A career break has left workaholic Ewan McGregor feeling refreshed after nearly 50 films in 20 years. He tells Lucy Broadbent about life in LA, his tear-jerking new movie and why he wants to be remembered for more than his nude scenes
A dirty old man’s laugh honks down the hotel corridor, as if someone has just told a rude joke. That someone is Ewan McGregor, who now opens the door of his suite. “Come in, come in,” he says, his eyes still creased into laughter lines. “We were just … ” He never says quite what they were “just … “, but good humour hangs in the air like a party streamer. McGregor offers a handshake which percolates with the enthusiasm.
Dressed in a black T-shirt that sits tight on his lean frame, jeans cuffed at the ankle and black bovver boots, which he slams on the coffee table in front of him, he really doesn’t look that far removed from Renton, the character from Trainspotting that made him famous more than 16 years ago. Not that he looks like a heroin addict. But the clothes, the boots on the table, the pasty skin — the only difference might be a good haircut. Even at 40 years old, he doesn’t seem to have aged at all. Los Angeles, which is where we are now and where he is living, appears to agree with him.
In a 20-year career, McGregor has made nearly 50 films — an exhausting average of two movies a year. In the past he’s been accused of being a little “promiscuous” with his film choices, and it’s made him a little defensive. (“Can you tell me why it is ridiculous for an actor who’s working to work a lot?” he once said, not without justification. “Why is it?”)
Today, McGregor is fresh from an all-too-rare four-month break — which could also explain his youthful, carefree demeanour. “I finished shooting a film in September, and I just felt I’d worked my a*** off for years,” he explains. “I felt like I just hadn’t stopped. Which I hadn’t. And I realised one day that I didn’t have to work if I didn’t want to. It was like the sky suddenly opening up. I called my wife and suggested that I didn’t work for the rest of the year. And it’s been lovely.”
“Lovely” is a word that appears often in McGregor’s vocabulary. As does the F-word. An odd combination, perhaps, but one that perfectly explains a Scottish lad who quit school at 16 and came to inhabit the sphere of acting luvvies. His accent tells the same story of merging worlds — a soft Scottish burr, but “a wee bit actorified”, he says himself. “I did go off and make a couple of documentaries,” he continues, fixing me with his blue eyes. “But I didn’t make a movie, and it was great to be at home. We’ve got a new baby, and those are beautiful months that you won’t get back if you’re not there.”
This year, McGregor will break his record with four films due for release (at the mention of this he raises his fist in a triumphant gesture). The first is Haywire, a complex action thriller directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh, in which he plays the owner of a private undercover operations agency opposite Michael Fassbender and Michael Douglas; in the comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, he plays a fisheries expert opposite Emily Blunt; Jack the Giant Killer is a big-budget, effects-heavy fairy tale with McGregor as captain of the king’s guard; and in The Impossible, due out at the end of the year, he’s a father who loses his wife and eldest son in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand.
Never could you call him typecast. In fact, rarely is there an actor who has dived, chameleon-like, into such a vast array of roles — he moves from family-friendly popcorn fare to art-house oddities without missing a beat. “Well, I’m lucky,” he says matter-of-factly. “Because I think diversity is what it’s all about.” After Trainspotting came a slew of successful independent films such as Brassed Off, Little Voice and Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book. In 1999, he became a younger Alec Guinness — and an action figure — as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars trilogy. Then the US roles flooded in — Moulin Rouge, Black Hawk Down, The Island, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Angels & Demons, Beginners — and he found himself working with directors such as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Then there’s the string of leading ladies, a list that includes Nicole Kidman (whom he affectionately calls “Knickers”), Emily Blunt (“I could make film after film with her”), Renee Zellweger, Naomi Watts, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson … He won’t name his favourite on the grounds that it “wouldn’t be very gentlemanly, would it?”
