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It’s hard to think of many movie stars who have had the sort of career that Ewan McGregor has had — long, prolific, and consistently impressive — but have not received an Oscar nomination. And yet the dashing 41-year-old Scotsman, who has been acting on film for 18 years, is still in search of his first.
McGregor has a credit list that includes Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting (1996), Mark Herman‘s Little Voice (1998), Ridley Scott‘s Black Hawk Down (2001), Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge! (2001), Tim Burton‘s Big Fish (2003), Chris Noonan‘s Miss Potter (2006), Woody Allen‘s Cassandra’s Dream (2007), Glenn Ficarra and John Requa‘s I Love You Phillip Morris (2009), Roman Polanski‘s The Ghost Writer (2010), and Mike Mills‘ Beginners (2011), not to mention three of George Lucas‘ Star Wars films (1999, 2002, 2005).
He is widely respected within the community of actors, in no small part because he has a proven track record of being a great scene partner. Indeed, though he has never been recognized by the Academy, the Academy has recognized three people — Brenda Blethyn (Little Voice), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!) and Christopher Plummer (Beginners) — for their work opposite him. That’s quite a figure.
And he is widely-regarded as one of Hollywood’s truly good guys. He’s been married to the same woman, French production designer Eve Mavrakis, since 1995, before he was really a “name.” He is the proud father of four daughters, who range in age from 16 to two. And he’s not a diva or someone who takes his good fortune for granted — he lives quietly and modestly in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles and says that he has not had a drink since the turn of the century.
Now, for his widely-heralded work in Juan Antonio Bayona‘s tearjerker The Impossible — a film based on the true story of a family that was vacationing in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami tore them apart, in which he plays a loving and tenacious husband and, for the first time on screen, a father (he has four daughters in real life) — this great leading man may finally get his due… ironically enough, in the best supporting actor category.
The film’s distributor, Summit Entertainment, has decided to push 16-year-old Tom Holland and Oscar nominee Naomi Watts, who have more screen time in the film, as the leads. And the truth is that this is good news for McGregor, who faces much less competition in the supporting category than he would have in lead.
I recently sat down with McGregor in New York for a long and wide-ranging conversation about his life and career. You can watch the full video at the top of this post or read highlights from it below.
The Hollywood Reporter: Early in your career you made three acclaimed films with director Danny Boyle: Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1996) and A Life Less Ordinary (1997). Why do you think you and Boyle brought out some of the best in each other?
Ewan McGregor: It’s something I don’t know that you can really explain. There was a very strong connection that I felt about Danny. He was my first movie director. Shallow Grave was my first film and his first film, and when people saw it in Britain that was a real turning point. People went, ‘Wow, okay, this is new and different.’ And it was. It was clever, and it looked amazing, and it made a mark, in that respect. All through that period to A Life Less Ordinary, that was who I was: I was Danny Boyle’s actor. And I agree with you, I think he got the best out of me. And it ended sadly. It’s something that came to a close after A Life Less Ordinary and it’s never returned, and that’s a great shame. I’ve always missed what we might have gone on to do.
THR: It’s been 15 years, but you’re both still very active. Is there a chance you’ll work together again?
McGregor: I’ve got no idea.
THR: Would you like to?
McGregor: I’d love to. Yeah.
THR: Your level of fame must have shot to a whole new level when you signed on to do Star Wars. Did you have any reservations about assuming the iconic role of Obi-Wan Kenobi?
McGregor: The big decision about Star Wars for me—and it was something that I really considered properly—was what kind of actor I was and what I felt I stood for, which was a real sort of independence. All my work had had quite a lot of edge in it, in one way or another. The worry about a film of that scale is that you don’t survive it, in a way. You don’t survive the hype; you become typecast. Harrison Ford did all right after the Star Wars films, though he was sort of alone. And so you have to consider that. You know, ‘Am I selling out?’ I phoned Danny and spoke to my uncle [role model/mentor Dennis Lawson], who told me, ‘Don’t it. You’re crazy.’ He said, ‘If you want a career after you’re 30, don’t do it.’ And I disregarded his advice in the end because the nearer I got to it the more I wanted to do it.
THR: Moulin Rouge! was the first really successful musical in decades. Were you always convinced that it was going to work?
McGregor: Yeah, I never doubted it for a minute. I met Baz to audition for Romeo + Juliet, and I think my audition for that film got me in Moulin Rouge!. I was just so absolutely convinced because of his two movies at that point, Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet. The first musical sequence that I shot was “Your Song” up in the elephant. And there’s that one shot where I’ve got my back to Nicole, and I break into song. It was the first time that I’d done it on set. There was never a moment of embarrassment, as you might imagine there would be when you break into song. It was just second nature.
THR: A movie that constantly pops up as one of people’s favorites is Big Fish. What made that one special?
McGregor: It touches the heart of a lot for men about their fathers, and fathers about their sons, and all of us about our lives, and how we remember things, and our fantasies, and how those two things can kind of mold together. There’s something very beautiful about it. It’s Tim Burton at his best really, I think. I loved very much working with him.
THR: What drew you to your latest film, The Impossible, a film based on a real family’s experience during the 2004 tsunami that struck Thailand?
McGregor: There was just an immediate, visceral response to some of the things that were written on the page—and then I found out later that it was, in fact, a true story, and that the writer and the director had spent weeks with the real family, and these lines of dialogue were things that they said or remember having heard being said. And then there was the director, Juan Antonio Bayona, whose film The Orphanage I’d seen and really liked. I thought it was a powerful first movie, by any standards. I’m always interested in working with great, experienced directors, and also the exciting new talent, of which he’s right at the top of the list. And then, thirdly, it seemed to me to be the first time in my career that I would play a father; I’ve been a dad for 16 years, and yet this is the first time that I’ve really explored that in my work.
THR: Bayona wanted to recreate the tsunami without using CGI. How was that achieved?
McGregor: He made a very complicated but good decision to only use real water. They spent over a year trying to workout how they were going to do that. Of course, there’s some huge wide shots, and they’ve taken a section of what we shot and replicated it, so that it’s on a bigger scale than we actually had there. But it’s all real water. All of that was shot in a huge tank in Alicante in Spain. [The actors] were literally on tracks under the water that pulled down through the water. They had pumps and jets shooting at them. Debris thrown in. You know, shooting in water is so complicated and slow. They were getting two or three shots a day. It was really slow and brutal. But, oh my God, what he’s done with it is breathtaking, in terms of its power. When the tsunami comes in the movie, you fully appreciate the horror of what it might be like.
THR: What’s next for you?
McGregor: I’m really thrilled to be working on August Osage County at the moment. It’s great writing, working with an extraordinary cast, John Wells directing—it’s a really thrilling experience. And it looks like I’m going to be making a film with Wim Wenders; I’m making a film in Australia; and I’m making a film with Peter Capaldi. It’s nice, three independent movies. I’m excited about all of them.
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