Interview: Ewan McGregor, actor
"I'd like to be Philip Seymour Hoffman's boyfriend. I think we'd make a good couple."
If the rule in Hollywood is that the closet doors must stay resolutely closed, then Ewan McGregor has just thrown them open to the soundtrack of I Am What I Am with a rustle of pink taffeta and a whiff of Dolce & Gabbana. He's not coming out, though. Of course he's not. McGregor's not gay; he's been married – to French production designer Eve Mavrakis – for nearly 15 years and they have three daughters (Clara, 14, Esther, eight, and Jamiyan, seven, who the couple adopted from Mongolia). But that's not what we're interested in here. Today, it's all about the boys. And, as it happens, if McGregor had to choose a "bf", Mr Hoffman would be the lucky fella.
"We'd look good, we'd look slightly odd and we'd go to interesting parties and people would be interested in us," says McGregor, clearly warming to his theme. "I don't know him, but I'd like to be his boyfriend."
If the subject matter seems a little unusual, the reason is McGregor's new film, I Love You Phillip Morris. A funny, tragic, quirky movie, written and directed by Bad Santa creators Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, ILYPM is an astonishing, absurdist, gay romance.
McGregor plays the titular Phillip Morris, the lover of serial con man Steven Russell (played brilliantly by Jim Carrey). The complex plot sees the two meet in prison, before Russell, a fantasist with a sky high IQ, escapes in order to try to pass himself off as a lawyer and then start working to secure the release of Morris.
The fact that the film is based on a true story (the real Steven Russell now resides in a solitary confinement cell in a Texas prison, on lock down for 23 hours a day) only heightens a tale that's already surreal. In fact, once you've seen ILYPM, the idea of Ewan McGregor choosing his fantasy boyfriend seems positively pedestrian.
What is actually more of a surprise is the fact that although McGregor's hardly known for having had a run-in with the ugly stick, up close he is really rather spectacular. He's taller than you might expect and very slim. At 38, he works a kind of upmarket Renton-esque chic. The sleeves of his black jumper are pulled low on his hands, the brown boots are expensively scuffed and battered. Or maybe the scrapes are real, like the ones on his knuckles – presumably from fixing one of his many motorbikes. He oozes movie star charisma – the messy hair that doesn't look clean but you know smells good, the thrown together wardrobe that reeks of effortless style.
The story of McGregor's early years is as well known as his love of Moto Guzzi bikes so we might as well get it out of the way: raised in Crieff (by teacher parents with a brother, Colin) McGregor went to London to study at Guildhall School of Music and Drama (via private school, which he left at 16, a stint backstage in Perth Theatre and a year-long drama course at Kirkcaldy College) to a part in Dennis Potter's Lipstick on Your Collar six months before graduation and pretty much non-stop work, on screen and stage, ever since. Even McGregor describes it as a "fairytale story".
But it's been 14 years since McGregor shivered and smouldered as Renton in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. Since then he's played Obi-Wan Kenobi and Iago, he's emoted as Young Adam, wooed Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and gazed into the middle distance to shift a few bottles of aftershave. Still, though, it's the iconic poster boy for heroin chic that people turn to when they want an explanation as to why McGregor, once touted as Scotland's most likely bona fide A-lister, is now the object of that most uncomfortable question: is he ever going to be that good again?
Grant Heslov, who directed him in The Men Who Stare At Goats said that what he liked about McGregor was that he feels like an "everyman", the kind of guy "you could meet in the pub and just strike up a conversation with". For Ficarra and Requa, McGregor was perfect for the part of Phillip Morris because "everyone loves Ewan McGregor. He's just so sweet." It's true that in person that's exactly how McGregor seems. He's quick to laugh, down to earth, a little spiky at times but only in a way that makes you feel that he's telling the truth, he's not so slick that everything he says seems like well rehearsed patter. So why doesn't his real charisma come across in the movies he makes?
Of course, McGregor doesn't exactly see things that way. He's got a fine line in "I don't care about box office figures" and for all I know, it may well be true. His move in 2008 to LA, from his family home in St John's Wood, London, was mentioned by some as an effort to get his career back on track after the damp squibs of Deception (with Hugh Jackman), Incendiary (with Michelle Williams), Cassandra's Dream (directed by Woody Allen) and Miss Potter (with Rene Zellweger). But according to McGregor, it was just time for a change. He already owned a house in Santa Monica, so why not live in it?
Whatever his take is on the state of his career, no one could accuse him of being work-shy. Following close on the heels of ILYPM will be The Ghost (directed by Roman Polanski, about whom we're told to ask no questions, presumably the reason McGregor's fierce LA publicist sits in on the interview) and he's recently finished filming The Last Word in Glasgow with director David Mackenzie. And if the critical acclaim has deserted him, his enthusiasm for his job hasn't. He speaks only in the highest terms about his ILYPM co-star, Carrey, from whom he says he learned lots about how to play comedy and about how much he enjoyed working with writers/directors Ficarra and Requa.
The only thing he's tetchy about is the fact that he keeps on being asked what it was like to kiss a man. Or whether he thought his career might crumble once he'd played a gay character? (For the record, McGregor's played a gay character twice before, in Velvet Goldmine, where he got to snog Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and in Scenes of a Sexual Nature, where he got to wear an impressive moustache).
