For his latest film Ewan McGregor has dropped his winsome, million-dollar grin to play a selfish, brooding, promiscuous drifter. And, by the way, he’s taken his clothes off again. He spoke to Nigel Farndale
The restless, jiggling knee, the repetitive tapping of cigarette over ashtray, the way he keeps saying ‘yeah, yeah’ – loudly, impatiently, running the words together – all give the impression that Ewan McGregor has been, somehow, overwound. He even strains forward in his seat, as though about to spring up for a quick lap of the room. He can, it seems, hardly contain himself, his energy, his confidence.
Perhaps this is how someone behaves when they are struggling to keep their ego in check – trying to come to terms with being, at the age of 32, an international film star who flies by private jet, earns £5 million a film and finds himself cast as the love object of characters played by, among others, Nicole Kidman, Cameron Diaz and Rachel Weisz. Actually, it’s a good question: how does Ewan McGregor keep his ego in check? ‘I’m not sure I always do,’ he says with a Perthshire burr and a lupine grin. ‘Perhaps I don’t.’
With his dimpled chin and wide blue eyes, he is good-looking, no question. But he hasn’t had the mole on his forehead removed, or his manly nose narrowed and prettified. And he doesn’t have expensive teeth, or Hollywood muscles. He is a lean, 5ft 10 1/2in and, if anything, in tank-top and white, snakeskin shoes, he looks a bit dorky today. Or perhaps natural is the word. And this may explain why he never had to go through a starving-in-a-garret period.
‘No, I never starved. I wish I had had that, in a way. I’d have liked to have had the time to read the classics and reflect about things. But I was in such a rush. Such a rush. I was hungry for success. I really was.’
He landed his first starring role – in Dennis Potter’s television drama Lipstick on Your Collar – in 1993, shortly before graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Soon afterwards, aged 23, he won a leading role in Shallow Grave (1994), the acclaimed film directed by Danny Boyle. In Boyle’s next film, the even more acclaimed Trainspotting (1996), he shaved his head, shed two stone and was given the lead as a lovable junkie.
By then he was being talked of as the most exciting and dangerous British actor since Gary Oldman, the most versatile and subtle since Daniel Day-Lewis. A mixed bag of films followed – some charming, small and British, such as Brassed Off (1996), Little Voice (1998) and Rogue Trader (1999): others, well, with greater commercial appeal, such as Star Wars (The Phantom Menace, 1999, Attack of the Clones, 2002), and Moulin Rouge! (2001).
His latest two offerings, released this autumn, reflect his almost bizarre eclecticism. Down With Love, in which he co-stars with Renée Zellweger, is a frothy homage to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day romantic comedies of the 1960s. Young Adam, based on a novel by the Scottish existentialist writer Alexander Trocchi, is a dark, erotic thriller in the style of Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s.
McGregor plays the anti-hero Joe, a selfish, brooding, promiscuous drifter who works on the canals around Glasgow. He emotes without words, seduces without feelings – the character he plays is so unsympathetic it was a struggle finding financiers to back the project. If it hadn’t been for McGregor’s persistent lobbying of the UK Film Council, the film wouldn’t have been made at all.
‘It’s the story of a man’s moral decline,’ he says. ‘That’s what attracted me to it. I felt it either had to be made authentically, without any compromises, or not made at all. I’m only interested in playing characters; playing someone who isn’t an all-out good guy doesn’t worry me. I like the film because it’s fucking edgy. It’s strong.
‘There was a pressure to shoot a final scene where Joe walks towards a police station and hands himself in, but I wouldn’t do it because it would have made a mockery of the film. Young Adam wouldn’t have been made in Hollywood. They just don’t make films like this. They don’t.’
A leitmotif which runs through Ewan McGregor’s work, from the BBC costume drama Scarlet & Black (1993), his performance in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in 1994, and Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1996), to the glam rock film Velvet Goldmine (1998), is full-frontal nudity.
The actor is, it seems, very, very proud of his willy, as well he might be given that Elle magazine once described it as ‘incredibly handsome’. I tell him that it almost came as a relief when the thing finally put an appearance in Young Adam – it meant that the audience could relax and concentrate on the story.
‘Yes, thank goodness,’ he says with a laugh. ‘The film wouldn’t have been right without it. I felt it was slightly underused.’
Being naked in public is, for most normal, vulnerable men, the stuff of anxiety dreams. Why is he so relaxed?
‘I’m not blasé about it in everyday life, but on a set it doesn’t bother me. I like the idea very much. Being naked on set is like swimming naked – it makes you feel powerful.
‘I think it adds to the realism of a film, because we are showing people’s private lives. Part of private life is nudity. It’s very effective if you have two actors lying naked on a bed having a chat. It makes their relationship very real if you glimpse their genitalia. It’s a short cut to making it clear that here are two people at ease with themselves, who are lovers.’
