Observer, Oct 2011
Mr Sunshine vs The Apocalypse: He’s turned 40, moved his family to Los Angeles and spends his time tinkering with motorbikes. Midlife crisis? No fear .
Also at The Observer
In the corner of his regular haunt, a bustling restaurant called Tavern in the posh suburb of Brentwood, Los Angeles, Ewan McGregor takes a break from his shrimp salad to consider the apocalypse.
“I’m not remotely worried,” he says. “For all of the hurtling towards climate change, there’s also a lot more understanding of it than there was when we were kids. They don’t call environmentalists treehuggers any more, so I think there’s hope!”
Doomsday might appear an odd fixation for McGregor on the face of it. After all, life is rather good. After some middling years in the noughties, he’s having something of a renaissance. As we speak, he has five movies coming down the pipe, and promising ones too. There’s Bryan Singer’s sword swinging fantasy Jack The Giant Killer, and The Impossible, in which he and Naomi Watts face the 2004 tsunami. He also plays a stuffy scientist who falls for Emily Blunt in Salmon Fishing In The Yemen and he’s part of an all star ensemble in Stephen Soderbergh’s action thriller, Haywire.
But the first, and most original film of this batch, is Perfect Sense, a small Scottish indie about, among other things, the end of the world. It’s a trending topic this year—the end has seldom been so nigh. At the multiplex, humanity has been under more or less constant threat since January: from aliens (Battle Los Angeles), apes (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), asteroids (Melancholia) and now disease (Contagion). But these big studio efforts lack the quiet, visceral terror of Perfect Sense, never mind its powerful conceit.
McGregor plays a Glasgow chef who falls in love with an epidemologist (Eva Green) while they — and the rest of the human race — lose their senses one by one. First to go is smell, then taste, then hearing, with each loss preceded by a spell of extreme derangement — crippling grief, rabid hunger or violent rage. No explanation is given, no exception is made and it’s not clear that anyone can stop it. It’s lyrical in ways, but also petrifying.
“We get so many reactions to this film,” says McGregor. “Someone I know saw it in London recently and was fine until half an hour later when she got the tube home. Then she just broke down crying. But I didn’t see it as the end of the world at all. When I read the script, I felt it was a really nicely written love story and the backdrop was a metaphor for falling in love. You know how we say that you lose your senses when you fall in love?”
Of course he didn’t dwell on the doomsday aspect. McGregor’s disposition is as sunny as the Los Angeles skies. He looks tanned and boyish in a faded T-shirt and jeans; his bicycle helmet is on the chair beside him (he just lives a couple of minutes away) and his blue eyes sparkle with mischief and humor. He’s never been overly discouraged by the traditional portents of disaster, like climate change, bird flu and the return of Jersey Shore.
“Haha! Yes, I’m hopeful, always have been. I’ve never had that fear of, ‘oh my God, how can you bring kids into this world?’ I’m a much more positive person than that. I wouldn’t have wanted my parents not to have me because they thought like that, would I? Because look — I’m having a great time!”
This much is certainly true. Over a 20 year career, spanning 46 movies, he has wielded a light saber, shot heroin, fought wars, slept with countless beautiful women and a few men too. But it hasn’t been without its dips and challenges. While life looked peachy at the turn of the millennium with the first Star Wars movie under his belt—followed by Moulin Rouge, Black Hawk Down, Big Fish; there were no weak links—there was a point at which he appeared to have gone off acting altogether. He went off around the world on a motorbike with his friend Charley Boorman (son of director John Boorman), an adventure that became the documentary series Long Way Round. And when he returned, things took a bit of a dive. Star Wars didn’t launch him into a spangly new category. Though Michael Bay cast him in The Island, it didn’t do well, and there followed a string of movies that scarcely anyone saw—Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, Miss Potter and Scenes of a Sexual Nature. Even when he worked with Woody Allen in Cassandra’s Dream, the film was universally panned. It wasn’t until Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and Beginners with Christopher Plummer that McGregor’s graph began to swing upwards again.
“But I would never draw a graph of my career, I don’t look at things that way,” he says. “On the vertical axis you could have box office, or personal satisfaction, and whenever you start thinking about that, you never feel on top. There were films that were never seen by anyone but they were still important. Everything is a stepping stone. I’m sure my agents would be able to tell you exactly where I am on that graph, but I’m not sure that I want to know really! The main thing is what’s next—the future.”
