Getting his big break in Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor hasn't stopped working since, with back-to-back films coming out this year, starting with, ironically, Beginners. He sat down with Buzzine to talk about what he's learned about human nature by taking four-month motorcycle trips, an unusual hobby he has recently acquired, and playing Christopher Plummer's son...
Emmanuel Itier: You look smart...
Ewan McGregor: I just got in from London yesterday, which means you’ve got too much time in the morning because you wake up very early. So I ended up in a suit. I don’t know -- in my jet lag state, I felt like that would do. I wouldn’t normally do a suit.
EI: This movie is about losing a parent. Are your parents still alive?
EM: Yes, both of my parents are alive.
EI: Is it difficult for you to think about, as far as losing them?
EM: Yeah, well it’s not something you try to think about a lot. But I suppose, when you’re making a film like this, when you’re playing somebody who loses their father, it’s something that you do consider. But not very often and not to any great degree.
EI: Are you close to them?
EM: Yes, and it’s unpleasant to think about. We shot both parts of the movie, more or less, in sequence. We shot the first story first. We rehearsed with Christopher [Plummer] for a week, and then we shot for two-and-a-half to three weeks. And then we stopped. And then we rehearsed with Melanie for a week, and we shot two-and-a-half to three weeks with her. So we made two almost separate movies. And because we made them more or less in sequence, by the time we got to the scenes where Christopher was dying or when indeed passes away, it was very easy to imagine what that might be like without having to think of my own father, because I was very fond of Christopher. And I felt like, by the time we got there, it was at the end of our story. There’s a kind of sadness about that anyway -- that we’re not going to be making the film anymore -- because it was such a wonderful experience.
EI: How did you get involved in the project?
EM: I was in Sundance, I suppose, a year or two before we shot the film. Richard Klubeck, who is Mike [Mills]’s agent, is a friend of mine. So I was on the chair lift with him, we were skiing, and he was telling me the story about Mike’s film. And I thought it was an amazing story, a wonderful story. It’s a true story, but it’s a quite a quiet film. There’s something very simple and small about it that I liked. And then I met Mike here in LA, and we had a long chat together over coffee. And by the time I had met him for two hours, I really knew I wanted to be a part of it.
EI: Were you the first one to sign up?
EM: I think I was, yeah. And then he went off and tried to invite Christopher.
EI: Mike said he chose you because you were unlike other actors in vulnerability. Why are you so willing to show your vulnerable side?
EM: I don’t know if there’s really an answer to it. It’s not something you consider about yourself. "Well I’m very able to show vulnerability..." I think it’s true, but I would find it difficult to be any other way. I don’t know why would you not want to do that if you’re an actor. That’s a bonus, isn’t it?
EI: Macho, macho man...
EM: But I’m not really like that, so I don’t have to carry that around, luckily. I’m not that type of man, so I don’t have to worry about that in my work. In a way, the more interesting thing about it is I’ve never really played one of those macho type roles, and it’s probably because I may not be able to do it. Whenever I see a line like that in the script -- those macho one-liners -- I find it so embarrassing because I really couldn’t do it properly. I also don’t think men are really like that. I don’t think men who I’m interested in speaking with and hanging out with... I don’t have any friends that I would consider carry a kind of machoness around. There’s not any of them that I can think of. So I think it may be a kind of myth. It might be that men are able to feel and express their emotions as women are. And it would be odd not to...especially in a movie where you’re dealing with emotions like this.
EI: Your character in this movie is very accepting of his dad when he’s turning up gay. Is that also one of your characteristics -- that you’re very accepting?
EM: Totally, I am. I don’t recognize the importance of it, other than that it’s important to the individuals. Your sexuality is important to you, but it’s not to me. I don’t recognize it otherwise. It’s odd that it’s still such an issue. Not so much in this film, but when I did Phillip Morris, it took such a long time for that film to be released. And whether that was to do with a very poor distributor or if that was to do with the fact that it was a gay subject matter, I don’t know. Also, doing press for that and recognizing the reluctance in everybody and all these people that made the film, and the people that put the money up for the film and everything, and their reluctance to call it a gay story and everything… It’s about two men who fuck each other. It’s got to be a gay story, isn’t it? But I could recognize that reluctance to go there. It was odd.
EI: What moments of the movie stick with you? There are so many emotional scenes...
EM: It’s difficult to pinpoint. I loved working with Christopher and with Melanie [Laurent] and with Cosmo, the dog. And also with Kai [Lennox], who played my friend and we go and graffiti-ing together. He’s a lovely guy and a lovely actor. So there were some really beautiful moments. There are some nice moments with Melanie where there’s just a glance, or where we walk along over the bypass where there’s trucks going underneath the bridge there and we walk down by the river. Just all the looks that are given there -- I love that. I think she’s just a lovely actress to work with -- just beautiful. And with Christopher, the same. I mean, there was a lot of unspokeness going on onscreen, which is what really sells it as a father and son relationship. I like those moments where there’s not anything necessarily being said, but when we’re shopping for books or plants or little looks. I like to see him when he rewrites, which is something Mike’s father did do -- he rewrote the end of Jesus’s story. I think that’s a brilliant scene, and I like very much the way Oliver is just watching his dad and enjoying the boldness of what he’s done.
