It’s not the actor that’s interesting. It’s what the actor allows to happen that is interesting.
Few people in the music industry—past and present—can stake a claim to the same kind of balls-to-the-wall craziness and never-say-die determinism of Creation Records founder Alan McGee.
Adapted from McGee’s 2013 autobiography, Nick Moran’s Creation Stories is framed by an informal interview between the maverick (Ewen Bremner) and budding reporter Gemma (Suki Waterhouse), who promises to one day write an article befitting the disruptive tastemaker’s huge ego. To which he snaps back: “Modesty gets you nowhere. I’m talentless, but I’m a situationist. I make things happen.” Indeed, it seems that way. He was here, there, and everywhere—always in the right place at the right time. Over the course of his career, the oddball derided as a “ginger goblin” would fly by the seat of his leather pants and go supersonic, reaching the apex of his musical glory, discovering the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine, The Libertines, and most famously, Oasis. And not to be outdone by the acts he signed, McGee was himself a hard-partying and hedonistic character. His intoxicated, devil-may-care blundering through an industry he was so pivotal in helping to shape would lead to increasingly reckless substance abuse and a mental breakdown. And this is skimming the surface of things.
Capturing McGee’s high-octane energy and wide-eyed vivacity, Bremner is tremendous, perhaps coming full circle to the role that made him famous: Trainspotting’s calamitous yet tender Spud.
Anthem reached out to the actor, who’s currently traveling in Tokyo, for a conversation.
Creation Stories will stream on AMC+, and go On Demand and Digital, on February 25th.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Hi, Ewen. So you’re in Japan right now.
Yes, I am. I’m in Tokyo. I have family here. Japan’s regulations are quite strict and everything during the Omicron wave has extended, so we’re playing it by ear at the moment. Where are you?
I’m in South Korea, so we’re in the same timezone.
Ah okay! Wow, brilliant.
This is a good segue, actually. I know Oasis is big over there, and I mean in the perennial sense. They talk about this in the documentary Oasis: Supersonic. And in Creation Stories, we see those Japanese, I guess, groupies? Japan is also the only place outside of the U.K. with physical shops for Pretty Green, which is the clothing label Liam Gallagher founded.
Oh really? Well, I guess it says something about how specific their cultural vision was. That’s something Japan really responds to: a clear cultural shape and identity. Oasis had such a clear vision about their identity that it gave people the confidence to believe in them. They had a clear vision about their sound and what they were putting across. A lot of that was an attitude and a musical aesthetic that they combined pretty strongly. I guess that’s what Alan McGee caught as well. He saw that what Oasis had was something that was formed already, when they hadn’t been picked up by that point by any of the major labels. They had been rejected many times by the time Alan came across them. So this is about vision, I guess. People who have an understanding of that kind of vision are svengalis. They can see the potential in how this can travel, how wide it can travel, how strongly it can travel, how fast it can travel, and how powerfully it can travel.
How much did you know about Alan McGee prior to this role?
It was on an elementary level. The bands that were on his label weren’t really the kind of music I was exposed to or listening to at the time. But I knew about the legend of him, as a heroic figure in music: his rule-breaking, excess, and that radical attitude he’s got. He’s anti-business in a way. He was famous for just being—and this is kind of a Scottish thing as well—an anti-establishment figure. We call it “radge” in Scottish. [laughs] It means somebody who’s really fearless and wild, and he was famous for being that. So yeah, I didn’t really know much more about him other than that, except for the bands he was connected to obviously. But, again, those weren’t the records I was buying in the years that he was releasing them—in general. There were a few exceptions.
Nick Moran described Alan as “an insane, belligerent, slightly psychotic Scotsman fueled by nothing but hard drugs and anarchy.” And the funny thing to me about that is, when Nick describes Alan like that, there’s no question in my mind that it’s an endearment.
[laughs] You know—there’s a thing about subcultures. Me and Nick are the same age roughly. We grew up through the same world. We both experienced this Britpop phenomenon in a unique way because we were at the forefront of movies that were very successful at the time [Bremner with Trainspotting and Moran, as an actor, in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels]. We were young when the doors were opened to a world that was culturally exploding at the time. Alan was really the epitome of those kinds of figures with wild voices seizing the moment and not playing by the rules. He was an individualistic trailblazer in that moment during the ‘90s when the gates opened up for cultural change and political change. And the doors of perception as well in a way, about what culture was and what was possible, in a different way from the ‘60s. We’d also been through punk as well. We grew up through a sort of punk time. That attitude and that way of thinking—a deep philosophical, existential state of mind—was something that we were familiar with. Alan possessed that. It’s a kind of recklessness, but at the same time, about the power of belief. Whatever the fear is, in art or religion or finance, the power of belief can be a vehicle that will carry you through. Not many people have that confidence with vision. So that’s also coming from punk culture, where you don’t need to play an instrument to make the biggest impact. You don’t need to be a musician to suddenly find yourself in the biggest band in the world. You didn’t need to have picked up a guitar before. You just go do it and see what happens!
The spirit of Trainspotting looms large over Creation Stories. Irvine Welsh, who authored Trainspotting, co-wrote this screenplay. Danny Boyle serves as executive producer. And your presence hammers home the connection. You all had a hand in heralding the advent of Cool Britannia, in the same way Alan did with his Creation Records roster. I’d guess that gave you a lot of insight into what it’s like to be on the inside of a cultural phenomenon.
