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On a Fast Track

Ewan McGregor hops from 'Shallow Grave' and the British smash 'Trainspotting' into a stream of disparate plum roles. Cast him, sure--just don't try to typecast him.

July 21, 1996|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in England, is a regular contributor to Calendar

LONDON — 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."

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