On a Fast Track
The arresting first scene of the new Scottish film “Trainspotting” shows the young actor Ewan McGregor careering along Princes Street, Edinburgh’s main shopping thoroughfare, at breakneck pace. A rail-thin, crop-headed drug addict who steals goods from stores to support his habit, he is being chased by menacing-looking security guards. But as he sprints to save himself, we see a broad grin on his face.
A more perfect visual metaphor for Ewan McGregor’s career would be hard to imagine.
At 25, and just four years out of drama school, McGregor is emerging as a star as fast as that headlong dash suggests. In Britain he’s firmly established as the Next Big Thing, the one to follow a series of home-grown actors--Daniel Day-Lewis, Hugh Grant, Ralph Fiennes--all the way to movie stardom. And yes, the blissful grin represents how much he’s enjoying the process.
To say McGregor is in demand is a huge understatement. Any script calling for a youngish Brit character inevitably comes his way; he is now shooting his sixth film in 15 months.
For now, though, his name is inextricably linked with “Trainspotting,” a box-office sensation in the U.K. this year, and easily the most-talked-about film at the Cannes Film Festival in May, though it was not even in official competition.
In the film, released Friday in the United States, McGregor plays Mark Renton, one of a group of young, amoral and sometimes violent Edinburgh junkies; the story traces their fluctuating relationship with heroin, starting with what sounds like an overwhelming endorsement: “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it,” Renton says of its effects. But in the course of the story heroin causes two deaths, and Renton struggles with the consequences of a terrifying overdose and the agonies of withdrawal before trying to banish the drug from his life.
This sounds harrowing, and it is. Yet, remarkably, “Trainspotting” is also a vibrant, energetic, frequently hilarious film. The defiant, insolent attitude of its main characters has brought it a massive following among anti-establishment British audiences of college age and older. They know by rote the sarcastic litany recited by Renton in voice-over as he hares down Princes Street; it sums up the film’s anti-materialist mood: “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f---ing big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers . . . choose rotting away at the end of it all . . . choose your future.”
For all the laughs in “Trainspotting,” there are also alarmingly graphic scenes of addicts injecting themselves with needles--scenes that may embroil the film in controversy throughout America.
“I haven’t spent long enough in America to know how it will be received,” McGregor says. “I know morality in the U.S. is different [from Britain] so it may have different problems.
“The American censors cut a few seconds from the movie, from a scene between me and Kelly [MacDonald, the actress who plays a schoolgirl character]. It was a sex scene which her character was obviously enjoying. They obviously didn’t like the idea of a young girl having enjoyable sex, whereas the shooting-up and violence was acceptable to them. That’s crazy to me.”
So candid are the scenes of characters apparently injecting themselves that one might have thought them distasteful for the actors involved. Not so, McGregor says: “It was only hard to do in that I had to portray something I know nothing about. [He says alcohol is the hardest drug he has experienced.] But you do that as an actor all the time. The whole challenge was to channel what I had learned by hearing of people’s experiences into representing the real thing.”
For one scene a prosthetic arm, doubling for McGregor’s, was used for an injection. “But the scene where Renton takes a blood test, that was real,” he says. “And in another scene after I OD’d and a nurse injects me with anti-opiates, she injected me for real with a saline solution.
“It was terribly exciting,” he adds sardonically. “I’d spent four or five weeks pretending to put a needle in my arm, so it was quite a kick to have one in there. I’d been quite looking forward to it. There was something quite thrilling about doing it for real.”
When you meet Ewan McGregor, he looks strikingly unlike his character in “Trainspotting.” For one thing his fair hair is of average length, rather than cropped to the skull. For another, he is far from emaciated, and tips the scales around 168 pounds.
“I lost about 26 pounds for the film so I’d look wasted,” he says. “My wife, Eve, was brilliant--she knows a lot more about diet than me, so she became my dietitian for two months. It wasn’t so hard to lose the weight, because I had a date and a goal in mind. But during filming, it was hard to maintain the weight loss. Like on any film set there were snacks all over the place. So that was tough.”
McGregor put his weight back on immediately during the brief gap between “Trainspotting” and his next film, “Emma,” based on Jane Austen’s 19th century novel. (It opens Aug. 2.) His “Emma” role could hardly have been more different from Mark Renton; he plays Frank Churchill, a charming and attractive, if opportunistic gentleman. His appearance in the story causes more than one of the central female characters to consider him as a potential beau.
