EWAN's mission: possible
He's played many characters over the years but none of them has been himself, says Ewan McGregor, as he proves he can still reinvent himself in his new role as a tsunami survivor in 'The Impossible'
Ewan McGregor is relieved. Despite having been a successful film actor for nearly two decades, one renowned for the diversity of roles he's played (from a junkie in Trainspotting to the love interest in Little Voice and Brassed Off, to a Jane Austen ne'er do well in Emma, to James Joyce in Nora) all most people want to talk to him about is his part as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. His relief is due to the fact that I'm more interested in his new film, The Impossible. Besides, if I did want to chat about his back catalogue of movies, I'd be more interested in the early 'willy waving' years when McGregor regularly got his kit off on the big screen.
Or at least I thought I would. The Ewan McGregor I meet is a far cry from junkie Mark Renton, his breakout role in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting or Curt Wild, the black-eyelinered Iggy Pop-like rock star in Velvet Goldmine who can't keep his leather trousers on. This Ewan, with his neatly trimmed beard and chunky-knit sweater puts me in mind of a respectable Edwardian seafarer. If he whipped out a pipe and started smoking it, I wouldn't be at all surprised. It isn't that he's glum or dour, (far from it) but he's just exuding so much decency and sheer niceness that I would be utterly mortified to ask him about his lad.
I realise that, like lots of people, I've made the mistake of mixing up the actor with the characters he plays. With his latest role in The Impossible, McGregor plays Henry, a man that is not too dissimilar to himself – a husband and father who has a good job and a happy family life and, as a result people, are already confusing him with Henry. "It was written in production notes that I played Henry as myself and that's not the case," he explains. "I used my own voice and didn't attempt to do a different accent... but no I didn't play myself; I could never do that – unless I was making a film about me."
The Impossible, which also stars Naomi Watts and three very gifted young actors Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Joslin, is the true story of an ordinary family who were holidaying in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami hit. Where The Impossible diverges from more traditional 'disaster movies' is that it is brutally raw. When the freak wave hits the coast, the family are separated and washed away in different directions. Although lucky enough to have survived the initial impact, they are quite literally cast adrift amid ruined buildings, fallen trees and other dangerous debris in rapidly moving water. They are all plunged into absolute chaos and a fight for survival.
Prior to filming, McGregor did not get a chance to meet the real-life Henry, but the director Juan Antonio Bayona "knew him very well" and "the writer (Sergio G Sanchez) spent many weeks with the family so he was on the page and I just played the guy that I saw on the page – every beat of the script is really their true story".
In the aftermath of the tsunami, Henry and his two younger sons are separated from his wife and eldest son, having no idea whether they are alive or dead. I was horrified at the scene where Henry sends the two little boys aged seven and five to the safety of higher ground by themselves. "I never questioned it," McGregor says. "What else would you do in a way – there was lots of talk about a second wave coming and that was, to them, then, a really serious threat, lots of survivors we talked to said that the second wave was a really big thing as they believed it was coming again."
I ask him if he would be able to do the same thing, to leave his children alone to fend for themselves in a strange place. "I don't know," he replies, "I hope to never have to be in that situation but I never questioned that he (Henry) did that. His wife and his other child were still there, he just had to find them. He did what he thought was right, he didn't question it at the time."
McGregor is lucky enough never to have had the experience of temporarily misplacing a child but does have vivid memories of when he "got lost in a theme park in Holland when I was about seven or eight. I was walking along with everyone and then I was not with anyone. I was looking around; I remember that, being there with everyone being big and around you".
If the two youngest cast members felt apprehensive surrounded by strange adults during filming it certainly doesn't show, and McGregor is full of praise for them saying Oaklee and Samuel are "amazing little actors ... I spent a lot of time with the boys – reading the scenes, working on the scenes, playing games, making it so that they were familiar with me because to begin with they didn't know me and we have to be father and sons, we have to be tactile ... but we got there really quickly – they just got used to me, and I love kids, I'm happy just being around kids and they could feel that".
As a father of four girls ranging in age from one to 16, he missed his family while filming. "Naomi had her kids there and I didn't have mine because my wife was pregnant with our youngest so she was at home and the kids were all at school. On the weekends I would just adopt all the other families and tag along– we had little weekend trips – went canoeing and things. I used to take pictures of me and my boys and send them home to my kids and say 'look here's my other family in Thailand'."
Home these days is Los Angeles, where McGregor moved with his family four years ago. He says: "It's been great for my kids, it's a nice place to have children in." Before that McGregor lived in London for 19 years. "I love London," he tells me. "I have read that it was a parking ticket on my motorbike that spurred me to leave, but I don't think that's true," he says with a laugh, "although it did annoy me at the time – that you have to pay for motorcycle parking in the street – I was like 'f**k that'."
He's also spent a fair bit of time in Ireland and it was on his first shoot here making The Serpent's Kiss in 1997 that he first met his good friend Charley Boorman (the pair have since gone on to make several documentaries on their beloved motorbikes).
"That film was the first time I've worked in Ireland. I loved it. We were in Sixmilebridge which I just adored. It was back in the day when I used to drink so it was a good place to do that in." I ask him if he's in recovery and he says: "No, I just don't drink, not for 12 years." But why, I ask, hoping for the scoop on his inner demons. "I was just a big drinker," he says matter of factly, "and it's better not to be." The neatly trimmed beard was grown for August: Osage County which he just wrapped filming on – he's shaving it off as soon as he gets the OK from post-production. I'll bet that even without the facial hair, he will remain a nice respectable man who just happens to dress up (and sometimes undress) for a living.
'The Impossible' opens on Tuesday
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