Ewan McGregor has been involved in no fewer than six films this year. But that doesn’t stop his fellow countrymen telling him: ‘You’re not as good as Alec Guinness.’ Interview by Nigel Farndale
Being Ewan McGregor, that must be a laugh. I don’t just mean the being paid millions to act out male fantasies – firing a 50-cal machine gun in a war zone one day, sharing a bed with Nicole Kidman the next – because that applies to other Hollywood actors, too. I mean the being him particularly: having his temperament, his restlessness bordering on immaturity.
Take this comment, made over lunch in London as he vigorously saws his way through a rib-eye steak. ‘I was climbing a tree the other day and …’ Hang on a minute. Climbing a tree? Why was he climbing a tree? ‘Because it looked like a good tree to climb.’ He chews, swallows and starts cutting again. ‘Anyway, I was about three-quarters of the way up and I bottled. When I was younger I would have kept going until I could stick my head out of the top branches, even if it was swaying around. I was fearless, then.’
And at the age of 35 he’s lost his nerve? ‘Well I did get frightened up there. Maybe it’s to do with being a father, having responsibilities.’
But, hang on again, he’s about to set off on another of his motorbike rides with his friend Charlie Boorman, this time taking ‘the Long Way Down’ to Cape Town, a distance of 14,000 miles through countries where they have coups every 10 minutes and like nothing better than a good kidnapping before breakfast. ‘Yeah, yeah, but I’m not losing sleep about it. In fact I’m blindly optimistic about the whole thing. We’ll try and be careful about the route.’
Blind optimism has served McGregor well. He went the Long Way Round two years ago, 18,000 miles that time, over three months, largely because he felt he needed to get out of his comfort zone. What may have started as a premature mid-life crisis turned out to be a sound career move. They took a cameraman with them. The subsequent documentary and book were both huge hits. He was also able to raise funds for Unicef – he is a UN goodwill ambassador – something he intends to do again this time, stopping off to visit African orphanages as he takes the Long Way Down.
Part of the appeal of Long Way Round was in seeing a Hollywood star removed from the trappings of fame, bonding with his mate, enjoying his anonymity (he grew a bushy Viking beard). McGregor came across as being unaffected, open and likeable. Unusually for an actor, he is unpretentious and has little interest in talking about acting, though he will, out of politeness. His watch has a big face. Circling his ring finger there is a big band of gold. Today he is in ripped jeans and a white T-shirt, which shows the big red-and-blue tattoo on his right bicep. There is a bigness to his personality, too. He has a room-filling laugh.
I wonder if, on Long Way Round, he ever caught himself playing Ewan McGregor? ‘No, but I did learn some things about myself. There were times when I felt isolated in those vast landscapes. I become much more dark and moody than I thought I was capable of being. We were very undisciplined about eating. We would get so into our riding that we wouldn’t stop for lunch and sometimes by five I was so empty I started getting depressed. We won’t repeat that mistake on the Long Way Down.’
McGregor is – how can one put this? – promiscuous as an actor. This year alone he has been involved in six films, and he often seems to have two out at a time, as well as the odd musical on stage. The last time we met he had a darkly existentialist art-house film out, Young Adam, as well as a fluffy 1950s-style Doris Day romp called Down With Love. This time the contrast is just as great with Scenes of a Sexual Nature, in which he plays a homosexual man in a long-term relationship, and Miss Potter, a partly animated family film about the life of Beatrix Potter (played by Renée Zellweger). In that, he plays Norman, the doomed love interest.
I suppose when you consider that McGregor is best known for playing a junkie in Trainspotting and a Jedi knight in the Star Wars prequels, this odd mix of roles is not so surprising. But what is behind this scattergun approach, and the uneven quality of his work? Is it boredom? ‘It just sort of happens because I’m quite easily pleased with scripts, I think. I’m impulsive. I don’t plan.’
He and his wife, Eve Mavrakis, a French production designer, have two daughters, Clara, 10, and Esther, five, and have just adopted a third, a four-year-old girl from Mongolia. (He came across her in an orphanage while on the Long Way Round and managed to sort out the bureaucracy of adoption with much less fuss than Madonna.) He often reads the Beatrix Potter books to his youngest children. ‘Some of the stories are quite bizarre,’ he says. ‘My kids love them. We’ve got the box set. That was part of the appeal for me of doing the film.’
There is a sentimental side to him, then. But also a laddish side. McGregor has appeared naked in several of his films, never passing up an opportunity to show off his appendage. I tell him I was quite surprised he didn’t find an excuse to get it out in Miss Potter. He grins broadly. ‘I did try to. They said, “It’s nice Ewan, but we don’t think it quite works with this film.” They tried animating it: put Peter Rabbit’s face on it and it spoke to Beatrix, but they didn’t think it was tasteful enough in the end.’
So one day he was playing a staid and virginal Victorian gentleman with a big moustache, the next a gay man on Hampstead Heath. I ask if he needed to empathise with these characters in order to play them. ‘Yes, but essentially you must play the words on the page. In Scenes of a Sexual Nature I have to tell another man I love him and at first I thought it doesn’t matter whether it is a man or a woman, but actually it does – because the themes they are discussing are absolutely informed by the fact that they are gay men.
