SEATTLE — It’s a rare experience, for an actor, to have the person he’s portraying be present on a movie set. Ewan McGregor, in “Beginners,” had an even more unusual experience: The man he was portraying was also the film’s director and writer.
A gentle, quirky tale of life’s passages, “Beginners” is the story of thirty-something Oliver (McGregor); actually, it’s two stories of Oliver, told in shifting, parallel time frames: One is the relationship of Oliver with his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who has come out as a gay man at age 75 after his wife’s death, only to be diagnosed with cancer a few years later. The other, after his father’s death, shows Oliver tentatively finding love in his own life. Oliver’s real-life counterpart is Mike Mills, who was inspired to make the movie by his own father’s story.
“Mike didn’t want me to impersonate him,” said McGregor, in town last month for the film’s Seattle International Film Festival premiere. “But I wanted to feel like him — it is his story, and the words that I say are words that he chose to write. The scenes are the scenes he decided to take from his real experience and put it into his movie.”
Toward that end, McGregor spent many hours with Mills, talking about his family and his childhood, and even asked Mills to record the script. “When you’re a Brit playing an American accent, it’s handy to have an example of the accent you’re working toward,” McGregor said.
But he wasn’t aiming for a carbon copy — just as his version of Phillip Morris, from his recent film “I Love You Phillip Morris” (a fact-based gay love story co-starring Jim Carrey, released last year), wasn’t exactly like the real person. “I met Phillip before I played him. He’s really quite different from my portrayal,” McGregor recalled. “He is soft-spoken, but because he was in prison for many years, he has quite a tough edge. And there wasn’t any place for that in the script. I had to kind of ignore his edge, if you like, when I played him.
“With Mike, it was just an unusual situation to be there with him. Because he’s a brilliant director and a true collaborator, there was never any moment when I felt there was a pressure that I had to play him, or that it was awkward or difficult. I just felt like we were working together.”
Despite the presence of Melanie Laurent, who plays Oliver’s love interest, much of McGregor’s screen time in the film is opposite two other characters. One was Plummer, whom McGregor described as “extraordinarily contemporary ... a very modern actor. When you think about actors in their 80s or actors who worked in the ‘50s, acting was more something that happened on the outside and not something that came from the inside so much. Nowadays it’s different, but I find that Christopher was entirely modern when I worked with him. He does give a great performance in this film, no doubt about it. When I was playing with him, I never felt like, ‘Here’s the man giving this performance,’ I just felt like he was my dad.”
And McGregor also shares the “Beginners” spotlight with a dog: a Jack Russell terrier named Cosmo in the role of Hal’s beloved dog Arthur, who ends up living with Oliver. “I always thought the adage ‘never work with children or animals’ is because they’re difficult to work with, they don’t do what they’re told. But in actual fact, it’s a vanity thing,” said McGregor, laughing. “If you’re on screen with a baby or a dog, no one’s ever going to be looking at you! I was quite happy to share the limelight with Cosmo because he’s a really wonderful little character.”
Born in Crieff, Scotland, McGregor was inspired to become an actor by his uncle, Denis Lawson, who appeared in the three earliest “Star Wars” movies (his nephew would follow in his footsteps, appearing in three later “Star Wars” editions as Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero.” “He was a fascinating character in my childhood, and I’m very close to him still,” said McGregor.
A busy actor now based in L.A., McGregor currently has four new films completed: “Perfect Sense,” a thriller directed by David Mackenzie; a Steven Soderberg thriller called “Haywire”; Lasse Hallstrom’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”; and “The Impossible,” “a true story about one family’s experience in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand with Naomi Watts and myself and three little boys.” He’s currently shooting Bryan Singer’s contemporary fairy tale “Jack the Giant Killer,” is making plans to return to the London stage soon, and says he’d love to make another movie with Mills.
“I just look for stories that grab me,” he said, looking back on his career choices. “I don’t think very much about what size the film is. It’s just, what’s the story? That’s what makes you happier, satisfies you at the end of the day.”