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Long before Ewan McGregor decided to direct American Pastoral, he considered helming two other movies.
“I wanted to direct for maybe 15 years,” he said, “[but] I only wanted to do it when I had a story I was burning to tell. I never wanted to do it just for the sake of being a director or [so that] I could write on a little greeting card, ‘actor, director.’ I’ve had two [other passion projects], only twice in 15 years. Once I got the fear [of doing it]. It was called Silk. Just before I was going to get the rights from this Italian writer [Alessandro Baricco], he did an interview where he said, ‘Only a master filmmaker will adapt my novel for the screen.’ And I thought, ‘Oh no! I’m not a master filmmaker.’ So I got the fear and I didn’t do it.”
The other project, he said, was the true story of Donald Crowhurst, a British businessman who entered a round-the-world yacht race.
“He had invested everything he had in this boat,” McGregor noted. “He had investors on the boat. He was a married man with four children, like me. And if he gave up, he would have to give all that money back and he would ruin his family. So he was facing death or ruination. And he decided there was a third option, which was to cheat. And he went down to South America and he just went round in circles for months and months while everyone went around the world. And as they came back, he tucked in behind them.”
That story was made into the 2006 documentary Deep Water.
With American Pastoral, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel about a couple whose lives slowly deteriorate following their daughter’s political extremism, “I was attached to play in American Pastoral for maybe three years. And the film went through a series of starts and stops and different directors. We were supposed to shoot in March 2015. And I was performing The Real Thing, [Tom] Stoppard’s play, on Broadway at the end of 2014. And then I got a call saying it wasn’t going to happen. And usually with a film, if it disappears, you can just let it go. But there was something about this one that I couldn’t let go. So I phoned up Tom Rosenberg, the head of Lakeshore [Entertainment], and I said, ‘I wonder if you would think about me directing it?’ ”
Pastoral, in which McGregor stars with Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning, opens October 21.
McGregor, who has just completed a sequel to his 1996 film Trainspotting and will shortly start work on the next season of Fargo, took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters, held at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV.
Recalling his first meeting with George Lucas, about playing the iconic role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, he noted: “I had to go to studios in Watford, north of London, where they shot all the Harry Potter movies. I remember going there, meeting George, and being allowed to read the script. I had to read it in the producer’s office — like, literally, being almost locked in with the script, so that it doesn’t get leaked — and then being shown around the sets with George. There was a great big submarine thing that I end up in with Liam [Neeson] and Jar Jar Binks. And I remember looking at this huge polystyrene thing [that had been made to look like a] submarine, and there was a cockpit. And I looked at it and I went, ‘Will we go under?’ He looked at me and went, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Will we go underwater with it?’ And he looked at me like I was insane. He said, ‘None of that is real, you know.’ And I went, ‘Oh. Yeah.’ ”
A full transcript follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s 2004, you’re wrapping up Star Wars, and you make this insane decision: You’re going to go to on a motorbike ride around the world with your best friend. What were you thinking?
EWAN MCGREGOR: Well, I thought it was a really good idea at the time.
GALLOWAY: Do you still?
MCGREGOR: It turned out to be one, yeah. No, it was a brilliant thing to do. I don’t know. There’s something that happens where you go, if you’re lucky, goodness me, from film to another film to another film. And you can sort of feel that if you step off that treadmill, it might all go horribly wrong and you might never be employed again, you know. And I suddenly thought that that’s not necessarily the case. And I also thought we make drama as actors about people in the world and that if you are on that treadmill, you start making films about other films. And I wanted to make sure that I was making films about the world. So I thought well, I should go and see it. I’m spending a lot of time in — we call them caravans in Britain.
MCGREGOR: Trailers. I was spending a lot of time in trailers, you know, on film sets surrounded by film people. And I love film people and actors and I am in the right world because I am one of those people. But I wanted to go and explore the world, I guess. And I suddenly thought well, I’ll just do it. And then my friend Charlie [Boorman] and I found the right producers to produce a documentary. And we got a book deal before we left which sort of somewhat covered the cost of doing it and then off we went. We rode from London east and we went across Europe and then Central Asia, rode through Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and then into Siberia. We went as Far East as we can go to a place called Magadan which is an amazing town if you are ever passing that way.
GALLOWAY: This week.
MCGREGOR: It’s quite an extraordinary place to be. And then from there we flew to Anchorage and we rode from Alaska through Alaska, Canada and America to New York. And it was an amazing experience.
GALLOWAY: What surprised you on that trip?
MCGREGOR: I think people’s generosity, you know, that would have to be it. I remember in… goodness, where were we? It was so many places where people have very little. In far Eastern Russia, there’s just some towns that time has forgotten. I guess they used to maybe be industrial or something that are now there’s just lots of rusty hulks of buildings and a lot of people wandering around, a lot of alcoholism and violence because people have got nothing to do and no work. Yet people were very generous. And we did a second trip in 2007 from the top of Scotland to Cape Town through Africa. And especially in Africa, I came across that when we were in the mountains in Ethiopia. And we woke up one morning and we followed this little boy who was just standing, staring at our tents where we were crawling out of. We followed him back to this little village and his parents took us into their hut. And they shared with us the little food they had. And it was amazing. I just thought about if somebody was sort of loitering outside our house in the morning, we just tell them to fuck off. We wouldn’t ask them in, you know.
GALLOWAY: They’re saying, “We just had Ewan McGregor in our yurt,” you know.
MCGREGOR: They didn’t know who I was. They had no idea who, you know, they just saw a sort of slightly bearded guy on a motorcycle. And I found out all the way around, especially in the nomadic countries, Kazakhstan and Mongolia where there are sort of nomadic people, most of the people in Mongolia live in the steppe, you know, in the countryside with their flock. And they travel around on horseback. And so there was some sort of kinship with us because we were on motorcycles and they could relate to us in a way. We were traveling. We’re vulnerable to the elements. If it’s cold and raining, we’re cold and wet. If it’s hot, we’re hot. You know, they related to that of course. And in their culture, their culture is one of looking after travelers. So they would welcome us into their tents and into their yurts, whatever that you’d like to call them, without hesitation and share with us what they had which was great.
GALLOWAY: Did you ever feel in danger? I don’t know if you’ve seen this series but if you have, it’s so great.
MCGREGOR: Available on Netflix?
GALLOWAY: Yes, and you can even watch it on YouTube.
MCGREGOR: Or buy the DVD on Amazon. I would suggest that one.
GALLOWAY: I encourage you to buy it.
MCGREGOR: And all your friends.
GALLOWAY: There’s this great thing at the beginning where someone said you know, there are bandits. There are more wild bears than human beings. You’re trying to figure out the GPS and somebody’s saying you know, there is no GPS at this place.
GALLOWAY: Did you ever feel afraid?
MCGREGOR: Yes, once or twice but it was very, very rare and there was another time we were starting, this isn’t very nice for you people here because this is America. But I was standing in front of a world map and we had some sort of survival expert. And we were saying where is the most dangerous route, just went from London all the way across the world and back on to this side and stopped at New York, you know, went like that. And we’re looking at the map and we’re mainly looking at this [points right] side of the map. And we said where is the most dangerous place that we could put our tent up on this trip. And they just pointed in the middle of America. [LAUGHTER] That’s it right there. So anyway sorry about that, anyway I’m sure it’s not true. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: How did your wife handle this? Because you’re going away for three months in dangerous places.