"It's just not an issue. As an actor you're stepping into the shoes of people in life and people in life are gay or straight or both or whatever," he says with barely concealed bemusement. "People never say 'how did you manage to play a miner, that must've been really difficult?' But the fact that it's a man who likes to be with other men it's somehow still weirdly an issue. I don't think that it is. I liked very much the nature of the writing, that it's romantic. I like that it's a gay romance."
ILYPM is an exuberant, creative, interesting film. It mixes genres with abandon, there are moments to make you laugh out loud and scenes to make you weep. Carrey turns in a recognisably physical performance but it's restrained and more affecting because of it. As the steadfast Phillip, McGregor is likeable and vulnerable, a pretty boy with a penchant for men who'll break his heart. McGregor explains that he went to meet the real Phillip Morris before shooting on the movie began.
"I flew to Arkansas where he lives. It was very interesting." The actor had seen a picture of Morris but they hadn't met. "I was coming down the escalator and there he was; it was unmistakably Phillip.
"It was an odd situation to be meeting and hanging out with the person who you're going to play. As an actor I create roles and here he was already; I didn't have to invent anything, he was there."
McGregor spent a day and a half with Morris. They hung out in Little Rock and took a drive to a nearby spa town. "We just drove around in his car and went for walks. It was fascinating. I wasn't going to do an impersonation of him. We talked quite a lot about that. And the nature of the fact that it's a script means that some of it is romanticised. I didn't delve into his story with Steven, I didn't want to know the truth about this or that. Just being with him was enough."
There's something pleasing and fitting about the fact that McGregor, a man notoriously protective of his own private life, didn't stick his nose into Morris's personal life. The encounter with Morris is clearly something that McGregor enjoyed – they still e-mail each other now and then – but it created a different kind of challenge for McGregor, which had less to do with the fact that Morris is gay, than the fact that he had to capture a man who although vulnerable and sweet, was also hardened by his experiences, including nearly 10 years in a Texas jail.
"I was struck, I suppose, with the fact that he's got an edge. He's quite a hard man in a way. He spent nine more years in prison (after an initial sentence unrelated to Russell for not returning a rented car] and that can't help but leave its mark on someone. He was full of bravado about it, and was flippant about it. He talked about having a great time there, he was very desired there, but ultimately being in jail leaves a scar because it's a f***ing awful place to be."
The Morris that Ficarra and Requa created in their script was a "delicate, soft flower". It was McGregor's job, he says, to create a character that was more complex.
"In a way, Phillip in the script, was this little bird that needs protection. I liked that about him. But the job for me was to incorporate a bit of the real Phillip into that.
"He's very male. He's soft and he's gentle, but he's very male, so that's what I was trying to do. If it's a clich then I've failed. I was very aware of trying not to play a stereotype and having talked about it that's something that Phillip gave me. It's not femininity, it's the opposite, it's actually homosexuality, it's more masculine than anything because ultimately you want to get into bed with another man."
So is he anxious about what the real Phillip Morris thinks of his portrayal?
"Yeah," he pauses. "I am not really anxious because I think he's maybe seen a cut of it already..." He tails off, looking a bit worried. "Maybe's he's just seen the trailer? I haven't heard from him in a while.
"I am and I'm not (anxious] because he put me so at ease. He came to the set. We watched some playback with him and his reaction was interesting. He's quite hardened to the romance of it. It made him laugh more than anything."
McGregor has a more conventional take on the romance, though. "Watching it last night, the scenes from when Phillip and Steven meet to the scene where an inmate is being beaten up and we're dancing and kissing is some of the most romantic cinema there's ever been. It's funny and you're laughing and it's so romantic."
McGregor says his only worry about the film was looking like a "straight guy playing gay". But with many scenes shot in a large prison in Louisiana, there was another shaky moment. With guards on horseback armed with rifles and a prison population in which 85 per cent of the men are there for life, the prison was, he says, a "hugely depressing place". Almost all of the extras used in the scenes shot behind bars are real prisoners.
"I'd never been in a prison before and I was quite struck by it. When we'd leave at night and I'd look at it in the rear view mirror as we drove away it was an odd feeling to have spent all day in there and then be leaving knowing that no one else was coming out that way.
"I didn't get carried away. They were very nice to us. They were obviously very pleased to have some distraction from their normal existence and we were clearly quite a novelty. They were the well behaved prisoners, the ones who live in open dorms, but there was one funny moment."
McGregor describes a sequence in the film where he has to run through the prison from narrow corridors through the open exercise yard to the perimeter fence to wave goodbye to Russell, who's being transferred to another prison.
"I had to start at the far end of a corridor. They're all fenced in with barbed wire. There were maybe 60 or 70 extras between me and where the cameras were down at the far end. I walked up there and didn't think too much about it and then I turned round and I looked and the camera crew were just so far away and I was entirely on my own up there."
He smiles. "There was a guy with a big old afro with an afro comb stuck in his hair. He was just looking at me and smiling. Then he came over to me and said, 'I think there should be a scene where I fight Jim (Carrey] for you'." McGregor lets out a huge laugh and with that, he's swept off down the plush corridors of a Paris hotel, every inch the movie star, oozing confidence and charm.
I Love You Phillip Morris is released on Wednesday.
• This article was first published in The Scotsman, Saturday March 13, 2010
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