Ewan McGregor's Ride to the Top
by scott huver
Ewan McGregor regards the recent collection of scrapes on his forearm—real-world wounds, not movie fakery—with a wry grin and the slightest hint of pride. The 41-year-old actor has long been a motorcycle enthusiast (or, as he calls them in his slight Scottish lilt, motorbikes), having once traveled from London to New York via Europe, Asia, and Canada, and also journeying from his native Scotland to South Africa. “Every time I ride it puts a smile on my face,” he says—but even he’s not immune to occasional horizontal parking.
“I fell off my bike [recently] for the first time in a long time,” he says, a bit sheepishly. “I overcooked a corner and I slid off my bike.” It’s clear that the tragic fate of his ride—an expensive one in his dozen-motorcycle collection—was more painful than his own abrasions. “I just had the scrape on my elbow. But the bike came off really badly, because as the left-hand side of the bike slid, the tires caught, and it flipped onto the right-hand side—so it really f’ed up that side of the bike. It’s a disaster. But in a way,” he muses, “it reminded me why I like [motorbikes].”
There’s something about the ever-present element of danger that keeps McGregor’s senses sharp, and he concedes that he relishes a similar element of risk and adrenaline as an actor. A friend recently e-mailed McGregor a link to a clip from one of his earlier film performances, in Velvet Goldmine, which he hadn’t seen in more than a decade. In it he gave a seat-of-his-pants, live concert performance before hundreds of extras in character as a Ziggy Stardust-esque ’70s glam rocker. “It was like watching someone else, because I haven’t seen it for so long,” he laughs. “That was one of those moments where you don’t know what’s gonna happen… Those little moments that you know came out of putting yourself on the line to do it, really. I still like that; I still like leaving my trailer, not knowing what’s going to happen, and coming back an hour later going, ‘That was interesting—I didn’t know that was going to happen.’ I love that part of it.”
Risk appears to suit him—especially now as he approaches nearly two decades in front of the camera. His early career was filled with an impressive array of diverse performances, from early stints for director Danny Boyle in Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, and A Life Less Ordinary to adventurous studio films with auteur-directors: Moulin Rouge! for Baz Luhrmann, Black Hawk Down for Ridley Scott, Big Fish for Tim Burton, and the Star Wars prequel trilogy for George Lucas. But in contrast to the career arcs of a good portion of his contemporaries, McGregor has not only remained in constant demand—he looks 10 years younger than his age—he’s been turning out even more challenging work in recent years. His performances in The Ghost Writer, Beginners, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen are as rich and varied as anything he delivered as a young, fresh face in Hollywood.
McGregor’s latest film is easily his most harrowing since Black Hawk Down. The Impossible tells the gut-wrenching tale of a Western family on Christmas vacation in Thailand, when they’re caught in the onslaught of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. In a fictionalized version of events that befell a real family, he and Naomi Watts—his costar in 2005’s Stay—find themselves agonizingly separated from each other and their three children by the maelstrom, struggling to stay alive and both desperate and terrified to learn what fates may have befallen their loved ones.
“There was something unusual about it,” he says of his first reaction to the screenplay. “I didn’t know what it was at first, but there were some lines of dialogue that were really startling in their honesty. I didn’t know that it had been written from a real family’s perspective when I read it. And then I later found out a lot of the lines of dialogue are, in fact, lines that the family members remember saying or remember hearing said. And that makes sense of it, in a way... This is an exploration of that unique, powerful bond we have with our kids, albeit in this extreme backdrop.”
“I was looking for someone whom I could really empathize with in an easy way, to have a sense of intimacy with,” says the film’s director, Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage). “The kind of actor like Spencer Tracy or Gregory Peck: these very human people, humble, and with great novelty. Even though Ewan has been in very different kinds of roles in his career, the kindness and goodness in his persona is what I was looking for.”
