Ewan McGregor and Danny Boyle look back on ‘Trainspotting’ and their up-and-down friendship

(L-R) Ewan McGregor and Danny Boyle. Samantha Lee/Business Insider, AP

It’s been 21 years since Ewan McGregor became an overnight star after his standout performance as a heroin addict in Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting.” Now, after two decades in which both became big players in Hollywood (McGregor taking on “Moulin Rouge!” and young Obi-Wan Kenobi; Boyle directing “28 Days Later” and winning an Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire”), they have reunited to make a sequel to their cult classic, “T2 Trainspotting.”

The movie, out on Friday, catches up with Renton (McGregor) as he returns to Edinburgh 20 years after walking out on his friends — Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) — with the bag of cash the guys got after making a drug deal. Needless to say his mates are not happy at first to see him. But being middle-aged and in different phases in their lives, Renton also gives them a welcome glimpse at their past. Using snippets of footage from the original movie, Boyle gives “T2” a nostalgic feel that fans of the original will love while still delivering an original story about guys who can’t get on the straight and narrow, however hard they try.

McGregor and Boyle talked to Business Insider about the challenges of making a sequel to a classic, the movie Boyle really wanted McGregor to star in if it weren’t for their decade-long feud, and if McGregor wants to play Obi-Wan Kenobi again.

Jason Guerrasio: Danny, what’s the biggest thing you have to stay away from when not just making a sequel, but for a movie that’s a beloved classic?

Danny Boyle: You have to work at the relationship with the original film. And the initial premise is very complex because there’s a lot of expectation and you don’t want to let people down, but you are determined to return to it because you have a good reason. And we had a good reason because this story is more personal and confessional I think than we all thought it might be. So me and the screenwriter, John Hodge, worked on it and then we passed it onto the actors and it becomes theirs as well. They delve into it for you. And in order to process that you need to have a clear relationship with the first film, and our relationship is we wanted to be able to work it out as we went along rather than it be prescribed beforehand. So in the script there was very little of the original film in it. There was one scene I think, which was Spud coming out of the boxing gym and literally bumps into that now famous scene of he and Renton running down the street. He bumps right into his past. That was the only one in the script, other than that we worked it out as we went along. And you also get muscle memories from the actors that remind you of the other film. Like Ewan coming out of the rafters being chased by Bagbie in “T2,” he said to me “This feels like coming out of the toilet in the first one. Should I make it look like that?”

Trainspotting renton man toilet scream
‘Trainspotting.’ Channel Four Films

[Ewan McGregor laughs.]
Boyle: And I said, “If you can.” And he did and people mention it. So that’s the biggest thing, I think. You have that positive relationship with the original film which may exclude it. We wanted to use it when we could and we decided organically when to use it and when not to.

Guerrasio: The glimpses of the original movie are really cleverly done. Were any of those outtakes from the first movie?

Boyle: No. We tried to find the outtakes but they were really sh—y. They were in terrible condition. No one could find the original negatives.

Ewan McGregor: Did you use a profile shot of Bobby for the train-station scene?

Boyle: Yeah, that’s from the first film. That’s a good point. When young Renton and Begbie come to that train station in a flashback, the two silhouette profiles are taken from the cigarette-smoking scene in the original movie, where he says, “Hey, Renton, bring me a cigarette.” And he blows smoke in your face —

McGregor: Oh, yeah.

Boyle: That’s where we took the silhouettes of your faces and put that in the train-station scene.

McGregor: Wow, I didn’t know that.

Guerrasio: Ewan, when did you see the movie for the first time?

McGregor: I saw it at the British premiere in Scotland, in Edinburgh, but Danny did show me a very early cut in London and I watched it entirely alone. [Laughs] I was there all by myself. I was so excited to see it because, what, it’s been 20 years in the waiting, I suppose. So it was a thrill to see it. But it was so different than the cut I saw in Edinburgh. I was blown away by it in Edinburgh, I was moved by it. I was weeping by the end of it. I think it all hit me quite heavily what the film evokes in you, looking back on your life and then trying to look forward to what’s next. It hit me like a ton of bricks. For me, maybe it’s obviously so because it’s literally my face going from my 23-year-old self to my 45-year-old self in the blink of an eye, which is quite shocking.

Guerrasio: Was watching the movie a different feeling than making it?

McGregor: No, because the feeling is the same. I don’t ever worry about what it looks like. I don’t like to look at the monitor when I’m working, so I have a vague idea of what the shots are. And with Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot our film, he often employs several cameras at once and you don’t necessarily know what will be used. So I didn’t know visually how it would feel but the feeling of the scene is the same.

Trainspotting 2 Film4
(L-R) Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor, and Robert Carlyle in ‘Trainspotting.’ Film4

Guerrasio: So, Danny, you and John Hodge tried to write a sequel in 2002 but it didn’t get off the ground.
Boyle: Right.

Guerrasio: Hypothetically, if that went forward, did you think at all about how you would get Ewan in the film because at that time you two weren’t talking?

[McGregor laughs.]

Boyle: I don’t remember thinking, “Oh my God, how am I going to send this to Ewan?” But memory is such a strange thing, isn’t it?