Does he blank out the film crew when doing a sex scene?
‘No, I’m never aware of the crew anyway. You shouldn’t be. I could have a sound man lying under the bed and I wouldn’t notice him. My only concern when I’m doing a sex scene is that I don’t get my arsehole in shot, also that my penis doesn’t show when I’m supposed to be having sex with someone – because that would be a bit of a giveaway, wouldn’t it?’
But what if…? I raise my eyebrows. He grins.
‘That doesn’t happen. Not sure why. Because it’s not real, I suppose.’ He shakes his head. ‘Actually, it has happened to me. I’m not pretending there haven’t been moments.’
So how does he, um, cope?
‘I just take a few moments. You know, the director says, “Let’s try that again,” and I say, “No, give me ten seconds.” It happened to me [with Alice Krige] on Scarlet & Black. I had to lie on top of her and because they wanted to see me and her naked, we couldn’t wear underwear. It was a bit awkward. I’ve heard that Stephen Fry taped his to his tummy for a love scene in Wilde. I wouldn’t fancy doing that. I mean, having to pull the tape off afterwards. Quite painful.’
I suspect that, in the age-old Hollywood tradition, film publicists encourage rumours about Ewan McGregor and his female co-stars, but they are without foundation. He married Eve Mavrakis, a French set designer and producer, when he was 24. They have two young daughters, Clara (seven), and Esther (nearly two), and the family always travels with him on location. For all his nonchalance about sex scenes, McGregor seems quite puritanical about sex, or at least depictions of sex in inappropriate contexts.
‘Sex is so out-there these days,’ he says, his knee jigging up and down furiously. ‘In every shite magazine. Magazines for 14-year-old girls in which they are told how to give a blow job. Fucking outrageous. I think it’s all wrong, seeing six-year-old kids with boob tubes and miniskirts. It’s wrong. Just wrong. I think their parents should have a fucking good look at what they are doing. Really, I do.’
Is it because he has daughters?
‘Yes, perhaps. I probably feel more protective. I’m sure that is it.’
Were his parents broadminded about sex?
‘I kind of left school before I started, so I wasn’t having sex aged 14. Once I’d left home I’d left home, so I didn’t have to bother my parents with it.’
He and his elder brother, Colin, were raised in the small town of Crieff, in Perthshire. They attended Crieff and Morrison Academy, a public school where their father, Jim, was the games master; their mother, Carol, is also a teacher, of special needs children in Dundee. The young Ewan was regularly hauled before the headmaster for antisocial behaviour, and he now thinks he felt depressed at school because he found it hard to live up to his brother.
‘There was some sibling rivalry, I guess. Not fighting as such. But, well, Colin was academic and sporting, you know, captain of the rugby and cricket teams, and those were the most important things at our school. Music and artistic studies, the things I was interested in, were deemed wasters’ activities. Copping out. We are different in every way.’
His uncle, Denis Lawson, the actor best known for Local Hero (1983), would visit Crieff from London. Often dressed in flares and an Afghan coat, he would leave a trail of glamour in his wake. Does McGregor think he would have become an actor if he hadn’t had a cool uncle making a big impression on him as a teenager?
‘I think I would have been drawn to music and art. I was in the school pipe band and the choir [McGregor has Grade 7 French horn.] ‘I also became the drummer in a school band. I wanted people to call me Bones. No one did. I can see now I was wanting to perform. Ever since I was tiny I would mime to songs at my parents’ parties, aged four or five, putting on a show. I had a huge hankering for old films at the weekend on BBC2, anything black and white and romantic.
‘And pantomimes were hugely erotic experiences – I always became sexually excited about the principal boy, who was a woman in fishnets. Does that sound dodgy? I would fall in love with her during the performance and dream about her when I got home that night.’
McGregor left school at 16, joined the Perth Repertory Theatre and then enrolled on a one-year drama course at Kirkcaldy College of Technology. The theatre must have seemed a bohemian place compared to tweedy Crieff.
‘Rep was quite bohemian, yes, but I was too young to realise. I was rather shocked because I came from a tiny town. I met a gay man for the first time, also the first couple having an [extramarital] affair. I was going, “Fucking hell, what is going on? Does his wife know?”
I did get swept along a little in the high campery, the “darling” thing. It was the world I had secretly always wanted to be in. There is a magic to theatre. You don’t want to find out the actors are real people. You don’t want to meet them in real life. When I take my eldest daughter to shows
I often get asked backstage, and it’s a shame because I don’t want to be rude and not go and say hello, but I also don’t want to shatter the illusion and mystery for my daughter. Already she knows how it all works because she has been on film sets. She has seen how much of it is an illusion. Believe me, as one who has appeared in Star Wars, which has the most acting to a bit of tape on a stick in history, I know all about the illusion side of it.’
How much of an illusion was it when his character took heroin in Trainspotting? Had he actually tried the stuff in real life?
