in the distance, the perfect turquoise of the andaman sea drifts calmly towards an impossibly white shore as I approach the resort villa of 39-year old Scottish actor Ewan McGregor on the island of Phuket in southern Thailand. The island’s natural splendor makes it easy to lose track of the fact that you’re at the site of one of the earth’s most devastating natural disasters. Moreover, the resort itself conspires in the bewildering feeling of amnesia—its awe-inspiring trees aren’t even indigenous to the region, but were trucked in from Bangkok to replace the ones the tsunami destroyed just six years ago. McGregor has savored the time he’s spent here shooting The Impossible, a Spanish-financed drama about the 2004 tsunami, without forgetting its recent history.
McGregor jettisoned to international celebrity status with his breakthrough portrayal of junkie-cad Mark Renton in Danny Boyle’s 1996 instant classic, Trainspotting, and has managed to retain it ever since even while churning out films that are the farthest thing from popcorn fare. Despite a move to Hollywood, two reality television shows, and a certain performance in which he uttered the words, “Use, the force, Luke,” he’s generally managed to preserve his indie integrity while maintaining scandal-free celebrity status. In other words, he’s one of the few A-listers in the world who’s never been accused of being an a-hole.
It’s early in the morning when McGregor answers the door of his cream-colored villa, numbered 006, wearing khaki shorts and a sleeveless white tee. Having once seriously contended for the role of James Bond, McGregor shrugs and quips: “I almost made it to 007.”
He invites me in and pours me a cup of coffee. As he hands it to me, I notice the giant dagger-pierced heart tattoo with the names of his wife (French production designer Eve Mavrakis, whom he married in 1995) and three daughters on it. He is excited to be seeing his family when the cast and crew go on Christmas vacation next week.
It’s been a busy year for McGregor—highlighted by the release of the lauded Roman Polanski political thriller, The Ghost Writer, and the gay prison satire/romance, I Love You Phillip Morris, co-starring Jim Carrey. Since August, he’s spent the bulk of his time in Thailand where he’s been filming The Impossible (a working title that will be referred to henceforth as such). Helmed by The Orphanage director Juan Antonio Bayona and slated for a 2012 release, The Impossible tells the story of a vacationing family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of the devastating tidal wave. McGregor stars opposite Naomi Watts (the two also co-starred in 2005’s Stay), and he’s looking forward to his first acting role as a father. Yet what initially drew him to The Impossible was the story’s simplicity and brutality. “There’s a line in the script when Lucas [his character’s eldest son] looks at his mother’s wounds and says, ‘Mom, I can’t see you like that.’ It just devastated me.”
Despite the fact that this is McGregor’s first day off in god knows how long, he’s incredibly present. He listens to questions carefully and after a brief pause for thought, looks me right in the eyes when he responds—so much so that it feels rude every time I turn away to jot down notes. He’s also particularly chipper today: “Not a cloud in the sky. It’s the most beautiful day since I can’t remember,” he says, gazing towards his beachfront view—rich turquoise as far as the eye can see. Apparently, rains have slowed shooting on The Impossible, the skies resembling his native Crieff, Scotland more than Southern Thailand. McGregor has been using the downtime to teach himself how to play the bagpipes.
An antique bicycle leans against the wall, a couple of VW toy miniatures stand on a shelf, and two books rest on the night table next to his bed. Curiously, both are titled Life: one is Keith Richards’ recently published memoir, the other, Life: A User’s Manual. It’s not hard to imagine his assistant unwittingly fetching him the latter and the warm-hearted McGregor keeping it around—even after procuring Richards’ memoir—just to avoid hurting his feelings.
As we finish our coffee he asks me if I’d like to go for a ride.
“Sure,” I say, thinking we’re about to hop on one of his beloved Moto Guzzis.
As we exit his villa, he turns to me and says: “I can’t believe we’ve been talking an entire hour and you haven’t yet asked me what it’s like to kiss Jim Carrey.”
* * *
It turns out The Impossible’s insurance doesn’t cover the actor’s dangerous hobby, so we climb into an SUV and cruise along a winding highway engulfed by trees and wildflowers whose sagging limbs look burdened by all the recent rain. McGregor stares off into the brush wistfully, practically unbothered when a grazing elephant comes into view. “Honestly? I can’t wait to get back to L.A.,” he says.
McGregor plans to take February and March off just to be at home. “I fantasize about doing the school run, taking the kids to ballet practice, riding my motorcycles.” McGregor’s well-known circumnavigations of the globe by motorcycle with best friend Charley Boorman—once latitudinally, the other longitudinally—were the basis of his surprisingly, well, “real” reality shows, Long Way Round and Long Way Down Twice. But lately, he tells me, “I dress up our poodle Sid with a pair of goggles, put him into a sidecar, and ride about town. People literally hang out of their cars with iPhones taking pictures.” McGregor and his family moved to L.A. a little over two years ago from London, where he got his start. “I always thought I’d live there for the rest of my life, but I think there’s something quite freeing about living in Los Angeles—as opposed to London, which I find constricting.”
