The gloomy London afternoon is illuminated by Ewan McGregor’s arrival to the North London townhouse where he is set to transform into various, equally eccentric characters. The 40-year-old Scottish actor appears, cheerful and animated, sporting a mustache that suggests he is a proud graduate of Dali’s Academy of ‘Stache Twisting. After our initial introductions, the shoot begins. About an hour later, having relocated to the garden, I hear laughter coming from the studio. I run inside to see who tripped on the strobes this time, only to find the actor in tight pants, deliberately showing his butt crack while striking a mock-sexy pose for the camera. McGregor has the crew doubled over in laughter as I surreptitiously snap a photo.
A few hours pass before McGregor calls me out. “I wanted to ask you something,” he says. “Did you take a picture of my ass crack?” Busted! I feel mortified. He probably thinks I am going to sell it to TMZ. This is bad, real bad. He thinks I am a perv, a creep. “Yes,” I say, blushing. I’m already preparing a lengthy speech that would go on about my morals as they relate to privacy, and that I would never show it to anyone but I probably should not have done it anyways. I can actually delete it right now. Does he want to delete it himself? Would that make him more comfortable? Shit, should I throw the phone in the pool? Instead of reprimanding me as I’d expected, he says, “Can you send me that photo? I want to email it to my publicist as a cover option.” The accompanying photo shoot was never intended to showcase McGregor’s assets—besides, we’ve seen it all before to great effect in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, and Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine. Yet the peculiar exchange serves as an icebreaker, setting into motion the conversations that would reveal the true identity of this fascinating man.
It seems like just yesterday that I was in film school and my screenwriting professor distributed the Trainspotting script. He claimed that there were some movies, grand and full of spectacle, that feel like “the cinematography was done by God,” yet they don’t come close to exploring the real human condition. And then every once in a while there comes a film that, without such extravaganza, tells a story so honest and original, so affecting and resonating, that it reminds us about the true priorities of filmmaking. I knew exactly what he meant.
These humbly budgeted yet brilliantly written and acted films have the rare formula of bringing together organic aspects of filmmaking. And a desirable ingredient in this mix has always been Ewan McGregor. Beginners, a profoundly moving story inspired by the experiences of its director Mike Mills, is the most recent example. “I have a feeling about this film,” he says. “The subject matter makes you think and it gets in touch with your emotions, for sure. But also, just the way it looks and sounds and flows, there’s something very moving about it.”
Exploring a unique father-son relationship, the story follows McGregor’s character Oliver as he copes with his father coming to terms with his homosexuality following his wife’s death. Diagnosed with cancer at the age of 75, Oliver’s father has four years to enjoy this newfound sexual freedom. As Oliver watches his father rediscover life through the process of dying, a quirky French actress, played by Mélanie Laurent, helps him endure the cards he’s been dealt. The freedom to improvise and experiment with emotions in this year’s word-of-mouth champion allow McGregor to flaunt what comes naturally: innate, raw talent.
The iconic Joseph Campbell book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, which comes up during a brainstorming session between BULLETT and McGregor, inspires the visual direction of the accompanying photo. In his deeply philosophical masterpiece, Campbell deconstructs the journey of mankind through religion and mythology. George Lucas’ Star Wars (McGregor portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi in the franchise’s revamp), is one of the many films that were profoundly influenced by Campbell’s ideals.
Campbell’s terrifyingly exhilarating theory is that every hero gets one “call to adventure,” a turning point in life that comes in many manifestations and serves as a formal invitation to fulfill one’s potential. Defined by its risks, the journey that follows is meant to initiate the most significant self-transformation in a hero’s life. To do this, our hero must leave home and take a journey into the unknown. Should one deny their call to adventure and remain still, Campbell claims, then they will be cursed for the rest of their existence with leading the opposite of what their life was meant to become—a mundane, nine-to-five existence.
The idea fit McGregor like a glove: the man doesn’t just walk on the path to his adventure—he runs through it like a crazed bull with a red cloth attached to his horns. His call to adventure came in the form of a passion and talent from within, so grand that it was impossible to contain. He started to take on one courageous role after another. The risks that any actor would take only once or twice in their career became a constant trademark for McGregor. He has immersed himself in characters as disparate as they are detailed. Gay, straight, drug addict, rock star, villain, leading man—musical, drama, comedy, thriller—he has done it all and more. “Heroes come in all shapes and forms, and no matter what your calling is, pursue it,” he says. That was the message. As we interpreted our own version of Campbell’s theory, the characters that McGregor suggested we explore were, in a way, alter egos that represent the other directions his journey could have gone in a strange parallel realm.
McGregor’s path has been neither straight nor narrow. When he first told his parents he wanted to act, they were concerned, especially his father, a P.E. teacher who was blessed with two sons: an athletic superstar and a drama kid. Recalling Tim Burton’s Big Fish and Mike Mills’ Beginners, two films that McGregor starred in, which explore in-depth father- son relationships, I was curious to know why he’s been drawn to the subject. He recalled his father’s fears of him not being able to support himself while running after his highly improbable dreams. “I tried,” he says. “I wasn’t very sporty, but my older brother, he was good at cricket and rugby. So he was more like my father, I suppose. And then he got accepted into the Royal Air Force and became a pilot, which is something that I think my father would’ve liked to do himself. So my brother was much more like my father. And he understood me less, because I was interested more in music.” After his first job, McGregor called his father and told him he booked the part (Lipstick on Your Collar) and would get paid £24,000. “There was a real moment of relief in his voice. I mean, he was always very supportive, but I think he was probably a bit worried that it wouldn’t work. And once he sensed that it would, he has since been great.”
