Ewan McGregor: A life more ordinary

Ewan McGregor's latest film is a Tim Burton fantasy. But, he tells James Rampton, far more magical for him is his plan to ride round the world on two wheels - even it means missing telling his daughters bedtime stories
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I'm sitting quietly watching the elegant antique clock on the mantelpiece in a vast, ornate room at the Dorchester Hotel, in London, when Ewan McGregor bursts in, a ball of irrepressible energy and youthful vigour. Without even bothering to plonk himself down on the sumptuous antique sofa - sitting is for wimps - he remarks, laughing, that you could accommodate several homeless families in this gargantuan suite.

He is tickled to hear that I interviewed Jerry Springer in the very same room just two months ago. "I hear he has political ambitions now," the actor smiles. "If it was a choice between Springer and Bush, I'd vote for Springer every time."

McGregor is clearly on a high. Dressed down in a zip-up top and jeans, which contrast with the formality of the surroundings in the posh suite, he is bubbling with excitement about his forthcoming "adventure of a lifetime" with his best friend, Charley Boorman (son of the director John). In April, they are planning to set off on a 15-week, 20,000-mile tour right around the world on motorbikes. They are testing out various bikes and plotting the trip in a west-London office. With the air of a child who has been locked inside a Toys'R'Us warehouse overnight, McGregor beams: "I'm happy as Larry. I love motorcycles. You're on your own and you make your own decisions - unlike films, where everything's decided for you. I love the long journeys - they represent independence for me. Bikes are my passion. From the moment I first tried one on a racetrack, something happened. It's so exhilarating; it makes me feel more alive."

So, life is good - except for one thing. Eve Mavrakis, McGregor's French wife, has just completed her first screenplay. A dark thriller about "snuff movies", For Love of Art would appear to have the perfect leading role for her husband - a world-weary detective. But, much to his consternation, he is not the actor she has in mind for the part. "She said, 'Do you know who I'd really like to play the lead part? Johnny Depp.' So I said, 'Thank you very much - that's nice!' "

His wife would appear to be just about the only person not clamouring to have McGregor starring in their movie right now. The 32-year-old Scot is perhaps the most popular commodity in Hollywood this side of Botox. So just what endows him with his must-have status? Meeting him gives me an inkling. It's not just that, with his sparkly eyes, mischievous smile and dimple, he is drop-dead gorgeous - after all, matinee-idol looks are 10 a penny in the land where the cosmetic surgeon is king. No, more than that, the actor radiates what cigar-chomping Tinseltown execs like to call "the X-factor". Over the course of a lively hour and a half, it is clear that he possesses a twinkle that could charm the birds out of trees several counties away. It's a self-confident appeal that magnetises both sexes. This man has charisma to burn.

As we sip mineral water - he has sworn off the booze for three years now (more of which anon) - he also displays a wry sense of irony that is perhaps too subtle for some journalists. McGregor smiles as he remembers how a straitlaced women's magazine took him at face value when he was asked if he was concerned about appearing naked in films. "I said, 'I'm not worried about it, because I do have a very large penis.' I did say those words, but I didn't mean them. They ended up as the headline in this magazine!"

His latest movie exploits the sort of livewire presence that - if harnessed to the national grid - could illuminate Scotland. In Big Fish, a typically imaginative and visually ravishing Tim Burton picture that has picked up seven Bafta nominations this week - including best film and best director - McGregor plays the young Edward Bloom (the older version is portrayed by Albert Finney).

Edward is a serial fantasist who regales his increasingly bored son with endless tall tales of encounters with monstrous fish, giants, circus freaks, bank robbers and conjoined twins. Despite the spuriousness of his stories, people can't help falling in love with the eternally gregarious fibber. Even as he is being pummelled by a jealous love rival, McGregor's Edward maintains a smile to soften the hardest hearts.

Helena Bonham Carter's character, who has suffered an unrequited passion for Edward for many years, observes near the end of the movie: "If there was one thing you could say about Edward Bloom, it was that he was a social person and people took a liking to him." Sounds like a pleasing synergy between actor and character, doesn't it?

But the movie is not merely a gooey, feel-good fairy tale; it has something to say about the power of storytelling. "Stories are our dreams, really," muses McGregor, who is the proud father of Clara (aged seven) and Esther (two). "That's why we tell stories. They're what makes us interesting and what connects us with one another from generation to generation. Without them, all we'd be left with is politics and supermarkets. And what kind of world would that be?"