One aspect of the role that appealed to McGregor was the opportunity to play a father— something he’s yet to do, despite having four daughters (the eldest is 16, the youngest is not yet 2) in his off-camera life with wife Eve Mavrakis. “It’s the first time, really, in my work that I will have explored what it means to be a dad—and I’ve been one for 16 years!” he says. “I mean, I must’ve had kids in a film, but it’s never been what the films are about. [But] I’m a guy who lives his life with a partner and we have four children, so that’s at the heart of who I am. It’s the bedrock of who I am.”
While the role dramatizes one of any parent’s worst possible nightmares, it allowed McGregor to delight in the novelty of playing dad to three sons after being outnumbered, genderwise, in his own home—so much so that it was easier to respond naturally to the three young actors in his scenes rather than imagine the terror of his own offspring in danger. “On set I was so taken with my three boys in the film,” he says. “I enjoyed their company so much that I only had to think of them, really. I didn’t spend time on set thinking about my kids… It was so different. I really don’t know what that’s like, to have boys, so I enjoyed it because they’re such great boys.”
While his prolific output makes it seem like McGregor’s been working tirelessly in recent years, he’s actually enjoyed his first real hiatus in some time, summering in LA and Europe with his family and making the most of their time together. “I think it’s the longest time I didn’t work for my whole career,” he reflects. “My baby’s 21 months, so to spend the majority of this year with her at home and then on holiday, it’s just fun to have that kind of continuity with them. You’re not rushing off, coming back for a couple of weeks, rushing off again. To be solidly at home is a real treat. There was a time when I was working, working, working, and grabbing weeks at home here and there, and that’s not great for anybody.”
He’s got another high-profile feature on the way in director Bryan Singer’s fantasy Jack the Giant Killer, playing “a real gung-ho, Errol Flynn-type knight—but he then f’s up what he’s trying to do, so there was something a bit fumbly and daft about him that I really liked.” And he’s about to finish shooting the film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County, opposite Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, and admits after some time off, “I’m itching to get back on set with really good actors and a really good role.”
Pondering the precise reasons for his current hot streak, McGregor decides that it’s not because Hollywood—the industry—has cracked the code on how to best utilize him. “I’ve never known or even had a sense that Hollywood did want to do anything with me,” he chuckles. “Hollywood’s so immediate. It’s about what you’re worth—that’s the sad truth—and when something doesn’t work… they’re like, ‘Okay— moving on!’” A few commercial-minded films that failed to be box-office hits a few years back may have cooled the industry’s ardor for him as a major movie star—one of the producers of The Island said as much in the press—but McGregor just kept seeking out parts that tested him, perfectly content with the job description of actor.
It’s a vocation he’d been dreaming of as far back as he can remember, and one that felt attainable even in his small Scottish hometown of Crieff; his parents were educators, but there were accomplished actors in the family. (His maternal uncle, Denis Lawson, was well-known in British film and TV, and played in all three of the original Star Wars films.) “I just didn’t ever consider the alternative. I always thought that it would work out—I didn’t imagine that it wouldn’t,” he recalls, leaving school early to pursue the stage. “But I always wanted to be making movies, and luckily it just all worked out. I don’t know that it matters where you come from—I don’t think it really does. What matters is what you can do in front of the camera, and what you’re like to work with.”
“Now I feel like I’m back in favor, if there is such a thing; the work that I’ve been doing lately has been well received,” he says with a characteristic enthusiasm. “[But] I always think I’m doing great, and I always did, even when I maybe wasn’t,” he chuckles. “But lately, I think it’s to do with age. I’ve caught up to the point where there’s more choice. There are really good roles now. In your late 30s and 40s, it starts getting really interesting, and I’ve had a chance to do some of that stuff lately.”
Having brushed off any career skids as easily as he did dumping his motorcycle, McGregor is back on the bike, eagerly revving his engine. He’s a distance rider. “I’m having the time of my life,” he says, adding, “but I feel like I always have been.”
photography by art streiber; Styling by Ilaria Urbinati at The Wall Group; Grooming by Jenn Streicher for starworksartists.com