Nine movies in and going from strength to strength, Danny Boyle’s career has taken him from the not-so-genteel Georgian terraces of Edinburgh to the prehistoric majesty of Utah’s Blue John Canyon, with the odd space odyssey thrown in along the way for good measure. To cast 127 Hours’ Aron Ralston, Boyle turned to James Franco, a Californian with a growing reputation and the skills to match. It’s proved another canny pick: Franco is mesmerising in a one-hander (no pun intended) that’d stretch the most seasoned veteran. He gives a career-defining performance that’s testament to Boyle’s ability to coax the best from his leading men. But Franco isn’t the first actor to benefit from the director’s passionately single-minded yet collaborative approach, so we’ve run the rule over Boyle’s leading men to analyse what makes them – and him – tick.
Character: Alex Law
Movie: Shallow Grave
Before: There was a nice parallel in Ewan McGregor’s early career, with the Guildhall grad following his uncle Denis Lawson’s footsteps to work with Bill Forsyth. But he didn’t strike as lucky as his uncle (who played Local Hero’s Gordon Urquhart) as Forsyth’s Being Human (1993) was a stinker. McGregor was better served by his role as an Elvis-loving brainbox in Dennis Potter’s TV drama Lipstick On Your Collar, and under a wig in Beeb costume-athon The Scarlett And The Black alongside a young, and often fairly naked, Rachel Weisz.
The Boyle Movie: Like Lord Of The Flies in a suit and tie, Shallow Grave had the power to rattle around in your brain and make you eye even your bestest mates suspiciously. McGregor’s cynical (and ironically named) hack Alex Law turned out to be the closest thing it had to a hero – which was not all that close. The Scottish actor was terrific on home turf, matched by equally edgy performances from Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox. Under Boyle’s watchful eye they delivered a powerhouse revenge tragedy in which the allure of hard cash outstripped loyalty, friendship and the basic human desire not to be set upon by a bunch of hardened Glaswegian gangsters. McGregor had a freshfaced, boyish innocence that helped balance all the noir-y nastiness. Only a little, mind.
After: Blue Juice, Newquay’s answer to Point Break, followed a year after Shallow Grave and only the most hardened Sean Pertwee fan would claim it as a masterpiece. But then came Trainspotting, a second Boyle collaboration that saw McGregor knock it out of the park as Irvine Welsh’s heroin addict Renton, followed by a road movie, A Life Less Ordinary, that narrowly failed to see lightning strike a third time. While other lead roles soon followed – including Brassed Off, Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book and the small matter of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – and the pair briefly fell out when Boyle passed over McGregor for The Beach, but those two first Boyle films didn’t just launch McGregor... arguably, they remain his best work.
Movie: The Beach
Before: With the small matter of Titanic behind him, DiCaprio was mega box office by the time Boyle settled on him for his adaptation of Alex Garland’s novel. A quirky, energetic on-screen presence who’d caught the eye (and won an Oscar nod) in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, as well as The Basketball Diaries and as a cocky gunslinging cameo in The Quick And The Dead, he won a legion of admirers as the titular balcony climber in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
The Boyle Movie: The Beach, despite all the pain and heartache it brought with it, was a hugely formative experience for Boyle. DiCaprio’s involvement gave him access to a $50m budget and clout with a studio for the first time and also, despite the fallout of his relationship with Ewan McGregor, a handy entrée to working with one of Hollywood’s most collaborative A-listers. “Leo is an amazing movie star because he’s very director-orientated,” Boyle remembers. “When he commits to a project he just goes, ‘We do whatever this guy wants,’ and that’s it.” DiCaprio in turn got a character who, like Trainspotting’s Renton, had a hedonist’s heart but the hardwired instincts of a born survivor. Like Renton, American backpacker Richard hunted for paradise and found something a whole lot darker. He also got another of those wonderful Boyle codas – “If you find that moment… it lasts forever” – to close the movie.
After: Things continued to go swimmingly for DiCaprio. The Beach flopped, but two years later he paired up with Scorsese for Gangs Of New York, the start of a beautiful friendship that gave us The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island. There was also the small matter of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002), two more Oscar nominations and the possibility of another for Inception.
Movie: 28 Days Later
Before: Originally planning a career in law, Cillian Murphy bailed from his course to pursue his acting ambitions, starting off with on stage before moving to small indies. He appeared in Disco Pigs, Enda Walsh’s stage play about an almost umbilically linked pair of friends, before repeating the trick in Kirsten Sheridan’s 2001 film version. Danny Boyle caught it and was suitably impressed, casting him as 28 Days Later’s zombie-afflicted courier, Jim.
