In 1996, a young Scottish actor named Ewan McGregor careened onto the movie screen, daring viewers to “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f***ing big television.” This was just the beginning of McGregor’s star-making turn in Trainspotting, a darkly comic yet harrowing tale of five heroin-addicted friends. To properly mark the film’s two-decade anniversary and prepare you for next year's sequel, here are 15 facts about the film that might make you feel less queasy about the “worst toilet in Scotland.” But only slightly.
1. EWAN MCGREGOR LOST 26 POUNDS FOR THE PART.
In order to look the part of a heroin addict, Ewan McGregor lost 26 pounds. And his diet was surprisingly simple. “I grilled everything, and stopped drinking beer,” he told Neon magazine. “I drank wine and lots of gin instead. The weight just falls off.”
2. KELLY MACDONALD LANDED THE ROLE OF DIANE BY RESPONDING TO A FLYER.
When Kelly Macdonald was cast as Diane, the teenage schoolgirl Renton follows home from a nightclub, she had never acted in a movie. She was just a 19-year-old waitress who spied an opportunity. Since director Danny Boyle wanted an unknown for the part, he sent the production crew through the streets of Glasgow with flyers encouraging girls to come out for a casting call. Macdonald happened upon one of the flyers in her restaurant, and after a few callbacks, the part was hers.
3. ROBERT CARLYLE CREATED A DETAILED BACKSTORY FOR BEGBIE.
Begbie’s defining quality is his rage—once he gets going, it’s kind of unstoppable. Robert Carlyle created an explanation for his character’s anger issues: he was a closeted gay man. In a 2009 interview with BAFTA, Carlyle made his case, citing the scene where Begbie accidentally picks up a trans woman: “He picks up the transsexual in the nightclub and there’s the scene in the car where he puts his hands between the trousers and finds out it’s the real deal. Now why doesn’t he just kill this person? He kills everybody else, why doesn’t he do that? He gets frightened of it and backs away. Back at the flat, Begbie reacts to Renton winding him up about it and says, ‘Don’t you ever mention that again or you’re dead.’ I thought, ‘That’s interesting, that’s really too strong.’”
4. JONNY LEE MILLER HAS A REAL-LIFE JAMES BOND CONNECTION.
In the film, Jonny Lee Miller’s character, Sick Boy, is a major 007 fan. Appropriately, the actor himself has family ties to the franchise. Miller’s grandfather was Bernard Lee, the original M. Here he is in From Russia with Love, ushering in Q to demo a weaponized briefcase.
5. MCGREGOR DID A LOT OF RESEARCH FOR THE ROLE.
To prepare for the movie, McGregor read several books on crack and heroin addiction and spoke with members of the Calton Athletic Recovery Group (who served as consultants for the movie). Along with some of his costars, he even attended “cookery” classes hosted by the Calton crew, who used glucose powder in place of the real thing. But McGregor almost took his research to extremes. As he noted in Neon, “I thought about actually taking heroin—and the more research I did, the less I wanted to do it. I’ve had to die on screen before, and I don’t know what that’s like either. I’m not a Method actor at all, so to take heroin for the part would just be an excuse to take heroin, really. So I didn’t.”
6. A GROUP OF EX-ADDICTS HAD CAMEOS AS SOCCER PLAYERS.
The Calton Athletic Recovery Group didn’t just work behind the scenes. Five of its members appear in that “choose life” chase scene, as the soccer team playing Renton and his friends.
7. MACDONALD WAS DRUNK ON HER FIRST DAY OF FILMING.
Macdonald was excited but a bit overwhelmed by her first movie gig, and it led to a near-disastrous first day. As she recalled to Vice: “I think it was my first day filming. It was a whole day and night shoot. All the boys were quite naughty and were drinking, so I was drinking. I'd been in the pub for hours with various people who weren't filming scenes, and Shirley Henderson [who played Gail] said, 'You might want to stop drinking.’ She was totally right. I think I was actually hungover by the time I did the scene. I didn't know how to stand on a marker, I was all over the place, and I didn't know how it all worked.” Unfortunately for Macdonald, it got only worse. “The sex scene was quite nerve-racking … I was so unthinking and so naive and young that that was the day I invited my mom and my brother to the set.”
8. THE SEX SCENE WAS CUT DOWN IN AMERICA.
When Trainspotting made its way overseas, it apparently lost a few frames from the sex scene between Renton and Diane. Boyle didn’t notice because he never watched any of the U.S. screenings in full, but McGregor trashed the decision in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The American censors cut a few seconds from the movie, from a scene between me and Kelly [Macdonald]. 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."
9. A PROSTHETIC ARM WAS USED FOR CLOSE-UPS.
That wasn’t McGregor’s arm in the many close-ups of Renton shooting up. The props team took a mold of the actor’s arm instead and created a prosthetic with a plastic pipeline of fake blood, so it would bleed upon injection.
10. THE VOLCANO NIGHTCLUB IS A COPY OF THE MILK BAR FROM A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
Boyle asked his cast to watch films including Goodfellas, A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, and The Hustler prior to production. But one of those movies is more obviously tied to Trainspotting than the others. As a nod to A Clockwork Orange, Boyle modeled the Volcano nightclub on the Korova Milk Bar. This is apparent in the nearly identical writing on the walls. Boyle snuck another Clockwork Orange reference into this scene, only it’s tied to the Anthony Burgess novel. Listen closely to the clip above and you’ll hear the song “Temptation” by Heaven 17, a band explicitly named after a fake band in Burgess’ book.
11. THE WORST TOILET IN SCOTLAND SCENE WAS FILMED WITH CHOCOLATE MOUSSE.
The infamous “worst toilet in Scotland” scene is a horror to behold, but it was much less disturbing on set. To create the ghastly bathroom stall, Boyle’s props team simply smeared the toilet with copious amounts of chocolate mousse. This trick apparently stayed with him; in Danny Boyle: In His Own Words, the director revealed that he used the same stuff (plus crunchy peanut butter) for a similar scene in Slumdog Millionaire.
12. RENTON REFERENCES MARGARET THATCHER.
When Renton moves to London, he says in a voiceover, “There was no such thing as society, and even if there was, I most certainly had nothing to do with it.” This is a jab at former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was widely derided in 1987 for observing that “there is no such thing as society.” (Full context here.)
13. THE OVERDOSE SCENE WAS ACHIEVED WITH A TRAP DOOR.
When Renton overdoses at Mother Superior’s, he seemingly sinks several feet into the carpet. This effect was created by a bit of low-budget ingenuity: The crew simply slipped McGregor through a platform with a trap door.
14. IRVINE WELSH APPEARED AS RENTON’S DRUG DEALER.
Irvine Welsh, who wrote the novel Trainspotting, also got a moment in front of the camera in its adaptation. He played Mikey Forrester, Renton’s hapless drug dealer who gives him those fateful suppositories.
15. BOB DOLE CONDEMNED THE MOVIE.
Trainspotting was a huge critical and commercial success. But every movie has its detractors, and for this film, its biggest critic was Bob Dole. While speaking to a school in downtown Los Angeles, the presidential candidate blasted Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction for promoting “the romance of heroin.” This might seem like an odd assessment to anyone who’s watched Trainspotting, which Dole had not. His press secretary later clarified that Dole had not actually seen the movies, but based his critique on reviews he had read.