MCGREGOR: Well, the dangerous — let me [talk about] that. Because the only time we felt danger on the first trip was there was one moment in Egypt. We stopped our bikes because we saw a camel and we stopped because we had ridden on our motorbikes to somewhere where there was a camel. And that was sort of like a mark of something, you know, like fuck we’ve ridden quite a long way. There’s camels there. Do you know what I mean? So we stopped and because we got this book deal, we were always looking for somewhere to… I wanted to do this trip partly because of a book that Ted Simon wrote. He was a journalist for the Sunday Times in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Britain and he wrote a very beautiful book called Jupiter’s Travels, I would encourage you all to read it because he rode around the world at that particular moment in time. I took him four years and he rode on a motorcycle. And he wasn’t a motorcyclist but he was thinking what was the best way to sort of experience the world. And he picked that as his mode of transport. And it encouraged me. I’d been doing lots of other things on motorbikes. I had a little race team and we did track dates and we bummed about town. And it was my means of just getting from A to B, you know, always has been really. But his book inspired me to want to take a motorcycle out into the world and to carry on all I needed to survive. What was the question? [LAUGHTER] I totally forgot about it. Oh, the dangerous thing, so we were looking through the cover of his book. Sorry, this is the bit where I’m like I went around. And the cover of this book is him sitting on his old Triumph in his jacket and there’s a great mix of dusty, desert-y road behind him. And we were looking for a cover for our book. And this place with a camel seemed like a good place. So Claudio, our documentarian or our filmmaker if you like, he rode with us. It was just the three of us. We had two producers in two cars who were probably somewhere within 200 miles or less of us at any given time but we didn’t travel with them. We’d meet them every now and again to get fresh tapes. We shot it literally on tapes a while ago I guess. And we needed fresh batteries wherever we would meet up with them. A second cameraman was in that car in case we needed a second cameraman somewhere. It was just me, Charlie, and Claudio. Claudio put his video camera down on the floor and he got a stills camera and we were setting up a shot with me and Charlie on our motorbikes in this desert road and the camel somewhere. And at that point, a little white car appeared from behind Claudio. I could see it coming from miles away. And it drove up and we didn’t think anything of it. But this car stopped and it was full of men. There was two or three people in the front and there was, it seemed like, eight of them in the back. There was something about these guys. They opened the door and looked down at the camera and looked at us and I thought oh, no. I thought this is bad news. And I thought they were going to take the camera. And if they had, we would’ve been really stuck because we wouldn’t have been able to make a documentary. But also one of them pulled out a little gun. I think maybe it was Kazakhstan. I think it was Kazakhstan in the first trip, pulled out a gun and smiled and he had rail of golden teeth which is quite popular in that part of the world. It’s Kazakhstan. [LAUGHTER] He sort of pointed the gun at us. And I just remember really clearly thinking the two words “Oh, no.” [LAUGHTER] Like really, that was my only thought. Oh, no. And then at that point, I heard a truck behind us. We turned around. There’s a huge truck coming down the road towards them. And either that frightened them off, anyway whatever happened, they shut the door. They didn’t take our video camera and they all burst out laughing and drove away. But if the truck hadn’t come, maybe we would’ve been in trouble. Maybe not, maybe it was just sort of some kind of joke, you know.
GALLOWAY: It’s such a long way from growing up in a small town in Scotland to sharing a hut in Ethiopia or being confronted by a guy with gold teeth in Kazakhstan or Egypt.
MCGREGOR: They have camels in Kazakhstan. That would be a good way to remember exactly where it was.
GALLOWAY: What did you think your life was going to be when you were growing up? What did you imagine you’d do?
MCGREGOR: I always wanted to do this. I wanted to be an actor since I was nine years old. I said to my uncle Dennis who’s an actor, Dennis Lawson, my mother’s brother. And I grew up in a very small town in Scotland, a little place called Crieff which is beautiful and it’s at the foothills to the highlands. It’s a very beautiful part of the world. It’s a small, I suppose quite conservative place. It was an old market town in the past. And then now there’s a lot of farming around about, small town, Scotland. And my Uncle Dennis had become an actor. He wanted to be an actor, gone and become one. And so I grew up with this amazing character who was my uncle who I’d meet. He lived in London. We’d go to visit him in London now and again and he would come to Scotland. He was a color character not like anybody else I knew in my sort of immediate surroundings I suppose. And from a very early age, I just wanted to do what he did and I guess probably because I wanted to be like him I think. I’m not sure what my concept of acting was at the age of nine but that’s when I said to him I want to do what you do, I want to be an actor. And he said you know, if you still feel like it in 10 years, come back and talk to me, you know. But far less time than that passed before I left school, at 16. I was getting in trouble at school. I wasn’t happy. The school was very much a school that created people for commerce and it wasn’t an arty school. I was forced to make the decision between art and music which are the only two things I liked as opposed to being able to do them both because that’s what I was interested in. So I left school at 16 and I found myself with my Uncle Dennis in a gymnasium doing audition speeches with him, running through them with him. And for the first time, being introduced to what it really meant I suppose. I suppose it’s quite an interesting story. How many actors are here? Yeah, when I was 16, I was auditioning. There was two theatre arts courses in Scotland. I was too young to get into drama school. I was literally 16. And I just turned 16 and my parents allowed me to leave school which is a big deal because I didn’t have any options. I ended up working in Perth Repertory Theatre backstage as a member of the stage crew. And I was employed really because they were looking for extras for A Passage to India. And so my first professional role was I was Indian number five or six in the courtroom scenes. I had to black up and put on a turban and I would come out and shout a-zees-kuh-jay [PH], I seem to remember. I’m not sure.
GALLOWAY: You mean that…
MCGREGOR: They needed an extra so I became an Indian for repertory theatre. And they kept me on. And I was very grateful that they did because I started learning my craft there really. I start learning what it meant to be in a professional environment, working with actors, professional stage managers, the discipline of theater, and I was able to observe people, the different actors, how they went about what they did. I was there in rehearsals because I was involved in putting up the set and taking down the set. And they kept me and I started to learn there. And then from there, I did these auditions with my uncle. And I’d been to Glasgow with some mates in my night off. I don’t come from Glasgow. Like I said, I come from a small town. And then we went into the big city and we got a little bit drunk and we went on the train. And somebody got on the train and bumped into a pole, you know, the poles you hold on to. And I made some comment like oh, watch the pole, mate, or something. And then I thought I was being funny. And he didn’t think I was being very funny. So when we got off the train, he followed us and he suddenly had a bunch of mates with him. And they’ve chased us and I got beaten. And I’ve never been so physically… I don’t think, other than maybe scraps. My brother has never been hurt by somebody else before and certainly not by a stranger for something that was meaningless. But I didn’t land a punch either. I was so humiliated as well as being beaten up. I felt so emasculated by this experience. So when I was running through these audition speeches with my uncle, it was shortly after that and probably still had a bruise or two here or there. And I was doing a speech from a play called Road by Jim Cartwright which was a really good play. And there is a skinhead character in it. And the speech started “I feel like England’s forcing the brain out of my head.” That was the opening line of the speech. It was written as an English guy but I decided to do it in a thick Scottish accent and it added on another layer of political interest as a Scotsman saying. “I feel like England’s forcing the brain out of my head.” And it was an angry speech. It was a very well-written speech. And as I was doing it, I was doing it like I’d approach any acting to date. Bear in mind I was only 16. And while I was doing it, my uncle stopped me and he said, “Okay, I want you to stop now.” And he said, “All right, I just want you to think about what happened in Glasgow.” I went okay. He said, “And think about being punished by that guy. Think about what it felt like.” I was like okay. But he could see I wasn’t really. He said, “No, really, think about it.” And I said okay. And I started thinking about it and how it felt and that feeling of being emasculated and humiliated and hurt. And then he said, “Okay, now I want you to just swear at him.” And I went, “What?” And he said, “Just imagine that I’m that guy. Just fucking what do you want to tell that guy?” And I was a bit embarrassed at first but he pushed me and I just suddenly found this connection to my anger and I was raging at my uncle. And he went, “Okay, now do the speech.” And I started doing the speech. “I feel like England’s forcing the brain out of my fucking head.” And I was suddenly connected to the speech emotionally. And I understood what acting was, that that’s it. That’s what you’re trying to do. And that’s what I think where the good acting is. And I’m not saying that you can achieve that every time you try but you should always be trying to do that. And when you can’t and on stage it happens, you know, you do eight shows a week, you’re maybe not going to have that connection every eight shows and then you’re relying on your technique and your acting. But when it all comes together and you’re connected to it like that, it is quite amazing. It’s what makes it beautiful and magical I guess.
GALLOWAY: But you have a moment where you really feel you surpassed yourself like that where you found something and you didn’t know you had.
