Poet, soldier, addict, Jedi — Ewan McGregor has made his name by adapting effortlessly to any part that’s thrown his way. He fills the role of movie star comfortably, but away from the spotlight he’s a dad, a motorcycle nut and a guy who’s simply glad to be working.
Author DAVID CARR
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER
SPEND TIME CHATTING with successful actors and you’ll hear all manner of serious talk about how hard it was to commit to a certain role and the deep, dark places plumbed in service of nailing it. Ewan McGregor, 40, is not like that. He likes to work, he works a lot and he finds satisfaction in the many roles he’s landed over the years, if not loads of personal drama. Currently, he has five movies in play: Perfect Sense, The Impossible, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Jack the Giant Killer and Haywire.
In Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, out this month, McGregor portrays a private military contractor of execrable moral fiber who betrays one of his chief assets — a gorgeous assassin played by Gina Carano — triggering an epic confrontation. But while several of the films McGregor has made lately concern skullduggery and calamity, he’s not feeling particularly dour himself. He’s a happy guy, living in L.A. with his family and maintaining a stable of the kinds of classic motorcycles you work on as often as you ride.
Born in Crieff, Scotland, McGregor dropped out of high school at 16 and enrolled at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After some dues-paying, he broke through in 1996’s Trainspotting; since then he’s convincingly portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, a love-struck poet in Moulin Rouge and the loyal if conflicted son of a man who came out late in life in Beginners — in addition to 40-odd other roles over 20 years.
McGregor has a reputation as a low-maintenance actor, a working man among divas. We talked about Haywire, his taste in motorcycles, his unfortunate inability to fake a punch and how, um, “fate” changed his life.
HEMISPHERES: How is it that you have five movies coming out this year? Have you mastered some sort of cloning technology?
MCGREGOR: It’s just kind of the way it went. They aren’t coming out all at the same time, but there are quite a few of them. I’ve been working a lot and now I’m taking a break.
HEMISPHERES: In Haywire, you play a guy who’s a pretty nasty piece of work.
MCGREGOR: Yeah, we based it on somebody who shall remain nameless.
HEMISPHERES: Give us some hints.
MCGREGOR: You just have to look at the haircut. It’s somebody in the private security business. That’s all I will say.
HEMISPHERES: Wow, now you really sound like a spy. What was it like working with Steven Soderbergh?
MCGREGOR: He’s so relaxed making a film. He’s made so many that he just knows what he’s doing. He sits on the dolly, lights the scene, rehearses the scene, looks into the camera and then shoots the scene. Seven or eight takes would go by without very much direction from him. Then something would happen, the scene would shift somehow, and he’d simply say, “Let’s move on.” It was as if he was waiting for that thing to happen on its own, without forcing it in any way. I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. We almost did Once Upon a Time together but it didn’t work out. It was lovely that he came back to me with this. I just liked it; I thought it was really an interesting idea — and complicated, like a lot of his work.
HEMISPHERES: Haywire sort of harkens back to the classic spy movies.
MCGREGOR: It reminded me of the Bond films, with the idea of this private soldier/special agent whose boss turns on her. I was trying to play the kind of guy who provides violence for a fee, who puts people in harm’s way and doesn’t care who gets hurt as long as he makes money.
HEMISPHERES: He ends up paying a price, though. Speaking of which: What’s it like to get beaten up by a girl?
MCGREGOR: Gina Carano is unbelievable. I watched her really destroy some stunt guys. Her usual job [as a world-class mixed martial arts fighter] is to hit people, so I think it was hard for her to get used to not actually hitting them. But she ended up doing amazing work. She was very careful with me. There was a sequence of three punches we had to do where I punched with the right and then with the left and then I swept right, directly over her head. She was supposed to duck but didn’t quite, and I hit her right in the head. She grabbed me and said, “Are you OK?” She didn’t feel a thing. I almost broke my finger. How many times do you punch someone in the head and have them ask you if you’re all right?
HEMISPHERES: I’m not answering that. You’ve worked with some great directors, a list that includes Roman Polanski, Baz Luhrmann, Danny Boyle and Woody Allen. Not a bad run you’ve had.
MCGREGOR: Sometimes when you’re on the set you have to pinch yourself. You look across and Woody Allen is sitting there giving you nods. Or, like you said, Polanski. It’s incredible. I love it.
HEMISPHERES: Do they have anything in common, the great ones you’ve worked for?
MCGREGOR: I think they have a vision. A lot of directors for hire can make films for studios, and make films the way other people want them to be made. The great ones can’t do that. They can only make the film that they want to make.
HEMISPHERES: Are you finally taking a break now?
MCGREGOR: I’ve got some publicity to do, but I’m at home with my family. It’s nice. I get a chance to be at home and ride my motorbikes.
HEMISPHERES: Which bike is currently your favorite?
MCGREGOR: Probably the three early-’70s Moto Guzzis are the ones I ride the most. They’re sort of old and industrial. A lot of people don’t like them, but I really do. I have one that looks like it’s just been pulled out of a river — it looks terrible, but actually it can beat most people away from the lights. I love riding old bikes because it’s satisfying keeping them going, and you can be nostalgic about who might have ridden them before you.
HEMISPHERES: Let’s talk a little bit about how you got started as an actor. If your uncle Denis Lawson hadn’t been in the business, you might not have ever left your hometown.
MCGREGOR: My Uncle Denis — I recently worked with him in this film Perfect Sense that’s coming out. It’s the first time I’ve gotten to act with him. I grew up watching him. He’s my real inspiration, and I can absolutely see his acting in mine. Sometimes I’ll call him up and say, “I just saw me doing you in a movie!”
HEMISPHERES: And your parents were fine with your quitting school and following in his footsteps?
MCGREGOR: Yeah, I was 16 when I left, and I was working in the Perth Repertory Theatre a week later. I was one of the stage crew putting up the sets, but they would give me little walk-on parts. I was suddenly working somewhere that embodied all my dreams and all my hopes, working with professional actors and being part of the magic. It was great. It was like coming home for me. I thought it was where I belonged.
HEMISPHERES: Not to be reductionist about it, but you’re especially well known for a couple of things: one, your willingness to disrobe for roles, beginning with Trainspotting, and two, the fact that you don’t drink.
MCGREGOR: I’ve never believed that you need to live a chaotic life in order to be a great actor. I used to live that kind of life, and I was good at my job, but I just sort of scraped by. Now, I feel like I’ve got more control over it, more choice. But you’re right. Most of the stories now boil down to the fact that I don’t drink and the suggestion that I’m naked all the time. I’m the naked sober guy.
HEMISPHERES: I’ve read that you’re willing to watch your films but you hate watching or reading your interviews. Is that true?
MCGREGOR: Yes, I find it really embarrassing. I was walking down the street in London last week and there’s a magazine that the homeless people sell called The Big Issue, and on the front cover it said, “Ewan Tells Us How Fate Changed His Life.” I had forgotten I even did that interview. It’s embarrassing, the idea that I’m on this magazine cover telling the world how fate changed my life. But I love being in the movies, I’ve wanted to be in the movies since I was a kid, and there’s still a part of me that looks up at the big screen and says, “Wow, I’m in that movie — that’s amazing!” I still get a buzz out of it.
DAVID CARR, who covers media and culture for the New York Times, prefers vintage bikes with pedals.