If there is a downside to writing a novel that gets made into an era-defining movie, it's that no matter what else you do, people will always be jonesing for a celluloid sequel. Despite Irvine Welsh's literary follow-ups to Trainspotting (including 2002's Porno and 2012's prequel Skagboys), had he, director Danny Boyle, and screenwriter John Hodge not agreed to make T2 Trainspotting, they would never have heard the end of it.
The gap between T2 and the 1996 original, Welsh says, is what made the film possible. Beyond contractual hurdles and a rift between Ewan McGregor and Boyle (over the latter's having cast Leonardo DiCaprio instead of McGregor for The Beach), the biggest obstacle was how to make a film that would be meaningfully different. "It was actually the age thing that benefited us," he says.
Twenty-one years on, all of the characters are ripe for midlife crises, and the actors' lived-in faces bring heft to the trademark Trainspotting mix of irreverent glee and junkie slackness. McGregor's once-boyish Mark Renton is capable of worry and regret; Ewan Bremner's Spud projects both scrambled charm and pathos; Jonny Lee Miller's Sick Boy swaggers with a haunted stare; and Robert Carlyle's Begbie seems somehow both more human and more demonically possessed.
Intercut footage from Trainspotting adds poignancy: a film about hedonistic, lost youth has led to a deeper one about loss itself and the search for redemption in friendship. T2 is the antithesis of today's Hollywood sequel, whose characters, like the Botoxed actors who play them, are never supposed to get older.
On the phone from his home in Chicago, a ruminative but jovial Welsh, an executive producer on T2, explains that it was made with an "epic mentality," drawn from the likes of The Godfather rather than, say, Mission: Impossible. T2' s premise is that Renton returns to visit Edinburgh two decades after ripping off his mates (apart from Spud) and leaving run-down Leith for a cozier life in Amsterdam. He isn't greeted with open arms: Spud and Sick Boy lash out, and Begbie is determined to escape from prison and get back at his former friend.
Inevitably, they become involved in capers and cynical schemes, as T2 swerves away from sentimentality. Welsh says that he, Hodge, and Boyle wanted their film to have "emotional awareness and depth, but also the same energy as the first one. You don't really want to have a bunch of old gits being sentimental."
The original's kinetic feel is intact, complete with startling camera angles, surreal hallucinations, and an adrenalized soundtrack – this time featuring hip-hop group Young Fathers, whom Welsh calls "a modernization of the Edinburgh working class." Paradoxically, T2 feels propulsive while depicting a group of friends, and a culture, that feel stuck in a rut. "It's like life, isn't it?" Welsh says. "We run around, and we feel like we're getting somewhere, but sometimes we're not."
In his own cameo, Welsh plays the only male character who seems to have improved his lot in life – his character, Mikey Forrester, has gone from selling heroin suppositories out of a grotty flat to fencing stolen flat-screen TVs out of a warehouse. Meanwhile, Renton and his crew have attained at best the illusion of upward mobility: they're still trainspotting, watching from the sidelines while others move on.
For Welsh, the films show stages of a society in transition, which is becoming "a world without paid work, and we don't know what to do, so there's that redundancy of humanity – all of our jobs are going to be replaced by machines and big data and artificial intelligence, so we're in this existential crisis. People don't do MBAs any more; they do MFAs. We need to express ourselves."
In T2, Spud develops a compulsion to write, out of an effort to replace his heroin addiction with something less destructive.
Says Welsh, "I was taught when I was a kid, 'Have a trade'– manual work and all that. And that went kind of kaput. And then you say, 'Well, go to university and become a manager or a local government officer,' and then all of that's gone. So we're in this weird, weird place now. Everybody's groping for some kind of understanding."
That said, the film is hardly an unrelenting downer: It packs a gamut of emotion into just under two hours. And despite the corrosive effects of betrayal, some of the old chemistry returns – particularly between Renton and Sick Boy, who despite themselves fall back into being a film-and-football-obsessed double act.
"When you lose youth," Welsh says, "that's when the problems really start. You don't really care about anything else too much, and then life gets under your skin, the older you get. You're compelled to take it seriously, when you kind of think, in your heart of hearts, that you probably shouldn't be."
The inevitable question arises: Will there be a T3? "Never say never," he says, quoting Sick Boy's hero Sean Connery, who last played James Bond at age 53, "but I think you get to the point where, if you've had two really huge successes, you really are just working towards your own failure." Welsh does admit that he, Boyle and Hodge have been talking about the characters, but at the moment, he's committed to expressing himself in other ways, working on a book, "some TV shows, and a couple of films" that he doesn't want to jinx by talking about them. What's more, he's enjoying being far away from Edinburgh, even now.
Welsh laughs. "It's a terrible time to be a citizen of America, but it's a great time to be an artist! The more pricks you have to kick against, the better." It's important to question the imperatives everyone is offered, from "Choose life. Choose a job …" to "Make America Great Again." As a society, he says, "We tend to invest in the people that are a bit like fighting kids – we'll go for the bully who shouts the loudest and seems to know that they're talking about. I think we have to be prepared to revel in our own ignorance a little bit more. It's the only way we're going to get out of this mess that we're in."
T2 Trainspotting opens March 17 in Toronto, March 24 in Vancouver and Montreal, and March 31 across other Canadian cities.