This piece was published in The Big Issue in May 2016.
Actors live with one terrible underlying fear: the day the phone stops ringing and the parts dry up. It hasn’t happened to Ewan McGregor, not since his breakthrough role in Shallow Grave two decades ago. The 45-year-old Scottish performer has remained remarkably busy and successful ever since.
It’s not possible here to recount all of his roles, but it’s worth noting how busy he has been of late. He plays a music journalist in Miles Ahead, stars alongside Natalie Portman in western Jane Got a Gun, and takes on the part of both Jesus and Satan in Last Days in the Desert. He also found time for a voice cameo in Star Wars Episode VII (“I was glad to be part of it,” says McGregor).
He also plays the lead in the latest John Le Carre adaptation, Our Kind of Traitor. As tense and stylish as The Night Manager and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it features McGregor as an ordinary man lured into the world of the Russian mafia, money laundering and MI6.
McGregor lives in America now, on the west coast, but The Big Issue catches up with him in London, shortly before he begins filming the follow-up to Trainspotting. Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, he looks happy and healthy, barely much older than the grinning young buck who dominated magazine covers and bedroom walls in the mid-1990s. The bastard.
The actor fetches himself a glass of water, then opens up about films, politics, his work with UNICEF and the elusive work-life balance.
There’s been quite a few John Le Carre adaptions recently – are you a fan of his?
I hadn’t read his books – I haven’t really had a Le Carre phase. But I remember Alec Guinness playing Smiley in the TV version of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. I read this one, the novel, after I read the script, and I liked it very much. He seems to be having a resurgence with the Tom Hiddleston show. It hasn’t been on in the States, so I must be the only person who hasn’t seen it. I will see it – I hear it was very good.
You have lot of good scenes with Stellan Skarsgard in this film – what was it like working with him?
We worked together on Angels & Demons and we developed an unusual relationship after that. To build up to the angry scene (in Angels & Demons), he’d come over beforehand and swear at me, “McGregor you fucking piece of shit!” And I’d swear back at him. That made me laugh. We kept it going over the years – emails and texts where we’d insult each other. Months would go by and you’d be in a meeting, looking down at your phone: “You motherfucker McGregor!” I’d piss myself laughing.
Sounds intense, in a sweary sort of way. Do you find you have to psyche yourself up between scenes? Do you agonize as an actor?
I don’t have sleepless nights. I’m not an actor who goes home at the end of the day thinking, “Shit, shit, I should have done it like this.” Every actor works in a different way. There are actors who hate everything they do. I’m not going to name any names, but there are actors who, when the director says cut, they go, “Fuck! That was awful.” But I’m not like that – I think everything I do is great (laughs). I don’t have any judgment at all about how other people work, unless they’re ungenerous towards other actors.
This film show’s Le Carre’s anger at the City of London and the dirty flowing around the financial system. Do you share that anger?
Yeah, I agree with Le Carre’s…criticisms. I’m depressed that politicians like the Icelandic Prime Minister – the people we look up to lead us, the people we give power to make laws – are the people who are breaking them. It’s fucking depressing. Damien (Lewis) had some great lines in the film about the fact if there’s a little bit of criminal money, you get put in jail, but if there’s billions of it, you’re welcomed and protected regardless. Reading about the Panama Papers and offshore banking, it seems like people who are superrich have no problem hiding their money while the rest of us pay tax.
So tax is a moral issue?
We should pay tax, because we live in a society where those are the rules. I believe in that. It’s different for me now because I pay my taxes in America now, but until I moved and I paid my taxes in Britain I knew I could take a bus, go to the local swimming pool, or go to the doctor and get medicine, the streets are cleaned – that’s all possible because people pay their taxes. I wouldn’t want to be someone that didn’t do that.
You’ve made quite a few big trips with UNICEF. Do you think of it now as lifetime commitment?
I do, yeah. I’m happy to be involved – honoured. It would be nice to think there would be an end to the work being necessary. But you hope some things change. Polio, for instance, is now close to be eradicated. To see the end of that disease in our lifetime would be amazing.
Is it difficult to stay upbeat, when you see some of the things you’ve seen in India and Nepal?
I know what you mean – sometimes it’s difficult to feel optimistic. I remember visiting a village in India where children get ill and die because there is no doctor, and there’s no way of getting to the nearest town. Although I was there with a doctor able to immunise, I was struck by the terrible sense of hopelessness. In my naivety, I’d expected a sense of, “We did it, we got here.” When you see the poverty…I heard a baby coughing. I knew it sounded like a baby that wasn’t going make it. But ultimately I think about the UNICEF people who are working to improve things day in, day out. I’m always struck by them, because it takes a special kind of courage to dedicate your life to doing that kind of work.
With all the film roles and motorcycle adventures, how do manage to strike the right balance with family life?
There have been times I’ve turned things down because I just can’t go away. When it was just Clara (his oldest of four daughters), we used to travel everywhere together, but when she got to school that slowed down a bit. We can’t move every time I work, and now that my children are older I tend to go off and work on my own. It’s fine. The longest period was filming Son of a Gun in Australia – a 12-week stint – that’s the longest I’d ever want to be away from them. We strike a balance as best we can.
You never get into trouble for working too hard?
The week I was coming back from Australia I got a call from Gavin O’Connor, a director I’d always wanted to work with, to come and do Jane Got a Gun. I got to be a baddie in a western – so I had to phone home and say, ”I know I’m coming home, but I’ve got to go away again” (laughs).
You recently played Jesus in Last Days in the Desert. That must have been difficult to get your head around…
It was odd. Approaching that role is an unusual situation, (but) I liked it. I just had to try not to think too much about other people’s ideas or expectations. When you’re playing Jesus Christ – that’s the ultimate in people having pre-conceived ideas on who he is. I tried to focus on playing this man at a particular time in his life. He was trying to communicate with his dad, and it just so happens that his dad was God (laughs).
And what about the sequel to Trainspotting? You start the filming soon – what can we expect?
It’s going to be special – it feels special already to be back talking with the actors and Danny (Boyle). We had a meeting together where we read through the script, and it was extraordinary to hear all those characters come alive again. We start shooting soon in Scotland. It’s going to be great. I think enough time had passed since the first film, so I was absolutely happy to come back and do it again.