Cumbernauld’s James recalls his time on set of Trainspotting sequel

James with director Danny Boyle
James with director Danny Boyle

Local actor James McElvar can be seen in T2 Trainspotting, opening this weekend.

James plays a younger version of Sick Boy, the character originally portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller, in the film’s flashback scenes.

He said: “I grew up in Cumbernauld, all the way from Carbrain to Blackwood, Westfield and finally Condorrat. My mum liked to move around a lot. I went to St. Francis of Assisi Primary School, which is unfortunately now nothing but a memory and a set of new houses. Then it was off to the big school, St. Maurice’s High School for six years. In primary seven I was Joseph in our school play and it was then it hit me – performing and being creative is what I’m good at.”

Following a stint as a model after being scouted while on a shopping trip, James became a singer with the Scottish boyband Rewind. “It went on for three years, and I had the most amount of fun. We had move line up changes than the Sugababes but got to perform at some high profile events, gig with superstars like Little Mix and I even managed to somehow end up in a private message exchange with Nicola Sturgeon about the Independence Referendum, something that is always a funny story to share when politics comes up at a party.”

Having moved to the west end of Glasgow after leaving Rewind, James turned to acting and found an agent who was able to get him an audition for Trainspotting 2. As a huge fan of the original, he was desperate to be involved.

“The audition was in Bathgate of all places. In front of the casting agent Gail Stevens and a video camera, I had to recite the famous ‘Choose Life’ speech from the first movie. Originally I was supposed to be auditioning for the role of Begbie’s son, however at the audition they decided my look was not quite right for that part.

“I then got a call back whilst on holiday in Spain. My agent said ‘Danny Boyle wants to see you tomorrow, can you catch a flight in time?’

“I was heartbroken as it was practically impossible to get back in time to Glasgow and then to the meeting in time. Danny Boyle is not the kind of guy you can ask to rearrange a meeting with so we decided I would have to not attend.”

However, three days later James was again contacted by the Trainspotting team. “This time I was available, I was ready and prepared. The universe was telling me I had to be involved in this film.

“I went along and there was a room filled with Sick Boy, Renton, Spud and Begbie lookalikes. It was very surreal to see.

“We were took in to a room with Danny, Gail and the costume people and had to act out some of the iconic parts from the original. I was told there on the spot I had the part.

“The next day they had me carted off to Edinburgh to chop off my luscious locks and bleach my hair. I had to look like Johnny Lee Miller from 1996.”

On returning to Bathgate to film interior scenes, James was outfitted with the original Sick Boy costume. However, soon afterwards an air of secrecy once again descended on the film.

“It all went quiet. I was frantically checking online to see if any photographs of the main stars filming in Edinburgh. I wanted to know what was going on.

“At that point we had been kept in the dark about our part in the film, what the film was about and how we would be slotted in.”

Eventually James was recalled and learned more about the film, in which nostalgia is a core theme, and the young cast needed to recreate a lot of moments from Skagboys, a prequel to Trainspotting written by Irvine Welsh which covers the main characters’ descent into heroin addiction.

“First we were having a drink in a forest, causing havoc on an estate in Blackburn and trying to recreate the relationships those characters had. It was a rainy day in Bathgate, all wearing vintage football attire and having a game of 5s it became apparent we had the foul mouth the characters did in 1996. Then we were off to the beach. They sourced a retro surfboard that we had to muck around with in the sea. Then we were off to The Cav in Edinburgh where they had 1000 extras decked out in 80s clothes. Our direction was to be our characters, for me Sick Boy, and go mad in the crowd of extras. We then had to shake cans of lager over each other. Plus pretend we were on drugs and dance about to Radio Gava in loop.

“We were on the night out the boys have in Trainspotting. Me and Renton had a long day running down Leith Walk. The first and maybe last time I’ll have traffic stopped for me. We had too much fun to try and explain.”

James also has strong memories of a fight scene. “Renton and Sick Boy are coming home from a Hibs game when a bunch of neds attack them.

We spent a full day at the banana flats in Leith filming the scene. I grew on a council estates not much shocks or frightens me but I could believe some of the character came across.

