better not be shite”.
Bremner is pleased to report that general consensus over the film is that it’s not, having received much feedback from those who recognise him around his home city.
“The response has been so passionate from audiences, overwhelming. I encounter people on a regular basis who have seen it and want to talk about it. They have this emotional melt and say what it means to them.
“I think it’s testament to Danny Boyle and what he’s pulled off, which is to interrogate the ageing process in a way that we can all identify with.
“His instinct was profound in that he stole opportunities to film kids playing, that wasn’t in the screenplay, then when you see it all cut together, it’s the story of life, not just those 20 years.
“It shows what it is to grow from a child to an adult and pass something on to your own children, to be barrelling down this road and wind up like Sick Boy in the pub as a 46-year-old, wondering what the hell he has done with his life.”
As for Spud, he’s spent the last 20 years struggling with heroin, still emotionally attached to his partner Gail and trying to be a father to their child.
“Spud loved company and part of that was social drug-taking and he took it with gusto and could handle that in his twenties, but before he knew it he was completely, hopelessly addicted to heroin and didn’t have the fortitude to escape it. It ravaged his life and his family too.”
Given the success of the film, can we expect another Trainspotting film, a follow up, or prequel perhaps? But Bremner is ambiguous on this.
“I don’t think anyone’s thinking really seriously about it. Except that Irvine’s always working with the characters and thinking that through.
“He’s done a great story with the Begbie character called The Blade Artist, and certainly I think there are ambitions for that to be a movie. I don’t know if it would be verbatim from that novel or similar to T2, a kind of reimagining, if it would involve the other characters or not.”
I suggest that given how T2 ends – if you haven’t seen it yet, let’s just say Spud shows potential as narrator of the Trainspotter’s journey – is there something there that could be explored?
“I really like the idea that they all wind up in Hollywood because in The Blade Artist, Begbie is in Hollywood as a celebrity head sculptor, carving people’s heads with a Stanley knife, and Spud has become this writer.
“Basically to me it’s saying that the first film is really a collection of Spud’s stories, so it’s mirroring an Irvine Welsh type who winds up writing novels and screenplays. So I could imagine them in Hollywood and it would be funny, because it’s a completely different jungle.”
In the past 20 years, and indeed the decade before Trainspotting, Bremner has made a success of acting and now divides his time travelling between Edinburgh and LA.
“It’s a culture shock for me, eh? Landing there and getting used to the place. There’s a completely different value system where they appreciate more how something appears on the surface, but here people give a damn more about what a thing actually is, so people treat each other differently. It takes a bit of adapting to.”
Adaptable is something Bremner most definitely is, with different actors, directors, material, from a shipping container in Dagenham to the Bahamas, in the desert or a hotel, living out of suitcases and spending time on his own.
“It took me a bit of learning but I’ve been very lucky to find a balance that has enabled a fairly stable family life and a fairly rewarding work life.”
Bremner talks of his home life in broad strokes. He’s in a relationship but doesn’t talk about it, and has a daughter, Harmony, who he does talk about because she’s also an actor and he thinks she’s good at it. Her credits include the still to be released The Dark Mile, Carousel and Eve.
“I’m really impressed with her and what she puts into her work,” he says. “Really impressed. But in this business it’s a real cycle of rejection and perseverance and you find out over time if it’s for you. She’s in a good situation because she’s more academically orientated than me and can choose.
“I see how tough it is for women compared to the guys, not just in acting but the whole film and television industry. It’s tough for guys, but twice as tough for girls.”
This brings us to the women in T2, and apart from Anjela Nedyalkova, who has a substantial role as Veronika outwitting them all, it might have been nice to see a bit more of them: Kelly Macdonald as hotshot lawyer Diane, Shirley Henderson as Spud’s estranged partner Gail and then there’s Pauline Turner as Begbie’s wife. Who marries Begbie, and why? Some 20 years that must have been.
“They’re fantastic actresses and Danny shot quite a bit more with all of them, but in the editing I think he came to the conclusion that the thrust of the story was about masculinity and sacrifices had to be made. It was about masculinity, not in a real [he adopts a booming American macho voice] virile way, but in a tragic way. It’s the tragedy of masculinity. All of the women have control over their lives and are managing in a healthy way. It’s the men that are falling off the carousel.” He laughs. “It’s the men that are in trouble.”
Born in Edinburgh to teacher parents, Bremner was struck by “the power of drama to articulate ideas” when he saw Harold Pinter’s Dumb Waiter on BBC’s Play for Today as a 13-year-old and became involved in youth theatre.
“I didn’t really take it seriously, that I could be an actor, for a long time.
“I didn’t think I had what it took to do that kind of work professionally as a career.”
But youth theatre parts led to bigger roles and TV, film and theatre parts followed: he played a schoolboy in 1986’s Heavenly Pursuits, and Renton in the Traverse Theatre’s 1995 stage version of Trainspotting. His performance in Mike Leigh’s Naked led to a starring role in Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy in 1999, while blockbusters include Pearl Harbour and Black Hawk Down.
Other credits include Alien vs Predator, Great Expectations, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Hallam Foe and Snatch.
As well as Danny Boyle, directors Bremner has worked with include Mike Leigh, Ridley Scott, Joon-Ho Bong, Werner Herzog and Woody Allen.
“Film has been the bulk of my work but I don’t have a preference,” he says. “As an actor, theatre, TV and film are not massively different in terms of how I work and think about it.”
Next up is another blockbuster, Zack Snyder’s Wonder Woman, released this month, in which Bremner plays a sharpshooter Scottish soldier who has been discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s set during World War One and Diana is on a mission to end all war.
“I get commissioned to help her through enemy lines as part of an unlikely band with a native American chief and a Moroccan actor/conman.”
Then there’s Luc Besson’s Renegades, with Shekhar Kapur, about Shakespeare’s years in London in his twenties which is due out this summer.
“I’ve just finished shooting that, either side of Trainspotting. It’s set in London in 1589 and I play Richard Topcliffe who is the spymaster for Queen Elizabeth. The real Topcliffe was so notorious for his methods of torture that his family had to change their name. He was an artist of torture.” Think Begbie with a ruff.
Then there’s talk of a film about Alan McGee and Creation Records with a screenplay by Irvine Welsh, starring Bremner, which was at the centre of a furore when it was denied funding by Creative Scotland amid suggestions it wasn’t Scottish enough.
“I’m surprised that a story about a Scottish legend, written by a Scottish legend, both contemporary living giants of popular culture, with Scottish actors, is not Scottish enough.
“ But it comes down to the old argument of identity and however strong your country’s identity is – I’ve always felt very outward-looking and internationalist – I think that projects that celebrate the interaction of Scotland and the world are more interesting than insular things. But we’ve been talking about this film a lot, and I’d be looking forward to it happening.”
Today at 45 years of age, according to the internet, which according to Bremner is wrong – “just say fortysomething or really bloody old, whatever”, what is he most proud of? Trainspotting, being a dad, still making a living in a profession that he didn’t even think was going to happen?
“To me pride comes before a fall, so I don’t like to talk like that. It’s not how I look at things. Success is an illusion, just a perception. Lots of incredibly “successful” people are deeply unhappy, there are famous ones that take their own lives… so to be successful really is not about anything other than being able to be at peace with yourself.”
And is he?
“As much as possible. As much as possible,” he says. “That’s your life’s work.”