Everyman Ewan opens the closet
It's a lovely story but playing Jim Carrey's lover isn't such a big deal, Ewan McGregor tells Evan Fanning
Trawling the gay bars of Miami with Jim Carrey may seem like an odd way to start your preparation for a film, but for Ewan McGregor that is where his journey on I Love You Phillip Morris began.
"A bit of a circus and not very helpful," is how the 38-year-old describes the outing with one of the world's most famous stars, an outing which was designed to get the Scot and Carrey in the mood for playing lovers.
If it's a journey which began in the sweaty environs of the Miami club scene, appropriately enough it is one which is ending in Paris, the city of love, as McGregor publicises a role which people seem to tell him is risky, although he's not sure what all the fuss is about.
The everyman quality that led the film's directors -- Glenn Ficarra and John Requa -- to cast McGregor because "everyone likes Ewan" is evident as he arrives in the plush hotel room for the interview almost unnoticed.
He's not just on time for the interview, but even a little ahead of schedule.
"Am I early?" he asks. "That's odd."
He's dressed casually -- leather boots, dark jeans and a navy round-neck jumper with a loose strand of wool he twirls with his fingers when he's struggling for an answer. Throughout the interview he ruffles and fidgets with his auburn hair which, no matter what way he pulls it, retains a rugged look as if he just stepped from an aftershave advert. Davidoff, perhaps?
In many ways, I Love You Phillip Morris is an odd film. It's partly a love story which begins in jail between Phillip Morris (McGregor) and Steven Russell (Carrey), a con-artist and prison-escape specialist. It's also an offbeat comedy written and directed by the men responsible for Bad Santa and Cats & Dogs.
With stars of the scale of Carrey and McGregor playing lovers -- and there are some highly suggestive, if not explicit scenes -- then the media attention is only going to be focused on one thing. McGregor expresses amazement at the amount of questions he has been asked wondering what it was like to kiss Jim Carrey, or whether he was nervous about kissing another man.
"Yes, he's a very good kisser," he says with 100 per cent sincerity and no trace of humour when he is asked.
At an earlier press conference he is questioned as to who his ideal boyfriend would be. "I'd like to be Philip Seymour Hoffman's boyfriend," he replies instantly. "I just think we'd make a good couple. We'd look slightly odd and we'd go to interesting parties. I don't know but I think I'd like to be his boyfriend."
He is clearly frustrated that people seem unable to get beyond this issue but, I wonder, how did he really expect people to react, as opposed to how he would like them to respond?
"I don't know how anybody reacts or how I would want them to react to anything. I just have my own outlook on it. It's mixed in a way. One part of me thinks it's great that it's a story about a gay couple. I think it's great that it's a gay love story. There's a huge bonus to that. It's really lovely and it's funny and it's good.
"But it's also like I've had to answer questions my whole career about being naked and I've never understood why that was such an issue and with this, I guess it is a reflection of where we are that it's such a big deal that it's a love story between two gay men. The idea of it is still weird to people, or the idea that two men could be in love is almost taboo and it's shocking. I find that amazing."
The film begins, as many do, by saying it is based on a true story but follows it with the line "no, really it is". In actual fact the real life story is almost more unbelievable than the film.
The directors, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, describe how the real-life Steven Russell (who is currently serving life in prison for his various escape attempts) conned his way into a job as financial controller of a large medical management company by taking out an ad in a trade newspaper looking for a CFO of a large, fictitious company. He then hired a hotel room in the Four Seasons and spent a day interviewing candidates for a job which didn't exist. Using the best parts of all their CVs and their interviews, he secured himself a position as financial controller where he embezzled millions of dollars to fund his lavish lifestyle. With facts like these, it's no wonder the film feels far-fetched at times.
When I last met McGregor, he had just finished a long stint playing Iago in Othello on London's West End. Since then he has made movies prolifically, with five films released within the last year and two more on the way in 2010.
"From 2004 to 2007 I did two great big motorcycle trips and two long stints in the theatre. I must have felt the need to do that because I did. After Othello I felt I really needed to get back into making films, partly because I could feel that I was more on the periphery than I would like to be, and partly because I really just felt like it. So I went back to work and I just did a lot of work."
He admits that he's "not very good at stopping" once he has begun working. Perhaps this is why he bought a house in Los Angeles where he now spends most of his time with his wife, French production designer Eve Mavrakis, and their three daughters, Clara, 13, Esther Rose, 8, and Jamiyan, 5, who they adopted from Mongolia in 2006.
His round-the-world motorbike adventures with Charlie Boorman showed a different side to McGregor, a side we don't often see from famous stars -- one where they can actually do things themselves and live like real people. Trips such as these are, McGregor feels, an antidote to the cosseted world which occupies most of his time.
"It's an adventure and there's part of me that likes to be in that situation. I spend a lot of my life where I'm in a very controlled environment where I'm picked up in a car at this time and I have to go and do these scenes, and this is what I can have for lunch and then I do these scenes and then I'm brought home and I have to learn these lines and it's all very ordered and organised. There's something fantastic about having to make all the decisions myself. I like stopping in the middle of nowhere and knowing I have everything I need to live on the back of my bike."
These days, his sense of adventure comes from more everyday sources.
"The obligations are the freedom. When you're away from home so much, things
like the school run and picking the kids up from tennis are the real treats. I hanker after them. For most people they're the mundane things but for me I really enjoy it. I take the kids to school and I feel like it's a bit of an adventure. That's a sad thing to say."
While work and family are the mainstays of McGregor's life as he pushes 40, it is a different scenario to the mid-Nineties when bars, clubs and a rock 'n' roll lifestyle would have featured heavily in his make-up. Eight years ago he made the decision to quit drinking and hasn't looked back since.
"It was quite a big decision at the time," he explains, "but it was quite clear that it was something I should do. It was getting in the way of everything I was trying to be. It was getting in the way of my work, being at home with my wife and kid. It was quite clearly not good for me and didn't work for me. I drank too much and it made me really unhappy so I just thought, 'I won't drink and then I can be happy'."
His happiness now is found pursuing a wide variety of roles, such as Phillip Morris, or as the central character in Roman Polanski's The Ghost, which is released next month. His attitude to accepting roles and how far you push them is straightforward.
"I wouldn't do anything I thought was morally wrong. I wouldn't make a pro-Nazi movie or anything like that -- that's not to say I wouldn't play a Nazi. It's all to do with taste and how far you think things should go on the day."
The boundaries are certainly pushed, in certain areas at least, in I Love You Phillip Morris, although some not as far as he would have liked. Amazingly, given the directors and his co-star, McGregor says he was unaware that the film was intended to be funny. "I never thought of it as being a comedy so I was slightly surprised when I turned up on set and realised that it was. I went, 'Oh f***, it's a comedy'."
The first scene he filmed (which hasn't made the final cut of the movie) was the aftermath of a storm where Phillip and Steven are ashore after their boat capsizes.
"We wash up on the beach and we walk up to this bar and the barman gives us these pina coladas. And suddenly I realised it was meant to be a funny moment in the film, and I didn't know how to do that. I was watching Jim going, 'How the f*** am I going to make it funny?' I went home and I realised that I couldn't do it like that. I'm so glad that scene is not in the film."
Suddenly it dawns on him that his horrific moment may not have been left on the cutting room floor. "It will be in the DVD extras. Oh God."
I Love You Phillip Morris is in cinemas from Wednesday