Ewan McGregor: From Obi-Wan To 'Ghost Writer' Ewan McGregor has played a heroin addict in Trainspotting, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in three Star Wars films, and a poet in Moulin Rouge. In his latest film, Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer, McGregor plays an unnamed writer uncovering a political scandal. He recounts his favorite acting roles — and how he prepared for them.
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Ewan McGregor: From Obi-Wan To 'Ghost Writer'

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Ewan McGregor: From Obi-Wan To 'Ghost Writer'

Ewan McGregor: From Obi-Wan To 'Ghost Writer'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When he was just 25, the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor caught the eye of critics with his portrayal of a Glasgow heroin addict in the Danny Boyle film "Trainspotting." McGregor is only 39 today, but since then, he's made more than 30 films. He played the young Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in three "Star Wars" movies. His other films include: "Moulin Rouge," "Big Fish," "Black Hawk Down" and "Velvet Goldmine." McGregor costars in the forthcoming film "I Love You Phillip Morris," based on a true story. He plays a man who lands in prison and falls in love with a charming Texas conman played by Jim Carrey.

And Ewan McGregor also stars in the new political thriller "The Ghostwriter," directed by Roman Polanski. McGregor plays a writer who's hired to finish the memoir of a retired British prime minister after the first co-writer turns up dead.

FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Ewan McGregor.

We'll start with a scene from the film. The ghostwriter is sitting down to his first interview with the former prime minister, played by Pierce Brosnan.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Ghostwriter")

Mr. PIERCE BROSNAN (Actor): (as Adam Lang) You know the worst thing about my life? It's so out of touch. Everything's done for you. You don't' drive. You don't carry money. If I need cash, I have to borrow it from the protection boys.

Mr. MCGREGOR (Actor): (as The Ghost) This is the kind of details we need in the memoirs.

Mr. BROSNAN: (as Adam Lang) I couldn't put that in. People would think I was a complete idiot.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as The Ghost) No, not at all. No, this shows what it's like being prime minister. That's exactly what the readers want to know: How does it feel to run a country? How does it feel to be so cut off? How does it feel to be so hated?

Mr. BROSNAN: (as Adam Lang) Oh. Thanks a lot.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as The Ghost) And so loved.


Ewan McGregor, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your character - it's a bit like a blank slate, right? I mean, he's there to absorb, you know, the narrative that his subject tells him.


DAVIES: And, as to say, we don't really know who he is. Did you imagine a back story? I mean...

Mr. MCGREGOR: Not really. Not really. No, I didn't. I mean, I think there are certain things that we know about him as a writer - as a ghostwriter. You know, there's a certain kind of element of failure in his life in that he's not putting his name to his writing. You know, he's writing - adopting the personality of the celebrity that he's writing for. And in his case, we know that he's written a book about a rock star and we know that he's written a book for a magician. And so we know that he's probably writing about slightly cheesy celebrities and adopting their character for his writing. So there's a slight element of failure in him already as a writer, that he's not even putting his name to his own work.

DAVIES: You know, one of the interesting things - we don't want to give away too much of the plot to "The Ghostwriter," but your character gets involved in what he thinks is simply a writing a memoir from a retired prime minister, and it becomes a much thicker story. I mean, the minister is - turns out is involved in allegations of war crimes - that seems, to a lot of people, modeled after Tony Blair and his, you know, involvement with the Iraq War.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Oh, yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. Did that kind of political side of the film appeal to you? Does it matter?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah, it matters. It's nice. It's the point. It says a great deal about politics. It says a great deal about our politicians, and I like that. I didn't see that as being the major part of my decision to make the film. In the beginning, I read the script very much through the Ghost's eyes, and the political aspect of the film, I wasn't as bothered about at the time. And now that I see the film, of course, and I see its relevance and how British politics seems to get closer and closer to our movie storyline day by day, then I'm quite happy to be involved in that.

DAVIES: You know, the film was directed and co-written by Roman Polanski who, of course, burst into the headlines really after shooting, I believe, when he went to Switzerland and was placed under arrest, you know, to face extradition to the United States for the, you know, his - the incident in 1977 when he pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

Was there any air of sort of controversy surrounding Polanski at all on the set? Did you have any qualms about working for him?