If Los Angeles has been good for McGregor’s state of mind, it’s been even better for him professionally. The move came after the actor’s two biggest flops, The Island (2005) and Deception (2008), and, at least in hindsight, helped get his career back on track. This past year’s The Ghost Writer and I Love You Phillip Morris are among the greatest cinematic achievements in his 17-year career of over 40 films, together representing fertile ground for understanding McGregor’s place in the industry as he turns 40.
In The Ghost Writer, McGregor plays an unnamed writer who makes a living anonymously producing other people’s memoirs. After a surprise hit penning the life story of a magician, he finds himself hired to complete the memoir of a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) who’s been in hiding as the public clamors for him to be brought to justice for the tortures and secret kidnappings that happened under his watch. Ostensibly a morality tale in which the ghost takes responsibility for his increasing culpability in the Prime Minister’s mythology, McGregor’s role also speaks to his versatility as an actor. Just as a ghostwriter figuratively becomes an entirely different person with each film, so too does McGregor.
Unlike some actors, he doesn’t exploit a formula once it’s proven to be successful, and hence, his roles have very little in common. He’s a cinematic chameleon who cuts across every possible archetype and genre, working with Hollywood pillars like George Lucas and Ron Howard, auteur-types like Polanski or Woody Allen and avant-garde artistes like Todd Haynes and Mike Mills (with whom McGregor worked on the forthcoming low-budget film, Beginners).
“I like that people think my career is diverse,” he tells me. “But I do think big budget Hollywood movies don’t have the space to explore complexities of life that smaller films do because they’re so financially-driven. If somebody’s going to put up $300 million for a film, they’re going to want it back so they don’t want to put anything in the film that’s going to marginalize anybody. So it becomes harder and harder to make any complex statement or exploration.”
McGregor’s most impressive recent performance, possibly also his greatest comedic role to date, is that of Phillip in I Love You Phillip Morris. The twisted comedy has his character wooed and won only to discover he’s become tangled in a web of lies. McGregor is quick to give his lead the props: “Jim Carrey can manufacture comedy into moments. When I try, it’s just fucking terrible. What I can do is understand when moments are already funny and play to that.” Think of the slow build to Phillip’s realization that Steven had a fellow inmate beaten to a pulp in his honor, McGregor’s pause and ebullient welling up: “That is the most romantic thing that anyone ever did for me.” Think of the subtle, seemingly unconscious way Phillip touches the shoulder of the hulking black cop standing next to him when he finds out Steven has AIDS. Without McGregor’s Phillip, I Love You might’ve felt like a Liar Liar reboot. But because McGregor so endears his character to us, we can sympathize with him for taking back Steven—and it is our ability to identify so profoundly with Phillip’s suffering (to “love” him), which makes the film’s final twist so powerful.
I Love You is based on a true story and when McGregor tells me about meeting the real Phillip prior to shooting, I sense an opportunity to talk “process” with him. I ask McGregor how meeting Phillip affected his construction of the character, but he changes the subject and asks me whether I’ve seen Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop. To be sure, McGregor takes his craft very seriously, but it doesn’t usurp his identity the way it might for other actors. Ultimately, he’s a bloke from Crieff who’d rather talk about a French Peugeot 10-speed he re-built from spare parts bought on eBay than speculate on overarching principles of his career trajectory. “I’ve always been very simple. If I read a script and I like the story and characters, then that’s it. It’s difficult to think of a thread through the work.”
We drive back to McGregor’s resort and head to its seaside Bamboo Bar for lunch.
“What’s good here?” I ask him, gazing vulture-like at a whole fish sizzling on the grill.
Taking in a deep breath of sea breeze, McGregor smiles and replies, “What isn’t?”
A waitress arrives at our table and McGregor orders spaghetti with seafood and a watermelon juice. Lunch feels like a motorcycle trip around the globe as we whiz from an elephant charging at him in Botswana (McGregor mimicking the pachyderm’s wily approach), to his experiences with UNICEF (he’s now an honorary ambassador) in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia, and to his observations about the notorious ping pong girls of Bangkok (“It’s basically a talent show for the vagina,” he explains).
* * *
When you call to mind images of the other great leading males of McGregor’s generation, it’s almost impossible to separate them from their iconic costumes: Heath Ledger in clown regalia, Will Smith in a black suit and Ray-Bans, Johnny Depp in pirate getup—but for McGregor, his trademark look may very well be nakedness. (Call to mind Brad Pitt’s most iconic moment as Tyler Durden in Fight Club and at least he’s wearing jeans.) McGregor’s done the full monty routine in Trainspotting, The Pillow Book (1996), Velvet Goldmine (1998), and Young Adam (2003). His propensity to expose himself is so part of his show biz identity that a joke about his character’s “huge talent” in Moulin Rouge (2001) pays off with greater dividends.
Sex and sexuality have always been connected with McGregor’s persona—especially expressions which push against societal and cinematic convention. The comic Louis C.K. has a bit about never having had a single gay inclination in his life, but still wanting to blow Ewan McGregor: “Jesus Christ, he’s fucking gorgeous. I just catch myself daydreaming… I wanna fuck the shit out of his face.”
