Yesterday he found himself at the Cannes Film Festival, feted by critics and sharing details of his new friendship with Scarlett Johansson.
The transformation in Brannigan’s fortunes is thanks to Ken Loach, the veteran British director who cast the 24-year-old in his latest film, The Angels’ Share.
Loach’s long-time collaborator, scriptwriter Paul Laverty, came across Brannigan in a Glasgow community centre where he was volunteering as a football coach as part of a police initiative to keep young people off the streets and out of prison.
Invited to audition for the film, Brannigan twice failed to turn up. He was eventually persuaded by the promise of cash, as he had taken out a loan to pay for Christmas presents and had no means of paying it back.
Loach was impressed with what he saw and cast Brannigan in the lead role as Robbie, a young man with a similar background – the son of drug addict parents, sucked into a life of gang violence at an early age and trying to turn his life around after having a child.
Brannigan was sentenced to three years in a young offenders’ institution aged 16 for discharge of a weapon. He now has a three-year-old son, Leon.
In the comic film, Brannigan’s character is sentenced to perform community service after his latest petty crime. His supervisor introduces him to the joys of malt whisky, and Robbie hatches a plan to steal from a priceless cask that is coming up for auction at a distillery in the Highlands.
Speaking at Cannes, where he walked the red carpet hours after Brad Pitt and Ray Liotta, Brannigan reflected on his change of circumstances.
He said of his chance encounter with Paul Laverty: “Hands up, I would say that Paul has saved my life.
“I had nowhere to turn, I’ve got a kid – who knows what I would have done for money.
“I’m very familiar with the situation in this film. My background was quite rough. But, in all honesty, there are thousands and thousands of kids like Robbie with the same story.”
His first experience on a film set was “quite daunting” but he took to acting like a duck to water and is being hailed as a genuine talent.
The casting director of The Angels’ Share sent him to audition for a second film, Under The Skin, which was shooting in Scotland and stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien.
He won a role in the production and found himself in a position that many men would envy: being seduced on screen by one of Hollywood’s most desirable women.
“I play a guy out on the pull who sees her, goes on the dancefloor and chats her up. I had to strip off, though she didn’t take all her clothes off.
“It was fun and she was an absolutely fantastic girl. I was quite nervous at first but once I got talking to her she was fine,” said Brannigan.
He even tried “a few wee one-liners” on his co-star, although with little success.
The gulf between an A-list star and a fledgling actor from the East End of Glasgow was all too apparent in the accoutrements each had with them. “She was kind of escorted everywhere she went, with bodyguards and stuff. I had an umbrella and a duffel coat.”
While shooting the film in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Highlands, Brannigan also demonstrated an innate talent for whisky tasting under the guidance of Charlie MacLean, a Master of the Quaich who also has a role in the film.
Brannigan explained: “They gave me 10 miniatures to take home for homework. I thought I was being daft. I was smelling wet dog, leather, seaweed, salt, peanuts – all different things. Then I would refer to a book and nine time out of 10 some of the things I’d written were right. Now every time I’m in the pub I give it a go.”
Exposure in Cannes is likely to bring in a sackful of job offers, but at the moment Brannigan has no more work on the table.
“After this I’m unemployed. I’m going to continue to try and build my career but I’ll still be doing the football coaching,” he said.