Scottish actor and icon Ewan McGregor, who was awarded Best European Actor at the 2010 European Film Awards for his performance in The Ghost Writer (2010), talks about his acting adventures.
Known across the galaxy since his role as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Ewan McGregor has gone from strength to strength as an actor. Moving from sharp, unforgiving interpretations in Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) to seductive romantic roles in Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Down With Love (2003) he has seldom been off our screens, and has worked with some of the world’s finest directors, including Danny Boyle, Tim Burton, George Lucas, Woody Allen, Ron Howard and, most recently, Roman Polanski in The Ghost Writer (2010), which was adapted from the Robert Harris novel.
McGregor plays ‘The Ghost’, the writer of the title, who lands the opportunity to write the memoirs of renowned UK former prime minister, Adam Lang (and any similarities to Tony Blair are mere coincidence, of course), played by Pierce Brosnan. But writing for a living can be very dangerous, as ‘The Ghost’ is about to discover.
Amid all the acclaim, we caught up with Ewan for a chat.
Bespoken: Does the location of a prospective movie play an important part in your choice of scripts, as you are well known as a man who loves to travel? Also, what was your best recent on-set experience?
Ewan McGregor: I have never had the opportunity to choose the locations for my movies, and no, it’s other considerations that determine my choice. Yes, I love to travel, but I do have to say that I would be glad sometimes to have the opportunity to work at home, because it can be hard to be on location far away for so long. In The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) the atmosphere on set was great because the director Grant Heslov loves to work at a certain rhythm and doesn’t go for megatakes – two or three are enough, which is good, because I have had bad experiences in the past when I have had to work for an entire day on a very short scene. I loved working with George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. We laughed a lot, had a lot of fun and, don’t forget, we also worked with professional goat actors, who were fantastic! [laughs]
How do you feel about your profession?
I’ve always loved this job, and my passion for what I do is actually growing. What I don’t like are the moments when you have to wait – not only when we are actually working on set, when make-up has to be done or when a scene is being set up, but also the gaps between a great movie and the next one. You have to wait a long time to achieve a perfect interpretation and, in our job, the chances to work on ambitious and interesting projects are rare. Sometimes, you have to wait for years.
Some of your fellow actors, such as Sean Penn, are politically engaged. What about you?
Not really. To begin with, I have never been in the army, but I have a brother who until two years ago was in the RAF, flying Tornadoes in war zones. My only experience of conflict was the 48 hours I once spent in Baghdad Airport. I met a lot of soldiers, and I was very surprised at how young they were, but I also left that airport feeling very proud, as these guys were doing something I could never have done. I didn’t want to stay in that place one minute more than was absolutely necessary.
Was there anything about Roman Polanski’s methods that particularly stood out?
One day on set, and we had been shooting for some weeks at this point, Roman came up to me and said: ‘I have an idea for the ending,’ and he described it to me, and I thought it was just amazing. It’s a beautiful, very clever shot, in which I don’t think the camera moves apart from following my character through a door and then it’s static. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling, classic filmmaking, classic Polanski. You can imagine other directors needing 50 shots for the sequence in question, and he just pans the camera and leaves us to imagine what’s going on offscreen, which is marvellous.
In The Ghost Writer, you also had the chance to work with Pierce Brosnan. How was that?
Pierce is an actor I’ve always followed - there’s a handful of other actors that you wonder if one day you might work with, and Pierce was always one of those. I’ve always enjoyed watching him. My experience in The Ghost Writer was unique, in that I was there from the beginning to the end, and I was always there, I was always on set. I became like one of the crew, really, whereas other actors would come in and out. But for the first week or so, I was mainly on my own. I just did all the stuff with ‘The Ghost’ on my own, before Pierce arrived, and he was tremendous to work with, simple as that.
Tell us how it was, really, to work with Polanski?
I only spoke to Roman on the phone before I met him in Germany, because he was in Switzerland at the time and I was shooting The Men Who Stare at Goats in New Mexico and Puerto Rico, and I was unable to get to Europe, so we didn’t actually meet before I turned up. That day, I was doing costume fittings when he came in, and as you know he’s an iconic man and a legendary director so, for an actor, it was quite nerve-wracking to meet him. He’s like a perfect host before you get on set, but he’s two very different men [laughs]. When you’re off set, he’s preparing you coffee and making sure everyone’s alright and then when you start working, be it on the text or actually on set, he’s very direct. His direction is not guarded or sugar-coated in any way, he’s really quite brusque with it. But his style is always very interesting, and it’s no coincidence that he’s considered to be a great movie director. On set, you just have to listen to him and, more often than not, in fact all the time, he is right. It’s kind of annoying, but when you follow his instructions, it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, he’s right about that.’ Actors are quite sensitive, myself included, and when I tried something out, if Polanski didn’t like it, he wouldn’t worry about hurting your feelings. But I have to say that I realized very quickly he’s like that with everybody – he directed the props guy, the painter and the set dresser in exactly the same way. In fact, all of our camera crew was Polish, he often hung out with them between scenes and you could hear them telling jokes in Polish. They were his buddies, but he was toughest with them when he was directing! [laughs]