He goes on to underline how we all have an innate need for stories. "If you go back to the beginning of time, people were telling stories around the campfire. As a kid, I used to love watching old black-and-white movies on BBC2 - I didn't care what they were. I remember being propped up on my elbows of a winter afternoon, watching things like It Happened One Night. That was a fascination with stories - and the reason why I'm an actor now. It's the same with Esther. As soon as she gets up, all she wants is books. She loves them."

Like Edward in Big Fish, we all relish dramatising our own lives. "When you get home, the first thing you do is recount your stories of the day," McGregor continues. "Being a Celt, I love the idea of poems and tunes being passed down through the generations. At the moment, I'm telling Clara stories about things that have happened in my life. Once she's got past her bewilderment that I was ever a child, she's fascinated by them.

"We naturally embellish these stories - to the point where we come to see the embellishments as reality. We don't want to tell mediocre stories - 'Listen, something really average happened to me today...'" Cinemas, the actor reckons, are the campfires of today. "But instead of sitting in our parents' lap, we sit in front of a big screen to hear the stories. That's why it feels so cosy in the cinema."

In Big Fish - as in Young Adam, last year's acclaimed portrait of existential angst - McGregor seems a very relaxed presence on screen. Acting appears to come naturally to him. He attributes this to having cut a lot of the frippery out of his life.

"Acting feels more manageable these days," he confirms. "In the past, things were quite hectic for me. But now I'm just concentrating on what's in front of the camera. I focus less on all the trappings - the celebrity, the assistants and the make-up artists."

He would be the first to admit that at one time he enjoyed the frantic showbiz existence. "Before? Well, I was just trying to squeeze in far too many things." Now, though, he feels that he has grown out of that frenetic, starry lifestyle. "I'm not interested in being famous. I am very, very interested in being successful - there's a big difference. Fame is such a bore; I can't be arsed with it."

He pauses, and reveals: "I was very relieved to get out of my twenties - I think that I've mellowed a lot. I'm no longer 25 and tearing around. I'm a husband and have two beautiful children - that is much more important to me. I no longer find happiness with strangers in pubs. I get it at home with my wife and kids. So that's certainly the way my life's changed. I work, and then I want to get home to see them."

Pointedly taking a sip of water, McGregor says it helped no end when he resolved to give up drinking three years ago. "I couldn't do it all," he recalls. "I couldn't be a good father and a good actor and a good drinker. Something had to go - and it was the drink. I had drunk enough. I can't tell you, it's 100 per cent better waking up feeling good." He says that abstinence has made him much more aware of how prevalent the drinking-culture is in Britain. "I'd been out of the country for a while, so over New Year I was a Radio 4 junkie. From morning till night, I was saying to the family, 'Shush! I'm listening to Radio 4.'

"But I was shocked to hear that on New Year's Eve three pieces on the Today programme were about curing hangovers. It was all about the best way to feel better the morning after. Well, the best way is not to drink at all! Radio 4 seemed to be condoning the excessive use of alcohol."

There is only one other subject guaranteed to make McGregor quite so livid. You've guessed it: the tabloids. He is particularly riled by their obsession with knocking celebrities. "The press will always be bitchy," he sighs. "I remember being in a Glasgow cinema last year. There were just three people there - me and two old ladies. We were watching The Son's Room, a very moving Italian film about a family grieving. "Anyway, in the middle of this beautiful film, the mother and father begin to kiss in bed. As they were doing this, the two women behind me started tut-tutting. I thought, 'What's the matter? These characters are married. Are a husband and wife not allowed to kiss?' These two women had obviously not been kissed themselves for rather too long.

"But that tutting is the noise the tabloids make. No one's allowed to do anything in their world. If you're in any way recognised for anything, they'll go, 'He thinks he's so fucking great.' They have to belittle you. They can't say, 'This guy has achieved something - isn't that good?' A whole industry is now devoted to squashing people who've done something with their lives. It pisses me off."

He gives a recent example: "In the Scottish press the other day, they said, 'Ewan McGregor is doing his round-the-world bike trip, and it will apparently be pretty tough, but we think he'll really be staying in five-star hotels and eating Harrods hampers.' I've never even seen a Harrods hamper in this country - let alone in the Mongolian steppes!"

McGregor thinks that the red-tops' celeb-bashing runs the risk of getting out of hand. "We don't stand a chance," he declares, the exasperation clear in his voice. "Whole magazines are now devoted to picturing celebs with no make-up on - 'Look, this person woke up this morning.'