There’s a simple positivity about his outlook. If anything, he seems to be propelled by a child-like sense of adventure. “I turned 40 in March,” he says. “But I don’t feel it, you never do. I still want to kick around on BMX bikes! I have to ask my wife: ‘Do I look like a cock, or is this all right, the way I’m dressed?’ Because you don’t want to be ‘that guy’, but you also don’t want to listen to that voice either. I want to wear skinny jeans when I’m in my 70s. Why not? Who cares?”
According to David Mackenzie, the director of Perfect Sense, McGregor’s boyish charm is “a delight.” But there’s more going on. “There’s a complexity to him that isn’t just all sunny and eager. He’s a more than just an all round jack-the-lad good egg. I’m sure he has his dark side.”
Mackenzie would know. They first worked together on Young Adam in 2003, a tightly wrought noir about a cold-hearted drifter who engages in a series of loveless sexual encounters with Tilda Swinton and Emily Mortimer. McGregor recalls the experience with a chuckle. “David’s the classic tortured artist on set,” he says. “Tearing his hair out, you know, full of angst. And he does have a taste for darkness. We had some odd conversations about what to do in each sex scene, to come up with ideas that were sexual but cold. Like, ‘maybe she should just jerk him off in the sink?’ That’s not the kind of conversation you have with most directors!”
For Mackenzie’s part, McGregor set about this rather difficult material in a typically unfussy manner. “Some actors are very demanding of your energy, but Ewan has a straightforward practicality that I find very refreshing,” he says. “You know: ‘let’s not make this overcomplicated, let’s just get on with it and do some good work.’ Something like a nude scene is a good example. With many actors you often have to discuss it beforehand with their agents, but I’ve never talked to Ewan’s agent about anything like that. If I want to do a scene in a film which is relatively honest—say the couple has just had sex, so they’re going to be naked—he’s always quite comfortable with it. To the point of being actually evangelical for nude scenes!”
There was a full frontal scene in Young Adam that was cut from that film until McGregor lobbied to have it reinstated. In Perfect Sense, we see him naked again: I wonder if nudity is practically a tradition for McGregor by now. After Young Adam, Velvet Goldmine, Trainspotting and The Pillow Book in 1996 — where he was naked for most of the movie — his old chap has quite the sizzle reel.
“Oh yeah, my cock’s got a great career,” he laughs. “It’s got its own facebook page and twitter account and everything.” He recalls the time he starred in What The Butler Saw by Joe Orton in a tweedy theater in Salisbury. “I had to stand up naked from behind a sofa and grab a policeman’s helmet to cover myself and dash across the stage,” he says. “One day I let the helmet go, just for effect, and there was this gasp — it was a matinee and the whole blue rinse brigade was there. I loved it! I felt very powerful in that moment. So I kept doing it. But one day someone spilt water on the stage and I slipped and landed on my back. I was sliding with my legs up, arse first into the front row!”
One of the highlights of shooting Perfect Sense — alongside licking shaving cream (actually white chocolate) off Eva Green in a bath – was acting for the first time alongside his uncle, Denis Lawson, the man who had inspired him to take up the profession in the first place. Lawson came from the same small town of Crieff in Scotland (population 6,579) where McGregor grew up, in a simple middle class home. McGregor’s father was a gym teacher and his mum worked with special needs children — there were no artists in his family besides Uncle Denis.
“If you took my uncle out of the equation,” he says, “I don’t know if I’d have even thought to become an actor. I’d have been a…” – he shrugs and looks around as a sous-chef emerges from the kitchens in a tall white hat – “a baker or something.
“I just wanted to be him when I was growing up,” he says. “He’d arrive up in Crieff from London where he’d already moved, and he’d come back in the 70s you know with feathers in his hair, sheepskin waistcoat, no shoes and beads and stuff. I’d be like ‘fucking hell, I want to be that guy’. And the fact that he came from the same small town made it look possible.”
His parents let him leave school at 16 to follow his dream. He joined the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and found success so quickly that he dropped out before graduating to star in the acclaimed Dennis Potter TV series, Lipstick On Your Collar. A year later came Shallow Grave, then a spell on Kavanagh QC where he met his wife, Eve, a production designer. And no sooner were they married in 1995, than Trainspotting made McGregor a household name, at least in the UK. Once he landed the role of Obi Wan Kenobi in 1999, he became a household name pretty much everywhere else.