MCGREGOR: I would like to say in every movie there’s a scene or more. I don’t really like to know what I’m going to do before I do it. I’m not a great one for talking about it. I don’t really like the analyzing of it. I don’t really know what to do in rehearsals like that. I’m not very good. I can read it and talk about what I think it means in Shakespeare or something that’s essential. Everyone has to understand what we’re saying to one another and there’s no point in me thinking the line means this and the person I’m speaking to thinks it means something else. So there’s a certain amount of analyzing of text that’s of course necessary. But for contemporary stuff in front of a camera, I don’t know how useful it is. For me it’s not really very useful. What’s useful is to get up and do it. And I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m going to do before I’m doing it because I base my acting off my partner and off the other people in the scene. I believe that unless it’s a scene where I’m alone, then of course I could do what I want but I think good acting is about what happens between people, not on your face and my face. And so I can’t know what I’m going to do before I’m in front of the lens. And I think that sort of makes it exciting. So I would suppose the answer would be I hope in all of them. I mean there are certain scenes, I mean there’s always a scene in a movie, you are walking out to do a scene where you are like I don’t know how I’m going to do this, I don’t know. And then walking out on Angels and Demons to do the self-immolation where I burn myself to death. And I was walking out going I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] I’d never done this before. I don’t know if I’m going to pull this off. But it can also be anything. It can be anything. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing is like listening to someone, you know, not feeling the need to show the audience you’re listening but just to listen. Sometimes that is the hard thing. But it is always a nice feeling when you are challenged by a scene and you walk out of trailer and you go on set going I don’t know. And then half an hour later you’re walking back, oh, yeah, there it was. That was it. I mean that’s a good feeling. And it’s also nice. I like that when I was directing recently. I had an idea of course of how all the scenes might play. I thought it was my duty to sort of at least to see it in my head and to work out with the director of photography, Martin Ruhe, how the scenes my play and we made plans and drew diagrams. We did the shot list, but we didn’t do storyboards. I don’t really like storyboards but we did a list of shots and we decided beforehand how we might shoot the scene. So I walked on set knowing exactly what we planned. But it was always understood that would change. And the actors, of course, would bring what they brought to the scene. And I’d rather that nice situation doing American Pastoral where I said in advance and I maintained throughout the shoot that there would be a private rehearsal of every scene with just the actors and the director. And often that just meant me and Jennifer Connelly or me and Dakota Fanning walking onto the set and shutting the door and going… because it was just us. You know, there’s no one else there, no director. It was great and we would work out the scene ourselves. And then we would show it to our director of photography and he would give us any thoughts he had about light and maybe it’s best not standing there because the light come in the window, it’d be better if you were over there or we would discuss that, maybe make some changes and then show it to the crew. And that is where the film is made, in that moment, for me not necessarily talking about it beforehand, you know.
GALLOWAY: When you started acting, you had come out of drama school. And I think before you even finished, you got the job in Lipstick on Your Collar. [To the audience:] I don’t know if you know who Dennis Potter is but he’s one of the great, great British writers. What did you learn from him and was he around when you did that shoot?
GALLOWAY: And you’re like 19, 20 or something?
MCGREGOR: Yeah, 20. I left drama school. I was in my third year. So from Scotland, after my auditions with my uncle, I got into a theatre arts course in Scotland for a year in Fife, in a place called Kirkcaldy. And then I went to audition to London, to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, dramatic arts, no, drama I think.
GALLOWAY: Obviously made an impression.
MCGREGOR: Yeah, I loved it there. I did. I loved my drama school. And then halfway through my third year or after the first term, I got a job in Lipstick on Your Collar and I left. And so I spent almost four years in training, a year in Scotland and almost three years in England doing theatrical training really because there’s very little training for actors in film. I mean you’ve got to just do it, really. So I thought the theatrical training was really good for me and I loved it. I thought it was essential for me.
GALLOWAY: Did you learn anything from Potter?
MCGREGOR: So with Potter, I left four years of training in the theatre and then I got six months on set experience with him. It was like a film school but making a film. And it was a single camera setup. We shot it like a movie. It was done like a movie but it was six months’ work. And Potter was around. He didn’t direct it. There was a guy called Renny Rye who directed. And Dennis was around, yeah. He was very ill for many years, Dennis, and wrote about it in his final pieces of work.
MCGREGOR: And so he was a fantastic, amazing thinker and a wonderful man. He’s somewhat of a difficult man I think because he was uncomfortable. He had a skin condition.
MCGREGOR: Psoriasis, which was very difficult for him to live with. And he wrote about it in one of his great TV pieces called The Singing Detective, which if you haven’t seen you should have a look at. It’s a really, really good piece of work.
GALLOWAY: I mean his work is really incredible and late in his life, he started mixing sort of very earthy British drama with American songs and it’s Lipstick on Your Collar.
MCGREGOR: Yes. Well, it was sort of very me. I don’t know. I love music and I always seem to have a tune in my head. And so did this character. He was a fantasist. So Potter would write these, in our case, he was writing about the Suez Crisis in the ’50s. And my character was a Russian translator working in the war office. It was super boring, super bored translating memos and things that have come in from the Secret Service I guess or whatever. But every now and again he would fantasize that everyone was singing a song. I got to be Elvis.
GALLOWAY: The scene with Elvis is really great, you know.
MCGREGOR: Good, I was quite a good Elvis actually. Yeah, yeah, I was quite a good Elvis.
GALLOWAY: It’s very easy to find in YouTube. It’s so good.
MCGREGOR: Yeah. No, I loved it. It gave me a chance to… But it was always using the original song. So we had to lip synch so it was quite technical. But you had to be in the moment, had to look right and it was an incredible first job. It was a great part to land. And I was off and running I guess really from that point.
GALLOWAY: And then you go pretty quickly from that to this amazing collaboration with really one of the great directors, Danny Boyle. You do Shallow Grave. And I want to take a look at a clip from Trainspotting, which you all know. I remember when it came out. But seeing it again, it’s the most extraordinary film.
GALLOWAY: We’re going to take a look at the most famous scene from Trainspotting then we’ll talk about how it was made. Here’s Trainspotting in theory.
MCGREGOR: Oh, I see. OK.
GALLOWAY: No, no, it’s coming. It is. You don’t have to just imagine it actually.
MCGREGOR: Yeah. I thought maybe it was going to be cut into the piece roll as a temp.
MCGREGOR: I suppose for those who haven’t seen it, it doesn’t quite make… The scene before that was when I’m at my heroin dealer and he doesn’t have any heroin so he gives me two heroin suppositories which I stuck up my ass. That’s what happens before that. So that’s why when I’m pooping, I suddenly get a fright because I’ve lost my heroin.
GALLOWAY: Who have seen the film already? Yeah, I felt most of you would have seen it. But it’s so great when you’re choosing clips for these things, you watch things over and over again. This one just gets better and better. You keep finding things in it. That’s true, isn’t it? You know, like the music that’s uses.
GALLOWAY: I think Danny said just to give away like trade secrets, tell me if I remember this right. First of all, the shit is actually chocolate.
MCGREGOR: Yes. I can’t remember. I remember it being paint because I remember like spending quite a bit of time with the props guys to get that bit of poop on my hand just right. And I think it was a blob of paint so it could be wet and it would sort of slightly disintegrate.
GALLOWAY: And then when you go down into the toilet, it’s actually cut in two, right? So then you…
MCGREGOR: So there were several toilets. There was the toilet set, the big toilet, the worst toilet in Scotland and then there was a cubicle and I think we shot in the cubicle with a real toilet and then it was… I wish we shot the side on shots and you know, looking behind me. And then there was a special toilet that was cut in half this way. So the full toilet bowl and then it was cut and there was a pair of specs glued to the bottom with a bit of water on it for that shot where I’m looking back down through my legs. But there’s lovely director of photography, Brian Tufano, who shot all three movies I made with Danny early on, Shallow Grave, this, and A Life Less Ordinary. And Brian was lying underneath the toilet with that pair of specs and the water. And I’m of course sitting off the top of them but I couldn’t be wearing any underwear because I had to see through my legs and they would be seen. So it wasn’t a very nice visual for him. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Maybe it was.
MCGREGOR: No, I don’t think so. I was saying to Brian, I remember beforehand I just looked down there and I went, Brian, I’m terribly sorry. And he said, “Don’t worry about it, mate. We’re fine.” And so that was that for that shot. And then for the going into the toilet, there was a toilet that was cut that way down the middle and so from profile you see a toilet but there was a shoot and it was built six feet off the ground. There was a chute and then plastic bags full of water. We had a million pounds to make this film. It was so low budget but it’s incredible because it’s so effective and it’s a nice piece of work for you to be watching because you can see what can be done for, I mean a million pounds sounds like a lot of money now that I’m saying it. But in terms of moviemaking, it’s not a lot of money. And yet you can see what can be done with that, with the talent of a great cinematographer and great director and actors. Anyway so there were plastic bags taped around that side so as I slid down, the props guys’ arms were up there, patting these bags so water was spilling on top. And then I remember we did the take of me sliding down. I just went straight down. And then we did four takes, five takes and Danny went okay, we’ve got it. I suddenly thought of the u-bend like really if you were going around the u-bend, you’d have to turn around. He says let’s do one more, right? I want to turn around so I slid down as I got to the end of it. I turn my feed around so to me it looks like I’m going around the u-bend. I don’t know what…
GALLOWAY: I got that. And it’s one of the things I loved about it.
