Scottish actor Ewan McGregor can play virtually anything, from Obi Wan to an Irish priest and then anything in between. Effortlessly segueing from big-budget Hollywood to indie films such as the Sundance hit “I Love You Phillip Morris”, McGregor is convincing in anything he does.
In Ron Howard’s “Angels and Demons”, McGregor co-stars as a priest on duty in the Vatican during impending papal elections. The part was originally an Italian before Howard changed it to an Irishman, now being played by a Scot.
While promoting the film in New York, Paul Fischer spoke to the always affable Mr. McGregor in thids exclusive interview:
Question: Is it a joy being an actor for you, the ability to jump from one extreme to the other as you did from Phillip Morris to Angels?
McGregor: I love it. I do like that about my job, yeah. I mean, the whole point of it is that you’re pretending to be different people. And you get to explore other people’s lives and worlds. And I’m always looking for things I haven’t done before, or – you know, people – situations that I might be interested in exploring like that. Yeah. That is what makes it fantastic.
Question: Were you familiar with this extraordinary sort of literary franchise that is the Angels and Demons?
McGregor: You couldn’t miss it. You couldn’t miss it, unless you’d been on another planet when The DaVinci Code came out. But I wasn’t – I didn’t go and see the film. I didn’t read the book. I have a slight kind of inverted snobbery. I think any kind of monumental amount of publicity like that makes me not go and see a movie. So I didn’t see – and I still haven’t seen the first one, or read the first book.
Question: What was the attraction of playing this particular role for you?
McGregor: He’s a great character, in a good thriller. You know, a great old-fashioned kind of clock-ticking, bomb ticking away thriller. And I met – I spoke to Ron Howard about making a film with him some years ago, and we didn’t get the opportunity to do that, because the film that he was going to do wasn’t made. And then we bumped into each other in London a few times when he was making The DaVinci Code. And I always really liked him. I mean, I do like him very much. When he offered me this, I was delighted to work – and I also thought it was a great story. I think it’s a great thriller, and it’s a good part.
Question: Now, you’re a Scot playing an Irishman who’s originally an Italian.
McGregor: How does that all work?
McGregor: Well, I did – we wanted – in the book, he’s Italian. Ron wanted him to be from Ireland, to create a back story that’s in fact not in the book, which makes – ultimately, makes him the adopted son of the recently deceased Pope. And the Irishness of the character helped him achieve that. And then – you know, the truth of the matter is that I tried to – you know, if he’d been from Ireland, and he’d been adopted as a kid and just brought up in Italy, he would probably speak English with an Italian accent, probably. But I just tried to do a very soft, generic Irish accent, to make the point that he was from Ireland, but without making – it wouldn’t be too thick if he spent most of his life in Italy.
Question: You have a couple of speeches in this movie in which you espouse, I suppose, the virtues of the Catholic Church. There’s a very pro-church kind of character.
Question: I was wondering, what did you think of that? And do you think that the film tries too hard to tell audiences its attitudes towards the Catholic Church?
McGregor: No, I didn’t think that. I mean, I think the point of my character is that he’s quite – at the heart of this movie is the debate over science and religion, and whether the two will ever find a common ground. And my character believes that the Church is threatened by science claiming the act of Creation, and feels that if science is able to claim that, then there’s nothing left to the Church, and there’s no place for God. And that’s the whole point. But the fact that he’s such an extremist, and is able to go to such lengths, only reflects on him. It doesn’t reflect on the Catholic Church, because at the end of the film, you know, he’s shunned by them.
Question: Obviously all your stuff takes place in the Vatican. How much was CGI, versus physical sets, versus actual location work?
McGregor: Most of my stuff was done in LA. or, most of my character’s story takes place inside the Vatican, where we weren’t allowed to shoot. And I would say 90 percent of it was done on really beautifully-made, proper sets: The interior of the Sistine Chapel, a lot of the corridors, my office, the Pope’s office, were all beautifully-constructed sets, and felt very realistic. St. Peter’s Square was constructed in a parking lot of a racecourse called Hollywood Park, in South LA. And that was – a lot of St. Peter’s Square, and a lot of green screen. And then they put Rome in around about it.
