Scottish-born actor Ewan McGregor started his career in British TV in 1993, but by 1994, he was already making his name in striking films, particularly the back-to-back Danny Boyle style-fests Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. He’s gone on to a long run of idiosyncratic, sometimes oddball film projects (Velvet Goldmine, Big Fish, Moulin Rouge! and many more) alternated with big studio projects like Black Hawk Down, The Island, and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, in which McGregor plays the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Ambitious cinemagoers can currently see McGregor in four movies now in theaters; the most recent is the book-to-film adaptation Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, the latest from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules director Lasse Hallström. McGregor plays a stuffy, repressed British government scientist dragged by consultant Emily Blunt into a sheikh’s strange vanity/visionary project to stock Yemen with salmon so the locals can try fly-fishing. The A.V. Club recently spoke to McGregor about his ongoing efforts to try new roles, the trials of a Star Wars film, and his desire to direct, once he has a story in mind.
The A.V. Club: In an interview for Salmon Fishing In The Yemen before the Toronto International Film Festival, you said you’re constantly looking for something in a character you haven’t played before. What about Fred in Salmon Fishing was new for you?
Ewan McGregor: I just felt that he’s a very repressed—emotionally, sexually—and unhappy man at the beginning of the film, and I didn’t feel like I’d really explored that before, y’know? And I think he’s got a very great arc. He’s got a fantastic journey through the film. And by the time you get to the end of the film, he’s a very different man than he was at the beginning. That’s always very satisfying to play, ’cause you’re charting that as you go. You’re shooting everything out of sequence, but you’re trying to chart this coming to life. I just felt like there was something kind of reborn about him. Not in a religious way, but in a spiritual way, I suppose. He becomes a believer in the possibility of change, and as that happens, as he sort of opens up, he allows love into his life for the first time. I just loved his marriage. I thought it was so terrible. [Laughs.] I loved playing it, and playing with Emily [Blunt]. She’s such a fantastic actress and a great girl. Lovely; great fun. We had such a laugh.
AVC: When you’re shooting out of sequence on a character who changes so dramatically from the beginning of the film to the end, even down to his body language and his speech patterns, how do you personally keep track of where you are in the progression?
EM: In a way, it’s in the script, it’s in the writing. But also, as you come to each scene, you just have to keep your eye on it, really. You make decisions beforehand, I suppose, about where you would like it to go, but it’s not until you actually start playing the scenes that you figure out how you’re gonna do it. I don’t know, I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. But you have in your mind what you want to achieve and, I guess, when you come to shoot the scenes, that’s what’s coming out.
AVC: Salmon Fishing doesn’t much cover Fred’s relationship and history with his wife. When you’re building characters, do you tend to come up with backstories in your head?
EM: Yeah, we did. We did it together. There’s more explanation of that in the book. And indeed, there may have been more in the film. I know they did some more editing since I’ve seen the film, so maybe some of that is gone, I don’t know. But the idea [was] that they’re both career-driven people, and they probably met at university and were both… We imagined that she proposed to him—or, no, she just said, “We should get married.” I think that’s in the book, that she says, “We should get married, Fred,” and he’s so incapable of knowing how to deal with women that he just says “Okay.” And so they get married. But we did a lot of talking about it, yeah.
AVC: When you’re looking for something you haven’t done before, how much do you distinguish between something that can only be found in the character vs. the opportunity to do something like travel to Morocco for this film, or fight hand-to-hand in Haywire?
EM: Well, it’s all wrapped up. There’s many different factors in films. The script, I always believe, is the foundation of everything. And if you don’t connect to that foundation, if you don’t believe in that and feel that you wanna spend three, four months of your life exploring it, then all of the other elements are secondary. But if you’ve got a great foundation in the script, and you like the story… Sometimes it’s the story, sometimes it’s the atmosphere in the script, the world that you’re gonna create. There’s many different things that hook you in, and then, on top of that, you have who’s directing, who are the other actors, who’s lighting—those creative elements that come in. Everyone’s tied to the script. I think the script is the key. Regardless of how great everybody else is working on a film, if you’re working on a script that you don’t think is great, you’re not gonna be able to make a great film. Whereas if the script is great, then you can.
AVC: Is that uniqueness of character something you always find up front in the script, or are there ways to find it for yourself with the kind of character exploration you like to do?
EM: Both, I think. I think it has to be there, but then… I don’t know. I don’t analyze it as much as you do. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you ever been in conflict with a director where you thought a character was unique if played or interpreted in a specific way, and the director wanted it played more conventionally?
EM: Often, it can happen. Luckily, not in a major way. You can find it with moments. You can be playing a line some way and the director wants you to change that, or you can disagree. But I always think that the creative conversation between director and actor is what leads to good work. I think the worst thing is if you’re with a director and he’s threatened by that kind of conversation. The whole thing is a team sport; there’s lots of people involved in making a film. And partly, you’re doing a technical exercise when you’re performing for a camera, or you’re performing for an audience in a theater. That’s a technical thing. Then on top of that, there’s the emotional journey where you’re exploring a real person and a real situation, and how do they react, and how do they deal with the situation?
AVC: You’ve said in some interviews that you’re a fan of rehearsals, but you’ve also said you’re a fan of finding the character in the moment and taking risks by doing that discovery on camera. Do you get different things from those different aspects of the process?
EM: Yeah. I think rehearsal can be important if it’s done in a way that works. Often, rehearsal can be a waste of time. With an inexperienced director, often the rehearsal is a way to make them feel that it might work. [Laughs.] And that’s sort of a waste of our time. If it’s putting the director at ease, then that’s fine. But it’s not the same. I mean, you don’t reach a performance level in rehearsal, or at least I don’t. There’s always a step up that happens when you’re actually shooting, and that’s when it all comes together. Sometimes you don’t have any rehearsal; I like to have had a bit. But there’s no rules about it, I guess.
