Sometime after his second pint of ale, when Ewan McGregor has already explained how to cure hangovers and discussed his propensity for taking off his clothes, he will have second thoughts about the extent to which he has aired his hatred for modern Hollywood. “I forget when I’m talking to people that it’s going to be written down and read by thousands of people. I’m always rude about people and I slag off Hollywood really badly….” His eyebrows wrinkle in concern. And then he grins slyly. “Secretly, I really like that.”
Ewan hasn’t run screaming from the prospect of American stardom, but neither has he courted it; he lives eight time zones away from Beverly Hills, doesn’t have a publicist, and, as he points out, rarely passes up the chance to slag off Hollywood as a cultural desert. But then, he’s also signed on to play the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, which will ensure his fame into the next century.
Here is how Obi-Wan Kenobi Jr. shows up at the local pub: black jeans, Adidas sneakers, and a sweaty T-shirt with some Japanese writing. Diesel sunglasses rest on top of his spiky haircut. Squint hard and you might be able to imagine him twenty-six pounds lighter, as the heroin addict Renton in Trainspotting (he lost the weight by giving up drinking for two months). But stare right at him and he might be anyone–the guy from the realtor’s office around the corner, a humanities graduate student, an actor–anyone.
In person, he’s less than iconic. On-screen, he turns that anonymity into startling versatility. At age twenty-six, Ewan has compiled a resume of dozens of characters. If you haven’t seen him in Trainspotting, maybe you caught him looking less gaunt as a French-horn player in Brassed Off or a hapless thief holding Nurse Hathaway hostage in a convenience store on ER. You might even have watched him play a clever-dick newspaper reporter in Shallow Grave, a London dandy in Emma, or a calligraphy canvas in The Pillow Book.
And now, in A Life Less Ordinary, he plays a failed janitor-novelist who kidnaps, then falls in love with, the boss’s daughter, played by Cameron Diaz. It’s a romantic comedy with a lot more mall appeal than the travails of Scottish heroin addicts. But if stardom is beckoning, Ewan doesn’t want to think about it; there are more important matters to worry about. “No no no,” he insists. “I’ll get the next round.”
When Ewan was filming the thriller Nightwatch with Nick Nolte and Patricia Arquette in Los Angeles, he started craving the countryside–plants and birds and rocks and things. To soothe himself, he watched golf on television. He loves the sport, although he’s been known to lose a dozen balls in a round and he has no taste for the upper-crust country clubs.
“In Scotland, there’s not the same elitist thing with golf,” he says. “We used to play a lot on public courses, just for something to do. When I was fourteen, I got thrown off a golf course for swearing. After every shot I would get really angry, screaming “Fuck! Cunt! Fucking cunt!” Eventually, this guy drove up in a tractor and told me I had to leave because the other golfers had been complaining. So I had to walk back in shame with my clubs. I didn’t play for a long time after that.”
Because you got ejected?
“No, I just got fed up being crap.”
Ewan was born March 31, 1971, and grew up in rural Crieff, Scotland. He had a poster of Elvis Presley on his wall, and used to saunter around imagining that he was Elvis. But when he became a teenager, he changed heroes–to Billy Idol. He’d spike his hair before school, listening to “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell.” Ewan even played drums in a band, the Scarlet Pride, with red paint in his hair and bandannas knotted around his knees.
His father taught gym at Morrison’s Academy, a local boarding school. Ewan and his older brother (now a Royal Air Force pilot) got a special deal as day students. Big brother cracked the textbooks; Ewan didn’t. What Ewan had wanted, since age nine, was to be an actor. At first, he had no idea what actors actually did–he just knew that his uncle, Denis Lawson (most famous for Local Hero) would show up for family visits barefoot, wearing beads and sheepskin waistcoats, giving people flowers. This seemed impossibly glamorous to young Ewan.
