The king of Scotland

The king of Scotland

Ewan talks to Mick Brown about his directorial debut, the sequel to Trainspotting and why Hollywood is just like small-town Scotland

It’s the grin, of course. The thing that everybody recognises in Ewan McGregor: a wide-open and wide-eyed smile that suggests an abundance of good humour and more, that he’s up for anything.
A thing so familiar that the film site Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists it as one of his trademarks: ‘mischievous smile’, along with ‘Scottish accent’, ‘red hair and blue eyes’ and ‘mole on his forehead, until he had it removed’ (which is a particularly strange choice of identifier, considering there is now no trace of it). Along with the grin is his dominant characteristic, geniality – a boyish enthusiasm, for film, family, motorbikes, charity work, whatever he talks about. And McGregor talks a mile a minute.

He is sitting in the restaurant of a London hotel, a pot of tea on the table, dressed in a black T-shirt and a tight, short-cut black jacket; his hair – I wouldn’t describe it as red – freshly cut in a high fade, a youthful look for a man who is 45, and one that suggests, if not quite a midlife crisis, then at least a careful rethinking of his wardrobe.

After more than 20 years as an actor, McGregor has directed his first film, American Pastoral, based on the Philip Roth novel, in which he also stars. ‘My eyes are still being opened to the other side of the curtain,’ he says with a laugh. ‘Having to sit down with producers and talk about distribution, and marketing, and reviews, and all this stuff…’ he sighs. ‘I thought I understood the film business, but I’m realising I’ve still got a lot to learn.’

Set in the 1960s, American Pastoral tells the story of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, a Jewish businessman whose seemingly golden and imperturbable middle-class life is violently disrupted when his 16-year-old daughter, Merry, gets swept up in radical politics and blows up the local post office, before going on the run.

American Pastoral’s big theme is the betrayal of the promise of the iconic American dream, of which, to all appearances, The Swede is the very embodiment: a handsome, fair-haired (hence the nickname), high-school sporting hero and former Marine, universally loved and admired by all, who inherits his father’s glove-making business and marries a shiksa – a beauty queen, no less. But there is a worm in the apple. His adored daughter, Merry, suffers from a speech impediment, which her therapist attributes to feelings of inadequacy beside her all-too-perfect parents. As America becomes ever more deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, so Merry turns against her government, her country and everything The Swede holds dear, waging her own war of violent personal rebellion.

As a film, American Pastoral has had a difficult history. McGregor was first approached to play the part of The Swede some six years ago, but the script, written by John Romano, was circulated through a number of directors without ever getting off the ground. In 2014, McGregor was in New York, stuck in traffic, on his way to perform in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing, when he got a call offering him the job of director. He was thunderstruck. He recalls spending a day with the script, envisioning himself going through every step of the acting – and directing – process, asking, ‘Can I do it? Can I do it? Can I do it?’ Finally concluding that, yes, he actually could.

The film has had a mixed response from critics, but it does a highly creditable job of conveying the drama of Roth’s book, conjuring a strong sense of period and place, and drawing some powerful performances from Jennifer Connelly as The Swede’s wife, Dakota Fanning as Merry, and McGregor himself as The Swede. McGregor has not met Roth, but the author has let it be known that he likes the film.

McGregor says he has always felt like a film-maker; having acted in about 60 films over the past 23 years, he has been around enough sets and directors to get an idea of how it works. He says that it was the relationship between father and daughter that first drew him to the script. He and his wife Eve Mavrakis – a French-Greek production designer whom he married in 1995 after meeting her on the set of the TV series Kavanagh QC – are the parents of two biological daughters (Clara, 21, and Esther, 15) and two adopted daughters (Jamyan, 15, and Anouk, six). ‘It’s about a father losing his daughter, but the whole thing could be seen as just an extreme story of children growing up and pushing away from their parents, and that you have to let them go to become their own adult person – that’s how I feel about it.

‘I remember reading the script for the first time in a hotel room in New York City, and being really moved and upset by it. Clara was 14 or 15 at the time, and I’m sure that subconsciously I was thinking that in two or three years she would be leaving home and going off to university. So I lost my daughter in a very normal and routine sort of fashion, but off she went and I don’t wake up in the same house as her any more; so maybe that’s what grabbed me about it.’

A child leaving home – it’s like ‘a little death’, he says. ‘But even before that. Our last, she’s five-and-a-half, but because we don’t intend to have another child, every stage she goes through, from getting out of nappies, or off the potty, we’re like, “Oh, it’s the last time we’ll be doing this,”’ he laughs.

