Interview: Ewan McGregor, actor

Ewan McGregor, who has spent the last three years living in Los Angeles, made a welcome return to Scotland for his latest movie. Here, he talks to Siobhan Synnot about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, how he based his character on a distant relative from Morningside, and why he doesn’t have a career plan

Ewan McGregor, who has spent the last three years living in Los Angeles, made a welcome return to Scotland for his latest movie. Here, he talks to Siobhan Synnot about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, how he based his character on a distant relative from Morningside, and why he doesn’t have a career plan

‘I HAD to smash a window with a baseball bat once,” reveals Ewan McGregor, flashing his cheery T-Rex grin. “I was working it out with the cameraman – ‘ok, so I hit it here’ – and when I turned around, the camera was behind three inches of Plexiglas and everyone on set was wearing goggles and special glass defenders. And I’m standing there with a wooden bat, with nothing at all.”

“It’s like that a lot in acting,” he adds. “You’re in T-shirt and shorts, and the whole crew are wearing North Face.”

McGregor has been both figuratively and literally exposed for most of the time we’ve known him. There are jokes about him not accepting a role unless his contract stipulates gratuitous nudity, a reputation he accepts now without rancour, but without much enthusiasm (“I don’t go out of my way to be naked.”). But it’s worth bearing in mind that he stepped into the public eye in the early 1990s in an age when celebrity scrutiny was less overwhelming. Back then he was a raw youth who left drama school early in order to land his first big break, Dennis Potter’s musical memoir Lipstick On Your Collar. Since Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and Star Wars, the attention hasn’t let up and this continuous focus has obviously been a trial for him at times. He had a hard-drinking phase in his twenties because he found press interviews so uncomfortable, and he still hasn’t forgiven the papers who published pictures of him holidaying in the Caribbean with his young family; yet, on the whole, McGregor has done his growing up through 20 years and almost 50 films with grace, and a fair amount of good humour.

For the past three years he’s been living in Los Angeles with his wife, Eve, and their four daughters, ages 16, 10, six and one, partly because it opened up new opportunities, partly because he owned a house there anyway and fancied the change. “I’ve still got my house in London,” he points out. “Nothing’s forever.”

Ironically, though, since the move he’s been back in Britain more than ever, shooting Bryan Singer’s big-budget fairytale remake Jack the Giant Killer in London, as well as two films in Scotland. David MacKenzie’s Perfect Sense was made in Glasgow, while romantic comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen takes full advantage of the Highlands’ beauty while McGregor’s socially awkward fishery scientist ponders the possibility of bringing Scottish salmon fishing to a sheikh’s Middle East desert.

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“It was lovely to be up there,” says McGregor, who is still boyish and perky, despite today’s luxuriant beard, which rivals his Obi Wan Kenobi face furniture during the Star Wars prequel trilogy. “I love being back in Scotland and I love working there. When I made Perfect Sense in Glasgow, I never enjoyed that city more in my life. It’s fantastic right now, Glasgow. And I think that was the first time I’d shot in the Highlands since the Highland scene in Trainspotting. It was gorgeous, and all the actors stayed in a rather splendid hunting lodge with nice grounds and everything.”

“I think it was nicest of all, though, for Hamish Gray, the actor who played Malcolm the butler in the film. He arrived, worked for a day and then he got a day off and so did Kristin Scott-Thomas. He came downstairs for breakfast and she went, “Come on, let’s go!” And they spent the day going around looking at a distillery, looking at salmon. I don’t think he could believe his luck, spending the whole day with Kristin Scott-Thomas.”

Yet despite all this talk of bucolic bliss, McGregor learnt the film’s titular fly fishing not in a fast-flowing Scottish river or a dawn-kissed loch but “a car-park in London – but that just proves you can fly fish anywhere, doesn’t it?” His co-star, Emily Blunt, however, proved not to be quite so skilled at casting flies. At the Kinara Estate in Invernesshire, McGregor suggested she have a go, even though her character never fishes in the film. “She put the line back behind her, and there was this sudden wee yelp. She’d snagged my little dog, Sid. He has thick curly hair, so it only got caught in his coat, but we never let her forget it.”

Salmon Fishing In the Yemen has already opened in America, where McGregor’s performance has been warmly reviewed even though the film significantly departs from the book in plot and character. In the novel, for instance, Fred Jones is older and English, but McGregor wanted something that telegraphed Fred’s vaunting prissiness from the start, and got hooked on a suggestion from Yemen’s screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire and The Full Monty). Since Fred was supposed to be both repressed and aspirational, why not make him from Morningside? McGregor was enthusiastic. “I had an old distant relation called Betty Burnside who spoke like that,” he chuckles, flattening the vowels on the last two words. In tribute to her, McGregor named his secretary in the film after Betty, and conscientiously ensured he maintained the accent in character – unlike Betty. “With my Uncle Denis [the actor Denis Lawson] she’d be like, “You know what Denis? Absolootely mahrvelous!” But every now and then she would slip and go, “Ah dinnae ken!”

It’s typical of McGregor to give a film with romcom sensibilities his own little tweak. For a while, Hollywood imagined they had a handsome actor on their books who could be positioned as a mainstream lead , but McGregor’s choices show that he’s more interested in being the quirky guy.

“I don’t have a career plan,” he says. “I read big films that might be hits but I’ll pass. I can choose films to my taste and I’m lucky in that.” Now 41, thanks to the charm of another eccentric rom-com, he’s experiencing something of a career boost. Beginners did modest business, but was universally admired and last winter, McGregor’s co-star Christopher Plummer appeared to win every supporting award going, including an Oscar. In every acceptance speech, he made a point of mentioning McGregor, even calling him “a scene-stealing swine”.

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“Christopher gives compliments veiled as insults,” says McGregor, affectionately. “I was delighted by his success really, and the little mentions meant a great deal.” Like Plummer, McGregor shows little sign of slowing down. Upcoming is The Impossible, where he and Naomi Watts get caught up in the 2004 tsunami and he’s just finished filming the lead role for an American TV pilot called The Corrections, a family saga which spans three decades and begins with the head of the family revealing that he has dementia. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dianne Weist and Rhys Ifans are also set to star. It’s a major commitment for McGregor and another reason why he has no plans to return to the UK in the near future. If the show takes off, he’ll spend four months a year filming in New York. It’s his first major TV appearance since his guest role in an episode of ER, directed by Quentin Tarantino in 1997. “At first I did think, should I do TV?” admits McGregor. “But the quality of the writing is lovely. I think it’s a quality piece of work.”

Since turning 40, he says that the only offers no longer coming his way “are 20-year-old juvenile leads”. Unlike McGregor’s mentor Lawson, McGregor has also escaped forever being associated with Star Wars – Lawson appeared as Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy and three decades on, it still comes up. McGregor went through a phase of being challenged to lightsaber fights, but along with Harrison Ford, he seems to have defied the Star Wars curse and carved a wide-ranging career.

“When I was first asked, Denis told me not to do it,” recalls McGregor. “He said to me that they weren’t the most satisfying films to make, and that if I wanted a career in my thirties, I shouldn’t do it. He was speaking from experience, of course. So I did it.”

He flashes another grin. “And I loved it. And what I love now is that they are films young people can see.” These young people, however, do not include McGregor’s own daughters. “They couldn’t be less interested,” he says, happily. Maybe they’ll take up fly-fishing instead.