Thursday February 21, 2013
Ewan McGregor: A life less ordinary
By MUMTAJ BEGUM
Ewan McGregor – OBE, Jedi Master, king’s knight and a really busy man – is a very grounded sort. Even with a fan contingent among his fellow cast members.
IT seems fitting that the meeting with Ewan McGregor in London should take place at Hampton Court Palace. It was one of the locations for his latest film, and the regal setting seems appropriate as the actor was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the New Year honours for his services to drama and charity.
Perhaps warranted by the location and the honours McGregor now holds (OBE and Obi-Wan), this meeting on a very (very) crisp evening sees the journalists whisked past small doors, through a courtyard paved with uneven bricks, down a dark corridor and up two flights of spiralling wooden stairs before arriving outside the designated interview room, the Anne Boleyn room (the cold may have had something to do with the brisk pace too).
Still befitting the day’s theme, we wait like patient peasants for some good long minutes before being ushered in, specifically to a lush sofa set in a corner of the room. Before we can take in the furnishings, the man in question arrives to greet us with an easy smile and a firm handshake. Needless to say, registering the décor is now a forgotten notion.
It is no surprise to discover that McGregor is, in person, very much a grounded fellow. We’ve seen him play more than a dozen likable guys on the big screen, after all.
Despite the thick red beard (which he described as an eight ... out of 10), his face is youthful, as is his style (skinny black jeans, black boots and blue shirt). His age (42 next month) is only hinted at when he smiles, with a twinkle on his eye (in the left more than the right), making the laugh lines turn up.
A busy man
That down-to-earth quality is obvious as he explains why he works so hard (an average of three movies a year in a 20-year career).
“I like what I do. It’s how I support my family. It’s my job. I don’t think it’s unusual to work a lot. It’s what most people do in the world. The fact that I am an actor doesn’t mean I should do any less,” he shares with a chuckle, which somehow deepens the hue of his blue eyes. Or maybe it’s just the evening light dimming as the sun begins to set.
“I didn’t do so much work last year,” he admits in a slight sing-song, but quite understandable, Scottish accent. “I am good at being on a break now. I am quite happy not to work. I used to be not so good at it. I used to have the drive to be always working. Now I am happy when I am not working. I am very content. I have lots to do. I have lots of kids, so I have lots to keep me busy. When it’s time to go back to work, I like that too,” explains McGregor, who has been married to Eve Mavrakis since 1995, and has made Los Angeles his base for the past two years.
The break is apparently over – right after our interview, he’s scheduled to immediately catch a plane to Australia to begin work on his next movie, an Australian feature entitled Son Of A Gun. He has also just wrapped August: Osage County, co-starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch. He has also signed on for two other films to be released next year.
Which brings us to the reason why all of us are gathered at what used to be King Henry VIII’s home in the first place – Hampton Court was one of the filming locations for Jack The Giant Slayer, an action-adventure film directed by Bryan Singer and based on the fairytale Jack And The Beanstalk.
Besides lots of mean giants, a humble farmhand named Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and a rebel princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), it features McGregor as Elmont, a fearless and noble knight to the land’s king, guarding members of the royal family with not a hair out of place. Well, except that one time when the giants wrap him in pastry and decide to bake him.
This particular scene is what his younger co-stars, Hoult and Tomlinson, consider a memorable scene to film. In a separate interview, Tomlinson recalls with a laugh: “Putting Ewan in the pastry, or some weird sticky substance, was hilarious.”
Hoult notes: “He was covered in flour too.”
To which Tomlinson adds: “And he still looked hot.”
Both Hoult and Tomlinson declare that they are fans of McGregor, quickly naming his breakout 1996 film Trainspotting as a favourite. The Star Wars prequel trilogy and Moulin Rouge are some of the other favourite titles cited by the duo. Hoult rounds out the list: “I even watched his motorcycle diaries (Long Way Down) as well. I am a real fanboy. I love Ewan McGregor.”
