Ewan McGregor’s been busy. He’s got a handful of films coming out, starting with Woody Allen’s latest, “Cassandra’s Dream,” starring McGregor and Colin Farrell as working-class brothers faced with a moral puzzler: Could you kill a total stranger if someone you respect asked you to? (Cash will be thrown in for good measure.)
Then there’s “Incendiary,” which debuted last week at Sundance. The brutal drama set in a terrorist-wracked London of the future stars “Brokeback Mountain’s” Michelle Williams. He also shot “The Tourist,” a murderous, sex-club thriller with Williams. And for fans of “Long Way Round,” the TV documentary in which he and actor-pal Charley Boorman motorcycled across Asia, there’s “Long Way Down”: two guys, motorcycles, Africa.
Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell, Tom Wilkinson, Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins
(Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 18 Jan 2008 (Limited release); 2008)
The Scotsman with the funny name—it’s “YOU-in”—first grabbed attention in 1996 as a soiled, sorry heroin addict in “Trainspotting.” He cleaned up nicely in romancers like “Emma” (with Gwyneth Paltrow), “Miss Potter” (with Renee Zellweger) and “Moulin Rouge!” (singing with Nicole Kidman). And don’t forget those “Star Wars” prequels (playing Obi-Wan Kenobi).
McGregor, who lives in London with his wife and three children, is now playing the villainous Iago in a West End production of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Joseph V. Amodio caught up with the actor by phone.
So here’s the question you’re probably sick of: What’s Woody really like?
He’s very funny. I mean, he’s kind of who you think he is. But in real life he’s a more toned-down version of that Woody Allen movie persona. I think probably all (the) neuroses in his films are in him—just in a much quieter way.
Were you intimidated at all?
You hear a lot of stories—he doesn’t speak to you, doesn’t use your name, doesn’t direct you at all—but I found none of those to be true. He works quickly ... few close-ups. Most of the scenes play out in one single, wide frame. So as an actor you have to nail it. He doesn’t like to do more than three or four takes. You really have to raise your game.
Do you get back to Scotland much?
Not as much as I’d like. There’s a feeling of being in Scotland, a sense of belonging I don’t feel anywhere else ... just being amongst the colors and the highlands and the freshness of the air.
I heard your parents actually encouraged you to quit school.
Yeah. My older brother had been head prefect and captain of the cricket team and this, that and the other. (But when) I was 16, in my penultimate year, I hated it. All I wanted to do was act. I remember my mum and I were driving into Crieff (his hometown) in the rain, and she turned to me and said, “Look, I’ve spoken to your dad, and if you want to leave school you can.”
Wow! So what planet do they come from, exactly?
(He laughs.) The planet of common sense, I think. It was a wise decision. A week later I was working in Perth Repertory Theatre helping to build sets, learning my trade from the bottom up.
You’ve been filming a lot lately—twice with Michelle Williams.
She’s incredible. We shot “The Tourist” in New York; I really got to know New York in a way I hadn’t before. I had a little flat down in TriBeCa—uh ... a little apartment. When I wasn’t working I just wandered. There’s a nice anonymity in New York. People don’t bother about you. I found a freedom in that.
In “Incendiary,” you play a journalist having an affair with a woman whose husband and son are killed in a soccer-stadium bombing. Sounds intense.
It was while we were in New York that Michelle gave me the script for “Incendiary” and asked me what I thought. I guess she figured maybe I was all right to work with. The script was extraordinary—the best female lead I’d ever read, and they don’t come around very often, so I was happy to be involved with it.
How’s the motorcycling these days?
Charley (Boorman) and I rode from John O’Groats, in the north of Scotland, to Capetown, South Africa. Fantastic trip.
Your wife must be pretty cool to let you go off for weeks on end.
(He laughs.) She learned to ride a motorcycle and rode through Malawi and Zambia with us. It was the first time we’d ever ridden together. She did a great job.
So after all this traveling, is there a moment you look back on that still seems ... surreal?
There was a moment in Ethiopia. We stopped for something to eat in a local cafe—well, you can’t call it a cafe—a local place, half-indoor, half-outdoor, where people eat. So five white guys sitting in this place ... and in the corner was a television and on the TV was the Ben Stiller movie about the fashion world, “Zoolander.” There was something extraordinarily surreal about that. (He laughs.) It was two very, very different worlds, y’know. ... Incredible.