Question: I take it you never went to Rome, then?
McGregor: They did. The film shot there – a lot of Tom Hanks’ stuff, and Ayelet, they shot in Rome. But all of my stuff took place in LA, and a couple of days in a Palace in Italy, in a place called Cassarta.
Question: How boring for you.
McGregor: I know, what a shame not to get to work in Rome. I’ve been waiting to work there forever, and I thought this was my chance. But it didn’t work out that way.
Question: Talk about the joy of working with Ron Howard and how does him having been an actor influence his choices as a director?
McGregor: It makes a huge difference, you know? I’ve always loved working with directors who’ve acted, because they – I realize one day, I walked on set, and I had a chat with Ron. And he’d not only kind of told me – he’d not only let me know what he wanted out of the scene – like, most directors can convey to you what they need.
Question: You know, Ewan, the first time I interviewed you was in New York for A Life Less Ordinary, all those years ago. I’m just wondering, how surprised are you by the kind of success you’ve attained?
McGregor: No, I’m really happy. I mean, I’m not surprised – I’m really happy where I’m at, you know? I find that some interesting filmmakers want to work with me, and I get some nice stuff to do. I don’t have any kind of constraints on my choice-making, you know? I’m only interested in stories and characters. I’m not really interested in budgets, or studio verses independent. And I’m very lucky, in that I can go before the two. Or at least for now, I get offered things for studios and things for independent. And then actually, it becomes less and less important. You know, some of the films I’ve made for studios have been quite independent-feeling movies anyway. Down With Love, and Big Fish, to an extent, was a bigger one. But, you know, I stay – I don’t know. I’ve made some films that I’ve been – it doesn’t matter to me. And I hope to just continue to do that. I don’t know if I’m surprised, as – I just feel really lucky that I can do that. And I don’t feel any huge pressure on my shoulders to maintain anything, other than just to carry on what I’m doing at the moment, you know?
Question: You’ve got some really interesting stuff that you’ve completed and one of the ones that interests me the most is The Men Who Stare at Goats. Can you talk about the character you play in that?
McGregor: Well, I play a journalist, at the beginning of the film whose wife, who’s also a journalist in this small newspaper in Ann Arbor – The Ann Arbor Daily Telegram – cheats on him with her one-armed editor, Dave. And I see her flirting with him. But then she comes clean, and she’s going to leave me for this one-armed man, Dave. And I, in my misery, take myself to Iraq. It’s the beginning of the Iraq War. And I go to become embedded, but all I do is end up in a swanky hotel in Kuwait, and can’t get into Iraq. I’m not embedded with any troops, so I’m stuck in this four-star hotel, having wanted to prove my manhood by going to war, you know? Where I meet George Clooney’s character, and we embark on a kind of road trip through Iraq, looking for his buddies in this strange and secret section of the American Army. It’s a very funny film, and I had such a lovely time working with George, and with Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. And it was the four of us, and it was just hilarious. It was great fun.
Question: Where did you film that?
McGregor: We filmed it in – we filmed a lot of it in Puerto Rico. [LAUGHTER] Because it looks so much like Iraq.
Question: I can see that.
McGregor: And then New Mexico.
Question: I’m waiting for the day when you’re actually going to film on location, somewhere where a movie actually takes place.
McGregor: Where it takes place, I know. I may well be doing one – the next two films I’m doing, I think, will be a story with David Mackenzie set in Glasgow, which is meant to be Glasgow. And then a story with Mike Mills in LA, which is meant to be in LA. I hope. I mean, you know, you never quite know until they give you the go-ahead. LA can very easily become New Mexico, or very easily become Vancouver, you know? Before you know it. But hopefully it’s going to be shot in LA.
Question: How important is it for you to go back and work in Scotland because it seems to me that you do some of your very best work there, such as Young Adam.