EI: Do you ever feel any pressure because it was so close to Mike’s heart? Or were you able to separate yourself from that and just play the role?
EM: I never found there was a burden or pressure. I’ve never been in the situation before where I’m playing the director. And I just love Mike so much, it was so easy to do. He never let it become a burden. He never wanted me to impersonate him or play him. I had him record all of the dialogue so I had it on my computer and I could listen to him reading the scenes as we went along because I wanted to be like him a little bit. I mean, I wanted to feel like him when I was playing the part. But it’s not like 100% I sound like him. I just took the flavor of his voice and a flavor of his movement, and that was enough to make me feel like I was him. But it was just wonderful on set because he’s such a caring and wonderful director. There was never a moment where we struggled to find anything -- we always just found it together. And he allows the actors such great freedom, and he understands what we do completely. And he allows us the freedom to live these scenes, and we don’t have to worry too much. The two halves were shot in different ways. The storyline with Christopher is quite steady, and if the camera moves, it moves very fluidly. The second part with Melanie -- the story is all hand-held, and there’s more movement and less structure to it which gives the film different feelings one story to the next. And then, when it came to do the scenes with Melanie, we just had complete light and the room was lit, and we could just play wherever we wanted in the room -- there were never any restrictions. But to answer your question, I never felt a pressure about it. It was never a burden. I don’t ever remember going to Mike and going, “What did it feel like right now?” which I could have done at any point. But it was also very clear in the script, and we would rehearse properly. We would run through things until they felt really right. And I don’t remember any moment where I needed to ask any special advice from him.
EI: How was it roller-skating?
EM: Not a very good roller-skater, so it was a bit hairy at times. But I liked it. I liked rollerblading through the Biltmore with Melanie. It was a fantastic experience that was fun. It was just an idea, and each take was very different from the last, and all of the actions we were doing was improvised at the time. None of it was really worked out. With the dog running up behind us -- with Cosmo and the dog handler, who I know is in the background but you don’t...
EI: How has it changed your life to live in Los Angeles?
EM: I don’t know…not very much because I continue to work a lot. So I’m not here consistently for any great length of time. I’d like to be more, because I get a break now and again. I think, after the summer, I will be here for a few months.
EI: How would you relate to the character in Trainspotting today, if you look at yourself? It was a really powerful, super energetic start of your career. How do you relate to this persona you were playing in?
EM: I don’t know that I do, really.
EI: Maybe you never did...
EM: I obviously related enormously when I was playing him. And then after that, there’s not a great deal of looking back for me. I love that film very much, and I think it’s a brilliant movie and a very important film for me. It was, in fact, my third movie, so it wasn’t the very beginning for me, but it certainly was the one that kind of put me in the public eye more than any of the others. I love the film, and I love the character of Renton; I think he was brilliant. He was brilliant to play amongst those other great actors and with that director, Danny [Boyle], at the helm. It was pretty spectacular. It was good filmmaking. It was really smooth, and we shot the whole thing in a very short time – six weeks or seven weeks or something.
EI: Trainspotting was one of the few movies that was better than the book. Do you agree?
EM: I love the book very much. I think it’s very different because the book is written from different people's perspectives. I think it’s an amazing book. I think you couldn’t claim one was better then the other. They’re both very different. It’s written in Scot, which is pretty difficult for you to grasp. So in that case, it might be not a great book, but it’s a wonderful book.
EI: But if you listen to the dialogue, it’s great, even if you don’t understand what’s said because of the Scottish accents...
EM: Yeah, you just have to keep reading it. That’s true. I loved the film. I loved everything about it. It was great.
EI: In the production notes, it says: When it comes to good relationships, we are all beginners. Do you still feel like that in your relationship?
EM: Sometimes. But then again, not really. I’ve been in my relationship for a very, very long time. There are always new things that happen, things that surprise you or you discover about yourself and your partner all the time. However, the lovely feeling of having been with someone for a really long time is not about being a beginner -- it's what makes our relationship, our marriage, our partnership so wonderful. The fact that you know each other so well and you’re so comfortable in each other’s company.
EI: Are you afraid of new beginnings?
EM: No. I have them all the time in my job and in my work. I’m constantly...more than most other people... Actors are starting and finishing jobs all the time. New groups of people, new experiences, new places, new stories all the time; it’s very much part of our lives -- we start and stop. Our chapters are quite well-defined. If I look back on my life, and if I’m trying to remember what year something is, I remember what films I was making. They kind of mark time for me. I’ve been lucky because I’ve made a lot of films,so I can do that. So beginnings don’t frighten me, no.
EI: You’re also a father. Do you recall any parenting rules you break with your kids?
