Interview: Stars of new film set in 1990s Scotland dubbed ‘heir to Trainspotting’

Cristian Ortega (left) and Lorna Macdonald (right).
Cristian Ortega (left) and Lorna Macdonald (right).
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They are rising stars of the Scottish acting world who have been the best of friends since drama school.

Now their onscreen relationship is set to propel them into the limelight as lifelong pals seemingly destined to go their separate ways in a movie already being hailed as the “heir” to Trainspotting.

Still shots from the Beats film.

Still shots from the Beats film.

Central characters Johnno and Spanner will bring the curtain down on the Glasgow Film Festival tonight at the UK premiere of Beats.

If the buzz it has attracted since a world premiere in Rotterdam keeps building, it is set to make stars out of Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald.

Both graduates of Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, they have the lead roles in the “platonic love story” focusing on two teenagers from a West Lothian housing estate who are drawn to an illegal rave at a time when the Conservative Government had ordered an unprecedented clampdown on such gatherings.

Ortega was urged to audition for the role of Johnno while on tour with the National Theatre of Scotland in the US after Macdonald had spent weeks preparing for the role, only to be told he was better suited as Spanner.

Shot in black and white and set to a soundtrack supervised by Scottish clubbing pioneer JD Twitch, Beats has obvious echoes with Trainspotting, including being set in 1994 – between the release of Irvine Welsh’s novel and Danny Boyle’s film – and the cultural revolution sweeping Britain during the birth of “New Labour” and “Cool Britannia”.

Macdonald had also just finished playing Mark Renton, the role Ewan McGregor played on screen, in a 2017 stage production of Trainspotting when he saw a tweet from Ken Loach’s Sixteen Films company looking for young actors to audition for Beats, which is released in May.

Adapted by Brian Welsh and Kieran Hurley from the latter’s one-man play for The Arches in Glasgow, Beats charts the events that unfold after Johnno tells Spanner his family is moving away - but is persuaded to head out on one last night together.

Macdonald, who plays Spanner, said: “It is a friendship story, but for me it is definitely a love story. That’s the way I looked at it when we were making it. These characters absolutely need each other, but especially Spanner. His life without Johnno is a very sad one. Spanner is just your typical lovable rogue. He’s caught between the idea of what masculinity is and what’s expected of him as a member of a pretty radge family, and being a deeply honourable, sensitive and vulnerable young man. The whole world’s against him, except Johnno, who sees him for who he is. He’ll hold onto that as long as he can.”

Ortega, 28, said: “At its core, it’s a platonic love story between these two friends, set against a political background, when the times are changing. What I really like about it is the personal colliding with the political.

“Johnno is like the perfect distillation of teenage angst and fear of not fitting in and not knowing your place in the world.

“The reason they’re so close is that Spanner has a lot more heart and will just go out and explode, while Johnno is quite often trapped in his own head. Being led by Spanner in his madcap plans turns out to be quite an exciting, but it is also fraught with tension and fear.”

The character of wise-cracking Johnno has already been compared to Spud, memorably played in Trainspotting by Ewen Bremner.

Macdonald said: “I think Spanner is maybe a wee bit smarter than Spud, but he’s the kind of guy that you just want to give a big hug, hold him and say things are going to be alright. He just doesn’t get that from anyone.

“The reason people like Trainspotting so much is that they know people like the characters, although they’re maybe slightly caricatured.”

Ortega said although it was “easy” to draw parallels between Beats and Trainspotting there was a clear difference between the two films.

He added: “The thing about Trainspotting was that it was very zeitgeist and of the moment happening in the 1990s. What we are doing is looking back in a slightly melancholic and nostalgic way.

“There’s something interesting about us looking back to tell the story. There is a nostalgic element that wasn’t in Trainspotting.

“There is the sense of misguided optimism and hope of that time, and the way things have unfolded since then, especially over the last few years and the current political climate that we find ourselves in. It seems sort of unimaginable.

“I remember my mum and dad telling me about the sense of relief that they felt when Tony Blair was voted in, but within four years they felt completely betrayed by him. They feel completely bereft now - it’s quite heartbreaking in a way.”

Macdonald, 26, said it was “strange” that Beats was emerging at a time when the clothing and culture of the 1990s have become fashionable with teenagers.

He added: “Hopefully people will respond well to a film that really celebrates that time, and focuses on friendships and experiences rather than just saying Scotland’s ****. It’s set in the rave scene, but is more of a celebration of Scottish people.

“I have great memories of growing up as a 1990s kid. I was just old enough to miss the heavy influx of social media and the way that the world looks at young people now.

“There was something a bit more naive, natural and innocent about that time.

“They now have to deal with almost twice the pressure that other generations had.

“They have two different lives now - the one that they have when they go to school and the one that they lead online. They’re both just as important to teenagers.”

Macdonald admitted he thought he had the part of Johnno “in the bag” during the auditioning process only to be surprised by the film’s director.

He said: “Brian told me he thought I had a bit of Spanner in me and to come back the following week and get into him. It was a bit of a curveball. But he was a very fun character to play.”

Ortega was appearing in the lead role of Oskar in the National Theatre of Scotland’s vampire drama Let The Right One In in Houston, Texas, when he got a message from Macdonald to alert him that a role in Beats was up for grabs.

Macdonald said: “I mentioned to Brian that I knew a guy that he would have to wait a couple of weeks for but that I thought he would be perfect. I adore Christian - he is one of my closest friends.”

Ortega said: “Lorn and I had often spoken about how cool it would be to work together.

“I had my audition the day after I flew back from the US and was jet-lagged to hell, so it was nice to have a supportive friend in the room.

“Before filming started we were rehearsing in Glasgow and I was crashing on Lorn’s sofa. We’d go to work, rehearse together, come back and work on a scene, or just hang out. We’re proper close.”