In 1996, Scottish actor Ewen Bremner shot to fame playing the role of Spud in director Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, based on the acclaimed novel by Irvine Welsh. A goofy, enduring junkie who kept trying (and failing) to do the right thing, Spud served as the film’s affable comic relief. More than two decades later, Bremner reprised his role in T2: Trainspotting, Boyle’s follow-up, which muses on the idea of young punks now making their way into middle-age. While few of the film’s characters find themselves better off, Spud once more tries to do what’s right, and arguably becomes the film’s central character in the process. Bremmer can also currently be seen in Wonder Woman and we spoke to him about what it was like to reprise the role of Spud, as well as revisiting the world of Trainspotting.
What was it like returning to the character of Spud after 20 years?
It really was a pleasure. Of course, I felt concerned that I did justice to the writing, the character, the original film, my fellow actors. You know, we were all trying to do our best work and give our best work and I felt that I wanted to give Danny [Boyle] what he needed. The pressure was fairly high but it felt like a real privilege to have the opportunity to deliver. Danny lets you explore and experiment as an actor and I ran with that just as much this time round as I did when we worked together 21 years before. So, yeah. I can’t say anything negative about it, even if I wanted to. There is nothing negative for me about that whole experience. It’s all been positive. I feel very fortunate.
What was the mood like on the set? Was it similar to the first film?
It was really electric, you know. It was really buzzing. Every day we all felt just excited to be on set. We all felt really curious just to see what was being filmed. Even if we weren’t in the scenes we were hanging round the monitor trying to get a peek in and see what we were doing on there. Every day that passed felt happy and sad. Sad, because it was one less day that we were going to get to spend together and we felt like we’d been given this amazing gift to share that time together again. It felt precious this time round. We didn’t take it for granted like we did maybe the first time.
When you were doing scenes with your costars, these characters have very complicated relationships, but those moments of camaraderie, the fun loving bits, seemed really genuine. You got the sense that you all really enjoyed hanging around one another and having this reunion.
Oh, I totally agree with that. I think one of the defining factors on any film is the personnel, is the recruitment. Who’s recruited, what they’re doing, and also, what the fundamental material is. We had great material to work with from Irvine [Welsh]’s original novel and these characters that he imagined and the stories that he gave them all. We had this great, great material to play with and we had the particular chemistry between the personnel that really, we felt we could really go for a ride on this. We could really take things to the edge, and you see all of us doing that.
Ewan [McGregor] has to hold the middle, Marc Renton he kind of has to hold the middle ground but still, within this universe that Danny has built, which in the one hand is like, a very gritty, realist experience. He also, in that same universe, he also really plays to a surrealist, absurdist, elasticity in the world. We had such a lot of scope to play with. From the very small to the very big. Emotionally it’s got huge range for all of the characters and we just have such a great film to play on.
And when you say that, the gritty realism and the surrealistic fantasy, they can coexist in the same scene, often in the same moment, and it’s not distracting. It still makes sense.
That’s Danny’s gift. I mean, there’s very few filmmakers that manage to combine that successfully. I think lots of people do try to stretch things but you have to have a real ease of an artist who is comfortable and in control of their medium. And Danny really has that.
What struck me as most interesting is this film has such a direct relationship with the first one. More than just a sequel. But out of that, your character’s dynamic seems to be the most extreme. In the first one you were endearing, sometimes tragic comic relief. You still have those characteristics here and Spud gets his chance at redemption. How was it to embody everything that we knew and loved about Spud while being able to grow him as a character.
Well, I’d say as an actor, I approach all my work from the same starting point and I want to honor the character. In this case, this is something that’s very important for me to honor this character because a lot of people are very invested in it, feel a kind of kinship, or enjoyment, or recognition, or some kind of ownership, or compassion with this character. I need to honor it in a way that does justice to not just Spud, but also that world, you know people who really do live in that world. I didn’t want Spud just to be a gentle joke.
It was important for me that he does have fight in him, and rage in him, and hope in him, and sorrow in him, and also the wounds of those last twenty years of struggling. The struggle with addiction and also the struggle that we all have to be the person that we feel our loved ones need. That our loved ones need us to be. To me those things are all equally important. I take comedy and tragedy equally seriously with whatever work I’m doing. I love that world. Trainspotting really gives a voice to the gamut of human experience, I would say.
Although, it’s coming from a very specific kind of ghetto, nevertheless it has a real universality. It had that, although coming from a very specific, Scottish, kind of maligned ghetto.