Eventually, his parents decided that an interest in academics would not magically appear. They let him drop out of school at age 16 and work for the nearby Perth Theatre, where he pulled ropes backstage and donned a turban for a supernumerary role in their version of A Passage to India. Six months later, Ewan went to drama school in Kirkcaldy, Scotland; a year after that, he transferred down to Guildhall College in London, the big leagues. (Uncle Dennis helped him with his audition monologues.)
Ewan loved some classes, like an improvisation course that verged on therapy, and was bored with others, like the Method training. He was conscious of not caring about being the best student at drama school, but using the college to become a professional actor. And halfway through his third year, he left school to star in a Dennis Potter television serial, Lipstick on Your Collar. “I’m so driven–working madly, and almost arrogantly ambitious,” he says now. “But I’ve never known towards where or what.”
On the set of A Life Less Ordinary, director Danny Boyle is explaining the situation to a roomful of extras: “The gentleman in the fetching brown uniform is Ewan McGregor, who’s playing Robert.” Boyle also directed Ewan in Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, each time in collaboration with producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge. Ordinary has the creative team’s trademark skewed perspective on romance and violence: Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo play angels obstinately determined to make Ewan and Cameron Diaz’s characters fall in love, sanctioned to use deadly force if necessary.
Many Ordinary scenes take place in Al’s Bar, actually an elaborate set just outside Salt Lake City, built in what looks like an abandoned basketball arena. Although I am later told it was the site of cattle inspections and sales, Ewan has a different theory: wife auctions. Ewan’s acting work today involves extensive mopping of the bar floor, and denying authorship of a poem that Cameron Diaz reads to him. When Ewan says “poem,” his Scottish burr turns the word into a lovely two-syllable song.
As on all film sets, it’s slow going, with hours of preparation for minutes of payoff. These are some of the ways Ewan kills time between takes: smoking Marlboros, drinking Coca-Cola, singing Oasis’s “Slide Away” (he has a strong, clear voice), wondering whether any of the booze behind the bar is real, rubbing Cameron Diaz’s shoulders, getting more hairspray for a look he calls “bullethead.” He scoffs at the notion of remaining deep inside his character, Method-style, and seems mystified by Delroy Lindon’s self-flagellating perfectionism. “He’s quite brilliant,” says Ewan, “but after every single take, he’ll be cursing, Goddamnit, really angry with himself. It’s quite funny.” Then he’s called away for a reshoot and spends the next hour mopping the floor.
Later, Danny Boyle explains why they didn’t ask Ewan to use an American accent. “We wanted him to plays somebody lost in America, without any family. And because he’s Scottish rather than British, hopefully you evoke on some subconscious level Sean Connery rather than Hugh Grant.”
I ask Cameron Diaz about working with Ewan. “All the girls have been coming up to him and saying, ‘Ewan McGregor, we’re in love with you. You’re married and have a baby, it’s not fair.’ He has a fun, sophomoric sense of humor–we joke on the set about having gas. And he makes acting look so easy: He doesn’t beat himself up over it.”
Do you beat yourself up, Cameron?
“Oh, I think all actors do–except (full Scottish accent) You-wan McGrregorrr!”
As lamented by Cameron Diaz and who knows how many other women, Ewan is married–to Eve (pronounced “Ev”) Mavrakis, a French production designer who he met during a guest shot on the British courtroom drama Kavanagh QC. (Ewan played a rapist.) He says it was love at first sight. Their wedding was in July 1995, at a borrowed villa in rural France, surrounded by fields full of sunflowers. They threw a weeklong party that culminated with sixty guests crowding into the office of the town’s mayor, a farmer wearing a colored sash. The ceremony was performed in French, which meant that Ewan didn’t understand most of it and that he pledged his love by saying “Oui.” When he said it, everybody laughed and he worried that he had spoken at the wrong time.
Ewan and Eve’s daughter, Clara Mathilde, was born in February 1996. When dad is on location–which is often–mother and daughter come along. During lunch break on A Life Less Ordinary, he’s the doting father, proudly carrying Clara in his arms and singing “doopity-doopity-doo” to her. Lunch includes corn on the cob: Ewan takes a bite but doesn’t swallow, letting Clara extract a kernel from between his teeth.