MCGREGOR: I like that, too, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Right. Good, so at least one person saw you trying to do. You lost two stone, what is that, 28 pounds or something when you did that. You went and spoke to recovering heroin addicts because you play a heroin addict. What did you learn from them?
MCGREGOR: The sort of desperation of it, we went to meeting, there’s a great organization in Glasgow called the Carlton Athletic Club. And they’re all I think heroin users or ex-heroin users but it might be for any drug but I think mainly heroin addicts there. We were allowed in to one of their meetings. And that was the first thing I did when I went to Glasgow was I went to one of their meetings with Danny and it grounded me into the reality of what we were doing. I suppose I might have had some sort of, it was the ‘90s after all so some slightly heroin chic ideas in my mind, that it was a big bad drug but it might have been a bit cool. And as soon as I arrived and started meeting these guys, that dispelled any notion of that. And I realized that what we were doing was serious and that these people, heroin had robbed them of their lives really. We heard some really terrible stories of the depths that heroin had taken people to. And I was really impressed by how they were supportive of one another. It was mainly guys. I don’t think it is exclusively for men but I seem to remember it being mainly men in there and that these were hard men who lost everything and had been living in the streets. And yet they were being very tender with one another and really supportive of one another. And I was sort of impressed by that. And there is a rather lovely tenderness amongst us in this film between Sick Boy and Spud and maybe not so much with Begbie and Renton. There’s a gentleness with each other even when we’re taking a piss out of each other whatever, that maybe is born from there.
GALLOWAY: You know, I mean it’s interesting watching it again because there’s much more warmth in it than I remember.
GALLOWAY: By the way, if I think Danny Boyle, I guess when I had seen those early films, I thought oh, well, these guys can be scary and you know, one of those kind of rough guys in the streets and he’s actually the most warm, sweet person.
GALLOWAY: You didn’t work for him for a while. Is that something you regret?
MCGREGOR: I do. I mean I regret the years we didn’t work to make films together, not because of specific films he made that I feel like I should’ve been in, but just because I love working with him. I loved it. He was my first director. He set the bar very high and what that relationship can be between an actor and a director, especially it can be… and I just always felt like he got the best work out of me. It’s difficult to say what makes a great director. How many directors are here? That’s good. Well, it is very difficult to know and define what that is. Like I have worked with a lot of great directors but my favorites are all entirely different from one another. They don’t go about it the same way. So it has very much to do with character and there’s something very special about Danny like you have said. And I felt for me, he just got my best work out of me. I always felt he gave you something to head towards. And through the takes, he always gave you something to aim for. It was always built upon what you have been doing. I always felt this great sense that you really saw what you were doing, really got it and some, it is very difficult when you are working with a director. We feel they are not quite seeing what you’re doing. It’s very frustrating as an actor.
GALLOWAY: Would he give you a note generally or would he talk to you about a lot? How does he direct?
MCGREGOR: He’d just come in and it’s different. I just finished working with him because we just did a sequel to Trainspotting.
GALLOWAY: I was going to ask you about the sequel, yeah.
MCGREGOR: And we just finished that a month ago or so, which was extraordinary coming back to play these guys again 20 years later. It was really fantastic. And he is the same man and just so experienced now, Danny. He has made so many movies and great movies. And he really is in charge of his craft, you know. He is absolutely assured of himself. And we’ve all gone on to work more or less continuously really since we have finished this movie. So there was less said this time. There was less needed to be said, I felt. But these days, I just felt like he would always give you… There was a never a moment where we said okay, great, one more. I mean like well, if it was great, why are we doing another one? It was nice to be given something to head for. And it would be anything. It could be anything. It was very rarely like take the scene in a completely different direction. It was very much he would build upon what you were already doing, I felt. That’s not to say I just like to be given notes every take because there is nothing worse than being given a note for the sake of being given a note. We can tell this is a note to the directors and I know because I have been now in your shoes. But we can tell when you are giving us a note just for the sake of giving us a note. It is always nice to be given a note because that’s really what you want us to try and do, not just so that you look like you are in charge. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: What did he teach you as a director and maybe as an actor, too?
MCGREGOR: Oh, as a director I mean everything I think. I set up rehearsals like he did. I mean Danny would rehearse for a week before shooting, sometimes longer, and I didn’t have the luxury of that. But also I didn’t know what to do with that like Danny does. He is very specific and I wouldn’t know quite what to do with the rehearsal period. But on set I was very, I copied his structure if you like just because I know it works. I would clear the set. I would work with the actors alone until we found the scene, I bring in the DP. We work together and then we would bring the whole crew in. And then show it to the whole crew. And there is something that is very useful about that and it is a lot of producers can see it as being time wasted like what are they doing on there? Let’s just get on with it. Send the actors to makeup. We’ll work, we’ll see that with the stand-ins and we will save time. But of course then your actors come on set and they are not involved in the creation of the scene. I don’t like being told that’s where you, you know, if you walk on set and somebody was “okay, you’re here and you’re going to walk over there on this line.” And my reaction is always how do you know? How do you know that’s what I’m going to do? How do any of us know? We’ve never done it and there’s nothing worse than shooting a scene you haven’t rehearsed. What are you doing? So it’s time saving always. And also for the actors, there’s something very important about that first showing of the scene to the crew, becomes like a little performance. And we’re actors, we like that. It raises the stakes. It’s just your crew but it’s you in the room watching it. And you’re okay, this is the scene, action, and you do this and you play the scene. It’s like a little performance. It is a performance. And I think it’s really important. I don’t know if most actors would agree but I think it is because I think then when you go back and you start breaking the scene up and you’re doing close-ups and two-shots and you’re picking bits up, your actors are harking back to that experience of doing that little performance for the crew. That’s what the scene is. That’s when it was born if you like, and the rehearsals and then that little performance. So I think it’s really important, I know that I got from that.
GALLOWAY: Do you like rehearsing in film work?
MCGREGOR: It depends. On set, absolutely, yeah because that’s about exploring and finding the scene.
GALLOWAY: But not like doing a week or two before shooting.
MCGREGOR: Not a lot. I don’t really know what the best… I mean there’s very few directors that know what that rehearsal’s for. And often it’s just about calming down the director. If he could see it or she sees it, she goes oh, it’s going to be okay. But that’s not helping us much. And if you are in a rehearsal where that’s the case, I don’t really know why we don’t need to rehearse so much for film where you have to rehearse for the theatre. I don’t know why but it just seems the case. You would never dream of going on to play a scene in front of an audience at least without having rehearsed it. But you do somehow in front of a camera. And I don’t know exactly why that is but it seems to the case.
GALLOWAY: You have gone back to the stage occasionally. Do you like it?
MCGREGOR: I love it. I think it is really important. I like it. I love the structure of it. I like waking up in the morning knowing that’s what I’m doing that afternoon and night and I love the rehearsal period for a play. I love exploring in a rehearsal room with other actors, scenes and you know, stuff you are scared of. Like I played Iago in Othello with Michael Grandage in London and I was terrified of that.
GALLOWAY: What was with Chiwetel?
MCGREGOR: Yes, Ejiofor, yes. And it was an amazing experience but you know, just doing something that you’re very scared of and again can’t imagine pulling off, you know, when you’ve got a date on your calendar saying that you will be putting this in front of people in four weeks, that will get your nerves good, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Do you get stage fright?
MCGREGOR: Yes. I mean not like crippling like not on stage. I have never experienced that but like I’m nervous leading up to it, yes. I think it would be strange not to be even during a run. I mean I did the longest run I’ve ever done in theatre. I did Guys and Dolls in London, again with Michael Grandage for six months. And even six months, I was still, I mean I wasn’t as nervous at the beginning of the run. But there were still nerves in my stomach before going on every night. And I think if there weren’t, it would be a shame. You know, it’s part of the process for me. I’m the same with movie parts now. My wife will testify that I’m scared leading up to all of them. There’s a sort of element of fear that seems to be part of the deal for me. It’s always there. I always worry that I might not be able to pull it off or if it’s like public speaking, horribly, I can’t stand it. But I’ll do it for a good reason. And then music, if I’m playing music in front of people, I’ll lose days to nerves like really wasted days of just like being terrified. And then when I get out there, generally speaking, I enjoy it very much. But it seems to be I have to accept the fact that that’s just part of the deal for me. And I can’t just run on and do it. And not that I really want to, I think if you’re going on thinking oh, I can do this with my eyes shut, then it’s probably not the right thing to be doing, you know.