I’m thinking about all of this because McGregor has just pulled down his shorts. He’s changing into a pair of Diesels during our photo shoot with him. It is at that moment that I realize that if nothing else comes out of this interview, at least I’ve learned with utmost certainty that I am, in fact, straight.
I crack a joke about all the cameos his wiener has made and, characteristically, he philosophizes: “It’s all about life. We’re naked at the end of the day and we’re sometimes naked in the middle of the day—if we’re lucky. It’s just part of life.” He sits down on the beach and continues his train of thought: “It started with Pillow Book. When Peter Greenaway was casting me. He said, ‘You’d have to be naked. Do you have a problem with that?’ [I answered], ‘No.’ ‘Simulated sex with a woman?’ ‘No.’ ‘Simulated sex with a man?’ ‘No.’ The rest, as they say, is history.”
I ask if he ever fears his work will be cheapened by it being associated with the sexually shocking.
“In reality, sex is awkward messiness and if you can somehow communicate that awkward messiness then, I think, it becomes more shocking in its mundaneness,” he replies.
McGregor cites a scene in Young Adam in which a petty domestic squabble arises between his character and one played by Emily Mortimer, who comes in from the rain and is angered to find that her under-employed lover has spent the day making custard. Stripping off her wet clothes, the argument heats up and transforms into an incredible custard-filled love scene: “It’s really mad!” McGregor exhorts. “He grabs a cane from the fireplace and starts smacking her with it. It’s brutal, yet properly erotic. Yes, it’s graphic sex, but there’s something else going on in it.”
He elaborates: “It may seem like I’m obsessed with sex, but it’s actually the opposite. I’m not very interested in watching people have sex; that’s why it’s so important to do something honest and true if you’re going to do it at all. In Young Adam, for instance, the sex scenes are used to chart my character’s moral decline. That’s why it’s important that they get more and more unusual as the film moves forward.”
McGregor rubs his chin pensively: “I’m getting older and the actresses stay younger. I don’t want to become Clint Eastwood, where his love interest is 50 years younger than him. You never want them [the female co-stars] to feel like you’re taking advantage of the situation. Anyhow, sex scenes are terribly exposing and rarely of any use in learning about character.”
I resist the urge to cue the violin as recent co-stars Scarlett Johansson, Michelle Williams, and Eva Green traipse through my mind.
“And the directors are always pushing you in these really strange ways, saying, ‘Let’s just see where it goes,”’ he adds. “I like it when the sex is more choreographed, like, ‘Let’s first roll over and think out every move like it’s a dance routine.’ Then, it’s somehow easier to do.”
It strikes me that McGregor’s attitudes towards sex scenes are representative of his attitude towards the creative process, in general. Despite his predilection for arthouse fare, acting is not a wandering, subjective exploration, but a purposeful fulfillment of the drama he inherits from the page. When the Flaunt photographer asks McGregor to pose with an old book he’s been reading about how to play the bagpipes, the actor resists. In hindsight, McGregor wasn’t just being difficult—he just didn’t understand what such a photo would communicate. Over the course of our shoot with him, McGregor showed an incredible willingness to do just about whatever it took—climbing rock formations, trees, jumping into the sea, running along the edge of algae-infested pool in a nearby abandoned hotel—to get the photos we needed. For the actor, concocting an elaborate truth is always easier than telling a simple lie.
* * *
From the looks of things, the recent rains have kept the tourists away, which suits McGregor just fine. We have the jagged shoreline and its little inlets almost entirely to ourselves. The breeze has cooled and a fiery sunset has begun to appear in the horizon. We climb a few giant limestone rocks in our path, the waves of the Andaman crashing against them and then receding. From behind a Casuarina tree, a 10-foot high Buddha smiles, embedded within a cliff. I realize I’m probably one of the few people in the world with some sense of what it’s like to be stranded on a desert isle with Ewan McGregor.
As we walk along the beach, McGregor’s eyes keep coming back to the horizon. He points in the direction from which the tsunami came and says, “I can’t wrap my head around the thousands of deaths.” Since August, he’s met so many people who have lost family and loved ones, but who still remain optimistic. He tells me about a friend he’s made named “Jing” who lost his entire family to the disaster and now runs a bar, poignantly named “Memories,” that McGregor likes to frequent on weekends. “It’s always on your mind when you’re here. Everywhere you look reminds you of it. You’re swimming and you’re thinking: ‘This is the scene.’ But ultimately, it’s beautiful here. It’s like being in New York after 9/11. You can still enjoy New York, right?”
It’s impossible to fathom that such wondrous beauty could also be the source of such devastation and misery. But the tsunami changed everything here. It added new meaning to the Thai people’s perpetual, nervous giggle. It makes it hard to look at those limestone rocks jutting out from the beach and not think of tombstones. Or to look at that Buddha’s face staring towards the sea and not find his smile tragic-comic.
A silence comes over us.
“You’re not going to ask me what it was like to kiss Jim Carrey?”
“What was it like to kiss Jim Carrey?” I reply.
“It was very nice to kiss Jim Carrey,” he says. “Firm, gentle, and prickly.”