“Being on set was incredible. I had never been a part of something like this. An Oscar winning director’s movie. Every day we would go, there were scripts from that day’s filming in our trailers along with call sheets about locations. Me and the other young guys tried to piece together what we knew from that to work out what was happening in the movie. It became apparent it was going to be just as full on as the first. They were not holding back.

“We had a lot of downtime as we played second fiddle to the main cast of course. Sitting in the sun on the steps of my trailer I will never forget the first time I saw Ewan McGregor. He was just standing there, in between takes. Like me... for him it was not strange, I was just another guy on set but to me it was a punch yourself moment.

“Johnny Lee Miller coming face to face with me was strange. I was him twenty years ago. I think he found it very odd. I joked I hope I age better than him and I wasn’t looking at my future. I’m not prepared to go bald!

James also spent a lot of time with Ewan McGregor. “I spent a few days in the make up trailer sitting next to Ewan. It became my own mission to eavesdrop on his conversation because I wanted to know what A-listers talk about. Turns out he was just as boring as the rest of us. He had the same worries we all do. He was normal, human even.

“Robert Carlyle was my favourite, if anyone asked me to pick, only because he was normal. He could have been my neighbour in Westfield back in the day and you’d never suspect he was an award winning Hollywood actor.”

Danny Boyle also made a huge impression on James. “Danny was the most charming man I’ve ever met. He had time for everyone. I was fascinated by him, his passion for this project was infectious. Still to this day I do not know how he can process putting an entire movie like this together. He was incredible.”

“There was one day I broke an original belt from the original film. No one bothered to give me into trouble as I think they believed I suffered enough having my hair bleached numerous times for continuity.”

All good things come to an end and as filming wrapped James was in reflective mood. “My last day on set was a solemn one. It was the first time I sat and thought about what this film was truly about. The harrowing statistics about drugs, herion to be specific, in Leith at that time. Yes, it’s a big glitzy film with big name actors and an £18 million budget but it portrays these characters that were some of the lucky ones.

“Even though they may be were they are now, which everyone will see from watching it, at least they are alive. A lot died from HIV and AIDS.

“I met Irvine Welsh who wrote the books and someone I’m obsessed with and he really brought it home for me. The second unit director Gary Fraser, a recovered addict himself, had been hand picked by Irvine to help Danny put this movie together.

“Me and Connor, playing a young Renton, had to film a scene, out last scene, were Sick Boy and Renton take herion for the first time. Gary played Hotel California and told us to just lay there until the song stopped. I remember my entire body went numb. I had a belt strapped around my arm, a syringe filled with brown sugar and lemon juice laying by my side and a piece of cotton wool dabbed in fake blood covering where I apparently injected.

“He called ‘cut’ and everyone was crying. Gary was suddenly as white as a ghost. He summed it up perfectly, ‘this is real life. For people your age, coming here, sitting down in a dark alley and injecting themselves with this filth. It’s real life. Watching you guys right now it’s sad because these characters feel euphoric, your first time taking drugs, totally unaware of the horror and devastation it will lead them to. There was something oddly beautiful about watching it.

“We packed up, I took the clothes off, said goodbye to everyone and went home. That day will never leave me. I’m thankful I have never been in that position and now I know I never will be. Faking it was enough for me. That as Gary said, is the beauty of Trainspotting. These young guys Irvine once wrote about are cool and edgy, they say funny things, we laugh watching them on screen but we all finish watching that film and it makes us think how horrible drugs are.

“There has been a lot of talk of the film glorifying drug abuse, I totally disagree. Maybe filming that scene, meeting those people using in Leith or just being part of this made me think differently, but Trainspotting has a different meaning. Irvine wants young people to know drugs are not the answer. When we meet these characters again 20 years later in T2, their lives are not what they wanted. None of them are where they dreamed of being. That is the reality of drugs.

“I am a tiny part of a massive film, I hope amongst the laughs, the cool filming techniques used by Danny and the iconic soundtracks that is what this new generation on Trainspotting fans like me take from this film. Life is short, life is precious. It’s not worth the risk of taking drugs, especially at a young age.”

T2 Trainspotting opens in cinemas on Friday.