Clara speaks more French than English. She’s a tornado during the day but sleeps soundly at night–when she decides that it’s bedtime, she dismisses her parents with a wave and a drowsy “Au revoir.” Ewan’s aware that he needs to learn to parlez-vous the francais: “Otherwise in five years, my daughter will be taking the piss out of me in French and I won’t know what she’s talking about.” But he knows asking Eve to teach him is a recipe for marital unhappiness. He paid so little attention in school, he doesn’t even remember the names for parts of speech. “You’ve got to learn English as well while you’re learning French. It’s fucking madness. I think I know roughly what an adjective is, but beyond that, I have no idea.”
When Ewan first started going out as a teenager, getting drunk and meeting girls, Sunday night used to feel like a physical barrier–the end of the party. He dreaded it then. Now that he’s an adult with a family, he feels exactly the same way. “I’m married and have a kid,” admits Ewan, “but I’m certainly not settled down.” He has to ration his visits to New York, because he’ll go out for three days at a time. He’s always the last guy at the party, not wanting it to end, four hours after his wife’s gone home. “I like going out and she likes going home,” Ewan says. “So there’s some balance there,” he says with a laugh. “Also a lot of arguments.”
A few years back, Ewan made Blue Juice, a surfing movie improbably set in Cornwall, England, never released in America. “I had a great time, filming in Cornwall for ten weeks,” Ewan remembers. “Fuckin’ hell, I’ve never partied so much in my life.” He prompts me, “You should have a look at the film, it’s a good laugh. (He pauses, unable to bear the blot on his conscience of this lie.) I mean, it’s a bit muddled in the middle, it’s just a shame, it’s not really very good.” He laughs at his sudden confession, then continues: One Tuesday night, he and a friend were sitting and talking and drinking in Ewan’s living room, when their driver came in–to join them for a drink, Ewan thought. Alas, it was morning, and they were due on the set, having completely forgotten to sleep. Fortunately, Ewan’s low-life character was wearing sunglasses in that day’s scene, so he could stumble his way through it and hide in dark corners between takes. “It really doesn’t make you feel very clever. Your acting is absolutely for shit. So I haven’t done it since. (He pauses again as another blot looms on his conscience.) He lies!”
Ewan’s decided that hangovers only happen when you admit that you have them: “I just don’t entertain the notion.” He’s a bit amazed at what lightweights Americans are. When he was on location in Chicago filming his episode of ER, he would spend some evenings drinking in the hotel bar: “I’m very, very, very partial to the margarita, it has to be said.” The next day on the set, people would come up to him and ask in low tones if he was okay. Ewan emphasizes that his consumption is not unusual in Britain: “All my mates drink like bastards. The French drink for pleasure–we just drink.”
Ewan doesn’t need lectures about the ultimate result of his guzzling booze: He’s a fan of Richard Burton. He revels in the stories of the Welsh actor on the set: No close-ups before 11 AM (Burton would look too haggard) or after 2 PM (he’d be too soused). Bloody Marys before the first shot. A special post to lean against so he wouldn’t lose his balance when soused. “It’s very sad. No way do I drink like that–I don’t drink spirits, necessarily, and I couldn’t handle three or four bottles a day. But it fascinates me because it’s extreme and I like extremes.”
Ewan now begins to worry about how his 180-proof tales will read on the page; he’s fascinated by Burton’s vodka-soaked career, but doesn’t want to look like an alcoholic himself. So he makes light of it by switching into smooth voiceover mode: “At this point Ewan McGregor started talking about drink and his eyes lit up and he got very excited. Ewan McGregor condones bottle abuse!”