Totally. It really provided a window to the other side of the curtain, of what glamor is supposed to be, the glitz, and what celebrity magic is all about. It’s a window into the whole spectacle and the intoxication related to that level of show business. When it works, the power of it is intoxicating for people. I think that relates with Alan and how we played with Creation Stories. This film presented him as a kind of alchemist, through Aleister Crowley and beyond. He’s in this lineage and a tradition of magicians, who have this same understanding. Alan could see things nobody else could see—and probably still can. A lot of these figures in the political and cultural worlds are depicted in Creation Stories: Malcolm McClaren, Tony Blair, and even the horrific pop culture monster called Jimmy Savile, who, in his own way, “svenaglied” the British public into a kind of spell. So it’s for good or for evil. Magic is a power that can turn to fortune or great darkness. Alan is trying to master these forces. And he survives them, because these are dangerous forces.
I read an interview where Alan addresses this depiction of alchemy and magic, and he seems both interested in the creative liberties taken on behalf of the film, to further lores, and just being the straight shooter that he is: “I just happened to find Oasis. That’s all.”
I mean, my response to that is: there have been many revolutions of Alan through the decades. There’s been lost decades and very productive decades that are different from each other. The decade he’s in now, the life that he’s in now, appears to me to be a different evolution of Alan in terms of how he’s looking at things and seeing the world. There have been times in his life where his family relationships have been great and there have been times that it had been terrible. But if you talk to him now about it, he doesn’t make the same distinction necessarily between these different phases of his life. Also, I think there are certain phases of his life that are more private to him so he might not want to divulge them as part of his legend. And that’s his prerogative.
Of course. That’s his right.
He’s the curator of his legacy and his story, and I totally respect that. But we didn’t invent out of nowhere this idea of Alan being preoccupied with magic theory and practice. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of that going on, and it’s probably very private and personal. So we were just using theories and things that we knew about the guy that were part of his life. We really wanted to honor him. At the same time, we didn’t want to try to make him into this golden hero, you know? He certainly leaves a trail of chaos as well. [laughs] Like we all do! That makes him human.
Alan told NME magazine that you were brilliant in this film so he’s clearly a fan. What was it like to have him on set with you during your transformation? Does that mess with your head?
I wouldn’t say it messed with my head. [laughs] It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you alert. It keeps you on edge, in a good way. It reminds you there’s real people involved and to respect that.
When I see your name, I have flashes of Spud, of course, but also Snowpiercer and Wonder Woman. You’ve always been refreshingly different, and not just superficially on the exterior.
Thanks, Kee. That’s a lovely compliment.
Are you always able to find pieces of yourself in far-flung characters—if that’s what you’re looking for—or have there been times that portrayals just didn’t feel within arm’s reach?
I always need to find things I recognize in order to play the part. I need to have references that I recognize, and in a way that’s personal to me no matter how outlandish the characters are. As an analogy, your sense of humor is your sense of humor, right? It’s unique to you, what you’ve been through, and how you’ve absorbed your references. So the things that I recognize as funny or fun or enjoyable? I need to go find that stuff. What’s funny to me? Not what do other people find funny but what’s funny to me? And I don’t mean just about humor. What’s interesting to me? I mean ideas, and things that resonate and hold meaning. With characters, why is somebody like this? Why do they say what they’re saying? I believe that there’s always a reason, and if you can’t find a reason, you have to make a reason. Why is this person trying to get where they’re going? So it’s not so much that I find a piece of me there—it’s that I need to be there. My understanding needs to be unbroken. I have to be able to draw the line between this event and that event, and why I say this and why I say that. Why are they behaving like this? The understanding has to be there, but I myself don’t want to be there. [laughs] I want to get out of the way as much as possible, but my understanding needs to be somewhere on that train. I don’t wanna leave the station because, otherwise, I’ll have no sense of direction on where I’m trying to go. I’ll get lost.
I was thinking about Black Hawk Down because you and Jason Isaacs reunited for Creation Stories. There’s a history. I found out that Ridley Scott had paired you up with Tom Hardy on that movie. He had said, “I put him with Ewen because I thought he would look after him.” He really trusted you then. When do you trust a director, and how important is that trust?
You’re touching on something that is completely, elementally pivotal: trust. Trust is something you have to give, as a young actor and as an older actor. Film is collaborative. It’s not just about what I think is brilliant or what I think the scene should be as an actor. I have to be in service of lot of things. One of the main things is the director. One of the things is the writing, one of the things is the character, one of the things is the audience, one of the things is myself maybe, and one of the things are the producers who might want something else. So trust? You have to give it. If I don’t give it, then it’s just about what I want and every scene becomes about that. It’s not my film. I’m not the filmmaker. All filmmakers put so much on the line you would not believe it. I have worked in film all my life, since I was 14 years old, and I cannot believe how much a director puts on the line. I don’t think directors even know how much they put on the line with each film—how much time and soul goes into what they make, and how the journey they go on changes them. If you don’t trust your director, then the piece loses its dimension. For me, the actor is not interesting. There are beautiful actors that I love, but it’s not the actor that’s interesting. It’s what the actor allows to happen that is interesting. There are some actors that don’t allow for anything to happen because they’re very fixed about what they’re giving. But when you collaborate and you trust, then you’re allowing something unknown to happen. It gives a scene dimension. It gives a film dimension. All the possibilities open up. It has the potential to be.