The Boyle Movie: It’s impossible to imagine that Murphy’s talent and easy charisma wouldn’t have been recognised on a bigger stage sooner or later, but 28 Days Later lent his career the kind of Boyle turbo-boost that Ewan McGregor benefited from before him. Wandering dazed through the West End clad in his scrubs, Murphy’s intro was as iconic as any multiplex debut. The role displayed his versatility, with moving emotional moments – rewatch that heartbreaking return to his parents’ home – amid a flurry of full-bore zombie assaults. His primal final-reel battle of wills with another old Boyle hand, Christopher Eccleston, gave him a chance to bare his teeth, too. If there’s a 28 Months Later, we’d love to see Jim dust himself off to start knocking undead heads together again.
After: Murphy reunited with Boyle five years later to help save the planet as Sunshine’s brooding physicist Capa, but the impact of his star-making turn in 28 Days Later became apparent much sooner, with supporting roles in chunky Hollywood period pieces Girl With A Pearl Earring and Cold Mountain. He auditioned unsuccessfully to play Batman but has since become a firm favourite with Christopher Nolan. The Brit has cast Murphy three times, calling on his cold-eyed villainy for Batman Begins and, briefly, The Dark Knight, and picking him to play Inception’s mark. Closer to home his role in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley wowed Cannes types, while he made a suitably creepy bad guy in Wes Craven’s Red Eye. As for future Boyle/Murphy collaborations, watch this space. “I would love to work with him again and love that Nolan values him as well. He’s still underrated,” the director told Empire.
Character: Jamal Malik
Movie: Slumdog Millionaire
Before: Danny Boyle got some casting help from his own sofa for Slumdog Millionaire. His daughter, an avid Skins fan, nagged him to watch a wiry actor called Dev Patel in action as the show’s witty, offbeam teenager Anwar Kharral. Until that point the director had been planning to cast an Indian star for his Mumbai-set story, but wanted someone slimmer than the usually buff Bollywood actors – and the Brit was a perfect fit.
The Boyle Movie: As Jamal Malik, Patel was a sensitive addition to Boyle’s finishing school. The Harrow-born actor, like his character, was on a voyage of discovery, but as he tells The Guardian, he was able to learn from the best in the business. “When you see him on set it's like an animal in his natural habitat,” Patel remembers. “When he tells you how to say a certain line or do a certain thing, he acts it himself as he explains it. Sometimes he would be panting and taking heavy breaths – he was really feeling it. He can always articulate exactly what he wants from a scene."
After: Along with most of Hollywood, M. Night Shyamalan was watching Slumdog and picked Patel to play The Last Airbender’s conflicted Prince Zuko, a fire lord with serious daddy issues. Among all the ho-hum 3D, mind-warping CGI and giant flying fluffballs, Patel was quietly terrific, his exchanges with Shaun Toub’s Uncle Iroh easily the best thing in the movie. Next up? Back to India for John Madden’s rites-of-passage drama The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. He’ll be looking after the most esteemed group of retirees since Red, with Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson also appearing. Thanks at least partly to Boyle, Patel has travelled from Skins to the Hollywood mainstream in three easy steps.
Character: Aron Ralston
Movie: 127 Hours
Before: Unlike Dev Patel, Ewan McGregor and Cillian Murphy, Danny Boyle hardly plucked James Franco from obscurity. With Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, he cut his teeth on Freaks And Geeks, later reuniting with Rogen for smoked-out actioner Pineapple Express. Multiplex goers knew him as Spider-Man’s Harry Osborn; indie lovers as Milk’s gay-rights supporter Scott Smith.
The Boyle Movie: Despite rumours that an old Boyle hand – Cillian Murphy – or possibly a new one – Ryan Gosling – would end up as 127 Hour’s boulder holder, Boyle settled on Franco, recognising an easy charisma that would carry audiences through an action movie with virtually no action. As with many Boyle characters, Aron Ralston is a flawed protagonist, not always sympathetic but never less than compelling. Franco communicates his flighty, thrillseeking whims, brute determination and humour with great skills: he’s a selfish bastard, but a selfish bastard you wouldn’t mind having a beer with.
After: While Franco was undeniably on the up-and-up anyway – with Howl, Your Highness and Rise Of The Apes also out in 2011, a novel to publish and the small matter of the Oscars to present, expect his chiselled features to be just about everywhere this year – the Boyle boost, and a likely Oscar nod, will hardly hurt his chances of landing lead roles – if he wants them. And it’s a big ‘if’. He’s steered well clear of mainstream fodder to this point and, with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying giving him another shot at directing and a possible adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meredian in the works, he may just stick with literary-minded indies. If he doesn’t work with Boyle again, though, we’ll saw our arm off.