Ewan extensively researched the part of Renton in Trainspotting by hanging out with former addicts, learning about heroin cookery and recovery. (He didn’t ever try heroin himself, and most of the injections in the movie were faked. “After a few weeks, I was dying to be injected,” he recalls. “I was saying ‘Yes! Stick it in me!’ “) Often he can’t be bothered with that background work: “Emma, I didn’t even read the novel. It really bored me to death. And as a result, my performance is fuckin’ dreadful, so there are lessons to be learned.” One suspects that what he gleaned from his lack of preparation will remain subordinate to Lesson No. 1, learned as a Scottish teenager: “Have a good time, all the time.” He doesn’t mind prep work when the research feels fun, like visiting locations or watching other films. But give him any assignment that involves reading–even scripts–and the homework alarm bells start clanging.
Ewan often plays characters with one foot in respectable society and the other foot in crime and debauchery. In Ewan’s world, the trip back and forth between the office and the underworld, the dark and the light, is a journey of only a few steps, not an Alpine expedition requiring a crew of Sherpas. So maybe it shouldn’t be any surprise that Ewan has as much enthusiasm for nonstop work as he does for lager. He speaks fondly of the old studio-system days, when actors were under contract and made four films a year. That’s the workload he’s settled on for himself. He’s mostly attracted to independent productions and British films; when he visits Hollywood, he finds that people there react to the idea of British cinema “as we would view psychedelic Polish movies from the ’50s.”
The surest way to get Ewan McGregor to rant is to bring up modern-day Hollywood. Easy spurs: the culture of flattery, Independence Day (“an abomination”), test scores from previews. (Nightwatch‘s producers wanted to reshoot so Ewan’s character would kick more ass; he refused.) “They all talk about budgets and meetings–the last thing anybody seems to be worried about is the movie. A-lists and B-lists of actors–fuck, that’s disgusting. ‘We got a B-lister and a couple of Cs, now we need a couple of As. No no no no, you don’t. You need the right person for the part.” Ewan’s volume rises, as he speaks the speech of the righteous. “I met an actress in Los Angeles. She said, ‘How long have you been in LA?’ I said, ‘Well, actually I live in London.’ She said, ‘How does that work?’ How does that work?” Ewan’s shouting now. “She couldn’t imagine that anyone could make movies outside of LA.”
The one blockbuster movie that Ewan couldn’t refuse was Star Wars, which he considers a cultural event, not just a summer thrill ride: “There’s nothing cooler than being a Jedi Knight.” The first Star Wars came out when Ewan was six; he estimates that he watched it on video somewhere over a hundred times. Uncle Denis was in all three Star Wars movies, as Wedge, the only X-Wing fighter pilot other than Luke to survive the trilogy. Ewan’s currently filming the first of three new movies (due in 1999, 2001, and 2003), playing the young Ben Kenobi, the part created by Sir Alec Guinness. Ewan’s been watching Guinness movies from the ’50s like The Card, trying to get his young voice down, but hasn’t had a chance to talk to the man himself: “What would I say? ‘How’d you do it?’ He’s only in half the first movie, and it’s a legendary performance. With all that bad dialogue, he really pulls it off.”
So the new Star Wars dialogue is still awkward?
“There’s some choice lines, yeah. Everything is very deliberate–it’s all about ‘We’re gonna go do this now,’ as opposed to what you’re thinking. So the key is to just get it out.”
Have you ever talked with George Lucas about it?
“Not really. What am I going to say? ‘George, your dialogue’s crap.’?”
Periodically, Ewan gets reminders of the mythic proportions of this movie–like the day he got to pick out his light-saber handle. “It’s the most secretive thing–I have to sign papers. This guy looked me in the eye and said ‘Are you ready?’ Then he opened up a briefcase-sized box with eight or nine light-saber handles. I picked the sexiest one. I realized, I’ve been waiting twenty years to have my own light saber.”
What color is it?
“I can’t tell you that.”
