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Ewan McGregor

Gut Instinct

ewan

Since the beginning of his career, Ewan McGregor has always redefined himself as an actor, selecting roles that have shown his immense talent and rage. From the anti-hero Renton (‘Trainspotting’), to punk rock star Curt Wild (‘Velvet Goldmine’), and even one of the most famous Jedis in a galaxy far, far away (‘Star Wars: Episodes I – III’), McGregor has never taken a bland role, and it’s fitting, seeing as there is nothing bland about the charismatic Scotsman. With a current running of eclectic characters on the big screen, including as a journalist in the Miles Davis biopic ‘Miles Ahead,’ as a villain of the wild west in ‘Jane Got a Gun,’ and as Jesus of Nazareth in ‘Last Days in the Desert,’ McGregor proves there is no character he can’t play. Sitting down at NeueHouse Hollywood, McGregor talked to us about his directorial debut in ‘American Pastoral,’ being nicknamed “cunty baws,” and gutting trout as a sixteen-year-old.

 

NeueJournal: You are working on several upcoming projects, all quite different from each other. What draws your attention to a role?

 

Ewan McGregor: I suppose I’m always looking for some gut instinct, some reaction, some need to do it. When I read something and go, “Oh I’ve got to do that,” I’m looking for that. Also, I look for something outside of the normal or something that’s got a little edge to it. Ultimately it’s got to be a good story and a good character.

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NJ: Like Lumiere, for example.

 

EM: That, in a way, was for the kicks and for my kids, I suppose. To play Lumiere is different from playing Jesus (laughs), maybe less of a stretch, in a way. Nonetheless, being French was quite hard work, because Disney didn’t want too much of the real French sounds, they wanted “Disney French,” so when you put “arr” in everything turned Mexican. My whole performance of Lumiere turned sort of Bajan instead of Parisian. Anyway, on the second round I got it.

 

NJ: Jane Got a Gun is your first western. How was filming this project different from other movies?

 

EM: It was a disaster. The movie had to shut down three times for one reason or another, and they lost a director on the first day of filming. So that was a funny project. I started my first day with the crew reuniting after having been off for the second time, and the director went, “We can finish this! We can do it!” and I was thinking, “Oh my god I’ve just started, it’s so weird!” But I loved acting in it. I got to play the baddie and I really liked it, it was really fun to play that. I like Gavin O’Connor, the director. I loved working with Natalie Portman again, whom I adore and have always adored. My regret is that I didn’t have more time on a horse! I rode when I was a kid every weekend so, I’m not a bad horsemen, but they wouldn’t let me ride the horse. I did scenes sitting on my horse, but they didn’t let us ride them. I got a bit bummed out about that. Shame not to able to gallop into a scene and give a speech, instead of just sitting on a horse giving a speech. But anyway, it was good fun to do.

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NJ: If all of your memories got erased, except for one; which one would you keep?

 

EM: It would be the first moment I saw my wife, the birth of my kids, or when I met my little girl Jamyan.

 

NJ: If you were an inanimate object, what would you be?

 

EM: Is a tree an inanimate object? I would be a tree. Or I would be a rock in a river. There you go, that’s inanimate.

 

NJ: What is the strangest nickname you’ve had and where did it come from?

 

EM: “Cunty baws” (laughs). It’s a great term of endearment that my friend Barry McCullough calls me. It’s a sort of a Glaswegian term of endearment. “All right cunty baws?” “Aye, all right fanny face.” There’s all kinds of genital slandering that are a Glasgow hello. “Cunty baws,” it’s a good one. And it should be spelled with a “w”, not double “l.” B-A-W-S, “cunty baws”.

 

NJ: What is the strangest job you’ve ever had?

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EM: I worked on an outdoor trout farm with big ponds when I was sixteen. On my first day, one of the pond’s inlets had been blocked, so the oxygen had starved and there was maybe a million dead fish. The pond was about five feet deep, so I was given a pair of waders on day one. I arrived at eight in the morning and the guy put me in waders and gave me a net. For three days I just shoveled dead fish out of a pond and into barrels that I then had to drag across the grass to a place where I dumped them, making this ever growing pile of dead, stinking fish.

 

Only on the last two days did I do any sort of normal work on the fish farm, like selling fish to people. On my last day, he left me alone, this guy. I had worked four days there, three of them in waders just shoveling dead fish from eight till six, and then on the fifth day he fucked off and left me alone and a guy from a hotel came and said he wanted thirty table size trout, fresh; which meant I had to kill them and gut them and clean them. I said, “Well, we’ve got frozen ones in the freezer, I’ll give you thirty of those.” He went, “No, I want them fresh”. So with no preparation at all, I got thirty fish out and killed them and gutted them and off he went. I managed to pull it off.

 

There was another moment when a family arrived. It was an attractive couple and their attractive young children, and they wanted four table sized trout, but they didn’t want me to clean them. So I killed them, put them in a bag, and he paid for them. One of them wasn’t dead, and as they walked off, it started flapping around in the bag and completely freaked out his children.

 

NJ: What is the last film you watched?

 

EM: I’ve been watching the same film for a year, American Pastoral, which I directed. So that’s the last one I watched, but before that, probably the last film I watched was Alan Bennet’s Lady in a Van. It’s a really nice movie about a woman who lived in a van on Bennet’s street in London during the 80s. He didn’t drive, so he ended up letting her drive and park on his driveway, and she lived out her life in the van outside his flat.

