Ewan McGregor’s rise to fame two decades ago was significantly due to performances in two movies he made in Glasgow for director Danny Boyle – Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
I interviewed him in three cities over the course of the last year – Toronto, Park City, Utah and LA. Each time he was charm personified, whether it was discussing Trainspotting 2, which is in post-production, or his connection to his poodle-terrier dog Sid (“It can be late at night, my family is asleep, but he is up waiting for me!”)
He’s just made his directorial debut with American Pastoral, his adaptation of the 1997 Philip Roth novel about the disintegration of a family in 1960s New Jersey that is released today and in which he stars alongside Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning.
Though that movie explores the flip side of the American dream, McGregor’s own life hardly seems the stuff of nightmares. He’s been married to production designer Eve Mavrakis for twenty-one years and they have four daughters.
Here he elaborates on why he’d like to star in another Stars Wars movie and how he came to direct Philip Roth:
How did you decide to start directing?
I always wanted to do it and I have been thinking about it for a long time. For me it was like an extension of acting. I was thinking at first to direct Silk [based on the novel] by Alessandro Baricco [which was eventually made with Keira Knightley]. But I heard once the writer say he wanted only a master director to adapt his novel for a movie so I got kind of scared! But when I had the opportunity to direct American Pastoral, I jumped on it. I asked all the actors, as many of them were already involved in the project, if they wanted to work with me and luckily they said yes… I think we were a good team.
What appealed about American Pastoral, the story of an American family that suddenly falls apart due to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s?
There was something about this story that I did not want to let go. It tells about a father, whose lovely and sweet daughter suddenly become a terrorist. It is a huge drama and having four daughters I know very well this kind of relationship.
After this experience, do you want to direct again?
Yes! It was a lot of fun! At the same time it has changed my life, as I felt the huge responsIbility with Roth, with the actors to do a good job. But for sure I want to do it again. By the way, I am also looking for funding to direct new movies in case somebody is reading!
I find that actors have a special sensibility when directing other actors…
I try to listen to my actors and hear what they have to say, to make them feel free. It was important for me to create an environment where everybody was feeling comfortable. I always hated it when a director told me what to do without listening to my voice, in an authoritarian way.
As a first time filmmaker you’re directing a story inspired by a Philip Roth novel. Do you like reading?
I have always been fascinated by Hemingway, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and then Kerouac. I chose in part to do the movie Last Days in the Desert as the director, Rodrigo Garcia, is the son of the great writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who I have always admired. He, like his father, has a great sensibility. It was a spiritual experience for me to work with him, as we were shooting in the desert. I was playing Lucifer and Jesus, both of them, but it was also a family story.
How do you decide to become an actor and did you want to become famous?
I was not thinking I would become a star. But like in many decisions in my life, I followed my instinct. I was only 5 years old and I had known already that I wanted to become an actor. I loved the theater and for sure I was influenced by my uncle, the actor Denis Lawson, who inspired me even to play harmonica and to sing. I grew up in a small Scottish village surrounded by green fields, a lot of sheep and farmers, and he was such an amazing interesting character for me. He was so eccentric, totally different from the other people around me I saw every day. He was making me dream of discovering new worlds.
Your uncle Denis was the pilot Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy. Then you became Obi-Wan Kenobi. Would you like to go back to the role?
For sure, maybe with another angle on the character! But yes, I would love to and I hope it happens at some point.
Do you like science fiction?
I am not a huge fan, but Star Wars has always been magic for me. As I have memories connected to it. I was only 6 years old when my parents, both teachers, took me and my 8 years old brother, to see the first movie with my uncle. It was my first time for a film on a big screen, and I will never forget it. It stroked my heart.
You moved with your family to Los Angeles. Do you miss your home country?
I sometimes miss Scotland of course. But I love the weather in California, like the wild nature and the coast of the Los Angeles beaches from Santa Monica to Malibù and even more north till Big Sur, it is so spectacular. I feel an incredible sense of freedom in Los Angeles, a place where everybody lives as they like, whatever works. I even still feel that in Los Angeles the American Dream can really become true.
You are also in the Disney musical Beauty and the Beast and also made Moulin Rouge. Do you like singing and dancing?
Yes, I always did, it is like being on a theater every day. Moulin Rouge was a fantastic experience, like living in another world and everybody was sad when they destroyed our set. But also Beauty and the Beast is a very exciting project. It would be also great if Disney one day might think to do a [musical] version of Star Wars, wouldn’t it?
What about Trainspotting 2 directed by Danny Boyle? There are rumors it will be more about sex instead of drugs this time [the book Porno by Irvine Welsh, on which it is based, is set in the porn world].
Danny is a great friend of mine and it is always a pleasure to work with him. Danny was my first director in fact. He has a wonderful way of working as he is able to follow you and to tell you exactly what you have to do, in a gentle way, even if he can push you quite hard. You will be surprised by Trainspotting 2. Something a bit crazy is happening again.
You have done many sex scenes in your movies. Have you had ever problems with them?
No, not if it is necessary for representing my character in the best real way. I am a professional and it is part of my work to make my character as real as possible, to find the reality of the emotions. Besides this I do believe that in life there is a lot worse then acting naked in a movie.
This interview has been edited and condensed.