This interview first appeared in The Sunday Times
How did Danny Boyle do it? How did the short, wiry, Yoda-faced son of a “hardcore socialist” Irish labourer and hairdresser, who grew up on a toof Lancastrian council estate and avoided entering the seminary by a cassock’s tassel, become a giant of Hollywood, an Oscar winner, a millionaire maybe hundreds of times over and arguably Britain’s greatest living director?
“Well,” says the 58-year-old, sitting in an empty cinema, “I’m not shoowah.” The accent remains as dense as parkin: in every respect Boyle has kept himself blissfully un-Americanised. His manner is intense, taut: he uses an actor’s tricks of volume and movement to draw you in.
“I haven’t really broken Hollywood. Ridley Scott came from a similar background to me and he can make whatever he wants using huge money, the whole system.”
This committed leftie, who refused a knighthood after exultantly staging the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, makes a concerted effort not to seem aloof. “I’m delighted not to own a yacht, nor wish to own one,” he proles.
He still lives in an edgy bit of east London and although he never discusses his personal life in interviews, he had a relationship with the actress Rosario Dawson. (It was said to have ended badly: they reportedly didn’t speak to each other during the junket for his 2013 film, Trance.) He has three twentysomething children with the casting director Gail Stevens.
You don’t really seem to have a Hollywood ego, I say to him. He looks at me with quizzical suspicion. Or at least, I add, you manage to suppress it.
“That’s more accurate.”
And, charismatic and likeable though he surely is, I do catch glimpses of a masked braggadocio during our meeting at Home, a striking new contemporary arts centre in Manchester, of which Boyle is patron. (The venue is billed as the north’s answer to the Barbican and thoroughly confuses taxi drivers.)
When I say to Boyle that the Olympics ceremony — almost universally celebrated for having nailed the contradictory quiddities of being British — had made him a household name, he shoots me a look of dented pride mingled with irritation. Well, I backtrack, of course you were famous before. The glare relaxes.
Who cares, though? He could easily get away with being an arrogant jerk. You’ll have known his name at least since Trainspotting, the electrifying masterpiece that emerged at the fag-end of the Major government and epitomised “Cool Britannia”. It was one of the most successful British films of the 1990s and has aged superbly.
Boyle’s other blockbusters include the dystopian zombie flick 28 Days Later, with its unforgettable shots of a harried and deserted London; Slumdog Millionaire, for which he won an Academy award for best director; and 127 Hours, about an American climber who had to hack off his own arm with a penknife to save his life.
“All my films,” he has said, “are about someone facing impossible odds and overcoming them.” I tell him that, tritely and reductively, this could be his own story. “I knew there was that implication when I first said it,” he says.
“A journalist spotted that link between my films and I thought, f****** hell. Sometimes you watch them and say: mate, you’ve made the same film with different clothes.”
Last week the first teaser emerged for his next movie, a characteristically brooding biopic of Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder. Boyle came to direct it with Universal Studios after David Fincher and Sony had handed it to them.
We know this thanks to last year’s Sony email hack. That was allegedly orchestrated by the North Korean regime after Sony released The Interview, a tawdry, unfunny satire about the leader, Kim Jong-un.
In leaked correspondence two Sony executives had bemoaned the time and money being diverted away from the film Steve Jobs and onto Angelina Jolie (a “minimally talented spoilt brat”) and her movie Cleopatra, which they dismissed as a “$180m ego-bath”. Boyle guffaws when I mention this.
“Ego is an important part of creativity,” he says. “You’re always trying to control it — yours and other people’s.”
He is also planning a Trainspotting sequel named Porno. But to make it he had to be reconciled with Ewan McGregor who had played Trainspotting’s lead junkie, Mark Renton.
They fell out after Boyle promised McGregor the starring role in his 2000 film The Beach, an adaptation of Alex Garland’s yarn about gap-year backpackers taking drugs and loafing in Thailand. In fact he was secretly talking to Leonardo DiCaprio about the same part and ended up casting the Titanic star. McGregor didn’t speak to him for years.
“We needed forgiveness,” says Boyle, “but I don’t know if we deserved it or not. I learnt that lesson directly.”
The model for Porno, he says, is the BBC television series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?. “That was truly magnificent,” he says. “It illustrated what had happened to Britain socially; the growth of the middle classes.”
It’s a telling observation: Boyle says he has never abandoned his left-wing beliefs or voted for any party except Labour. Despite the hammering that socialism has just suffered in Britain, he retains the dogged optimism of the committed left.
I suspect he is more New Labour than Old: he says “huge progress” was made under Tony Blair and that the future of the party is “not about returning” to the past. “As a dramatist” — he quivers with excitement — “you look at the Miliband story and say: that’s not over.”
So David will be back? “Yeah.”
You’re a republican, I say. Was it hard to bury those convictions when you were directing the Queen for the opening ceremony? “I took that job on behalf of everyone,” he says.
“It wasn’t a private manifesto. I needed to be mindful of the things people respect here — and people respect the Queen. I’m not sure the institution will ultimately survive, but under her tutelage it has bound the country together.”
Would you like to see it end when she dies? “An inevitable part of democracy is that some outdated institutions — the House of Lords is one, the monarchy is another — come under threat. How long it takes I don’t know.”
He wanted to weave the BBC into the Olympics ceremony as the thing that, along with the NHS, “uniquely defines us as a country. But we couldn’t because it was broadcasting the event. It’s independent and incredibly powerful; it holds governments to account and is vital to our democracy.”
I mention that the new culture secretary, John Whittingdale, has said that the licence fee is “worse than a poll tax” because everyone pays the same. “It’s a bit like universal child benefit,” says Boyle. “These things have an invisible bond that helps to connect us as a society.”
I suspect he is a master at getting his own way. His autocratic effervescence must be tremendous fun to work with but hell to come up against. He says he had to be “vile” to the corporate bodies, committees and grey management people he met when he was crafting his vision for the Olympics ceremony.
“A friend of mine on the panel would look at me during the meetings. I knew he was thinking: Danny, what have you become? I would say terrible stuff to them.”
Such as what? He looks at me through his nerdy spectacles, lowers his voice, slowly points a finger and whispers: “ ‘We are doing it this way. We are dedicated to our vision of how to do this. This is how it’s going to happen.’ You used whatever techniques you needed to make it clear to them.”
So that’s how he did it.