McGregor moved from London to Los Angeles in 2008. He was spending a lot of time in the US, and it seemed to make sense to move there, although, ironically, few of his films are made in Hollywood, and he has little to do with the film community there. A goodwill ambassador for Unicef, he was recently in Iraq, visiting refugee camps. ‘Somebody asked me yesterday, “Did you feel you needed to go to Iraq to get out of the Hollywood bubble?” I don’t live in a Hollywood bubble. There’s this idea that living in LA is a bit like being in a 24-hour hip hop video. I have never been to a hip hop party in my life,’ he laughs. ‘I’m waiting for the invitation.’ Brentwood, the area in which he lives, is fully suburban, in both geography and temperament.

‘Our life totally revolves around our kids,’ McGregor says. ‘There’s a neighbourliness, an old-fashioned sense of community that is almost more like my childhood in Scotland than living in London was, in a weird way.’

McGregor grew up in the small Scottish town of Crieff. His father, James, was a PE teacher, his mother, Carol, a special-needs teacher. An elder brother, Colin, became a Royal Air Force fighter pilot. McGregor’s ambition to act was largely inspired by the example of his uncle, the actor Denis Lawson, whom he once recalled coming back up from London on a visit dressed in a ‘sheepskin waistcoat, no shoes, and beads and stuff. I’d be, like, “I want to be that guy.” And the fact that he came from the same small town made it possible.’

With his parents’ encouragement, he left school at the age of 16 to join the Perth Repertory Theatre as a stagehand. He went on to study drama at a local college, before enrolling at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama for a three-year course.

His first notable role was in Shallow Grave (1994), directed by Danny Boyle, written by John Hodge and produced by Andrew Macdonald. The same team would go on to make Trainspotting (1996), a scabrous look at a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh based on the Irvine Welsh novel, in which McGregor starred as Renton. The film was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and won a slew of other awards around the world. It made stars of its four principals – McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle – and established Boyle in the vanguard of British directors.

Trainspotting was lauded as one of the best British films of the 1990s, so when Welsh published a sequel to it, called Porno, in 2002, repositioning Renton et al 10 years on in the porn industry, expectation was high that Boyle, along with the other Trainspotting principals, would be reuniting to make a film of it. ‘There wasn’t a script at that point, but I wrote to them saying I didn’t want to do a sequel to Trainspotting. I didn’t like the novel Porno very much. Porno didn’t move me like the novel Trainspotting had, and I did not want to tarnish the reputation of Trainspotting by making a poor sequel.’

With the recent 20th anniversary of Trainspotting, the idea of a sequel took on renewed momentum. John Hodge delivered a script that everybody was happy with, and McGregor completed the final day on the sound mix of American Pastoral and, on the following Monday, flew to Scotland to begin shooting the film, titled T2: Trainspotting. McGregor will say only that the script is ‘very loosely based on Porno. And I can’t tell you any more.’ He laughs, ‘I wouldn’t want to spoil it.’

McGregor is a prolific actor who, over the past 20 years, has taken only two lengthy breaks. In 2004, he did a 32 000 km motorbike ride, the Long Way Round, with his friend Charley Boorman, the son of film director John Boorman. They circled the globe from London to New York, via Western Europe, Russia, Mongolia, Alaska and Canada. It was on that trip, in Mongolia, that he first met his adopted daughter Jamyan, who had been abandoned and was living in a Unicef shelter. In 2007, he and Boorman undertook another mammoth ride, The Long Way Down, from John O’Groats in the far north of Scotland to Cape Town at Africa’s southern tip. On that trip, they were joined at the Tanzanian border by Eve, who rode with them across Malawi and Zambia.

Even these trips could hardly be described as ‘breaks’: each of them produced a documentary and a book. ‘I’ve always loved working,’ McGregor says simply. ‘It’s how I support my family, and I guess I do that very well. I don’t have to worry about school fees because I work a lot. I still get excited getting a script through the post and reading it and, if I like the part, I still get jazzed about playing it.’

He is, he says, a happy man. ‘I always have been. And I’ve such a lot to be happy about really.’ In an earlier life, he had a reputation for hard drinking and misbehaviour. But he stopped drinking 16 years ago, and has not had a drop since. He loves his work, his family, his motorbikes and old cars.

When he’s not working, he says, it’s ‘a double whammy’. He gets to be at home with the family and take the kids to school in what he calls ‘these silly old cars’ – any one of a collection of old Volkswagens, or his black 1960 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. ‘I drive around LA in this big, silly old Rolls, like Dudley Moore. It’s the daily school-run car. I love it, just love it. And, then when they’re at school and I come back, it’s, right, which bike is it going to be? And I’m off…’ He gives that big McGregor grin, his trademark, which suggests he hasn’t a care in the world.

 Text: Mick Brown/Telegraph Magazine/The Interview People; Photography: Greatstock, Gallo/Gettyimages

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