Mr. MCGREGOR: No. There wasn't any air of controversy working with him on set. His case and his situation has nothing to do with me. I wasn't involved in any of that, and I didn't discuss any of that with him.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCGREGOR: I worked with him purely as an actor wanting to work with a master filmmaker, and he's one of our greatest living filmmakers. So I was happy to be his actor.



DAVIES: I wanted to talk to you about the other film you have coming out soon, which is "I Love You Phillip Morris," in which you co-star with Jim Carrey. He plays a charming scam artist who is in and out of prison. You play his gay lover, and you meet in prison. And in a scene we're going to listen to, you're both in prison. You don't share a cell. And, in fact, you are having trouble sleeping at night because a guy - one of the inmates next door is screeching all night. And then you discover that he had been savagely beaten in the yard, and you suspect that Jim Carrey, your lover, may have hired thugs to beat up this screecher as a favor to you. And in this scene, you confront him about it. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "I Love You Phillip Morris")

Mr. MCGREGOR (as Phillip Morris): Get up. Did you pay to have the screecher beat up?

Mr. JIM CARREY (Actor): (as Steve Russell) Me?

Mr. MCGREGOR (as Phillip Morris): Don't (bleep) with me. Did you pay to have him beat up?

Mr. CARREY: (as Steve Russell) You hate that guy.

Mr. MCGREGOR (as Phillip Morris): Just answer the question.

Mr. CARREY: (as Steve Russell) Yeah. Yeah, I did.

Mr. MCGREGOR (as Phillip Morris): Steven, that's the most romantic thing that anyone ever did for me.

DAVIES: And that's prison romance in the film "I Love You Phillip Morris," with our guest Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey.

This character that you play, kind of a sweet, trusting soul isn't he? Tell us about him.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah. Phillip Morris, he's - he finds himself in prison for forgetting to return a hire car that he'd hired. I think Phillip was probably slightly forgetful and also a bit of a partygoer, you know, and he forgot to return a hire car. Anyway, one thing led to another, and he ended up in prison, where he met and fell in love with Steven Russell, who was in prison for fraud. And he's a con artist, a quite experienced and clever con artist, but not clever enough to stay out of jail ultimately, I guess.

DAVIES: Right. This is a true story. How did you build the character? Did you get to know the character - the person it was based on at all? Or...

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yes. I spent probably a couple - a day-and-a-half with Phillip. I flew into Arkansas where he lives and I spent, you know, a day and a bit with him. And, you know, I spoke to him about the details in the script to an extent, but what was more important for me as an actor was just to hang out with him, and we went for coffees and went for walks. And I was just able to see him and get a sense of who he was.

And my - you know, I was quite clear with him that I wasn't going to be doing an impersonation of him in the movie. I think our Phillip in the film is a slightly gentler, slightly more tender version of the real Phillip, who has slightly more of an edge to him than my Phillip Morris in the movie. The script is a true script.

DAVIES: We're speaking with actor Ewan McGregor.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Ewan McGregor. One of your early successful films was "Trainspotting," which was - you did with Danny Boyle, and a film, I guess about a group of heroin addicts in Scotland. And I thought we might listen to a piece of this. This is from kind of the opening of the film. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Trainspotting")

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as Renton): Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of (bleep) fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the (bleep) you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch, watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing (bleep) junk food into your mouth.

(Soundbite of shouting)

(Soundbite of song, "Lust for Life")

DAVIES: And that's my guest Ewan McGregor from the opening of the film "Trainspotting." That takes you back to earlier in your career. And we hear a very thick Scottish brogue there. Is that what you sounded like as a young man in Scotland?

Mr. MCGREGOR: No, that's an East Coast accent. The book "Trainspotting" was written about a bunch of guys who live in Leith in Edinburgh on the East Coast, and that's the kind of strong - much stronger accent than I ever had. Yeah.

DAVIES: You grew up in a rural area of Scotland, is that right?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah. In a little town called Crieff near Perth, probably 60-70 miles north of Glasgow, right in the - that's just before the Highlands start, a very beautiful part of the world. Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. And according to what's written, you knew you wanted to be an actor from a young age, right?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Mm-hmm. Yes. My uncle is an actor. Dennis Lawson is my uncle. And when I was growing up, I was always very interested in him, and he would arrive and he was a very colorful character. And Crieff is a conservative kind of farming town, really. There's a lot of farming there, and it's a beautiful little town. But when my uncle arrived up, he was quite - he had something about him that I liked very much that was different. And so from a very young age, I wanted to be an actor because I wanted to be like him. But I suppose, at the time, I didn't know much about what being an actor meant. And - but however, I dedicated the rest of my life to finding out.

