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.
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.
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?
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