EM: The thing about parenting rules is there aren’t any. That’s what makes it so difficult. There’s no book that you can go, "Oh, I see..." There’s no rule book. It might be easier if there was, but there isn’t. Your parenting is very much about your experience of your own upbringing and your life, and therefore what becomes important and what isn’t. It’s just as simple as that. I’m sure there are some great parenting rules, but I can’t think of quite what they are. That’s a huge topic...
EI: Are your girls driving yet?
EM: They don’t drive yet, no, but my eldest will drive this year.
EI: When are you going on the next motorcycle trip?
EM: I don’t have any planned at the moment. I felt like, after our Africa trip in 2007, it would be a while away. And whether we do another one together with Charlie and our group, I don’t know. It may well be that I do some other stuff on my own or with my wife or with my family. I’d like to travel -- not on motorbikes, but in a truck or something; it might be quite good fun to do some of that stuff with them. So I don’t have any plans at the moment. I did two very long motorcycle trips with my friends. I did a big one in 2004 and in 2007, and they were almost too close together. They take a lot of preparation and they were both over four months to ride. I think we’ll wait a little bit before another one.
EI: What do you take away from them?
EM: Just people you meet... There’s something about traveling by motorcycle that’s a very conducive experience in the world because you’re so vulnerable to everything -- to the elements and traffic and temperature. And when you’re traveling through countries where people are familiar with that, like in Kazistan or in Mongolia or Eastern Russia or in Africa and some African countries, people know what that’s about. In Mongolia, for instance, it’s a Nomadic country, as is much of Kazistan, so they travel by horseback really. They understand your vulnerability, so when you turn up somewhere, they look after you because that’s what happens to them when they travel. I suppose that, ultimately, what you come away with is that people are really nice to each other when they have very little. Often, the people that have the least are the most generous. That’s what I experienced, like in Ethiopia. There’s a little village in Ethiopia where we stopped, and these people wanted to take us into their little hut. And we went into their hut, and I think the woman had one small root of ginger. And she made us this ginger tea that I’ll never forget – it was a fantastic tea – in her little hut. And I’m pretty sure that was her only piece of ginger. And they gave us bread, and they literally were extraordinarily good people, and they fed us and sent us on our way. You come back very inspired by that human kindness and that we’re very nice to each other. It’s something that you have to go out there and discover, because we can’t be like that with each other in cities. It doesn’t work. And it’s a shame because I think, in our nature, that’s what we’re like, but in cities, we can’t be like that. So when you’re out there in the middle of nowhere, if you break down or you get punched or you fall off of something or you run out of petrol, you just know that somebody is going to come by and help you. And they do – always.
EI: Was there a moment when you were really annoyed with Oliver -- where you just wanted to punch him, "Just get that girl"?
EM: No, because you’re living it. You’re not judging him in anyway. It doesn’t work like that. If you look at your character that you’re playing in a negative light, it doesn’t really help and you can’t really play him. I was just trying to understand him and trying to understand some of his confusions and why he finds it difficult to fall in love and keep a girl.
EI: Do you draw the graphics in the movie?
EM: No, they’re Mike’s, I’m afraid. They’re far more talented than anything I could produce. I tried. I sat with Mike in a studio before we started filming. I wanted to know what it was like or what the process was like, so I sat next to him and he showed me how he went about it. And I had my paper and he had his paper, and we drew a bit next to each other. But you could see afterwards quite clearly who was the great artist.
EI: Is there anything else creatively that you’re good at?
EM: I become really into things all the time. At the moment, I like to build bicycles because I’ve ridden motorcycles a lot of my life. I made a film called Perfect Sense in Scotland just before I made this film, Beginners, and my character was a fixed gear rider. He rides track racing bikes on the street. He’s also a chef, but I became obsessed with bicycles, much to the director’s annoyance. I wasn’t really interested in cooking, but he kept dragging me into kitchens trying to get me to look like a chef. But l just kept standing up outside, tinkering with a bicycle. I’m not a very good cook, but I can build a quite nice bicycle. I enjoy that, and that’s creative. And they’re artistic and they all have a look, and you have to collect the right components and put them together, and they are like little works of art. But you can ride them down the street. I think that’s really nice.
EI: When are we going to see you again? What is the next movie?
EM: I’ve got lots of films coming out. I’ve got this one, Beginners, and then Perfect Sense, the film I made with David Mackenzie, is premiering at the Edinburgh Film Festival in July. I made a film with Steven Soderbergh called Haywire that’s coming out this year, I think. No date yet. I made a film with Juan Antonio Bayona called The Impossible, which I think is coming out in 2012. I made a film with Lasse Halstrom and Emily Blunt called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which may be called Salmon Fishing in the Desert or Salmon Fishing in the Sand. I’m not sure how keen they’ll be to have Yemen in the title anymore. But that’s a lovely film too.
EI: And what are you working on now?
EM: I’m making a film with Jack Singer called Jack and the Giant Killer, which is Jack and the Beanstalk, but we’re not meant to say that -- we’re meant to say "Jack and the Giant Killer." [Whispers "Jack and the Beanstalk."]
Focus Features' 'Beginners' is released on June 3, 2011.