‘I don’t know what it feels like to shoot smack because I’ve never done it, but I do know what someone looks like when they do it, because I watched a lot of people who did. At one point I did discuss trying it. I thought me and Danny should do it together and John [Hodge, who wrote the screenplay], being a doctor, should administer it, to make sure we didn’t die.
‘We thought it should be done properly in a hotel room. Then we started working with heroin addicts and I just thought it would be hugely disrespectful to do it. I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t think it would have helped bring depth to the performance, but it would have been an excuse to try it.’
Has he ever caught himself using his actorly gifts, the skills of the illusionist, to manipulate people off-screen?
‘I’m sure I did in my youth, but you learn to be truer to yourself as you get older. It never made me feel good about myself so I wouldn’t do that now. If you are acting in an everyday situation to get your own way, you are lying to the people around you. If you want to be straight with your wife, it’s better to say: “I just don’t want to change that nappy,” or whatever, rather than to lie.
‘But I don’t mind changing nappies. I changed Clara’s more than I change Esther’s. I don’t know why that is. It’s not that I am repelled by the dirty nappies. Maybe I’m just lazy. Maybe I’m lazy in that respect. There is an element of me seeing myself as the breadwinner.
‘Eve brings other things to the marriage. She is a much better organiser than me, for instance. We’ve just been on location for five months [in Alabama, filming Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton] and she is the only one who can get all the arrangements right for moving a family for that long. If it was left to me, we would get there and not have anything we needed.’
He uses the tip of the Marlboro he has just finished to light up another one.
‘Five months would have seemed a lot longer if they hadn’t been there with me. It would have been unbearable. I have a great family and I am at my happiest when I am with them.’
After Alabama McGregor went to Australia to work on the next Star Wars film. He and his family have not spent much time at home in Belsize Park in London this year – or indeed in the past five years. I ask McGregor if he has considered sending his children to boarding school when they are older, if only to give them some stability?
‘Definitely not. They will have to change schools if I am away on location. That will be much better for them. I can’t see any benefit in being separated from your parents.’ (In part, McGregor’s policy of always taking his family with him on location was prompted by a near-fatal illness Clara suffered as a baby. She spent three weeks in hospital with meningitis. McGregor flew back from America where he had been appearing in an episode of ER. ‘I was shaken by that experience,’ he says.)
One of his recent films, Black Hawk Down (2002), filmed on location in Morocco, is said to be a personal favourite of President Bush. It has gritty action scenes and, to prepare for his role, McGregor trained with the US Rangers, something he revelled in. Has he ever fantasised about being a manly soldier rather than an effete actor? He laughs.
‘Yeah, yeah, whenever we watched the war coverage from Iraq my wife had to keep reminding me that I’m not a soldier. I did go through a period of thinking acting was a stupid thing to do, but that may have had more to do with a feeling I had at the time that I was stupid.’
He flicks ash from his cigarette, and misses the ashtray.
‘My brother is a fighter pilot in the RAF and I’m an actor. You can’t think of two more diverse professions. We are close, though. I love him very much. He took me up in his Tornado once, we did a lap of Scotland, and I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.
‘The hatch closed and I could just see a slither of my brother’s helmet as we were taxi-ing down the runway and I felt such pride. He’s seen all my work and I’d never seen his. He was doing such a manly thing, a proper job for a man. He fucking flies at 500 miles an hour 200ft above the ground. Incredible. Whereas I wear make-up for a living.’
Tellingly, McGregor likes to test his courage on his motorbikes, namely a powerful Ducati 748 SP.
‘It’s truly my passion, my real passion. From the moment I first rode on a race track something happened. The bike leapt ahead. It was so exhilarating. Made me feel more alive.’
Is it that he appreciates not being cosseted and mollycoddled by over-anxious film executives for a few hours when on the track?
‘Yes, you have complete control of the machine and where you go. No one can bother you. I don’t wear a phone piece in my helmet. There’s something that happens on long journeys. I love it. It represents independence for me. You are making your own decisions on a bike, and, as an actor, when you’re working, your decisions are made for you. You are met by drivers and your breakfast is always waiting for you, just as you like it, and you have people telling you when you have to go where.’
Sounds like a hard life. He laughs.
‘I know, I know, poor me. And before Christmas I had to have a four-month holiday.’
I ask what happens when he bumps into old friends, who don’t fly by private jet and get paid to kiss Nicole Kidman. Do they smile the frozen smile and mutter “jammy bastard” under their breath when he leaves? ‘I think it’s “fucker” they mutter. “Jammy fucker.” I suppose it’s hard, oh God, this is going to sound crap, I suppose your real friends aren’t affected by it.
‘But that can’t be true. Everybody is. It’s hard. Going back to Crieff, going back to the pub, I don’t do that any more. I wish I could but…’ He laughs. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I’ll shut up now.’ l