Haywire, which sees him clearly relishing playing a villain, is a complicated film that even McGregor admits needs a few viewings to fully unravel. And it’s packed to the rafters with fight scenes. He talks briefly about being a little caught out when a fight scene was added to the film some nine months after the main shoot, when he was anything but fit. Given that he had to go up against martial arts champion Gina Carano, who plays the female lead in the film, this was something of a nerve-racking moment.
“I hadn’t done any training, I hadn’t even been to the gym, suddenly I was in four hours fight rehearsal for two days. I almost couldn’t walk after that. Every muscle in my body hurt. And there I was up against someone who is inordinately fit.” At one point he accidentally punched Carano in the head, causing her to ask him if he’d hurt himself. (He had.)
Filming The Impossible was, if anything, more painful. The tsunami scenes were created with minimal digital effects, meaning McGregor and his co-star Watts had to spend long periods submerged in a gigantic water tank in Spain. He admits he “howled like a baby” when he read the script, which is based on the experiences of a real family. “I was very wary about this film,” says McGregor. “It’s a story about something terrible that happened in recent history, where many, many people lost their lives and the idea of making a movie about it didn’t sit very well on my shoulders.
“But I’ve never really explored being a father in a film before, and I’ve been a father for 15 years, so I agreed to read the script. The story is about a dad who gets split up from his wife and his eldest son, and he has the two youngest sons with him, aged seven and five. And he puts his little boys up on the roof of the hotel while he goes to look for his wife and eldest son. And he can’t stop searching for them. I wouldn’t want to spoil the film, but when they find each other … I was just crying my eyes out. And that’s why I think it’s valid to make the film because it’s all about the human spirit and a unique look at what makes us tick.”
Three years ago, he and his wife of 16 years, Eve Mavrakis (who is French and pronounces her name Ev), moved to Los Angeles with their four children, Clara, 15, Esther, nine, Jamiyan, nine, and the baby whose name has not been made public. (The latter two are adopted.)
“I didn’t have any desire to live in Los Angeles,” he explains, when reminded of a 2001 interview in which he swore he’d never do any such thing. “I moved to London when I was 18 and I just thought this is where I live. But our friends here in LA said you should see this house, so Eve and I saw it and just fell for it.” They bought it in 2005, rented it out and stayed there now and again. “And then every time we came to stay, we liked being here more and more and then we just decided — on a whim, I suppose — to try living here. And we like it very much,” he pauses to reflect. “The truth is I have to go away to work, and Eve finds it easier to be here with the kids when I’m away.”
The couple met on the set of the television series Kavanagh QC in 1995 — she was working as a production designer. After 16 years, he appreciates “that lovely feeling of being with someone for a really long time … you know each other so well and you’re so comfortable in each other’s company. I get asked what’s the secret to a happy marriage a lot, and there’s no answer to it without trivialising it. You can’t just say ‘if you do this or do that, you’ll have a great marriage’ because it doesn’t work like that. There’s no secret other than to be in love with the woman you’re sharing your life with.” The extended absences can be hard, he says, but they’ve learnt to live with them. “It’s just the way it is. It’s how I make my living, and it’s how I support my family. And we just get on with it.” He paints a picture of family life that is anything but showbizzy.
“There’s a very British, disdainful image of Los Angeles, which is straight out of the pages of gossip celebrity magazines,” he says, rather earnestly. “There’s this idea that if you live here, you’re knocking about at parties with the Beckhams all the time, but that bears no relation to my life at all. When you’ve got four children, your world revolves around them and their friends.”
When he’s not running around organising children’s parties, he’s usually in his garage, where he keeps his collection of vintage motorcycles. His love of motorcycling is well known after making the television series Long Way Round and Long Way Down with his friend Charley Boorman, but the extent of his collection is a revelation. “I’ve got some lovely, lovely old motorcycles that date back to 1929. There’s about 15 of them, and I’d be quite happy to just stand and look at them all day,” he says wistfully. “I have a very basic mechanical knowledge, and I like tinkering with them. And then I love to ride them, of course. It’s like meditation for me.”