What was the mood on the set during Tommy’s memorial? That was a tremendously moving moment.
Oh, wow. Well, I think I can probably say we had a very similar feeling when we were filming it. It took us by surprise. It kind of took our breath away. We talked about this a fair bit afterwards and since. Kevin was in our thoughts a lot because he was so much a part of the group when we were making the original film, Kevin McKidd who played Tommy. Danny wanted to find a way to fold that into the new film and to mark that so the kid that he cast to play Tommy, [and] all of the kids that were cast were kind of uncannily like our young selves, all the young actors that they cast.
To see him walking off into that same hill where we stood twenty years before with exactly the same piece of grass, exactly the same mountains just standing there and that character walking off like he did in the film. It kind of made the hairs on the back of our necks stand up, it was that sort of feeling. It took you by surprise, I think. It took me by surprise.
I knew it was going to be heavy when the train passes and there’s only three of you standing there. But what really got me, and what really sort of summarized the character of Spud, is when Renton and Sick Boy are bickering back and forth about whose fault it was, but then Spud goes up and just puts the flowers on the rock.
I’m really pleased that it impacted on you like that. It makes me laugh, that scene, as well because I love the flowers that he pulls out and he pulls the wrapper off in the beautiful, pristine environment and just flings it into the wind.
There’s some quality in that part. And that’s, for me, that’s the part of it that I enjoy. That Danny allows that. To have something that’s really, really sorrowful, and tragic, and intimate, and tender, but at the same time have something that’s so stupid. In the same moment, he throws this plastic wrapper into the wind. That’s, for me, that’s a real quality of the film. It’s great to work with a director who can accommodate that. It doesn’t take away from the seriousness of it.
That peculiar mixture of humor, and sadness, and the absurd, and also be very real.
It’s arguably the closest thing that cinema can get to real life. All these emotions just colliding all at once.
It’s very important for Danny to try to achieve some authenticity. In fact, I think it’s very important for him to start with that. Start from that basis. He really wants to understand the world of the people that he’s portraying. He’s a real social investigator and he’s got a really strong social conscience. And it’s really important for him to begin from that basis of doing justice to the people of this world, the world that the film is born from. He spent weeks and weeks, months, studying, you know, searching through Edinburgh, meeting all kinds of people on his own. Investigating all kinds of subcultures and very diverse groups of people and getting to understand the city again and the world of how Edinburgh had changed. That sort of stuff is very important to him.
A lot of directors would say, “Right, yeah, yeah. Edinburgh’s a cool city, yeah. We’ll get it looking really cool and we’ll get a lot of heroin addicts that look really grungy. And we’ll have like, you know, a squat, you know, look really like a, you know, like a dangerous, dark place.”
But Danny’s not like that at all. He starts off from the real world authenticity. That’s what he wants to understand. And then, once he understands it, he lets loose all kinds of adventure and mischief within that space. Within that world. But he doesn’t just pay it lip service. It’s really important for him and his conscience to understand that before he does anything.
What was your experience on the set of Wonder Woman, it’s a very different type of film than Trainspotting.
It’s a thrill. I thrive on the opportunity to play as diverse characters as possible, as diverse material as possible. That’s what I want as an actor. I don’t want to wind up playing the same thing over and over or in the same universe over and over. I want to get to work with diverse filmmakers. Patty Jenkins is an astounding filmmaker whose really proven herself, in the small amount of films she’s made she’s really proven that she can really deliver and get great performances from her cast. She’s got a very different approach and relationship with the material than somebody like Danny but she’s just as passionate about doing justice to the world that she’s creating. She’s really got the spirit of Wonder Woman.
That’s kind of the spirit of Patty Jenkins. She’s got this really very pure driving optimism, and enthusiasm, and encouragement, and she believes the best in everything and everyone. That’s how she conducts herself on set. Very much always positive and respectful. Even when she was sick, it was a really long shoot but she was always completely driving forward with a really good attitude, you know.
You also seemed to be able to indulge in these little, lighthearted moments. Like when you fanned your kilt over the bonfire.
[Laughing.] Patty let us have lots of fun with that stuff. I mean all of us, she really encouraged us to sort of enjoy those characters. Unfortunately a lot of it had to be jettisoned to push through that main story and bring the film timing down. A lot of our stuff got tucked and tailed in order to sort of drive the story forward but we had some really fun stuff going on. I wish more of it could have made it into the film. But the film’s really striking a chord with people and people are feeling very passionate about it so I can’t complain at all. I’m delighted.
T2: Trainspotting will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD tomorrow, June 27th.