GALLOWAY: You took on a pretty iconic role after doing the Danny Boyle films, Obi Wan Kenobi. We are going to take a look at a clip but I wonder if you’re afraid to step into Alec Guinness’ footsteps. So let’s take a look at the climactic moment in The Phantom Menace.
GALLOWAY: So how did that come about and were you intimidated?
MCGREGOR: I wasn’t intimidated in terms of, just trying to think what the truth is here. I suppose I was very careful about it. I felt very much it wasn’t really my… this wasn’t kind of what I was about. I felt very much I was a part of this new wave I suppose of cinema in Britain with Danny. I didn’t think this was quite me. So I met George (Lucas). I mean I met his casting director first. And then I met with the casting director and George. And I was then asked to go back again and then I was asked to do the screen test. By the time I was asked to do the screen test, I think it was down to me and two other people. And by that point, I’d really started wanting to do it. And I can’t really explain why other than just I suppose I got excited about the idea of it as it became more of a possibility. I asked lots of people about it. I do remember speaking to Danny about it and my Uncle Dennis who had been in the first three, he had played Wedge Antilles in the original three films. And I just got closer and closer to it and then decided that I really was up for it. And I suppose I was six when the first film came out. I remember it really clearly. I remember going to see it. I remember going to see it with my brother being picked up from school by mom and dad to be taken to Glasgow I think to watch it because my uncle was in it, you know. And we were really going to see my uncle in something and it was bloody Star Wars, you know. So it blows away us six-seven-year-old boys. And I was remembering all that as I got closer to it. And as an acting challenge, it was one. It was quite a tall order to do justice to Alec Guinness to make the role mine but to make it feel like Alec, I wanted to do him justice really. And that was a responsibility, I felt. And what was interesting, it made me look at all his early work because I wanted to see, I was playing Alec Guinness as a young man. So I spent quite a lot of time watching his early films. And oh, my God, there are some amazing pieces of work there. And I know that it was a frustration to Alec for many years that he was remembered mainly for this. But in actual fact, here’s somebody that was really instrumental in some extraordinary British cinema.
GALLOWAY: I mean the funny thing is that he was as closely associated with that British wave of you know, post-war as you were with the new wave that came in with Danny.
MCGREGOR: Right, right.
GALLOWAY: You know, and then he became a big star.
MCGREGOR: Yeah but looking at that early stuff was amazing. He made this movie called The Card which I had never seen before and it’s a strange movie about a pauper, a man who drives a little pony and trap around the neighborhood collecting junk from people and ends up the mayor of the town at the end of the movie. It’s like a man’s, you know, rags to riches I suppose. But it’s such a peculiar character in it. It’s just like nowhere close to the sort of leading man territory that we live in today. It was an odd piece. But I loved it and all of his, you know, The Lavender Hill Mob and all the classic stuff that he was involved in back in the day that bridges over there required. I mean he’s a bit older by then but I really delved into him and it’s hard because his accent was very sort of time clipped, posh I suppose, RP we call it [received pronunciation]. And it’s difficult to do it, it’s difficult to do an action roll with an accent like that. You know, that’s sort of odd. It wouldn’t be my go to accent to present it…
GALLOWAY: With a voice coach? How did you find that balance that hints at his voice but isn’t like a spoof of his voice?
MCGREGOR: Yeah, I know I just did it on my own. I just did it, I think I don’t remember working with anybody. I think I just did it alone.
GALLOWAY: Do you ever work with an acting coach?
MCGREGOR: No. I work with accent coaches to give you the sounds you need to do for a part. And I work with Liza Himelstein who has a brilliant accent coach here for all my American work. Where I’m playing an American, she’s really good for that. But I’ve never worked with an acting coach, no.
GALLOWAY: Tell us about the first meeting with George Lucas. What’s he like and that did you talk about?
MCGREGOR: I don’t remember. I remember my first, one I had the job, I remember I had to go to studios in Watford, the north of London where they shot all the Harry Potter movies. And it’s now like an attraction, I think.
GALLOWAY: Oh, wow.
MCGREGOR: You can go there and see Harry Potter World but when we worked there, it was an old-factory. It wasn’t really a film studio yet. And they took over because it’s an enormous thing, Star Wars. So they took over. I remember going there meeting George and being allowed to read the script. So I had to read it in the producer’s office like literally being almost locked in with the script, so that it doesn’t get leaked and then being shown around the sets with George and walking around and I remember we looked. There was a great big submarine thing that I end up in with Liam and Jar Jar Binks. And then I remember looking at these props, this art department guys sort of carving this huge polystyrene thing into the submarine and there was a cockpit. And I looked at it and I went will be go under? He looked at me and went, “What?” I said will we go underwater with it. And he looked at me like I was insane. [LAUGHTER] He said, “None of that it’s real, you know.” And I went oh, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Because a lot of it is done with blue screen, right, is it?
MCGREGOR: Well, it was more and more blue screen as we went along. The first one I remember more sets. And there was like an environment to work in and as we got into episode two and three, they moved the shoot to Australia and we were shooting in Australia in the studio there in Sydney. By that point, it became more and more blue screen and green screen. I thought it was a shame. You know, in the first one I worked with Yoda like it was on set. Frank Oz I think was operating him with his team of people. And I scenes with Yoda, it was amazing. It was like working with a star that you have known all your life, you know. [LAUGHTER] I worked with Yoda today and it was easy to work with him. He was like a good actor. [LAUGHTER] And when he said cut, you know, you’d be really in the moment with Yoda and then they would go cut and all the puppeteers would stop. So Yoda would be like this, suddenly die. And you’d always go are you OK? Are you OK? [LAUGHTER] And then by episode two and three, he was, and R2D2 was the same way. It was computer generated. It was a shame not to be sort of working with the real thing.
GALLOWAY: You’ve avoided sort of big massive studio projects where people kind of get lost to special effects. Is that by choice?
MCGREGOR: I’ve done what?
GALLOWAY: You’ve avoided those sort of big blockbuster, so when I think of your, and there’s so many great films, even The Impossible which I love, have you seen that? Oh, my goodness and we were trying to find a great clip from it but we would have to lose one of these but it’s an amazing film, Beginners, they’re very human dramas. Would you prefer those personally when you go and see a movie or something?
MCGREGOR: I mean I do. I would tend to be drawn to independent cinema as a viewer, probably more than the big blockbuster. I’m not really a blockbuster, I’m not a member of that audience really. I’m not a superhero fan. I don’t see those films. I’m not interested. And I’m sure they’re great and I know that people like them. That’s great. But I’ve always like sort of, as an actor, I’m drawn to exploring how we are as human beings in given situations and how we act and how we react and what makes us tick. And it’s sort of more interesting to me that’s a realist, and it didn’t matter, it could be a period film. It doesn’t matter to me when it’s set. But there’s something about the sort of human beings and how we are that interests me. And in my work I have done bigger movies and I don’t get offered lots of them. It’s not like I avoid them and I turn down like “no, tell them to go away with their big offer.” [LAUGHTER] No, no. It’s not really that I do that. They don’t come to me readily. And the ones I’ve done you know, it’s a different ball game. I’ve enjoyed them very much. I liked the film I made with Michael Bay, you know, The Island. I thought it was an interesting film. I think it was time for Michael Bay to get drubbed by the press after his film before ours. So it was a shame that I think our film suffered for that little bit because I think it’s quite a good film, The Island. And I’ve done bigger stuff but yeah, I think my home is in that sort of the part of cinema that’s disappeared is where I lived, that sort of mid-budget you know, drama. I suppose that’s what I am known for.
GALLOWAY: I used to think of you as sort of avant-garde person. And more recently especially the way you directed American Pastoral. Your directing, a lot of things are actually quite classical. I want to talk about a piece that really is quite avant-garde and how you related to that which is Moulin Rouge, because Baz Luhrmann definitely belongs to the avant-garde. Let’s take a look at a clip from Moulin Rouge for people who’ve seen it. Yes, OK.
GALLOWAY: Really good, you sing so well. How did that come about? Did you know Baz?