 

NJ: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

 

EM: I do work with UNICEF and see children in poverty or starvation or with AIDS. Some of the hospitals I’ve seen in Africa, the HIV and AIDS wards are fit to bursting with young girls and really young children.

 

NJ: When and where are you the happiest?

 

EM: At home with my family. I spend a lot time away, so I’m happiest there really. Sunday morning around the kitchen table with all my girls.

 

Photography: Anthony Cabaero for NeueJournal 

Lacombe Icons:
Oscar Isaac

Star Wars

OSCAR ISAAC - Feature Image

With a seemingly limitless capacity to explore complex, psychological terrain, Oscar Isaac has grown from a character actor into someone who can carry a film all on his own. Now, as a lead in the recent installment of Star Wars, Isaac’s career has entered a whole new stratosphere. The actor reflects on the isolation behind his creative drive, and the motivation that can lie in mystery.

 

Several years ago, I did a movie with William Hurt. I was just was so curious, and blown away by him and his mind. Right before action, he would say to himself, “I’m going to die.” It’s an amazing tool to remind yourself of your mortality. It destroys tension, and puts you in touch with your humanness and how small you are. No matter what context you’re in, you don’t have to be, and can’t be, more than you really are.

 

Ever since I was little, I’ve been in a constant state of existential anxiety, it’s been a little bit of a preoccupation, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I think that’s probably the state of humans—an utter and palpable feeling of isolation—and that’s why we need to make things. Something happens when this switch gets turned on, and I realize, “Oh my gosh, we’re completely alone.” And that is what I try to tap into. I think that’s probably at the heart of why I like doing this so much. It’s a direct outlet for that anxiety, and through being other people and finding an engine of expression, there’s a feeling of immortality. I get to live all of these lives.

 

In character, there’s the artisanal aspect that’s interesting, but then there’s the more shamanistic elements, the ritual that is performed, with an audience in the hopes of bridging a spiritual plane. And I try to locate the spiritual plane. I’m obsessed with the idea that when people are really connected to a performance, it’s when the audience and the performer are breathing at the same time. A very pack-animal thing happens. Everyone’s breathing together, they become ‘in’ the same moment together. In a live room, it’s incredible, but with film, you can breathe with someone who’s long dead, but you find yourself moving together at the same rhythm. That’s communicating with the dead.

 

I believe very strongly in acting as an expressive art, not a communicative one. It’s more akin to abstract painting. When it becomes literal it dies. Because the camera only sees, it doesn’t dictate anything. The audience wants to experience someone seeing and feeling, not judging, not being ahead of it, just expressing their humanity, regardless of what the role is. There is a bit of subversion that has to happen as well, that’s when you connect back to the idea, “I’m going to die.” It’s fucking serious. I’m going to die. I can’t pretend that what’s happening in the room has happened before—it can only be about the present moment, regardless of how it unfolds. But all those things have to be unconscious and it all has to come to a head. And through that crisis, you can give voice to a particular life.

 

I recently was watching police brutality videos online. It would enrage me so much. My heart pounded from the horror of watching people abuse their power. I put myself there and tried to imagine being the victim or the aggressor. To imagine myself as the cop enraged me all the more, because there was a sadness about it; because you saw that he was all pumped up and the adrenaline was shooting through him, and he was scared—you try to imagine why he became a cop or why certain people become who they become, and how things change both over time and in a second.

 

We have selective empathy. All people have that. You can empathize with one thing, and then decide that this person does not deserve that. Of course, you know forgiveness is a funny thing. Forgiveness would mean that you still have to recognize their humanity, regardless of their actions or what crimes they commit. Beyond their cruelty, they’re just as isolated as you are. I guess they also have to forgive themselves. They make a construct where they’re not guilty, which is probably their way of survival. It’s a justification. I saturate myself with these things, and they get filtered into my work somehow, particularly the idea of abuse. I think that comes out in Ex Machina. Unconsciously.

 

The illusiveness of it is everything. As animals, we’re hardwired to respond to change. Any shift in environment, anything that you’re seeing, it electrifies you. In characters I try to find the mystery or the duality. There are always two things happening. One is who they’re trying to present, and two is who they can’t help but be. And those two things are constantly battling each other. And when one comes out, the other one comes out more, and that gives us a sense of, “We don’t know exactly who this person is or what they want.” You’re seeing these changes happening—it’s like meeting a new person. And that makes you pay attention. It lets you get lost in someone.

 

Sometimes all the work you put in, all the inspiration, all the meditations— all this melts away for a moment, and it really is like an elevated state of being for a second. It actually feels like a deeper version of myself. In those little moments, it’s such a spiritual thing. It’s worth all the work and the humiliation. With this work, although there is little chance of any physical danger, the possibility for psychological danger is high. You’re putting yourself into the arena and trying to allow your unconscious to speak to the world, and it’s a very weird thing to do, so the possibility for humiliation and psychological damage is worth it for the exhilarating moments of grace that happen when you’re surfing your own unconscious reality.

 

Photography: Brigitte Lacombe for NeueJournal
Guest Photo Editor: Janet Johnson