DAVIES: And how did you parents react to this ambition?

Mr. MCGREGOR: They were always supportive of me. And indeed, when I was - I started my penultimate year when I was 16 of school, and I just was in trouble all the time and sent to the head master and not happy. I was - I didn't like school very much, and they wouldn't let me do the kind of things I wanted to do. I was interested in music and art, and my school wouldn't let me do that. They thought I was copping out. So I ended up having to do physics and math and things I wasn't in the least bit interested in. And as a result, I ended up being quite unhappy. And my parents saw it, and they, you know, after doing six weeks of the first term of my penultimate year at school, my mother told me that, she said that, you know, she said I've spoken to your dad, and if you would like to leave school, you can. And then that was it. I never went back.

My life kind of went into wide screen, and I was off a week later. I was working in Perth Repertory Theatre, and I was a member of the stage crew there for six months putting up the sets, taking down the sets. They gave me little walk-on parts now and again, and I was working in the theater. I was working with actors, and I was being able to watch and learn about my profession -about the thing that I wanted to do.

And so from there, I went to a one-year theater arts course in Scotland, and from there I went to a three-year acting course down in London at the Guildhall of Music and Drama and started working straight out of my final - I didn't complete my last year, because I got a job.

DAVIES: Yeah. Did acting turn out to be more difficult than you thought it would be? I mean, it's certainly easy to be excited about it when you were a kid, but it's a craft, right? You had to work at it.

Mr. MCGREGOR: You do have to learn it. But at the same time, it's very - it isn't complicated. I like to keep it very simple, acting. I don't think it is a - there's a great many tortured souls who are actors and make it very, very complicated. But I think it's quite straightforward, acting. And I try and make it as uncomplicated as possible. On film work, you know, and on the stage, there are technical things that you learn through experience, and drama school is merely just a place to give you an environment where you can learn by doing lots of classes and different kinds of classes. But mainly, you're just in a safe environment where you can try to act and where your results don't determine your future any way. So you can fail.

In drama school, you can be in a play and be terrible in it, and it's okay. You're not going to - you know, it's not going to affect your career any way. Of course, once you come out and you start acting in film or on stage, then your work has more - there's some more danger element to it because you can -if you fail, you might not get another job.

DAVIES: Right. Well, you got a job in a TV series, "Lipstick on Your Collar," and then this film "Trainspotting" with Danny Boyle was, I guess, sort of a breakout role for you. I mean, and there you're with a band of young people in Glasgow, I guess, who are using heroin. And, I got to say, I mean, you're a very convincing heroin addict. How did you prepare for that role?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGREGOR: Well, we worked with an organization up in Glasgow called the Calton Athletic Club. They're a recovery group for heroin addicts. So we indeed worked with people who were no longer taking heroin. And we had a man called Amon(ph), who was our onset advisor. Whenever there was any drug-taking scenes or heroin scenes, then he was there, and we were able to make sure that what we were - what were doing with the syringes and the spoons and the matches and whatever was accurate and correct.

And also, he was there to - you know, for me, I needed to find out what it was like to overdose and what it was like to withdraw from heroin addiction, because there was a quite long sequence where my character was going through withdrawal, which is a horrendous and painful process. And I was able to question him about all of those things in great detail because he had lived that life and was no longer living that life. But this organization dont use methadone. They just support each other off the drug and they're there and they organize football matches. And, you know, indeed we, the cast - the guys from "Trainspotting" - we had a football match with the ex-heroin addicts - the Calton Athletic boys - and they ran circles around. You know, we didnt - they really hammered us.

(Soundbite of laughter)


DAVIES: You know, this all has one of the most memorably disgusting scenes in cinema.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Its the case where your character Mark Renton desperately needs to find a bathroom and finds one - how was it described in the film? The...

Mr. MCGREGOR: The worst toilet in Scotland.

