ORLANDO, Fla. — Hearing Ewan McGregor as an uptight salmon fisheries expert in the comedy “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” you might think that you’re hearing the real Ewan — the one whose voice isn’t the put-on American, British or what-have you accents he so often manages in the movies.
“But nooo, that’s not me,” he says. “I didn’t want to use my own accent — exactly.”
He took a suggestion from “Salmon Fishing’s” Oscar-winning screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”). Beaufoy’s one word idea?
“They have an especially uptight quality about them,” Beaufoy says, laughing. “Incredibly buttoned up, uptight. Ewan himself isn’t from that part of Scotland. But boy, the character he’s playing certainly could be.”
“That part of Edinburgh always sounded like a pretentious, put-on accent to me, growing up,” McGregor, 40, says. “This character, Fred, or ‘Alfred,’ sounds like someone who’s trying to be ‘posh.’
“Simon and I agreed that it was the perfect Scots accent for Fred — a bit of a stiff, somebody who is awkward, a bit too formal, kind of repressed and stuck, and that accent says ‘repressed’ to me.”
“Salmon Fishing,” based on the Paul Torday novel, is about the mad scheme of a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) to build a dam ensuring the water supply to his part of Yemen, and to have fish ladders built into it so he can import salmon and introduce his favorite sport — Scottish fly fishing — to the high desert of the southern Arabian peninsula. Emily Blunt plays the sheik’s assistant, the person determined to make his dream come true. And McGregor is Dr. Alfred Jones, the government fisheries authority who says — on dozens of occasions and in dozens of different, florid and insulting ways — “It’s nonsense.”
Beaufoy is delighted with McGregor’s turn in the role. And a little surprised. “The guy in the book is so much older that I was sure they’d cast somebody older in the role. But what Ewan brought to it was kind of spectrum autistic quality — brusque — that makes him completely believable. Yes, he’s a younger salmon expert, but he’s so totally locked into his own world that he can make Asperger jokes on himself and we believe it. We worried about joking about that. Is this OK? But when Ewan says it, its disarming and funny and he’s saying that about himself.”
McGregor relished the chance to dabble with a Scots accent not his own — “I’m always trying to find roles where a Scots accent is apt, because I am Scottish. And we’re a proud people, proud of our accents.” But he also enjoyed Beaufoy’s verbal flourishes, dismissing the sheik’s “folly” as “the bagatelle of a man with more money than sense.” It’s not every script that tosses around “bagatelle,” meaning a trifle — a rich man’s plaything.
“Simon’s a great writer, and he turned a book that has large swathes of email exchanges into something living and breathing and fun,” McGregor says. “Very clever of him to change the prime minister’s press secretary into a woman, and a woman who becomes Kristen Scott Thomas.”
Thomas is at her cursing-fuming-raging best in the film, which the Los Angeles Times says “just lifts your spirits, leaves you feeling good about life and even better about the movies.”
And about salmon fishing. The screenwriter, who climbed through the canyons of Utah where Aron Ralston was trapped before writing “127 Hours,” took up fly fishing as his prep work.
“It is the most extraordinarily skillful sport,” Beaufoy says. “Very restful. Very calming. There’s almost no equipment at all — a rod and a line. A reel isn’t really necessary ... It’s all just about landing a tiny little fly in exactly the right way in exactly the right place in exactly the right moment. They spend hours and hours doing it, like a meditation.”
Even the native Scot McGregor, an actor known for his passion for motorcycles, had to learn his country’s national sport for the film.
“We’ve got very beautiful rivers in Scotland, and very beautiful scenery. And lots of salmon. I can certainly see how somebody could get swept up in this ancient sport, spending your days up to your knees in water surrounded by the majesty of the Scottish Highlands ... No, I didn’t get the bug. Still prefer the serenity and relaxation and freeing of the mind on the back of a motorcycle. But I get the appeal.”
The screenwriter says the new-to-fly-fishing actor was the perfect instrument for realizing his vision for the film, which opens in some cities Friday.
“I love writing about people trying to do the impossible, really — people knowing that it isn’t going to work, and yet going through with it anyway, because they believe in it,” Beaufoy says. “All my characters, from ‘The Full Monty’ onwards, have been trying to overcome the impossible. What you get, then, is belief. That’s what Ewan and Amr and Emily bring to this movie — faith. You believe that they believe that they can make this come off.
“That’s his gift as an actor, making you believe that he believes.”