"Posh and Becks are walking through an airport, pursued by 15 paparazzi, and according to these publications the problem is that they are angry with each other - 'You can see by her downturned eyes that she's not happy.' You don't think she might have downturned eyes because she is being followed by 15 maniacs with cameras?"

Still, McGregor concedes that he isn't as badly affected as some of his mates. "I have friends who really suffer," he says, presumably referring to those fixtures of the tabloid press, Jude Law and Sadie Frost. "They must feel like they're living in a prison."

The invasion of privacy is something the actor obviously feels strongly about - he recently won an injunction against a photographic agency that had taken unauthorised snaps of his children on holiday. In addition, McGregor sees a danger in papers setting themselves up as guardians of morality. "All our tabloid press is based on morals that don't belong to anyone," he fumes. "Morality used to come from the church; now it comes from the tabloids. Those newspapers want to create a bland, beige existence. But if everyone behaved as they want us to, it would be a horribly dull world and they'd be out of a job! Every day I hear stories about the tabloids hounding someone who doesn't fit into their world-view. Morals out of the mouths of morons!"

The good news is, these complaints have not put McGregor off being an actor - a career he has always wanted to pursue. Growing up in Crieff, Perthshire, the son of James and Carol, both teachers, he idolised his uncle, Denis Lawson, who played Wedge Antilles in the Star Wars films. McGregor recalls: "Ever since I was tiny, aged four or five, I'd mime to songs at my parents' parties, putting on a show." After school, McGregor attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where in 1993 he was spotted for his first major role, in Dennis Potter's Channel 4 series Lipstick on Your Collar. From there, he graduated to the movies and began a fruitful association with the film-maker Danny Boyle in Shallow Grave. He collaborated with the same director on his breakthrough picture, Trainspotting, and his Hollywood debut, A Life Less Ordinary.

He went on to star in such diverse works as The Pillow Book, Emma, Brassed Off, Velvet Goldmine, Rogue Trader and Little Voice. In many of those movies, he showed an eagerness to strip off. In another phrase larded with irony, McGregor teases: "I'm doing my bit for the women's movement. The women have always been naked in movies, and now I'm just desperate to take my clothes off as much as possible."

It was a run of four huge box-office smashes - Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Moulin Rouge and Black Hawk Down - that sealed McGregor's stardom. The success of those movies is likely to keep him in motorbikes for the foreseeable future. Next year, the actor will be returning to our screens as Obi Wan Kenobi in the next instalment of the Star Wars saga. He spent several months in Australia making the film last year. He has been quoted as saying that the Star Wars episodes are "very tedious to make - there's no two ways about that."

When I ask him now if he will look back fondly on the process of making the films, he bursts out laughing for a good 30 seconds, before admitting: "I have to be so careful, or they come down on me like a ton of bricks." Choosing his words precisely, McGregor continues: "I'll always be glad to have been in them, for the children's sake. When they come up and ask, 'How does a light sabre work?', it's great. I like that sense of wonder. But perhaps the making of them became more important than the performances - which is always a mistake."

Well, McGregor could always come back and make another movie in this country. He holds undeniably strong views about the British film industry. His experiences on Young Adam, which was finally made only after several budgetary hold-ups, evidently fired the actor up. "So many films these days are simplistic and treat the audience like fools," he asserts. "We've lost the plot in Britain. It's important that we make films like Young Adam - risky, edgy stuff. If we keep churning out cheesy romantic comedies about people getting married, audiences will get bored. They make whole movies dedicated to people desperate to get married. Who cares? I don't know these people. Who are they? And where do they live? Notting Hill, I suppose!"

McGregor tried to put his money where his mouth was by setting up Natural Nylon, a production company, with his fellow actors Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Sean Pertwee and Jonny Lee Miller. However, he had to pull out a couple of years ago because of filming commitments, and the company closed soon afterwards.

So where does he hope to be in 10 years' time? "My goal is to do exactly what I'm doing now. If it remains like this and I've got choice and I can carry on making films big and small, that's all I want out of life. If you're trying to be the highest-paid or the biggest star, you never get there. If you do, you have to compromise your work on the way. I truly do what I love. I'm very lucky."

As he is ushered out of the room, he invites me to visit him on his world tour. "Come to the Mongolian steppes," he whispers conspiratorially. "Bring a Harrods hamper. We can take photos of me eating it and send them to the Scottish press..."

'Big Fish' is released today