DAVIES: The worst toilet in Scotland. And it is a truly wretched men's room, which you character ends up somehow dropping something he needs into the toilet and then diving in after it. You want to say a little bit about shooting that scene?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah, there's something quite poetic about it - something quite beautiful about it in a way. It's odd, once he gets into the toilet, it's quite serene and beautiful down there, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGREGOR: I showed it to my kids. I've got two eight-year olds, you know, I've got a 14-year-old as well, but one day I was talking to them about this toilet scene. And, of course, I wouldnt show them "Trainspotting," because they're too young. But I did show them the toilet scene because I thought it would be fun for them to see their dad going down a loo. And what I remember of shooting it was, you know, we did three or four takes. I mean, they had a very clever set where I could slide down the toilet like that. But it was - they thought they had it and Danny said okay, let's move on to the next sequence. And I suddenly thought, no, he has to go around a u-bend. He has to go around the bend, so when I get in, I...

DAVIES: In the pipes you mean?

Mr. MCGREGOR: In the pipes, my feet should turn around as if he's kind of gone around the u-bend. And I asked for another take and put the, you know, managed to stop myself just when my feet were sticking out the loo and turned them around and then carried on as if I'd gone around the u-bend and I was very pleased with myself about that little moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You were in the three most recently made "Star Wars" films. You played the young Obi-Wan Kenobi and I read that your uncle, Denis Lawson, who is an actor, had played a very minor role in the first three "Star Wars" films and that he advised you not to get involved in "Star Wars." Is that right?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah. I mean very minor role in your opinion, maybe, but in the "Star Wars" fans, he played a very important role of Wedge, the star-fighter, Red Baron - Red Leader. I can't remember. But when I got closer and closer to being cast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, as I kind of got closer, I did question whether it was the right thing for me. Up until that point, I'd been involved in mainly kind of independent, low-budget independent films and I had a very tight relationship with Danny Boyle and Andrew MacDonald and John Hodge and we made, you know, "Shallow Grave," and "Trainspotting," and "Life Less Ordinary." And I felt like that being part of that filmmaking team was my identity as an actor.

I felt that that was the most important thing about my work was being in that group of kind of new British wave of cinema. And I didnt think that "Star Wars" was quite who I was or what I was about. However, the closer I got the more I wanted to do it and I took advice from people. I spoke to Danny Boyle. I spoke to people I respected to see what their opinion of that was. And my uncle's - just lived a life of - "Stars Wars" had kind of overshadow - I think Alec Guinness was quite interesting about it as well, that after this whole life of amazing acting, that his whole amazing career, that he felt remembered just for those three movies, or, in fact, just that one movie really, that he was in. My uncle said, dont do it.

DAVIES: And that's because there are such obsessive cult followers of the films that you will forever be known as the guy who held the lightsaber?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yes. I dont mind it. I dont mind that I am because I've done lots and lots of other things. And for me, I'm very happy with the work I did in "Star Wars." I'm happy to be part of that legend. I think it's great and I really like being Obi-Wan Kenobi. I have no problem with it. I've always been quite open about the fact that they were technically very difficult to make. There's a lot of green screen and blue screen, and for the actor, there's very often not another actor to act with so youre playing to a tennis ball on a stick or a piece of tape on a green curtain or whatever and, you know, that's just not easy. It becomes a very technical exercise.

It's always for the actor probably easier to be in a set or in a location with other actors to play off. It's just normal, you know. But that's just the way it is. Every film has its own challenges. And the challenges on "Star Wars" were being believable when youre surrounded by green curtains.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MCGREGOR: In fact, most of the sets and the flooring and everything, youre very often just on an entirely green place. Youre in a very green place.

DAVIES: Oh really? And so, the entire environment is added later.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah. It's odd.

DAVIES: Well there is some dialogue, and I thought we'd listen to just a bit. And this is you in a brief conversation with Anakin Skywalker, the father of Luke Skywalker. He's played by Hayden Christensen. So this is our guest Ewan McGregor playing Obi-Wan Kenobi.

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith")

Mr. HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN (Actor): (as Anakin Skywalker) You're going to need me on this one master.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as Obi-Wan Kenobi) Oh I agree. However, it may turn out just to be a wild bantha chase.