Their opinion of the older actor was only enhanced after working closely with him on Jack The Giant Slayer. Both agree that McGregor was encouraging of them and looked after them, with Tomlinson singling out the fact that the father of four girls really took the 20-year-old under his wing, which eased the pressure considerably as this was her first big feature. “He’s such a gentleman,” she says.
This understanding behaviour may stem from the fact that McGregor was only 16 when he left school to pursue an acting career with the local theatre company back in Perth, Scotland, all with the blessing of his teacher and school administrator mother.
He stayed with the company for some time before enrolling in London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he studied alongside Daniel Craig.
Once again, he didn’t finish the three-year course as he landed a TV job, followed by roles in Shallow Grave, The Pillow Book and, of course, Trainspotting. The latter Danny Boyle film brought him a lot of international attention, and the ambitious young man was on his way to becoming a big star.
His profile was elevated significantly when he was picked to play the young Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, beginning with 1999’s The Phantom Menace.
Not sticking strictly to just leading roles in blockbusters, he has proven to be equally comfortable with smaller parts in big films as well as big roles in small ones. His most recent roles saw him in Salmon Fishing In The Yemen (which earned him a Golden Globe nomination) and The Impossible (which garnered co-star Naomi Watts an Oscar nomination).
On his Twitter account (mcgregor_ewan) – where he usually tweets about his charity causes including his work with Unicef – he has said that he chooses a project based on his gut instinct.
With Jack The Giant Slayer, it was the script and the character that made him want to take on the project. “It was an opportunity to play a character that is broader than normal. There are normal characters we know, archetypal characters that you read in a story, but it isn’t often that you get to play that in a story – this sort of a loyal good knight in shining armour.
“On top of that, there was a humour element in the script that I really liked. The fact that Elmont is very loyal and brave and courageous and leads his men from the front and goes into dangerous situations, (he) doesn’t have any fear. But he often ****s it up when he gets there, you know. That he messes up and he gets caught by the giant, and then Jack comes and saves the day. I thought that was funny; that he was a little bit of a twit,” he says.
It isn’t easy being green
The film had the actors working a lot with the green screen as the giants would be added in later with CGI. Even though McGregor did extensive green-screen work in other films, he still finds it a challenge with all the technical aspects involved.
Luckily, McGregor found Singer to be the perfect link between the technical world and an actor’s creative world, and real sets were used against green screens for Jack The Giant Slayer.
“The third Star Wars, especially, there was so much green screen and so little of the sets that when I saw the film, I had no knowledge of what I was seeing; I had no memory of it because none of it was there. Usually when you see a film, you remember the hallway, or the room, or you remember the corner where you had lunch on the set, but it was like watching someone else doing it. That’s not the case here. We had a lot of sets here, and even (for) scenes with the giants we were at a set and then there was a green screen around it,” he explains.
If there is one thing that’s missing from his resume, it is that he doesn’t play the same role twice … apart from that famous trilogy. “I wouldn’t not do a sequel, it’s just that I haven’t been offered any. I don’t see much point to play a character again unless it was meant to be a three-(part) story originally. I am not very interested in a film being successful and then you make another one.”
Although he doesn’t want to revisit any of the old characters, he might be willing to make an exception with the recent news of Star Wars: Episode VII. “They haven’t approached me in any way, and I can’t see how they would need me. The three films they are going to make are after the original three, which were after the ones we made, so I am Alec Guinness by then, and I am dead by then, so I don’t know how they could use me anyway. But, if they needed me to, I would be happy to of course.”
He may not be keen to repeat himself because he wants to take on diverse roles that challenge his acting skills, but director Singer and actors like Stanley Tucci – with whom he worked on A Life Less Ordinary, and again on this film – admit they like working with McGregor and would do it again if possible.
As Tucci sees it: “I think he is really talented. I love the career that he has – he is a leading man and a character actor. He can be very funny and strong and imposing. He’s also just a nice guy. We laughed a lot; it’s very nice to be with somebody, to laugh with and complain and stuff like that.”
Jack The Giant Slayer opens in cinemas nationwide on Feb 28.