McGregor: Yeah, me too. I agree, I think it’s lovely. And I very much enjoy it. I like going back to Scotland. And I like working there, because I think it’s important to me. It seems to be important to me. And when David cropped up with this new script, I was so pleased to work with him again, and to do another film up there. I mean, I think it’s my home, it’s where I come from. And it’s nice to go back and be able to play Scots. I seem to – I try very hard to do things in my own voice, but it seems always that there’s a reason not to. And so to go back there and to be able to play without working with the dialect coach, and just going in my own voice, would be nice.
Question: Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions? Is there anything you’d like to do, either in front or behind the camera, that has so far eluded you, or that you have any desire to do?
McGregor: I’m not too sure, really. I’ve learned that I really love to explore and travel, and I love my bike trips. And I’d like to do that, in a way, with my family. I’d like to be able to do some of that with my children and my wife.
Question: Whereabouts would you like to go?
McGregor: Well, I think South America. Somewhere in South America would be very interesting. And I met some families when I was doing the trip through Africa who were traveling in Land Rovers with trailers and roof tents and stuff, with young kids. You know. So, it’s absolutely achievable. And I think, also, when you’re in remote places, one of the things about human beings is that we’re designed to appreciate – to look out for kids. And I’ve seen, in Africa – or even when we’ve had our children abroad, in places like Bali, or whatever, the people really respond to children. And it’s a really wonderful thing for children to see. You know, to be in Africa. And my kids – we spent some time in Kenya, and they got to see some children who live in an African village, a Maasai village, and stuff. And you think, ” Well, this is so important, to help them to see that life isn’t just the way we live our lives. You know, that our way of life is our way of life. But there are kids in the highlands of Ethiopia who have a completely different existence, you know? That’s just as valid, but just is very different.”
Question: That must have been very sobering, going through Africa. I mean, that must have been a very sobering experience.
McGregor: I loved it there. I was told before I went – you know, many people told me that they experienced a kind of sense in belong in Africa that they hadn’t felt anywhere else. And I totally – I was lucky enough to be in Africa for so long. You know, for three months, three and a half and a bit months, that I completely found that. And some places, like Ethiopia and Kenya, I felt completely at home there. You know, in a way that’s just a real comfortable sense that you didn’t need to be anywhere else, didn’t want to be anywhere else. It was lovely.
Question: Do you still get the same sense of passion and joy of acting that you did when you first began?
McGregor: More, I think, because it’s more focused now. I’ve kind of shed all the stuff I didn’t like. Or didn’t need. You know, and my acting’s become much more concentrated. And I’m able to work hard, and then go home. And be home with my family, if I’m at home, or just go and work on the next day’s work if I’m on my own, or whatever. I’m quite focused on it. I’ve less going on on the outskirts, if you like. You know. So, it’s better. You get more out of it, in fact. You get more and more out of it.
Question: Do you find it easy to balance family and work? I mean, is it proving to be less of a challenge now than it was when your kids were a lot younger?
McGregor: Well, it was easier, in a way, when they were younger, because I could take them with me. You know. And we traveled more together, when they were little. But now, my kids – my eldest is 13, you know. And she needs to be at school. And so I spend more time on my own, which I like less. But I suppose it’s just the way it is, and it’s the job I do. But – I mean, it does make you want to be at home when you’re away for a long time, you know? It makes you really appreciate being at home with them, that’s for sure.
Question: What are you looking forward working on next?
McGregor: Well, I’ve got these two projects. The David Mackenzie film, and then the Mike Mills picture. And they’re both really interesting stories. And quite small films, I think. And I’m really looking forward to that. I think they’ll be really exciting. So, it’d be great to work with David again. Because I really – I think he’s a great talent, and I liked very much working with him on Young Adam. So I’m looking forward to that.
Question: Not as small as Angels and Demons, though, obviously.
McGregor: Obviously not quite as small as that. I mean, that was low-budget to degrees that we can hardly fathom.