Ewan McGregor on fall out with director Danny Boyle: 'Losing out to Leo dented my confidence'
With his directorial debut behind him, Ewan McGregor is going back to his roots to revisit a much-loved character with his much-loved director. The dad of four tells Mick Brown how he made up with Danny Boyle for a 'Trainspotting' sequel, and how DiCaprio was to blame for their fallout
It's the grin, of course. The thing that everybody recognises in Ewan McGregor - a wide-open and wide-eyed smile that suggests an abundance of good humour and more: that he's up for anything. A thing so familiar that the film site the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists it as one of his 'trademarks' - 'mischievous smile' - along with 'Scottish accent', 'red hair and blue eyes' and 'mole on his forehead, until he had it removed', which is a particularly strange choice of identifier, and of which there is now no trace.
Along with the grin is his dominant characteristic, geniality - a boyish enthusiasm, for film, family, motorbikes, charity work - whatever he talks about, and McGregor talks a mile a minute.
After more than 20 years as an actor, the Scotsman has directed his first film, 'American Pastoral', based on the Philip Roth novel, in which he also stars, and he has been on a whistle-stop tour of Europe, talking it up.
"I thought I understood the film business, but I'm realising I've still got a lot to learn," he remarks.
Set in the 1960s, 'American Pastoral' tells the story of Seymour 'Swede' Levov, a Jewish businessman whose seemingly golden and imperturbable middle-class life is violently disrupted when his 16-year-old daughter, Merry, gets swept up in radical politics and blows up the local post office, before going on the run.
McGregor was first approached to play the part of The Swede some six years ago, but the script, by John Romano, was circulated through a number of directors without ever getting off the ground. In 2014, McGregor got a call offering him the job of director.
He says that it was the relationship between father and daughter that first drew him to the script. He and his wife, Eve Mavrakis - a French-Greek production designer - are the biological parents of two daughters, Clara, 20, and Esther, 14, and have two adopted daughters, Jamyan, 15, and Anouk, five.
"It's about a father losing his daughter, but the whole thing could be seen as just an extreme story of children growing up and pushing away from their parents, and the fact that you have to let them go to become their own adult person - that's the way that I feel about it."
McGregor moved from London to Los Angeles eight years ago.
A goodwill ambassador for Unicef, he was recently in Iraq, visiting refugee camps. "Somebody asked me yesterday, did you feel you needed to go to Iraq to get out of the Hollywood bubble? I don't live in a Hollywood bubble. There's this idea that living in LA is a bit like being in a 24-hour hip-hop video. I've never been to a hip-hop party in my life." He laughs. "I'm waiting for the invitation."
Brentwood, the area where he lives, is suburban, in both geography and temperament.
"Our life totally revolves around our kids," he says. "It's children, school… the kids' friends' parents become your acquaintances and sometimes your friends. I like it."
McGregor grew up in the small Scottish town of Crief. His father, James, was a PE teacher, his mother, Carol, a special-needs teacher. His first notable role was in 'Shallow Grave' (1994), directed by Danny Boyle, written by John Hodge and produced by Andrew Macdonald. The same team would go on to make 'Trainspotting' (1996), a scabrous look at a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh based on the Irvine Welsh novel, in which McGregor starred as Renton. The film made stars of its four principals - McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle - and established Boyle in the vanguard of British directors.
Lauded as one of the best British films of the 1990s, when Welsh published a sequel to 'Trainspotting', 'Porno', in 2002, repositioning Renton et al 10 years on in the porn industry, expectation was high that Boyle, McGregor and the other 'Trainspotting' principals would be reuniting to make a film of it.
Fourteen years on, it is finally happening - but not without a river of tears of recrimination, and reconciliation, in the meantime.
Following 'Trainspotting', McGregor fell out badly with Boyle after the director cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the film 'The Beach' (2000).
"I felt at that time that as an actor I was part of the new wave of something," he says. "I was lucky to be Danny's actor, and I felt part of something that was bigger than all our careers with 'Shallow Grave' and 'Trainspotting'. I felt we'd left our mark on British cinema.
"So when we were approaching 'The Beach', I thought I was playing that role and I was encouraged to think so; I was told for many months I would be doing it; and then I was told I wouldn't. And I was mystified and it had been handled badly, and whatever.
"But it hurt me very much at the time. I was rocked a bit, and my confidence was dented. And I didn't quite understand why they went down that path when I thought we were about something else. I understood when it came down to dollars. But it was a Hollywood version of something we weren't really about."
After that, he says, he and Boyle "didn't speak to each other for years and years".
In 2002, when 'Porno' was published, he was sounded out about appearing in a film version. "There wasn't a script at that point, but I wrote to them saying I didn't want to do a sequel to 'Trainspotting'. I didn't like the novel 'Porno' very much. It didn't move me like the novel 'Trainspotting' had, and I didn't want to tarnish the reputation of 'Trainspotting' by making a poor sequel."
Over the years, he says, he would bump into Danny Boyle, and "even though I should have felt cross, I was always delighted to see him. We were never mates. It was a professional partnership. We didn't hang out in each other's homes or anything like that".
"But the truth of the matter is that I love Danny: he was my first director - which is a bit like being your first love, I guess, because I didn't know what it was like to be a film actor until I was with him. When I was on set with him, I would look over and see him and feel genuinely happy that he was there. I'd do anything he asked.
"I felt - and still feel - that he directs in a way that is wonderfully unusual for an actor; he knows what you're about, and he took you forward in a way that led to some really extraordinary work, that you look back and go - 'F***ing hell, I didn't know I could do that'."
In 2009, at a ceremony in LA, along with the 'Slumdog Millionaire' star Dev Patel, McGregor presented Boyle with the John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Artistic Excellence in Directing.
"Because it wasn't on autocue I just said it to Danny, sitting there at his table, and I talked about how it felt to be on his set and how I felt defined as an actor by being his actor. And at the end I just said that I loved him and I missed him. And then Danny got up and talked about how his job was all about the actors, and he was lucky to have two such actors on the stage to give him this award, and he thanked Dev, and 'Ewan, whose graciousness I don't deserve'. And I just felt, that's it. It was done."
With the 20th anniversary of 'Trainspotting' coming up, the idea of a sequel took on greater momentum. John Hodge delivered a script that everybody was happy with, and on a Friday last August, McGregor completed the final day on the sound mix of 'American Pastoral' and on the following Monday flew to Scotland to begin shooting the film, titled 'T2: Trainspotting'. McGregor will say only that the script is "very loosely based on 'Porno'. And I can't tell you any more. I wouldn't want to spoil it." © Telegraph
'American Pastoral' is out now; 'T2:Trainspotting' is out on January 27