McGregor: We have this mismemory of when I go down the toilet in the first movie and my feet turn around as if I’m going around the U bend —

Boyle: Oh, that’s right —

McGregor: I totally remember that being my idea. [Laughs] Danny remembers it being [cinematographer] Brian Tufano’s idea.

Boyle: Anyway, we did try to write a sequel back then and it wasn’t any good. So I do remember back then thinking, “They will all say f— off.” And when we did the script for what eventually became “T2,” John wasn’t finished with it yet, but soon as I read it I said we should send it to the guys straight away. I knew they would do it. It’s just an instinct just knowing them as actors and seeing the quality of the script. It would intrigue them and they would “Matrix” in their own experiences. I just felt we need to include them in this because we’re going to make this and I know they will do it.

Guerrasio: So Ewan, was the script all you needed to say yes or did you need some selling?

McGregor: No, not at all. I had bumped into Danny here and there and we discussed it. The possibility of it became more of a reality before the script arrived. He knew I was up to do it as an idea. And then I phoned into something, I think it was the BFI, you were onstage with Bobby and Ewen —

Boyle: Oh, yes!

McGregor: I was at my kid’s school on the playground on my phone and I couldn’t quite hear what was being said. But they were in front of an audience who had just watched “Trainspotting,” the original, and I was asked at that, really for the first time ever, in front of Danny, if I would ever do a sequel and I said, “Yeah.” But when the script arrived there was no doubt. The writing was so beautiful and moving. It was everything I experienced reading the novel the first time around in the ’90s, in fact.

T2 trainspotting sony
‘T2 Trainspotting.’ Sony

Guerrasio: Ewan, I’ve heard you say in interviews that it was easy to get back into Renton’s skin. Why was that?
McGregor: [Pause] I’ve always thought what it would be like to go back and play some of the other characters I’ve played and I don’t know if there’s any character I’ve played that people feel they know him. That the characters in this movie are people that they know. Danny has said, how many character names do you remember from movies? It’s really rare. But people not only know their names but they know them. So I feel being Renton again, he was just waiting inside me to come out. I worried about if I couldn’t find him and worried about having not lived in Scotland since I was 17 years old and Renton is such a Scottish character, but then Renton hasn’t been in Scotland either. For 20 years. And it all has to do with John Hodge’s writing and Danny’s direction, and suddenly you’re there. It all felt right.

Guerrasio: You two have done a lot of travelling together doing press for this film. In that time have you two talked about working again? Bringing up a project, Danny, that you would have loved to have done with Ewan in that time you two weren’t talking?

Boyle: We joke, but I would love to do a play with Ewan because he does them now and again. So put in a good word for me. But I did work on a script that we could never crack. A wonderful thing that you would have loved, Ewan. It’s called “Ingenious Pain,” an amazing novel and it’s about a doctor in the early days of surgery.

Guerrasio: Like Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick“?

Boyle: Earlier than “The Knick.” A century earlier, actually. And this guy doesn’t feel pain, that’s the conceit of it. And it makes him the most extraordinary surgeon because he doesn’t have any empathy. It was written by a guy named Andrew Miller, a fantastic novelist, and I tried to adapt it and I was thinking of Ewan for it but I could never get it — the third act was always terrible.

McGregor: And I would have said it was terrible.

Boyle: [Laughs] Yeah, he would have said, “It’s interesting, but that third act.”

McGregor: How many books can you say that about? [Laughs]

American Pastoral Lionsgate
‘American Pastoral.’ Lionsgate

Guerrasio: Ewan, you recently made your feature directing debut with “American Pastoral.” Did you have Danny look at it while you were making it?
McGregor: Yeah, Danny came to the edit room and watched it. I was very lucky to have that input, and it’s funny he gave me good advice about the third act. [Laughs] No, seriously. I was told early on by Ben Affleck, in fact, I went to talk to him because he’s directed himself and his advice was to be careful you don’t undercover yourself. The temptation is not to get enough shots of yourself because you’ll be embarrassed in front of the other actors and, you know, “One more for me,” and that. So I heeded that advice on set and I didn’t find myself in the edit room without shots of me but what I didn’t do was sort of use enough of them in the last reel of the movie. It was kind of that same embarrassment, “another close-up of me.” So my character wasn’t present enough at the end and that was Danny’s note and we found some more shots and we pulled my character in a little more at the end.

Guerrasio: So Ewan, like the Renton character waiting dormant inside you until it could come out in “T2,” do you feel that way at all about Obi-Wan Kenobi?

McGregor: I could see that question coming before you even opened your mouth. Listen, I have been asked about it a lot to the point where it looks a bit like I’m sort of touting for work —

[Boyle laughs.]

McGregor: I’ve been very open to say I’d be happy to do it if they want to do it. I think they are set going into the 2030s with their movies, but it would be fun to do, of course I’d be happy to do it.

Guerrasio: By the time they get to a standalone Obi-Wan movie you’ll be aged perfectly to play him.

McGregor: I’d be older than Alec Guinness was. [Laughs]

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