One thing Ewan hasn’t pondered is how his life will change in 1999, when he becomes available in toy stores worldwide as an action figure. He likes to imagine that his life will be much the same: he’ll be able to walk the streets of London, he won’t be hounded by fans or photographers. This considerably underestimates the proportions of Star Wars mania. Not for nothing does Harrison Ford, another Hollywood hater, live on a ranch in Wyoming. For Ewan, difficult choices–not just about what roles to play, but about when to go out in public–are issues he’ll have to work out over the course of his career. He certainly doesn’t want to dwell on it right now–that would be like leaving the party before it was over.
If you would like to see Ewan McGregor naked, you may rent Trainspotting. Or for an even lengthier view of his uncircumcised penis, you can turn to The Pillow Book. Ewan’s parents go to all his movies, often bringing a large group of friends: their favorites were Trainspotting and Brassed Off. When The Pillow Book, full of perversity and nudity, was released in Scotland, Ewan haltingly told his father that they might not want to bring guests to this one. A few days later, Ewan got a fax from his parents saying that they thought it was a beautiful film. There was a postscript from his father: “P.S. I’m glad to see you’ve inherited one of my major assets.”
With his rural upbringing, Ewan is still impressed by nudity’s power to shock, and that he gets paid, not arrested, when he doffs his clothes. He recently finished filming Velvet Goldmine (due in ’98), a film about the ’70s glitter-rock scene by Todd Haynes, director of Poison and Safe. Ewan plays an Iggy Pop-style rock star. Ewan liked Haynes, but found the film frustrating because so many scenes were brief and elliptical. So when he got to improvise the concert sequences, he cut loose: dropping his pants in front of 400 extras, he waggled his kielbasa at them, telling them to fuck off. Clearly, Ewan is not just comfortable with on-screen nudity, he seeks it out. Maybe even in Star Wars: “I’m just looking for that moment to drop my Jedi knickers and pull out my real light saber.”
Ewan loves his adopted home of London, loves it so much that when he feels lonely on a faraway movie set, he comforts himself by reciting London street names out loud. One bonus of playing Obi-Wan Kenobi is that much of the Star Wars filming is done in studios just northwest of the city. So this afternoon, I’m meeting Ewan at one his favorite places on the planet: his local pub.
It’s a traditional British pub, complete with red carpet, dark polished wood, and vintage Guinness ads on the wall. There are Christmas lights still up from the previous year, and a memorial corner at the bar for the late actor Ronnie Fraser, a former regular. We order a couple of pints, and then a couple more, and talk about Oasis (he’s a big fan. When Be Here Now came out, he handed out a stack of CDs to people on the Star Wars set. At home, he listened to it on headphones, with a large vodka tonic, afraid he might not like it), the weather (he prefers it as extreme as possible, whether a blizzard or a sandstorm), and his degree of computer literacy (“I can move that wee arrow about a bit”).
Ewan’s a good drinking partner: funny, opinionated, friendly. We join a cluster of locals at the other end of the bar, watching the end of an England vs. Australia cricket match. Ewan’s one of the crowd: people ask him questions about Trainspotting, but they also put handfuls of ice down the back of his shirt. He contorts theatrically. Ewan tells a joke about a man with a steering wheel on his penis, and muffs the punchline. Laughing, unworried, he tells another: “What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Hell’s Angel?” We convey our ignorance. “Someone who rings your doorbell and tells you to fuck off.”
It’s Ewan’s turn to buy a round of drinks, but that doesn’t stop everybody from mocking his Obi-Wan haircut. “Hey, they’re paying me a lot of money to keep my hair like this,” he protests. Then he pulls out something surprising that he’s kept tucked behind his right ear: a three-inch lock of hair.
Ewan was supposed to come to the pub for an hour and then return home; he and Eve are going to a friend’s birthday party. Now, after two and a half hours of tippling, he’s thinking it might be a good idea to head home before Eve gets too angry. “I’m blaming this one on you, mate,” he says to me with a smile, and heads out the door, on his way to the next party.
Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published as “Ewan McGregor Straight Up,” the cover story of the November 1997 issue of Details.