AVC: What was Salmon Fishing director Lasse Hallström like, in terms of rehearsal?
EM: It was quite okay. We did a lot of just talking about scenes. More discussion. We didn’t do any kind of blocking. As I remember, we didn’t do any rehearsal where we’d get up on our feet. I’m talking about rehearsal before you start shooting. And then you rehearse on set, and that’s always important. It’s one of the things that is given the least amount of time on a film set, often. Hours are spent lighting the set, and then you’ve got five minutes to shoot it. Sometimes, the balance is off-kilter slightly there.
AVC: Given your reputation as somebody looking for unique characters, do people tend to bring you their oddball pet projects at this point? Do people say, “I know you like different. Here’s something really weird.”
EM: No, I mean, I’m not looking for “extreme,” “weird.” Just something that I feel like I haven’t played before, I suppose. That’s it. There’s no real pattern with what people bring me or not. It can be anything, all over the place. It’s nice and varied, that’s the best thing. My horizons are completely broad. I don’t put any limits on it. I want to have a complete freedom of choice, if you like. I would never say, “I’ve done a musical. I’m not doing one again.” There’s many, many musical stories to tell.
AVC: It’s more that many of the films you’ve been in, like Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, or I Love You Phillip Morris, Down With Love, Young Adam, A Life Less Ordinary, The Men Who Stare At Goats—they’re all unusual projects to the degree where it seems like it’d be hard to get them funded without a star on board.
EM: Right. I think it’s just writing. It’s good writing. And anything that’s run-of-the-mill, or feels like I’ve done it before, just wouldn’t fire my imagination so much. But I like that. Independent cinema’s full of incredible stories to tell, and in many different ways, so that’s the lovely thing about it, I think. You don’t ever want to feel like you’re covering ground you’ve covered before, or at least I don’t.
AVC: Which directors have been best to work with as far as your process goes?
EM: Well, I don’t know. Every director is very different. Directors don’t spend time with other directors, y’know? I mean, they may socially, but they work on their own film sets, and they don’t work on other people’s film sets, ’cause there’s usually only one director, whereas actors work with many different directors and lots of different actors. Woody Allen’s a very spontaneous director; he doesn’t like you to rehearse very much at all before the cameras are turning. I think he wants that realism, that spontaneous realism. So he definitely would be somebody that relies on you coming up with the goods in the moment.
AVC: Right now, Haywire and Perfect Sense are both out in theaters, Salmon Fishing is coming out, the Phantom Menace revival is out. How are you dealing with the press demands for four films at once?
EM: Luckily, I’m shooting something at the moment, so I have to kind of bear down, anyway. [Laughs.] ’Cause I don’t have time. I did a round of press for Haywire. Perfect Sense is a little film—they don’t have any money to publicize the film, really, so I’ve done a few phoners for that, but there hasn’t been a huge amount of press for that. And the Star Wars re-release, I haven’t been asked to any press at all for. I think it’s publicizing itself, because it’s Star Wars, y’know?
AVC: George Lucas seems like, famously, someone who wouldn’t work well with your methods: He doesn’t like rehearsal or, reportedly, a lot of spontaneous exploration on the set. How did you work together?
EM: Well, you still have to make the characters real and in the moment, and that’s your job, so that’s always gonna be the case there. The technical aspect of the Star Wars films is difficult, because there’s no environment. A lot of the time, anyway, we were working on bluescreen sets or greenscreen sets where there’s nothing there at all, and oftentimes, no other actor to work with. Somebody’s just reading lines off the side of the set, and you’re looking at a tennis ball on a stick. So that becomes much more of a technical exercise. But at the same time, it’s still going in the movie, and it still has to be believable. But I like working with George. I like very much being part of the legend of Star Wars. It’s nice to be in that.
AVC: Your current project—is that The Corrections?
EM: Yeah, we’ve done about a week.
AVC: How is it going so far?
EM: It’s going great. I like Noah Baumbach very much, the director. And I’m working with some great actors: Chris Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s a lovely cast. Yeah, it’s going very well. It’s nice. Good fun.
AVC: Is there anything specific left, at this point, that you haven’t done but want to do?
EM: Yeah, I hope so. I haven’t got a list of character types I would like to play or anything, because I don’t know what they are until I’ve read them, y’know? But there’s always gonna be stories to tell, I would imagine. I’d like to direct something someday. I’d like to do that very much, but I haven’t… I found a story once that I thought I’d like to tell, but someone else was doing it already. That’s something I’d like to do, but I’d like to do it because I’ve got a story to tell, not just for the sake of being the director. But it’s something I would like to do.
AVC: You directed a short film once, and you talked extensively about how much fun that was. Is it just a lack of a worthwhile story that’s stopping you from getting back to it? Isn’t your schedule a factor?
EM: Well, it’s me making it happen that’s keeping me away from it. Like I said, I just haven’t really found a story that I’ve thought, “This is it. This is the one.” Not yet, but I’m sure it will happen. I hope so. I’d like to do it very much. It’s so satisfying. Such a nice process, to be behind the camera. It’s just nice to get to work and not have to change your clothes.
AVC: Should we hold out any hope for the Trainspotting sequel ever happening?
EM: I don’t know. They’ve never sent me a script to read, so I don’t know. If the script was great and I didn’t feel like it was gonna damage Trainspotting’s reputation… The worry about doing that is that Trainspotting’s such a loved and brilliant film that if you made a disappointing sequel, it would be a terrible shame for Trainspotting itself. So we’d have to see. I don’t know yet, I haven’t read it.