MCGREGOR: I auditioned for Romeo + Juliet that he did. And Baz is an amazing artist and makes it his job to just know who is where and who is doing what and interesting new talent and he you know, my audition for Romeo + Juliet got me this I think. Because he worked with me for something like three hours and that’s the sort of length that he would go. You know, an audition usually is you come in and read the scene and if you’re lucky, you get to read it twice. And that’s it, you know. You tell the camera the name of your agent. It’s horrible auditioning really.
GALLOWAY: Do you really?
MCGREGOR: Yeah. Well, usually, I mean you come in. You’ll see the actors here, fucking hell, I’m sorry, it’s horrible. [LAUGHTER] But with him, it was very different. You know I went down into Soho in London and we met in a sort of rehearsal space and we worked. He asked me to prepare a few pieces from Romeo and Juliet and we worked them like we really worked them. And we went all around the house as we tried different things. By the time I left three hours later, really the sense of me as an actor, what I could do and what I couldn’t do. And then I guess he asked, he found out that I could sing. I mean I had sung in a few other things, not quite like this. And then I was doing a play in London called Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs at the Hampstead Theatre Club and it was back in the day and I was drinking all night and smoke all day and do this play and I absolutely destroyed my voice. And that’s when he wanted to meet me for Moulin Rouge. [LAUGHTER] So I went alone for this audition and I could barely speak. Never mind sing because it’s a big heavy role I was playing every night, there was a lot of screaming and shouting. And I wasn’t taking care of my voice. So I sort of scratched through a number of something and that’s why I say I really think my audition before for him for Romeo + Juliet in which I didn’t get a part got me this role because you wouldn’t have cast me for the singing role in this based on what I did in this audition.
GALLOWAY: How did you get your voice back in shape for this?
MCGREGOR: We had an amazing experience in this film because we went to Australia, not the full cast but some of us. Jim Broadbent, me, Nicole [Kidman], I think there was a handful of us who were in the movie and we did a two-week workshop on the scenes that they had written to date. And we did some music and we did some movement classes, dance classes, and after the two weeks, we did sort of a performance of the script to Baz’s creative team and also I guess his producers, the people funding the movie and then we went away for six months and we came back. When we came back, we had the full cast now and when we came back, we rehearsed for maybe three months or four months. And in that time, it was like being back at drama school with singing classes every day, dance classes. And we would work on scenes. And those scenes were then taken after we worked on them then Baz and his writing partner would go on. They would incorporate some of the work we brought into this rehearsal. And then we would come back to those scenes a week later and they would be different. You know, our creative work was sort of being folded into the script somehow. And it felt very satisfying as a result for us as actors. And it was just that. We were singing and dancing and acting for three or four months before we started shooting the film. And so by that point we were so immersed in this world of song and dance that to break into song was second nature. We never had that awkward moment of what’s a song now, you know, just it was a song now.
GALLOWAY: How do you handle being away from your family like that?
MCGREGOR: They came out for some of it and then that’s sort of part of my deal. At first we used to always travel everywhere together when I just had Clara, my eldest, when she was little. And then school, you know, by the time she is five, six, even then we still would manage to travel together because it’s easy to let them into different schools when they are little. But I got four girls now, you know, they are all across the age range. So it’s impossible really to be pulling them out of school. Sometimes I’ll do it if I’m going to be away, when I did Jack the Giant Killer in London, that was going to be a five-month job and I’d been away for a few jobs just before it. And I was going to turn it down because I just couldn’t stand the idea of being away. So I’ve said, oh, well, we will just all come. So we just took them from their school and found them places to go in London. So every now and again we will do that or else I just go away and they will come out and visit me or I will find a gap to fly back home and see them. It’s the way it is. It’s my job and it’s how I support my family and this is how we do it. So it seems to work fine.
GALLOWAY: You moved to Los Angeles about four or five years ago.
GALLOWAY: Why? Because I think sometime around 2000 you said I’m never going to move to Los Angeles. What changed?
MCGREGOR: Yeah, don’t ever say it. I’m never going to lose. I moved to Los Angeles, it’s a mistake, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Right, never say never, comes back to haunt you. I said the same thing at one point in my life.
GALLOWAY: I’m not going back there, you know.
MCGREGOR: I don’t know why I moved really. I mean partly something… I loved London. I sort of felt like I had this love affair with London, something changed around about that time. And I don’t really know what it is. I can’t blame London for it but there’s something different about life there I suppose.
GALLOWAY: Did London change or did you change?
MCGREGOR: Well, both I think. I think both. I mean I’m thinking of two very different things. One is stupid and one is sort of not stupid. One is that I’m sort of a recognized person and I feel it’s much easier for me here. I don’t like the idea of not being able to knock about the town, you know. When I would knock about the town in London, I was doing it with my head down, walking very quickly and it had become the norm for me because I’m recognized there. And people are not unkind but occasionally there’s a sort of British who do you think you are sort of, I don’t really think I’m anybody. I just go about my normal day. But sometimes you’re faced with that. Oh, yeah. And I’m like yeah, whatever.
GALLOWAY: I know exactly what you mean, yeah.
MCGREGOR: You know what I mean and I got tired of that a little bit. And the other one, it was just a stupid thing is I parked my motorcycle one day in Soho and I got a ticket for not having paid for it. I’m like I have to pay for my parking for my bike now? When I moved to London, you could park your motorcycle in the pavement, on the sidewalk. We would stay here and just leave it and go about your business. But now something was sort of encroaching in London. There’s cameras everywhere. You can’t do anything. You’re not allowed to be in a group. Like it’s illegal to be in a group and I was like what’s going on? I think it’s a bit freer here. It’s a bit more like you could park your motorbike on the sidewalk, you get a ticket but it doesn’t matter here so much. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: What’s changed about your view for America since you lived here? I mean it’s interesting you came to direct a very American subject, you know, Philip Roth, a quintessentially American writer, sort of critical of American life. And I wonder if you would have been able to do that before you’d actually have the experience of living here.
MCGREGOR: Maybe not, yeah, maybe not.
GALLOWAY: So what has changed in your view of America?
MCGREGOR: Well, I love it, you know. I really think it’s where I live. It’s where my family, it’s my home. I love it here. And I have just gotten to know it I suppose. I was thrilled to be here. I mean most of the people who are very down and you know, them all in Britain, very down in LA, they’re thrilled when they get here. [LAUGHTER] They’re like yeah.
GALLOWAY: I know them all. [LAUGHTER]
MCGREGOR: It’s LA, it’s shallow and meaningless and then they get a chance to get here, they’re like yeah. [LAUGHTER] They can’t get enough of it, you know. And I don’t have a showbiz-y life here. I got a totally normal, far more sort of suburban life almost than I had in London, you know. It’s where my kids go to school. It’s where my family, it’s about my family here really and I got great friends here. I was sort of adopted into this group of friends who are all born and bred here and they are from the area where I live. And they’ve become our really good friends and they are all from different walks of life. And there is a director, there’s a lawyer and there’s lots of people who aren’t in the business, too. And you know what it’s like with your kids at school. Your kids’ friends’ parents becomes a very normalized place to live for me. And it’s not the sort of British tabloid magazine version of LA where I think the impression is it’s like a 24-hour hip hop party from start to finish, you know what I mean? I’ve never been asked to one. [LAUGHTER] I keep waiting to be invited to the hip hop party, I’ve never been. So if there’s anyone out there who is having a hip hop party, I’d like to come.
GALLOWAY: This is a sign of getting older, is it not?
MCGREGOR: Yes, I know. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: When did you decide to direct American Pastoral? Was it after you moved out here?
