Ewan McGregor: his life and slender times
A famous publisher has asked you to write a biography of the star of Trainspotting. First, a bit of self-congratulation is in order, then you have to write the bloody thing. And quick. By Xan Brooks
Thursday 17 September 1998
Initially, though, the second reaction troubled me rather more than the first. Because celebrity biogs are weird. Traditionally these 20th-century phenomena tend to occupy a polarised and schizophrenic landscape. They are either gushing hagiographies or poisonous Kitty Kelley-ish muck-rakers. Added to this, a book about Ewan McGregor posed an extra hurdle. At the time of Deutsch's call, the Trainspotting star was all of 26 years of age; a middle-class Scotsman with an unremarkable past and a swift crop of good pictures to his name. Note to prospective authors: one cure for any arrogance in being handed a book deal is the knowledge that its subject is younger, richer and immeasurably better looking than you.
There were other, more pressing problems. Without the luxury of an agent, I had to wrangle for money myself (although knowing there was no agent to skim 10 per cent off the top was some consolation). I also had to negotiate the direction Deutsch's book should take. One possible way around McGregor's relative lack of life, I reckoned, was to use him as a conduit; the symbol for some emergent renaissance in the British film industry in general. The publishers were on for this. The man himself was not. Smugly confident that McGregor would consent to a few further interviews, I was brought up short when he wired back that "when there's a book to be written I'll write it myself". In that instant, Choose Life (the publisher's suggested title) hopped from prospective authorised biography to actual unauthorised biography, and I was forced to scour about for information.
Fortunately, I had a stockpile of old interviews, while my regular film editor job at The Big Issue gave me access to various actors and directors who had some previous connection with McGregor. This was gratuitous moonlighting. Discussing her new and relevant film, The Hanging Garden, with Shallow Grave actress Kerry Fox, I abruptly veered off with a hopefully casual, chewing-the-fat tone; "so yeah, what was it like working with Ewan McGregor?" Her stalled, startled look (and in numerous others like her) is an abiding image of that manic time.
The last 11 months have been a bit of a blur. What do you do when you have between January and April to write 60,000 words on a 26-year-old who isn't co-operating with the project? Well, to be honest, you wing it. You interview everyone you can grab hold of, you plunder your own archives. you contextualise as best you can and yes, you use cuttings; those shameful, second-hand goods that all biographers fall back on. And then you try to fit them all together. In some sort of order. In a very short period of time, praying all the while that it makes some sort of sense, that it sheds some light on the subject matter. Don't get me wrong. Writing still doesn't feel like a proper job. Compared with, say, working the deep-fat frier or resurfacing the A40, it's a doddle. But on this occasion it flirted with being just a tad too much of a good thing.
Compared with regular journalism, the publishing world is viewed as a soulful and sanctified realm; a haven for the genuine artist. Certainly, the people working there seem a lot more civilised - the editors, designers and publicists I worked with at Andre Deutsch all proved endlessly more grounded, informed and tolerant than your average newspaper or magazine type. But in the end, the two disciplines are pretty similar. The same time imperative, the same commercial intent, the same dash to hit the shelves before the topic turns cold. And at the end of the day, Choose Life is just an extended piece of journalism. It profiles an up-and-coming personality and maps out a fledgling scene. Its contemporariness, its sense of a story that's still running, is both its weakness and its strength. Thus far the book has had what is known in the trade as a "mixed reception". The film magazines have slagged it, other publications think it's fine.
Inevitably, my own feelings are in conflict. I'm proud that I did the book and pleased with a lot of the stuff inside. At the same time, I regard Choose Life much as I imagine a parent must regard a well-meaning but slightly slow and fragile offspring. They're an autonomous entity on the one hand; a worrying mirror of their creator on the other.
You raise them as best you can and then gaze anxiously through the fence as the other lads mill around it in the playground, scrutinising it and prodding for its weakness. You pray it will be all right. Secretly, you hope that the next kid has a bit more going its way.
`Choose Life: Ewan McGregor and the British Film Revival', is published by Andre Deutsch, pounds 9.99
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