Prolific actor Ewan Mcgregor virtually has his pick of roles these days but when he stumbled upon the wistful comedy/ drama Beginners he couldn’t believe his luck, writes James Wigney
Acting’s travelling roadshow man.
DIRECTOR Mike Mills wanted more than anything to convey the experience of adventure on his new movie Beginners.
Casting Ewan McGregor in the lead role of Oliver – essentially a version of the director himself – was the perfect start.
Since his breakthrough roles in the mid-’ 90s in Danny Boyle’s Shallow
Grave and then Trainspotting , the Scottish actor ( pictured) has been one of the most unpredictable and adventurous actors in Hollywood, moving between studio movies, edgy indie fare, TV documentaries and the stage with apparent ease.
For every high-profile part such as Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels or clone Lincoln Six Echo in Michael Bay’s brainless blockbuster
The Island, there have also been roles as Jim Carrey’s gay lover in I Love You Phillip Morris, gritty dramas such as Young Adam and stints on the London
stage in Othello and the musical Guys and Dolls.
Then there are his thrill-seeking exploits away from acting. With his friend Charley Boorman, keen motorcycle enthusiast McGregor made two captivating TV series, The Long
Way Round, which chronicled their trip from London to New York and
The Long Way Down, which followed a similar journey through Africa.
With his air force pilot brother Colin, he made a documentary on the Battle of Britain, with another one in the works on RAF Bomber Command.
So was he raised by his teacher parents in small-town Crieff with a thirst for adventure?
‘‘ If you asked my mum she would say absolutely not,’’ McGregor says in his still Scottish-sounding burr as he negotiates the streets of his adopted city, Los Angeles.
‘‘ She goes spare, the poor woman. My brother is flying fast jets and I am riding motorbikes around the world.
‘‘ My old man is on motorbikes now and is also a pilot and she despairs. But I don’t know whether it was something that was instilled in us other than that we somehow inherited it from somewhere.’’ In Mills’ largely autobiographical
Beginners, McGregor’s character is also faced with the unknown and new beginnings, as his father Hal ( played by Christopher Plummer) first comes out of the closet at the age of 75 and finally tastes freedom and happiness before being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
McGregor was first offered the part while on a chairlift at the Sundance Festival and, intrigued, found the script waiting for him along with a handwritten letter from Mills when he returned home.
‘‘ He was wonderful to work with and allows the actor the space to explore and sets a very nice tone on set,’’ McGregor says of Mills.
‘‘ He is very quick and effective and economical and we all would have done anything for him.
‘‘ I have worked with great directors and had wonderful experiences with all of them but with Mike I just felt that extra connection that made me go and want to work with him for as long as he wanted me for.’’
While McGregor asked Mills to record all his dialogue to get the flavour of his voice, and watched him closely to mimic some of his movements, McGregor says he never wanted to do an impersonation of the director. Nor did he feel pressured by the director to do so.
‘‘ The fact it was his story never became like a burden because I really like him and really got on with him,’’ McGregor says.
‘‘ He was always there if I felt like I didn’t understand something but it was so clear and the script was so well written that it never really felt like an issue. He never asked me to play him.’’ Critically acclaimed festival favourite
Beginners was made for a little over $ 3 million and was shot briskly in about eight weeks, doing several scenes a day.
Jack and the Giant Killer, a big budget, 3D fantasy adventure, which he describes as fun, but also ‘‘ like watching paint dry’’. Also coming up for Mcgregor is the film
Impossible, which reunites him with Aussie Naomi Watts after the two co-starred in the 2005 thriller Stay.
‘‘ It’s a true story about a Spanish family who were caught in the tsunami in Thailand in 2004,’’ he says.
‘‘ Naomi and I play parents and we have three lovely boys – Tom Holland, a 14-year-old kid who was one of the Billy Elliots in London, and two other wee boys – and it was their story.
‘‘ But Naomi is great, it’s our second film together and we live very close together here in LA, so it was very nice to work with her again.’’
Mcgregor’s connection with Australia is strong. Not only did he spend several years in Sydney making the Star Wars prequel, he also starred in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, which remains one of his career highlights.
‘‘ It was really just wonderful and still one of the most extraordinary movies I have been involved in,’’ he says of the experience a decade ago.
‘‘ I loved working with Baz and I think of him and CM [ Luhrmann’s wife and professional partner Catherine Martin] as a team in that Baz has the extraordinary vision and CM somehow puts it on screen with the design of the costumes and the sets. ‘‘ They work absolutely hand-inglove and I don’t know that either would be as great without the other. I would hope very much to work with them again some day.’’
For now, McGregor concedes he will have to pursue his adventurous streak on film or in the mountaineering books he so enjoys.
With a growing family – about which he is fiercely private – of two biological daughters and two adopted daughters with his wife Eve, he says he can’t justify taking off on his motorbike for months now, when sometimes his work requires him to be away for long periods of time anyway.
‘‘ With my kids and everything I can’t really reconcile that in my own heart,’’ he says.
‘‘ Maybe we will do some later or I would love to do some travelling with my family – not on bikes obviously – but in campers or Land Rovers or something.
‘‘ I would certainly like to be making some kind of television show like that because it’s quite fun and I do like inspiring people to go and travel because I think it’s a worthy thing to do.’’