MCGREGOR: Yes, I was attached to play in American Pastoral for maybe three years. I was cast to play the Swede [Seymour “Swede” Levov],with Jennifer Connelly playing Dawn and Dakota playing our daughter Mary. And the film went through a series of sort of starts and stops and different directors. And we were supposed to shoot the film in March 2015. And I was performing The Real Thing, Stoppard’s play and on Broadway at the end of 2014. And then I got a call saying it wasn’t going to happen. And it looked like the project was going to disappear. And I had that call before. And usually with a film if it disappears, you can just let it go. And if it disappears twice, usually you really let it go. But there was something about this one that I couldn’t let go and I didn’t want to. I couldn’t sort of accept that the story wouldn’t find its way on to the screen and that I could be the Swede. I wanted to play him so much and I’ve sort of racked my brains as to why that might be and I’ve got an answer that I could give you. I felt like it was something that needed to happen and so I phoned up Tom Rosenberg, the head of Lakeshore (Entertainment), and I said I wonder if you would think about me directing it, would you like me to do it. I wanted to direct for maybe 15 years and I only wanted to do it when I had a story I was burning to tell. I never wanted to do it just for the sake of being a director or I could write that was on little greetings card actor, director. [LAUGHTER] I can now though. But then I didn’t want to do it just for that reason. But I thought it was important you have to like that connection I mentioned earlier about acting, I wanted to feel like that about the story if I was going to direct. And I realized that I did feel like that about this. And I’ve had two, only twice in 15 years more of wanting to direct did I find that I had that burning desire to tell a story. Once I got The Fear, and the rights of this novel belong to Mike Figgis and Miramax and then they revert it back to the author. And at that point, I could’ve gone and tried to persuade him that I had a great producer to do it with and…
GALLOWAY: What was the novel?
MCGREGOR: It was called Silk. It was made into a movie. And it was a beautiful novel, Italian writer. I forget. Just before I was thinking of going to get the rights from this Italian writer, he did an interview where he said only a master filmmaker will adapt my novel for the screen. And I thought, “Oh no! I’m not a master filmmaker.” So I got The Fear and I didn’t do it. And I should’ve done it, you know, it was years and years ago. And I still feel like I have that film in me. But I allowed my sort of, the voices in my head that go well, why should you do that and who do you think you are and all of those negative voices to get the better of me and I bottled it and didn’t go follow it. And then another time was years later and it was a documentary called Deep Water, about this incredible 1968, ’69 America put a man on the moon and Britain wanted to find a hero or heroic act, something to put their stamp in history and they set the challenge for the first around the world solo nonstop yacht race. And in this yacht race, maybe eight or nine people sail and one of them is a man called Donald Crowhurst who wasn’t a great sailor and whose boat wasn’t ready and realized as he was going down the Atlantic, to go around the world, once he got into the high seas of the south that he was going to die. His boat was going to sink but he had invested everything he had in this boat. He had investors on the boat. He was a married man with four children like me. And if he gave up, he would have to give all that money back and he would ruin his family. So he was facing sort of death or ruination. And he decided there was a third option which was to cheat. And he went around down to South America and he just went round in circles for months and months while everyone went around the world this way.
MCGREGOR: And as they came back up to go back to Britain, he just tucked in behind them. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Wow, gosh.
MCGREGOR: It’s got a horribly tragic end. You wouldn’t laugh if you knew the end of the story because it’s a really sad story but it’s a beautiful story and I thought oh, my god, this is it. I could see, and the documentary you should watch. It’s a really brilliant documentary called Deep Water. And then I thought this was it. This was my story and then I didn’t bottle it. I didn’t get the fear quite so much. I found a producer that said he would be interested in doing it with me. I went to speak to a writer who I had worked with, who had written something similar about… it’s a tall order of your first movie to direct a movie about a man alone at sea. I mean it’s probably a no-no really but I could see it.
GALLOWAY: Although you played Jesus alone in the desert.
MCGREGOR: Alone in the desert, yes. So those two things had been gone. And when I thought of American Pastoral, I thought I mustn’t let this opportunity go. So I put myself forward. Tom very graciously put his trust in me and I’ll always be grateful that he did because this film meant a great deal to him. He had been trying to make this film since ’99 or 2000. And it really was like his baby that he allowed me to carry.
GALLOWAY: We’re going to show a clip. While the clip is playing let’s get the guys then women who want to ask questions up on that side. Just tell us a bit about what it’s about then we’re going to show a clip with you and Dakota which is kind of rude to them. Because they haven’t seen it, just tell us what American Pastoral is about. You’re impressed I said it right.
MCGREGOR: No, I’m just laughing at the idea of trying to quickly sum up what American Pastoral is about. American Pastoral is a film, let me talk about the film and not the novel. The film is in a smaller sense about a family in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, a couple, sorry.
GALLOWAY: The laugh is really serious.
MCGREGOR: I don’t know, who the fuck is going to know? [LAUGHTER] Anyway, American Pastoral is in the small sense about a family. The father is a Jewish sports star in the high school sports in the late ‘40s, marries an American beauty queen. He’s Jewish, she’s American Irish Catholic. They get together and they move into the rural countryside 30, 40 miles west of Newark and embody I suppose the post-war dream, the post-war aspiration and hope. And they have a daughter who was born in the ‘60s or late ‘50s who embodies the ‘60s and the radical left anti-war movement of the ‘60s and how those two clash.
GALLOWAY: And this is a scene, so let’s watch this while everybody’s taking their places. We’ll get student questions.
MCGREGOR: Yeah, and I’ll work on my what as American Pastoral.
GALLOWAY: By the way, it’s extraordinarily difficult to direct this. This is all about nuance and relationship. In some ways, you know, you’re saying being alone in the boat, go around the world, it’s really hard but this is incredibly difficult to pull off. I think you did a beautiful job.
MCGREGOR: Oh, thank you.
GALLOWAY: Really beautiful and you’re acting in it. Why did you want to do it so much?
MCGREGOR: I don’t know. I mean (a), because it’s an amazing script. And it’s the kind of script that’s getting harder and harder to find and it’s this kind of movie that’s getting less and less made I suppose. But I think personally I was, I mean I’ve only really thought about this since I’ve been starting doing publicity for the film recently and why is it. And I can see that when I was first given the script, it was three or four years before I ended up making the film. My eldest daughter is now in NYU in New York, in university and when I first read the script, the film’s very much about a father who loses his daughter. And now in this case, he loses her to terrorism. She becomes radicalized and plants a bomb in a post office and goes underground and disappears and he loses her. And in a very lesser way I suppose I must have been preparing myself to sort of lose my own daughter to college, you know what I mean, from the home and waking up in a house where she didn’t live anymore, I suppose maybe why I felt so deeply connected to it. I’m also a father of four girls and I know very much about the relationship between a father and his daughter or in my case daughters. And so I felt like not only did John Romano capture it very well in his adaptation of the novel but Roth really, and written as a man who doesn’t have children, really understood it. And I related to it very strongly.
GALLOWAY: Did you speak to Philip Roth at all and meet with him?
MCGREGOR: I haven’t, no. But I was thrilled to find out very recently that he liked the film.
GALLOWAY: I read that, yes.
MCGREGOR: I didn’t realize quite how much I was worried that he wouldn’t until I found out that he did because when I found out that he liked the film, I was enormously relieved. I think had he not liked it, I would’ve felt a sense of failure in some respects because I really did live in his novel from that moment and end of 2014 when I was given the job to direct the movie to when we started shooting in September of 2015. I spent those nine months just living in his book. I read it. And there’s a great recording of it by Ron Silver. And I also lived in his recording of it.
GALLOWAY: Why did you not reach out to him?
MCGREGOR: I didn’t feel the need to and I wasn’t encouraged to do so and I don’t know. It didn’t seem to be that it was a necessary part of the equation I guess. And maybe I was a little, he’s quite a daunting character I guess. Maybe I was a little scared.
GALLOWAY: OK, questions please.
QUESTION: I’m a freshman. I’m a screenwriting major. Now I have the higher ground. One thing I’m super curious in is that whenever you get an offer for a film, what are the attributes about said film that make you want to consider investing your time and you talent into the project?
MCGREGOR: It’s the writing. You’ll be delighted to hear it all rests on your shoulders. It’s the writing. For me, it’s a very simple situation. I’m sent a script. I read the script. If I love it, I want to do it. And that’s it I don’t care who’s in it, how much money is behind it, really to an extent who’s directing it. Although maybe over time that becomes more of a decision factor I suppose. But really it’s the story. If you’re not engaged in the writing and it doesn’t grab you then you just don’t want to do it. I mean I am fortunate in that situation but that’s what I would say. And I would encourage you as a screenwriter to trust your story and don’t make notes for the actors or don’t make notes for the reader. I don’t ever like to see our hero does this. Don’t talk to us. Don’t talk to us. There’s something very self-conscious about a writer who’s addressing his reader. Don’t do that. I would just trust your story and write the story. Actors don’t like to read what they’re supposed to do. You know, I mean obviously there might be a stage direction that’s essential about a physical thing. He cuts Darth Maul in half would be a screen direction that’s sort of necessary. But with a glint in his eye and a tear rolling down his cheek, he cuts Darth Maul in half, would turn me off. So don’t worry about telling your actor what to do.