‘Discussing infidelity is different for these two gay men because in their relationship it is allowed. However, I didn’t want to try and play gay, as in camp, because there are as many different types of gay men as there are heterosexual.’
He has played a gay man before, in Velvet Goldmine. ‘That was more in your face because I had to French-kiss Jonnie Rhys Meyers. It was no coincidence that the entire electrical department walked off the set next day. I think they found it too uncomfortable. I was harangued on set for wearing my platforms and my spray-on jeans and make-up. Technicians were shouting: “Oy! Facking pretty boy.” It was a weird insight. I very much enjoy the company of gay men.
‘I have a fun time with them but because of the theatrical circles I move in I don’t often see the other side of the story, which is the bigotry and the homophobic stuff. I was subject to homophobic anger and that in turn made me feel angry. I said: F— this! This is my work. I don’t come and harangue you when you are doing your work. I don’t slag you off for being sparks plugging in lights.’
Can he look after himself in a fight? ‘Probably, if I was angry enough my inner Scotsman would come out. But I’ve never had a proper fight with anyone apart from silly scraps at school.’
School was in Perthshire, the private Morrison’s Academy. He left there to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and immediately afterwards, in 1993, won his first starring role, in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar. He returns to Perthshire regularly to see his parents, who are teachers, and his older brother, who is a fighter pilot. He has always been conscious that what his brother does for a living is manlier than what he does. ‘I can’t think of two more diverse professions than what my brother and I do. He does a proper job. He flies at 500 miles an hour 200 feet above the ground. F—ing incredible. Whereas I wear make-up for a living.’
McGregor has sometimes fantasised about being a soldier. He revelled in training with the US Rangers for the film Black Hawk Down, a dramatic reconstruction of the American assault on Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. ‘One of the reasons I was desperate to be in that film was that I wanted to try and work out how I would cope. It made me question how brave I might be in the same circumstances. My brother has flown in the Gulf many times and it fascinates me. Men and war and how they cope. I read books about it. I can almost imagine myself dealing with it once you’re in the situation but not before, when it is building up; I think I would go to pieces then.’
That said, there was an accident on a set once when a dolly fell on a grip and split his head open. ‘I became absolutely calm saying: “Right, let’s do this, he’ll go to hospital and be stitched up and everything will be fine.” I quite surprised myself by that.’
He also finds he is like that when anything happens to his children. ‘It’s horrible when your kids hurt themselves but if one of mine falls, or something, I do stay calm. My youngest one has a nice boxer’s scar here…’ he points to his face. ‘And one down here.’ He points to his ear. She’s a high-spirited child who seems to cut herself a lot falling over.’
The family live in St John’s Wood, where McGregor likes to do the school run. He is protective about his children, refusing to allow them to be filmed or photographed, and threatening legal action against the paparazzi who try. He has become more relaxed about being papped himself, though, he says. ‘When I was dressed up as a tomato in Trafalgar Square for the Film 4 campaign there were paparazzi everywhere – and who can blame them? I mean, I was dressed as a tomato in Trafalgar Square – but I thought I can either let this ruin my day or I can have a laugh.’
He learnt that attitude from Woody Allen, whose next film he is in. ‘In New York no one has the power to stop these people so you just have to get on with it. I watch Woody and he just doesn’t give a shit, he wanders around.’
When I ask whether there are any chinks in his armour of positivism, other than that he gets depressed when he doesn’t eat, he says, ‘Yeah, I can’t stand cynicism. And I do resent it when people come up just to be rude about my work. You know, why do they feel the need to tell me: “That film was shit.” You can think it but don’t come up and tell me. It happens quite a lot in Scotland for some reason. “You’re not as big as you think you are, McGregor.” I think it’s because they have this attitude that: “He is one of us and we have to keep his feet on the ground.”
‘I was with my mum and my daughter the other day and I watched this guy get up and walk over and say: “I’ve got to tell you this. Got to say it. You’re not nearly as good as Alec Guinness.” I went, “Thanks.” Then he walked away and I was left thinking: “Oh great, now I feel pissed off and my time with my daughter has been ruined”.’
He is on location in New York at the moment, filming a thriller called The Tourist. His family usually join him on location but this time it would have meant his children coming out of school, so he has gone on his own. ‘Being away on location is part of being an actor. I do miss my wife and children though.’
He lights up a cigarette. ‘But there are two sides to it because it is easier for the work when there are no family distractions. You have to be selfish because of the unsociable hours and the intensity of the work. In that respect it is better to come home to an empty apartment and just learn your lines for the next day and go to bed. But the other side is your heart. Your kids aren’t there and your wife isn’t there. This time we have sorted out some video conferencing, having dinner together with your laptops either side of the Atlantic. Nice idea. The sexual possibilities are endless.’
When I tell him to be careful it isn’t recorded somewhere, he looks worried. ‘Is it?’ Well it has to go somewhere. ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’ He shakes his head and grins. ‘Thanks.’