It was around this time that McGregor gave up drinking. But not in the traditional manner of meetings and sponsors and twelve steps. Instead, McGregor just quietly quit and has never looked back. “I just couldn’t fit it in,” he says. “I had a family and a career and there just wasn’t the time to drink as well. It’s not that big a deal. In England we think it’s funny that we drink a lot. It’s a badge of honor, and I think that’s pathetic really.”
He became increasingly prolific in his work. McGregor has always made film after film, back to back — he’s the actor that likes to say yes. The only serious break he took was in 2004 when he went on his epic “Long Way Round” motorbike ride from London to New York with his pal Charley Boorman. Even then, he made a TV show and a book out of it.
There was a time when he considered working less, perhaps taking a leaf out of Daniel Day Lewis’ book, for example. It didn’t last. “I think it’d be quite cool to do what he does, and make just one amazing film every five years,” he says. “But I just couldn’t do it, there’s no way. I like to work too much. And I’ve got a family to support. When you make smaller films, you don’t make the kind of money where you can take years off.”
Lewis was one of McGregor’s early idols. He describes meeting him as like “meeting one of my heroes. I was so impressed by how easygoing and funny he was. He’s always been one of the most exciting actors to watch in the world.”
McGregor’s style, however, is very different — he doesn’t practice method acting and argues that it’s largely misinterpreted by inexperienced, insecure actors. “Obviously Daniel doesn’t do it like this, but a lot of actors do it because there’s a safety in it: , ‘if I do all this, I’ll be OK’. But it can very often be a guise for just being a cunt to everybody!”
McGregor’s own technique is free of mystique. “I’m more or less straightforward about acting,” he says. “And it’s getting easier — with experience everything is more instinctual. The hardest part is the hanging about in between. The boring parts become more boring. ‘How can I spend the next two hours in this caravan?’ For the first 15 years I ran around wasting all my energy, but now I try and use my time constructively. Oh you should see my needlepoint, it’s amazing.”
If his life were a graph one might assume the peaks would be Trainspotting, Star Wars, the birth of his daughters, but what about the troughs? Where are the dips in this story? He has a think. “I don’t look at things that way,” he says after a while. “Because on the vertical axis you could have box office or personal satisfaction. And whenever you start thinking about that, you never feel on top. I’m sure my agents could tell you exactly where I am on that graph, but I’m not sure that I want to know! The important thing is what’s next, the future.”
He’d like to direct, of course, though he doesn’t take the transition lightly. “It’s quite scary,” he says. “There’s lots of voices on your shoulder saying, ‘it’ll be shit’, ‘what makes you think you can tell a story?’ You know, the negative voices. Much more so than in acting.”
He wouldn’t mind doing another epic motorbike journey, either, but on his own this time. “It’s a purer way to do it,”he says. “Because you know, Charley might want to go on ahead, while I might want to bimble around. And I would take the A to B out of it too. So I might ship a bike to Patagonia or Peru and just ride around there for six weeks.”
These may be distant goals, though. “I do still have the bug, but I just can’t justify taking off from my family really,” he says, “particularly when I’ve been away so much this past year already.” He spent five months in Thailand shooting The Impossible, then six months in England for Jack The Giant Killer (a fantasy starring Ian McShane and Bill Nighy). So for now, he’s staying home in Los Angeles.
But that’s just fine; he likes it here. He first bought his place in Brentwood many years now, thinking it’d be nice to have a place to stay if he ever had to make a film there. “But no one shoots in Los Angeles anymore,” he says. So he rented the house out until about three years ago, when he and Eve decided to try living there, just for the hell of it. “I thought I would live in London forever,” he says. “So there’s a lot of novelty to living out here. But I love it. It’s always a nice day to ride your motorbike. And I’m not often recognized here. Well, I wear my balaclava obviously.”
His place is just around the corner apparently. He doesn’t live in some gated celebrity enclave up on Mulholland Drive, but on a normal street, rich but not starry. And for a change, he’s actually got some time on his hands. “There’s five movies now that are yet to come out, so I’m not going to work till next year, I’ve promised myself,” he says.
That means, he’s free to tinker about with his collection of old VW’s and motorbikes – one of his favorite hobbies. Speaking of which, he needs to be going — “my Italian motorbike guy is going to come by,” he says. And with that, he grabs his helmet, unlocks his bike outside and slips down a sun-dappled side street, a man content, with the sun on his back, pressing eagerly forwards.