Interview: Ewen Bremner on Perfect Sense
Glasgow set sci-fi Perfect Sense makes its way to cinemas this month. We spoke to one of its stars, Ewen Bremner, back in June following the film's UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival
You’d be foolish to think that an actor’s real life demeanour matched any of his/her film roles, but in the case of some performers their onscreen personas are so vividly realised that they become fused in the public's consciousness. One such actor is Ewen Bremner, whose role as Spud, the lovable runt of the pack of Leith ne'er-do-wells in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, is so iconic that it’s hard not to picture the character’s riotous, hopped-up job interview scene whenever the actor is brought to mind. But in general, all of Bremner’s best performances hinge on a similar manic hyperactivity, whether it’s as Archie, the shouty Glaswegian who’s lost his girlfriend in the labyrinth of Soho in Mike Leigh’s nightmarish Naked, or as the schizophrenic title character in Harmony Korine’s unhinged second feature Julien Donkey-Boy, where Bremner manages the inimitable feat of creating a character so deranged that he makes the outré performance of Bavarian filmmaking legend Werner Herzog, who plays Julien’s father, seem naturalistic.
In person, however, Bremner operates on a lower frequency. He speaks at a measured pace in an accent that’s more Morningside than Easter Road; his sentences are cautious and deliberate. My first guess is that he’s shy or maybe he’s just cautious when speaking to the press, but after a few minutes of chatting in the grand surroundings of the Caledonian Hotel in his hometown of Edinburgh it appears his demure air may be more to do with the massive hangover he’s nursing. “I’m a bit rough, I’m afraid,” the 39-year-old actor confesses wearily as he sips on some ice water. “I’m not used to all this partying.”
The reason for Bremner's sudden mini-bender is that he’s celebrating the UK premier of his latest film, the David Mackenzie helmed Perfect Sense, at the city’s international film festival. Set in Glasgow, Perfect Sense is a curious mix of romance and apocalypse. A womanising head-chef (Ewan McGregor) and a beautiful, brittle epidemiologist (Eva Green) are falling in love as the world is falling apart. A mysterious virus is spreading the globe and robbing humankind of its senses, one by one – think of the film as José Saramago's bestseller Blindness x 5. But where does Bremner's character James, the sous chef to McGregor’s character, fit in? “I think David [Mackenzie] employes me just to inject a bit of chaotic energy into his stuff,” says Bremner. “That’s my guess.”
My interview with Bremner takes place perched on a sofa on the landing of the Caledonian’s stately staircase; the tinkling of a piano wafts up through the banisters. “He’s got an interesting balance of being very considered and compositional about the look of his scenes,” Bremner says of Mackenzie, who he first collaborated with on 2007’s Hallam Foe, “but at the same time he’s kind of got these primal urges – he likes to have stuff sort of splurging out of his films.” And splurge Perfect Sense does. It’s a bold, heart-on-sleeve kind of movie, bursting with emotion and unabashed romanticism. The compositional skill that Bremner speaks of is there for all to see, but the film is also peppered with the kind of gonzo moments that characterise Mackenzie’s best work.
Unfortunately, though, Perfect Sense is not the Young Adam director at his best – far from it. For all its ambition there are some crippling misjudgements, such as Mackenzie’s over reliance on Max Richter’s ostentatious score and the use of an on-the-nose narration to communicate the onscreen emotions – he batters our eardrums when his images should be tugging at our hearts.
Bremner, unsurprisingly, disagrees with my take. “It really speaks to me as a film,” he argues. “As an actor it’s impossible to be objective about anything you’ve worked on because you’ve seen it from the inside out then you’re watching it from the outside in. You know what goes on behind the curtain and you have all sorts of other associations that you bring to it, things that were going on at the time, but for me, Perfect Sense, I really feel it’s a film to be reckoned with.” The actor admits, however, that the film's overripe philosophising and unblinking sentimentality will not be to everyone’s taste. “I think it’s a very moving film, but, understandably, there will be people who have an emotional defence that they don’t want to break in order to engage with this movie. It will divide audiences to some extent along that line of how prepared a person is to go along with the film.”
The part I’m least inclined to “go along with” is the romance. There’s no spark between McGregor and Green: their bodies ooze sex but their eyes scream touch me again and I’ll stab you with a fork. While there’s not much fire in the bedroom there’s plenty of heat in the kitchen. The easy going banter between Bremner and his Trainspotting co-star and their knockabout antics in the restaurant where they work – there’s a nice running gag about the funky smell of chefs' hands – adds much needed comedy and humanity to Mackenzie's drama.
“Anything's easier if you trust the people around you,” Bremner says of working with McGregor again for the first time since Ridley Scott’s 2001 war-movie Black Hawk Down. “If you are comfortable with the people around you everything is easier: conversation, jokes, sex, work, anything. Things are easier if you are not on guard against the environment or the people you’re working with. It helps in that sense, but it also helps that Ewan’s a very receptive actor: he’s very ready to play and engage with the actors around him. That helps more than the fact that we know each other.”
Despite the comfort he feels in the familiar, Bremner has not been shy about exploring the new and has enjoyed success in both the US and Europe. “I never had a game plan and I still don’t. I think it’s kind of impossible to plan out your life in the real world. You can have your hopes and your desires and the roles you’d like to be handed to you on a plate, but in terms of game plan, I’m just trying to follow my nose. There’s all kinds of considerations involved in deciding whether to do one job over another. You’ve only got your own sense of judgement to work with and I mean that."
Are there any films that you're particularly proud of? “There are films that I like that had done better or been seen by more people, and there are things I’ve done that I wish no one had ever seen,” he says.
Do you want to name any? “No!” he chortles.
Back to Perfect Sense then: despite its flaws, it seems to be part of a growing trend of British films that take chances. This year has seen the likes of Kill List and Attack the Block emerge from UK productions, the type of high concept genre-hopping films that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. And in terms of foreign investment, Britain, and Glasgow in particular, now seems like a viable option for big scale studio productions. It seems like it’s becoming easier for British actors to find interesting projects on their doorsteps.
“I never feel jingoistic about it. I’m never like, ‘Aye, it’s great ta see, like, that Scottish or British films are doing really well, like,’” Bremner says, affecting his worst Scottish accent. “There’s a great culture here and a great tradition of creative, groundbreaking artists and thinkers. That’s part of our heritage, and it still seems to be healthy and strong. There’s really interesting new work coming through in the arts, but there’s not that much investment in Scotland.
“It’s always difficult to get any kind of film made; it’s always a mountain to move. It doesn’t matter where it is, they’re always extremely challenging. But when you get it made and it plays to a packed festival audience, like we did the other night, it’s so rewarding”