Ironically, spending too much time in Los Angeles when he’s not working is the time that McGregor finds himself fretting over his career. “I try not to worry about where I am in this business. But it’s easier to worry here than at home because Los Angeles is all about the film business. At home you feel you’re judged on your body of work as a whole, here it’s more about your latest box-office figures. It’s not a very comfortable feeling.”
Raised in Crieff, Perthshire, the son of two teachers, McGregor always wanted to act. His parents let him leave school at 16 to join the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and within a year of leaving he was starring in the Dennis Potter television series Lipstick on Your Collar; within two, Shallow Grave, and shortly after came Trainspotting.
Fame arrived with all its disadvantages. McGregor laughs as he tells the story of when he was strip searched by US customs. “It was after Trainspotting, and the customs guy took me into a booth. It was absolutely that he’d seen me in a movie about heroin and therefore assumed I’d be carrying heroin on me. I sort of took it as a compliment. Obviously I’d been quite convincing.” Returning to Scotland after Trainspotting wasn’t easy either. “I was in Glasgow five or six years later and people were calling out in the street: ‘Renton, f****** Renton’. Everyone wanted to take me for a pint. I found I was doing a lot of very fast walking, head down, because it was very difficult to wander about.” These days he’s more accustomed to being stopped in the street. “I really don’t mind if people come up to me. As long as they’re polite about it, I’m happy. I don’t like people who are pushy and sometimes people will come up and tell me that they didn’t like me in something.
“I want to say ‘Just don’t bother. If you didn’t like me in something keep it to yourself. Don’t come across the street and put yourself out to tell me I was s*** in something. I don’t want to know’. But people love to do that.” Talking of Scotland gets him misty eyed. He talks unemotionally about what he misses of London — the theatre, his house in St John’s Wood which is rented out, chatting with people in Regent’s Park while his “dog sniffs other dogs’ bums”. But Scotland invokes a zeal in his voice that gives away the patently passionate man beneath. “It’s funny but it’s a very Scottish thing to love the place more the less you’re there. It’s easy to love Scotland from afar. But I do yearn for it. I yearn to take a motorcycle ride and lose myself in the Highlands. It’s the one thing I don’t often do.”
Another thing he doesn’t often do, is drink. It’s been 11 years since his last sip of alcohol. “I was a father, a husband, I had a burgeoning career and I was drinking too much. Something had to give and I didn’t want it to be any of the other ones that went. So I stopped drinking. It wasn’t a big deal,” he says, a trace of irritation in his voice. Does he mind talking about it? “No, it’s fine. It’s just that when you boil down my interviews, it’s always that I take my clothes off and I don’t drink.”
This does seem a little unfair. There’s more to McGregor than abstemiousness and a penchant for nakedness. But he does have a reputation for taking his clothes off in films. There are so many that he’s even joked that nudity is written into his contract. “The truth is I don’t mind doing nudity if it’s called for,” he says. “I’ve not done it in some films when asked to, because I felt it was gratuitous, but films reflect our lives. I love romantic films, and part of that in our modern world is sex. I don’t want to be the guy getting out of bed clutching a pillow to his d***, because people don’t do that in real life. If you’ve just spent three hours making love to a woman in bed, you’re not going to be worried about her seeing you when you get up to go to the toilet. At least, I wouldn’t be.” He laughs.
Of course, the nudity has got him into trouble before now. He recalls the time when his parents, who he still visits in Perthshire when he can, decided to go to a screening of The Pillow Book. “It’s an amazing film and I loved doing it. But I remember my parents sending me a fax saying, ‘We’re going to go and see The Pillow Book tonight in Edinburgh, son. We’re going with the farmer and his wife’. They live in the middle of nowhere, next to a farm, and they wanted to take the farmer. And I suddenly thought ‘God, do they have any idea what’s in the film?’” For those who haven’t seen it, McGregor spends much of The Pillow Book completely naked and at one point shares a love scene with a 75-year-old Japanese man. McGregor tried to warn his parents that the film was “quite racy”, but it was no use. They went, and his father faxed his response the next day. It simply read, “I’m glad you inherited one of my major attributes.”