Wednesday 25 April 2018

Great Scot

Paul Whitington

Slim, trim and looking significantly younger than his 39 years, Ewan McGregor is discussing the plight of his most recent director, Roman Polanski.

In Polanksi's The Ghost Writer, which opens here next week, McGregor plays a hack writer who becomes embroiled in international intrigue after he agrees to ghost a former British prime minister's biography. Last September, the distinguished Polish émigré was putting the finishing touches to the film when he was invited to Switzerland to accept a lifetime achievement award.

"I remember talking to him the night before," says McGregor. "I came in to a studio here in London to do some ADR, which is where you replace certain words in the original soundtrack because someone's dropped a hammer on set or something. He was coaching me over the phone from Paris, and I remember saying congratulations to him, because he was going to be getting this award. Anyway, that's when it happened ... "

What happened was that Polanski was arrested on September 26 by Swiss police at Zurich Airport at the request of the US authorities, who wanted him extradited on that infamous charge of statutory rape that dates back to 1977 (see panel). If George W Bush was still in the White House, they might have resorted to extraordinary rendition, but instead Polanski has become the subject of a bewilderingly complex international legal wrangle, and is still under house arrest at his Gstaad home.

"I haven't seen him since," says McGregor, "but we've spoken a lot on the phone and he sounds like he's bearing up okay. We all spoke to him the night before we started the press for The Ghost, and it feels odd that he's not around somewhere, you know -- it's his film. For me, personally, it feels really weird, because more than any other director I've worked with I think he's really wrapped up in how I performed the part, I really feel like he's got his hands in my performance."

Though intrigued when sent Polanski and Robert Harris's script based on Harris's book about a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) whose political legacy has been compromised by his complicity with American warmongering, McGregor admits he felt a bit daunted about working with the great director. "I was very excited as well of course," he says, "but I'd heard that he's pernickety in his direction, and will spend ages rearranging the books on the bookshelf that are out of focus in the background and so forth.

"And he does do all that, he is absolutely pernickety about everything in front of the camera and he'll spend ages getting it just right. And you get into it yourself, you start thinking he's right, the glass is in the wrong place -- it's infectious. And he's right, he's like your mum, he's nearly always right about it."

What particularly impressed McGregor about Polanski's approach was the director's ability to pinpoint "these telling details here and there that tell you so much about a character. There's so much going on in his direction, and he pushes everyone to make things as good as they can be."

Polanski's insistence on everything being right meant standing around for days on a freezing island off Germany's northern coast waiting for the right light, or working 22 hours straight on the first day of the shoot, and "his direction can be brusque sometimes -- he's so specific about how things should be done". But, nevertheless, McGregor came away from the gruelling shoot "feeling very fond of him -- I really loved working with him, it was fascinating".

McGregor's fine work in The Ghost Writer concludes what's been a very successful 12 months or so for the Scottish actor after several years of fairly indifferent films. He impressed alongside George Clooney in the anti-war satire The Men Who Stare at Goats, and was very good in the tricky role of Jim Carrey's gay lover in the excellent comic drama I Love You Phillip Morris. And, as he heads towards his 40s, he can stake a claim to being one of the most versatile leading men in Hollywood.

Born in Perth in 1971, McGregor's early interest in acting came as no surprise to anyone. His mother's brother is the actor Denis Lawson, star of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, and McGregor grew up keen to follow in his uncle's footsteps. "Denis is still my biggest inspiration as an actor," he says, "and he's the only person I turn to for advice about a part or acting."

Not that McGregor needed much advice early on, because success came quickly. He was still a student at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama when he landed a part in Dennis Potter's 1993 TV drama Lipstick On Your Collar as a daydreaming Cold War intelligence officer. An acclaimed performance in the cult British crime film Shallow Grave followed in 1994, but it was Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996) that changed his life forever.

"It was all over after that," he smiles, "the walking down the street without someone saying something or gawking after you. At the time you think that it's all you ever wanted, but then you start to have second thoughts. With the public, it's generally fine -- I don't mind being asked for autographs or anything. But the thing I really don't like is people taking pictures of you with their phone while pretending that they're not. That really fucks me off, you know they're pretending to text or something and they're really taking a photo, and you think, 'I'm not stupid'."

What McGregor really doesn't like is people taking pictures of him when he's out with his kids (he has two daughters with French production designer Eve Mavrakis, to whom he has been married since 1995). "I'm less hectic about it now," he says. "I used to just rage about it, but life's too short and you have to accept it a little bit."

Fame became an even bigger problem for the McGregor clan after McGregor was cast as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. Two more Star Wars films followed, and while McGregor was "happy and proud to be in them", he does not remember the experience of making them with any particular fondness.

"Usually on a set you rehearse and set up and there's a moment where you go 'stand by', and everyone on the set goes quiet and all the focus is on the scene and there's something quite magical about that moment. But on the Star Wars set there was none of that because there wasn't really anything there.

"Everything was green screen and the cameras were on cranes that would zoom in and out, so to me it felt that there was no great artistry about how it was shot, that special moment didn't exist. They'd just roll all day, and people would be on their phones walking about while we were doing takes and stuff, and that's hard, it just felt a bit lacking in the soul department."

Before we conclude, he scotches the internet rumour that he turned down the role of James Bond. "It's not true. I think it is true to say that they spoke to a great many British actors, and I was probably one of many, but I didn't get to the point where I was offered it -- I didn't turn down Bond. But I'm really glad that Daniel's done such a great job of it -- oh and it's been great to work with Pierce.

"They flew us over in a little plane from Paris yesterday, and it was a heavy, heavy landing and we all knew the pilot would be embarrassed, and I said, 'That's a nightmare, he's got Bond and Obi up the back of the plane and he's just fucked up the landing!'"

The Ghost Writer opens nationwide on April 9

Irish Independent

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