When Ewan Bremner gave his scene-stealing turn as Spud in the big-screen adaptation of Trainspotting, it defined how many casting directors still see the Edinburgh born actor. The hilarious sulphate-fuelled job interview scene especially showed off Bremner’s more manic edge. By that time he’d already played a crazed Scot abroad in Mike Leigh’s film Naked, and later went even further in the title role as the young schizophrenic in Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy. So when Bremner goes onstage for the first time in two years later this month in The Traverse Theatre’s international revival of David Greig’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit, Damascus, there may be a few raised eyebrows about just how, well, normal he is.
“He’s a pretty ordinary guy, really,” Bremner says of Paul, the English language textbook salesman he plays, and who sees the world beyond an entirely different set of language barriers in the lobby of a Syrian hotel. “That was definitely part of the appeal. There’s a lot of unknown things going on, and he’s in the thick of it all.”
For once, all the crazy stuff in the play is going on around Bremner’s character rather than through him. Truth be told, though, in the flesh, Bremner is as unprepossessingly normal as they come. Right down, it has to be said, to his clear discomfort with the whole interview process. While perfectly pleasant, the succession of stammers, longeurs and quiet uncertainties which make up his speech patterns are telling about how he deals with a condition he’d probably wince at if you described it as fame.
Then again, the height of Trainspotting mania not only saw Spud’s specky phizzog lined up next to his peers on what became one of the most iconic posters of the late 20th century. It also put Bremner briefly on the American chat-show circuit courtesy of David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.
“I wasn’t very good,” Bremner admits, “I found both of them really excruciatingly uncomfortable, being that guy sitting in the chair chit-chatting in front of an audience, and them trying to not make it a complete disaster for them on air.”
Bremner isn’t sure why he’s frequently cast in such oddball, out-there roles. The way he sees it, though, “Different people are good at different things. The way I’ve grown up as an actor, from quite early on, I was encouraged to enjoy parts which were a bit different, and not be scared or intimidated about going into unfamiliar territory or doing something extreme. Instead of being nice guys, making someone an asshole can be much more fun.”
Bremner began acting as a boy in community theatre at Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop. He did it for fun, enjoying the company of the older people around him. He nevertheless bagged himself a role in Charlie Gormley’s film, Heavenly Pursuits. Then, aged fourteen, he ended up in Broxburn born future Rob Roy director Michael Caton-Jones’ graduation film.
Aged sixteen Bremner was touring the Highlands with a theatre in education company when Theatre Workshop director Adrian Harris recommended him to The Traverse’s Stephen Unwin. Unwin cast him in Conquest Of The South Pole, a German play about a gang of unemployed youths who wile away their days by re-enacting Roald Amundsen’s heroic expedition in their attic. It transferred to London, taking its hungry young cast with it.
Bremner was seen by Mike Leigh for Naked, a blistering state of the nation yarn starring David Thewlis as a northern English drifter in London. In hindsight, the film’s bleak disaffection can be seen as a precursor to the cultural fall-out of the 1990s which Trainspotting would partly define.
Bremner played a crazed, equally adrift Scotsman, whose partner was played by Susan Vidler, who would also turn up in the stage production of Trainspotting. The pair’s brief but memorable cameo was filmed over two nights, for which Bremner rehearsed, developed and ultimately created his role for two and a half months.
“Nothing could’ve prepared me for how rigorous that guy is,” Bremner says of Leigh’s painstaking working methods, “To a degree that I found quite terrifying, and wondered if I had it in me to get through.”
It was probably skills developed in community theatre improvisations that saved him. It may also have opened the door for Trainspotting. By the time he was cast in the film, Bremner had already played Mark Renton in the original stage production at The Traverse and Citizens Theatres. Even then, it was clear how Trainspotting marked a cultural sea-change.
“It went ballistic in a way that affected people’s consciousness,” Bremner says now. “To be associated with the film, you became a kind of celebrity, but I didn’t get hired for anything for probably about a year.”
Ironically, it was only after Trainspotting that Bremner finally decided that he wanted to make a career out of acting.
“It wasn’t like I’d had a burning ambition to be an actor,” he says. “I really enjoyed being part of these groups, but there were long spells of unemployment between jobs, and there wasn’t any certainty about what I wanted to do with my life. Then I thought, those guys can do it, so maybe so why shouldn’t I?”
Even so, beyond his brief sojourn with Letterman and co, Bremner never fully exploited his potential celebrity.
“I shied away from it,” he says, “partly because I wasn’t used to receiving that kind of attention. But there was so much hype at that time. If anyone came up to me on the street I’d come out in a cold sweat. Also, the work I was being offered I was being very snooty about. If I’d been more commercially astute I should’ve taken it, just to keep in circulation.”
These days, with a respectably left-field profile via appearances in Sixteen Years Of Alcohol and Hallam Foe, Bremner can deal with the attention his job brings with it without getting too uncomfortable. Except sometimes, like the other week when he took his young daughter to school, and a group of older primary kids gathered around him, thinking they’d spotted Spud.
“It’s not right,” Bremner says, “and in that setting you just have to say no. To go down that route, and use that attention, I don’t feel comfortable with that, and generally won’t do publicity unless it’s for specific projects. I don’t want to sell myself as a personality, because then I compromise my day to day life. I appreciate my day to day life too much for that.”
While still living in Edinburgh, Bremner visits LA several times a year, and remains pragmatic about how he’s seen.
“At this stage in my life,” he says, “it’s all about character parts. I’m the other guy, or the guy’s friend; the strange guy, the mysterious guy, or one of the guys, but not,” he insists, “The Guy.”
Except, that is, in Damascus. The tour of the play neatly coincides with the release of Fool’s Gold, a rom-com in which Bremner appears alongside Matthew McConnaughy and Kate Hudson. Also pending is the release of Faintheart, a comedy about a historical battles re-enactment club, and well as a psychological espionage thriller filmed in Georgia. All grist to the mill no doubt, though none sound particularly boundary-breaking.
“Everyone has to make compromises,” Bremner says. “As an actor, there’s this idea people have that you’ve got control, and that you’re making these amazing choices in the things you do. But the reality is, I don’t have and I never will have complete control. Whether something works or not, even if it’s got a brilliant script and a brilliant director, it’s the luck of the draw.”
If Bremner’s really lucky, he might get to make the The Man Who Walks, the long-mooted big-screen adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel, set to be directed by Irvine Welsh. Which, not only sounds like the sort of project that is Bremner’s ideal, but also brings him full circle. His return to The Traverse too provides a neat symmetry in terms of where his career’s at just now. Any suggestions that Bremner has come home to roost, however, are politely pooh-poohed.
““It’s a smorgasboard out there,” he says. “Most films out there are being made to make money, and then there’s films where a director wants to communicate an idea. Both can be terrible, and both can be really good, but I’d rather be part of something that’s attempting to communicate with people rather than sell them a lifestyle. If I was really honest, and only did the things I really wanted to do, I probably wouldn’t work very much at all.”
Damascus, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, Canada, 22 – 26 April 2008 as part of Worldstage08; 59E59 Theaters, New York, USA, 6 May – 1 June as part of Brits Off Broadway; Meyerhold Theatre, Moscow, Russia, 4 – 5 June
The Herald, July 2008