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: (as Anakin Skywalker) Master, I've disappointed you. I haven't been very appreciative of your training. I've been arrogant and I apologize. I've just been so frustrated with the council.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as Obi-Wan Kenobi) You are strong and wise Anakin and I am very proud of you. I have trained you since you were a small boy. I have taught you everything I know and you have become a far greater Jedi than I could ever hope to be.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Ewan McGregor in "Revenge of the Sith," the "Star Wars" film. And, you know, the reason I wanted to play this clip was that, you know, in this film you are playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, who was played by Alec Guinness in the first three films and youre playing that character at a younger point in his life. And when I heard that, I can hear Alec Guinness in your voice.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Mm-hmm. That was my job, was to take the amazing and legendary performance that Alec Guinness gave in the first "Star Wars" film and play that character as a younger man. It was difficult to make that voice - put that voice into a younger body, if you like, because it's such a legendary figure and we know that voice. We know Obi-Wan Kenobi's voice from those first "Star Wars" films so well, and to put him in a - put that voice on a young man, it was quite hard to make it work. But I tried my best. That was really my - that was my job, was to try and do that, you know.

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with actor Ewan McGregor. He has two new films, "The Ghost Writer," which is now in theaters, and "I Love You Phillip Morris," which is soon to be released.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with actor Ewan McGregor. He appears in the film, "The Ghost Writer," which is now out in theaters. He'll also be starring with Jim Carey in the new film "I Love You Phillip Morris."

You know, when you read about your career, one of the things people write a lot is that Ewan McGregor never stops working. I mean, there have been times when, I think, youve been flying back and forth between sets of two different films.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And then some think that you haven't been selective enough. You know, that you should be more careful about some of those that you make. I dont know, what drives you to the level of filmmaking that you do?

Mr. MCGREGOR: I just like it. I really enjoy working. I'm a working man. I have a family to support. I mean, whether I'm selective enough or not, it's very difficult to say and it's really - with my work I like to have real freedom of choice in it and I dont like to kind of confine myself by saying Ill never do this or I wouldnt do that.

I mean, I wouldn't ever make a movie that was morally against my own, you know, I wouldnt make a film that stood for something I didnt believe in or - but I wouldnt say I'll never sing or I'll never do a sex scene or Ill never do this or that because I simply dont know, until I've read it, whats required.

DAVIES: You know, the other thing I've read about you - I dont know if this is a record, but that you've appeared frontally nude five times in film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Is that just because you happen to be in projects where it called for it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Does it say anything about you and your career choices?

Mr. MCGREGOR: I dont know what it says really, other than, you know, movies reflect life, and in life you're naked some of the time. And movies are about the dramatic side of life. And sex and sexuality and love and romance are in definitely in that area of drama. And, so I think it's obvious that if you're going to have a career in acting and drama, you're going to be called upon at some point to explore those areas - and I have done.

You know, my second film was an amazing picture called "The Pillow Book" with Peter Greenaway and it was a film about a girl's sexuality. It was about sex. And in that film I was called upon to be naked a lot and I was called upon to have sexual scenes with the actress and with the actor who played my boyfriend in the film and none of that was gratuitous or uncalled for because it was what the story was about. It was a film about sexuality. And it's a really beautiful film. It's one that I'm - whenever I'm asked, you know, of a film that I like the most of all of them, that film always kind of springs to mind in that it was a very beautiful and interesting movie, and probably one of Greenaway's more accessible films, I think.

DAVIES: You know...

Mr. MCGREGOR: I just never had a problem with it. I dont - I'm not embarrassed about being naked and - but I dont, you know, I dont insist on being naked in movies for the sake of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MCGREGOR: You know, I dont say well, we should definitely put a nude scene in here. In fact, in "The Ghost," you know, I was doing the press last week and somebody said to me, would you like to talk about the nude scene? And I went, I can't remember a nude scene. Is there a nude scene? And in actual fact, all it is is when I get into bed at one point and I let the robe fall to the floor as I slip under the covers, and for the briefest microsecond you see my bum. And this was what the journalist was interested in talking about - this huge naked scene, you know.

DAVIES: Ewan McGregor, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Thank you very much. It's been my pleasure.


Ewan McGregor spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. McGregor stars in the new Roman Polanski film "The Ghost Writer." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site at freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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