In addition to his career, McGregor also assumes multiple roles in his everyday hurdles: doting father, loving husband, generous friend, notorious prankster, adventurous free spirit. Assuming the latter, he recently went on a journey of self exploration through Campbell’s highest recommended reboot recipe: wandering, the ancient method of simply going far, far away for a long, long time. The story comes up when I ask him whether he’s ever been to a fortuneteller. About seven years ago, McGregor and a friend took a three-month trip, traveling the world on their motorcycles. He regards the journey as an ultimate life-changing experience.
While staying in Prague, he encountered a psychic who told him he would fall in love during this trip. Happily married, McGregor briefly worried trouble was ahead. “I thought, shit… You know, I’m married. I’ve got two kids at home. The last thing I need to do is to fall in love with a girl. I took it with a pinch of salt. And then, on that trip, I met my daughter, Jamiyan, who we adopted from Mongolia. So the fortuneteller was right. But you know, it wasn’t the kind of girl that I’d been thinking about at the time.” Like heroes, love too comes in many shapes and forms.
With the expertise of a pro gambler, McGregor always puts his heart and soul into projects that don’t necessarily bring a fortune but surely produce acclaim. He has no boundaries, complaints, or excuses when it comes to his job. Whether the role demands him to pull down his pants and shake his penis, dive into a nasty toilet in search of a heroin baggie, or makeout with Jim Carrey, McGregor conquers each task gracefully.
While discussing the unexpected turns his career has taken, McGregor reveals that his astonishing portrayal of Curt Wild in Velvet Goldmine was an intimidating challenge as the character is based on a combination of two megastars: Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. I ask him if he tried the “method acting” thing, which unexpectedly brings up an epic memory. It will teach you to never drink and method act.
When Velvet Goldmine was in production, David Bowie—whom Jonathan Rhys Meyers‘ character was based on—did not want anything to do with the film. Iggy Pop, however, was supportive of the production. “Iggy Pop was very happy for us to use his music. I got to sing a couple of numbers. David Bowie didn’t want us to touch it at all because he felt that he didn’t want the insinuation that he might have been having sex with men.” A while after the film came out, McGregor was invited to a Versace event where Iggy Pop was set to play. He went with the hope of meeting the musician. When he got there, however, he realized he’d downed a bit too much of the sweet nectar. As Iggy started to play, he made his way to the front row. “I’d spent a long time with a choreographer working on his movements and studying his concerts and feeling like I had Iggy Pop in my bones while filming those scenes. So when I was watching him, I felt like some kind of kindred spirit between us, you know?”
After the show, McGregor went to his dressing room to bond with the musician, where it quickly became clear Iggy Pop had never seen the film nor had he any idea who McGregor was. “So this spirit that I felt we shared was shattered, and in my drunken state I went… I did him to him, you know?” He found himself dancing in Iggy Pop’s dressing room—as Iggy Pop. “The alcoholic fog sort of cleared and I could see myself doing it, and I went, What the fuck am I doing? And Iggy Pop was sitting there going, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, man.’ I didn’t know what to do. It was so embarrassing. I think I just shuffled out of the dressing room and got the fuck out of there as quickly as possible.”
Back at the shoot, the photographer calls out expressions to McGregor. “Funny, sad, pissed off, timid.” His face transforms through the roller coaster of emotions effortlessly. “Excited, disappointed… sexy?” He valiantly attempts a model pout, and then bursts into laughter, embarrassed, as if being sexy is the one thing he cannot fake—it just comes naturally. Someone throws “Christopher Walken” into the list of emotions. McGregor starts to speak like him. An Al Green song begins to play. He sings along in a lovely voice as his congenial companion, a rescue dog, Syd enters the frame again, his curly hair covered in lipstick from the adoring fans on set.
McGregor sits on a vintage suitcase for a picture. It makes a cracking sound and shakes. I gasp, but he doesn’t fall. Instead he gets up and apologizes for ruining the already decayed prop. So genuine and humble, it does not even occur to him that he is a star, and that obviously, we are concerned for his safety. When it comes to McGregor, there is no hint of entitlement or inflated sense of his own importance, unlike many of those who live in the public eye. He has figured out some kind of a secret formula for attaining the best of both worlds: pursuing his passion without sacrificing his authenticity.
McGregor has undoubtedly stamped his presence on some of the most iconic films of our time. His intrepid career promises to secure itself among the best while his courageous choices will forever be renowned for their quality. McGregor is a director’s wet dream—immensely talented yet without vanity. Having assumed numerous real life personas, he has mastered the craft. He can—and pretty much has—played everyone and everything.
But who would play him? What if the tables were turned and someone made a film about him, and he found himself in Iggy’s shoes? What genre would his life be and who would he want to play himself? “Cate Blanchett,” he says. “She could play me. That would be good, wouldn’t it?” He goes on to explain how such a film would be quite dull. “It’d be like a long, slow, indulgent French film about mood.” Surely enough, his humble response fails to calculate the vast interest an Ewan McGregor biopic featuring an androgynous Cate Blanchett spazzing out like McGregor spazzing out like Iggy Pop would generate.