He found time to marry Eve, a French-born production designer, between “Trainspotting” and “Emma,” then started working back to back on a series of movies. After “Emma” came “Brassed Off,” set in the north of England and dealing with the closure of coal mines and the effect on local communities; also starring Pete Postlethwaite, it focuses on a group of men who are members of a village brass band.
McGregor then made his first film in America, “Nightwatch,” a remake of a spooky Danish suspense thriller, with Nick Nolte and Patricia Arquette. He plays a law student who works in a morgue and becomes involved in a string of serial murders.
Currently he is in Ireland starring with Postlethwaite, Greta Scacchi and Richard E. Grant in the period drama “Serpent’s Kiss,” this time playing a man impersonating a 17th century landscape designer.
These roles offer an astonishing diversity, a fact he gleefully notes. “That’s what it’s about, that’s what keeps it interesting. I don’t understand actors who don’t see it that way. It’s about working on different characters, portraying different people.” He is puzzled by the tendency of some American film actors to find a comfortable persona and adhere to it: “That’s the difference between being a star and an actor, I suppose,” he muses. “I like to think I’m an actor.”
Other people clearly think so, too. McGregor is apparently the actor of choice for the “Trainspotting” creative team, which is composed of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew MacDonald and screenwriter John Hodge; McGregor made his first feature film splash in the troika’s well-received thriller from last year, “Shallow Grave.” And in the wake of “Trainspotting,” McGregor will also star in their third film together, called “A Life Less Ordinary.” It is due to start shooting in September.
The three men admire McGregor hugely. “He’s going to be a big movie star, isn’t he?” MacDonald says dryly. “Him I should be staying friendly with.”
McGregor is amused by such talk, but refutes any suggestion that he is some kind of alter ego for the three filmmakers.
“Definitely not,” he insists. “I know those guys and I’m very different from all of them.
“It’s just that I know Andrew likes the idea of working with the same people. I understand his grandfather [Emeric Pressburger, the screenwriter and producer who collaborated with legendary British director Michael Powell] used to do things that way. The crew and team for ‘Trainspotting’ was largely the same as for ‘Shallow Grave.’ It’s a healthy way of making a movie because there’s a shorthand which everyone understands. You don’t have to spend weeks getting to know each other.”
McGregor was born and raised in Crieff, a small, quiet Scottish town halfway between Edinburgh and the Highlands. His uncle Denis Lawson, a well-known Scottish actor who appeared in Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero” in 1983, first encouraged him to pursue drama.
So McGregor quit school at 16, worked backstage for a small repertory theater in Perth, near his hometown, then moved to London when he was accepted to drama school, and was spotted by an agent three years later at a showcase evening for final-year students.
Within months he had landed a major role in “Lipstick on Your Collar,” a British television serial written by the late Dennis Potter. He also made his feature film debut--speaking a single line in Forsyth’s “Being Human,” a spectacular flop that starred Robin Williams.
“Shallow Grave” made him a name to watch, and “Trainspotting” (which grossed about $17 million in the U.K., making it the second most popular British film in history after “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) confirmed him as a star.
“I’ve been very pleased with the success and longevity of ‘Trainspotting’ in Britain,” he says. “And it’s causing great interest everywhere in Europe it’s opened.
“I think it has a lot to do with its constituent elements. First of all, it’s based on one of the best novels [by Irvine Welsh] that I’ve ever read. And then, John Hodge adapted it brilliantly for film. You read the book, and you wonder how anyone could adapt it. And then Danny and Andrew are among the best directors and producers I’ve worked with. They and John are people who just won’t be swayed from their vision. And that’s because usually they’re right.
“So there were all those elements, a great cast and a lot of young, passionate people involved. I wasn’t surprised it was a success, just the extent of it. It’s already five times bigger than I dreamed it would be.”
McGregor has a month between “Serpent’s Kiss” and “A Life Less Ordinary” to experience some down time and enjoy his daughter, Clara, who was born in February. “But on the whole,” he admits, “I’m happiest when I’m working.”
So it would seem. Like Mark Renton on Princes Street, McGregor’s moving as fast as he can. And at this point it’s hard to see what’s going to stop him.