GALLOWAY: Next question, please.
QUESTION: I’m also a screenwriting major. I was wondering. You are a film actor primarily but right now you’re starting to direct and you have I believe Fargo coming up. Is that something you want to expand more into TV acting or more directing?
MCGREGOR: I mean yeah, I was quite interested to do television series and I started exploring an idea of a longer commitment, a new idea, a new TV show that would’ve meant a longer commitment but I opened my mind up. Some years ago, I was going to, I shot a pilot for Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections, which was going to be adapted by HBO with Noah Baumbach directing and writing with Franzen. And it was going to be a four-year commitment, four years, 10 hours a year so it was going to be like a 40-hour version of his novel. And HBO, we shot a pilot and it was brilliant. I saw it. It was brilliant. And HBO, for one reason or another, decided not to make it. And I think it was a great shame. I still haven’t quite let that go. I mean I still think it would be a good idea and maybe HBO will change their mind.
GALLOWAY: Have you shot Fargo now?
MCGREGOR: Fargo, I’m going to shoot at the end of this year. So when that happened some time ago, quite a few years ago and at that point, I was really having an eye about it like do I want to do it, do I feel like, I feel like a film actor, should I be on television you know, it’s sort of something I have to get over. But that was five, six years ago and things have changed so radically now. I think you know, to not open your mind to television is silly because there’s so much good work happening on television. And especially the kind of, you know, I talked about this middle-budget drama movies are just gone. So, all that stuff gone to television. So if I want to do the kind of work that I like to act in, I need to open my mind to it. And then I’m bumped into one of the producers of Fargo by accident when I was skiing and I ended up sitting with him and he was like, I was talking to him about this TV idea and he was like, “Episode three of Fargo, have you seen it?” And I hadn’t, I said no. And then so when I got home, I watched them and I just thought it was really brilliant, what brilliant television. And I thought it was, I’m really not sure how they managed to do it, based a TV series on a movie. That’s not the same story without the same characters and yet it does have the same heart. Somehow it’s really clever.
GALLOWAY: We had Billy Bob Thornton here last year and because of that, I watched the first season. And it was like a tipping point for me because I’ve always been a film lover. And it’s just brilliant. And I’ve heard Noah Hawley’s novel is also, you know, he’s written a novel. It’s meant to be incredible. I’m dying to see that.
MCGREGOR: He’s a real interesting talent, that one.
GALLOWAY: Next question, please.
QUESTION: I’m a sophomore film major here t LMU. And I was wondering how do you approach a character like Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast? That was originated in an animated feature.
GALLOWAY: Good question.
MCGREGOR: You just approach every character like it’s a brand new thing, it’s a new clean slate. The fact that it’s been done before is neither here nor there really or me. I mean I think if they wanted to just that character again, that’s not true because he sort of did create that character. I don’t know the answer to your question. [LAUGHTER] I just approach it like I would everything else. I mean I didn’t spend time watching the original animation and trying to make my Lumiere like that. I mean I must have seen it in the past. And I got a very strong sense of who he was from the script. And I assume that the script was this version of this film we were making, not the animation. And so I sort of made him like that. But the nice thing about Lumiere and in this case was that I got to do it several times. He is animated in most of the film and then at the end, when we’re released from the curse, it’s me. And that meant I was allowed to record all of the dialogue just fresh. And then I was able to do it again. The challenge was the French accent because they wanted a sound. They didn’t want me to do the French R sound. And when you take the R sound out of French accent, and you just replace it with an R, it sounds Mexican. [LAUGHTER] So I had to try…
GALLOWAY: Did you speak French?
MCGREGOR: My wife’s French. I mean I speak a bit of French but I’ve lived amongst French, you know, most of my adult life. But I found that a bit of a challenge. So anyway, we went back and we re-recorded it all again and I’m happy to say it sounds a bit more French though.
GALLOWAY: OK, next question, please.
QUESTION: I’m a sophomore film production major and I was just wondering how your years of acting experience influenced your personal directing style with American Pastoral.
MCGREGOR: The answer to your question is totally. I mean I could only direct American Pastoral in a way that I liked to be directed by my directors. And like I’ve said, it’s impossible to put your finger on what that is exactly other than protecting the environment that the actors get to find the scenes and build the scenes and invest in them. I think that’s key and that’s what I’ve learned from all the great directors I’ve worked with. And then to be, I was, really want it to be useful to the actors, I had amazing actors to work with. I wasn’t having to direct actors who weren’t good actors, you know what I mean? I had an amazing cast. And so it was much more about just shaping the scenes to the vision I had of the movie and then…
GALLOWAY: How do you direct when you’re also acting? Because you know, you’re doing the scene with somebody then you step, by step, well, that was great but you were really lousy and you know. [LAUGHTER]
MCGREGOR: It doesn’t really work like that. It’s quite a good place to direct a scene from because you’re in the scene. And it becomes a real collaboration. It’s nice. It’s between you and the other actor and it’s awkward to begin with only for the first day or two, it’s awkward for me because there’s a sort of unwritten rule that you never dream of telling another actor what to do in a scene. I wouldn’t. And you shouldn’t. It’s not something you should do. But in this instance, it was my job to as well. And I’ve been directed by my acting partner when I made Miles Ahead with Don Cheadle. I was directed by Don so I knew what it was like on the other side of that equation, if you like. And then I was sensitive to it. You just have to be mindful that it’s slightly odd and then after a week or two it was very easy. It’s fine. And I’d like to think, and having spoken to the actors in American Pastoral, it’s a very nice inclusive feeling. You’re in the scene together. You have some thoughts about it and you do it again. And if you’re able to steer the scene around from being in the scene which I was, I think that’s quite useful, it wasn’t like doffing two hats. I’m the actor, now I’m the director. It was all one and the same thing really.
GALLOWAY: Are you the guy who says action and cut when you’re…
MCGREGOR: Cut, not action, because it’s difficult. It’s impossible to say action when you’re in a scene somehow but cutting it, we have a little blooper reel. I mean it’s not a funny film particularly but we have the nice blooper reel and there’s lots of moments of me cutting the scenes on camera. It was quite fun.
GALLOWAY: Two more questions and quickly please. We’re out of time.
QUESTION: I’m a sophomore production major here and you talked a lot about going back and forth between the film and theatre and I want to know what informs that decision for you? Was it just a script or do you decide I want to jump off the treadmill, do some theatre, jump back on?
MCGREGOR: Yeah, with theatre it can be that. It can be I really need to go back on stage it’s been too long. I’ve sort of done a play every four or five years I guess if I look back in my career. And I think that’s good. I think theatre reminds us what we’re doing as actors, because every night and every matinee day, you have an audience telling you what’s working and what’s not. And that’s very good for us as actors to hone our skills. So I like to do it and if I haven’t done a play for four or five years, I start to get in the itch, you know, and I want to do it again.
GALLOWAY: Is there one classical character you’d love to play? You’ve done Iago.
MCGREGOR: Yeah. No, I want to do a new play. I’d like to play a role for the first time. I’m trying to find a play, maybe a contemporary young, some interesting contemporary writer where I could be the first person to play a role.
GALLOWAY: Last question, yeah, great, thank you.
QUESTION: I just had a question about how did it feel coming back to the Trainspotting universe I guess with the same characters and actors but like 20 years after the first one?
MCGREGOR: Well, every now and again it made you feel quite old. [LAUGHTER] But it was an amazing experience. It was quite brilliant to be working with Danny Boyle again, whom I missed working with. And being back on his film set made me very happy to be back on set with Jonny and Ewen and Bobby Carlisle was a great thrill again. It was quite daunting to be those characters again. I was quite nervous about being able to pull it off after. There was a sort of responsibility to him, to Renton, my character, to get it right. And I felt like wow, what if I can’t? What if it doesn’t feel right? What if I can’t do it? It’s been 20 years but he’s me and I’m him in a way. And there was something about his story that’s you know, he’s been away for a while. I worry that I haven’t been in Scotland for years. You know, I mean I go back every year but I haven’t lived in Scotland since I was 17 or something and there was something so Scottish about Trainspotting. And but you know, Renton hadn’t been in Scotland either so that worked out all right.
GALLOWAY: Good, well, thanks everyone. You are the perfect interview, I have to say.
MCGREGOR: Oh, really? Oh, good.
GALLOWAY: Right. Thank you so much.
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