Ewan McGregor: The force in me

He may be a Hollywood star, but McGregor would like to get a few things straight. He's not fabulously wealthy. He doesn't have perfect sex. And, he tells Geoffrey MacNab, playing a drifter in the Scottish drama Young Adam gave him more job satisfaction than Obi-Wan Kenobi ever could
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The Independent Culture

Thanks to Star Wars commitments, Ewan McGregor won't make it to this month's British premiere of Young Adam (the opening film at the Edinburgh Film Festival), but he gives every impression that he'd far rather be back home in Scotland, supporting a film he ranks among his finest, than down under in Sydney, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi for the third time. "I'm delighted to be in the Star Wars films," he says, with little seeming conviction. He doesn't even bother to hide his frustration at being required to spend another four months acting "into thin air" for George Lucas. He confides that the special effects are so demanding and time-consuming that there's little opportunity for improvisation or, indeed, performing with another human being. Only the action sequences stave away the boredom.

"There'll be quite a lot of fighting in the film and I always enjoy that," he admitted shortly before he set off for Australia. Shooting was only a few weeks away but he hadn't yet been shown the screenplay, quite an irony considering how much emphasis he claims to place on "good writing" when choosing new projects. "I imagine it [the Star Wars series] has got to resolve itself with me and Hayden Christensen [who plays Anakin Skywalker] having some big, kick-off fight."

It's intriguing to watch McGregor around journalists. One day, he'll look like Barry Sheene in his biker gear, roaring up on a Ducati (he has recently narrated a noisy, riproaring documentary about the Moto Grand Prix circuit called - appropriately enough - Faster), the next he's in thoughtful and introspective groove as he explains just how he set about playing Joe, the existentialist drifter, in Young Adam. The contrast is revealing. Arguably, McGregor's appeal as a movie star lies precisely in this clash of opposites: scrape away at the exuberant jack-the-lad persona he so often adopts and you'll find the thoughtful, sensitive character actor lurking somewhere beneath the leathers.

"This is possibly the most introverted and complicated part that I have ever played," McGregor declares of his role in Young Adam, sounding like a surgeon who has just completed a tricky operation. Joe is certainly a quieter and more inscrutable presence than, say, the extrovert skag boy Renton in Trainspotting. Still, director David Mackenzie throws in plentiful close-ups which could easily have allowed his lead actor to strike Chet Baker-like poses, preen himself and look affectedly moody for the cameras. To his credit, McGregor avoids such narcissistic mannerisms, instead attempting to reveal the character in his full, unlikeable perversity. "I didn't want just to do my outsider guy," he says. "I didn't want to do my version of Paul Newman and his outsider guy. I wanted to try to understand Joe as best I could."

Joe is a restless and mercurial figure whose behaviour is impossible to predict. He'll rescue a little kid from drowning in the canal, but a few minutes later, we'll see him cuckolding the kid's father (ostensibly his best friend). He always seems at one remove from his own life. Whether he's sitting in court, watching an innocent man being condemned, or plucking a dead woman from the water, or surreptitiously stroking the legs of Ella (Tilda Swinton) under the table, he keeps his emotions in check. McGregor admits that even he didn't always understand what motivated him. ("There was a day in rehearsal when I thought I'm just not going to be able to do it.") In the end, he simply accepted that there was an ambiguity to Joe that couldn't be explained away.

For once, the actor didn't have his family on set with him. Away from the cameras, he spent as much time as he could on his own. "Normally I don't do that kind of thing, but I did feel leading up to this that being solitary would be a great help...I think this would have been a difficult film to be going home from on a daily basis."

Young Adam boasts some very graphic sex sequences. McGregor, who watched Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris in preparation for the movie, insists that these were never exploitative or prurient, but can't help chuckling loudly when he describes them. "The sex was such an essential part of the story," he explains. "In the same way that in Moulin Rouge we were using music to tell the story, here we were telling the story through sex...we were intent on pushing the sex as far as we could go into an area that was really realistic for the audience so it wasn't movie sex any more but it was sex like we all have sex, where you don't always come together...which in my experience is the case."

In the already notorious "custard sex scene" with Cathy (Emily Mortimer), what starts as a domestic squabble quickly degenerates into sexual violence. Disconcertingly, the scene veers wildly in tone. There's a tenderness and morbid humour at play here which undercuts the brutality. The actors started working on the scene on the very first morning they were on set together. "It was an extraordinary scene to play," McGregor remembers. "Emily and I played it from start to finish in all the takes, almost like we were on stage. I had never met Emily before. I had been rehearsing all morning with Tilda [Swinton]. Then Emily arrived. We were introduced and maybe an hour later, I remember I was telling her, 'OK, I'll pull you up by the hips like this and kneel up behind you and take you from behind'...whereas that would be a really weird thing to do with someone you met on the street, it is your job as an actor."

"Fun is not the word, but it was not traumatising at all," Mortimer recalls. "We both got on well and trusted each other and we knew we were doing something 'out there', something odd and shocking, which was exciting." The scene, she argues, is crucial to the movie. "The ambiguity of it really appealed to me. Relationships that are very sexual are often ambiguous in this way. Sex itself is...it's halfway between extreme tenderness and some sort of violence." As she points out, this "extraordinarily chaotic and violent sex act" yields the "one true moment of emotional closeness" in a film in which the lead character otherwise seems incapable of expressing real feelings.

That's not a problem that McGregor shares. No interview with the 32-year-old Scottish actor on the subject of Young Adam is ever complete without his issuing a few more angry broadsides in the direction of the British financiers who made the movie such a struggle to complete. A private investor pulled out shortly before shooting was due to begin, thereby leaving the producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor, Crash) in a desperate scramble for finance. "People in Britain who are responsible for funding British work were quite prepared for this film not to be made," McGregor fulminates, taking yet another pop at the movie's eventual (and seemingly reluctant) backers, the UK Film Council. "The reason I was given was that the film wouldn't make its money back, but I think we're just about to prove them wrong on that front."

Couldn't he have made up the shortfall himself? "I didn't have £1.8m to put in," he protests, adding that it isn't Jeremy Thomas's style to ask actors to cough up money for the movies they are about to appear in. Besides, he's not as rich as folks think. "Had I had pots of cash lying around, I would have suggested it myself, but contrary to The Sunday Times Magazine, I don't."

The film was postponed, but McGregor lobbied furiously on its behalf until the budget was finally re-raised. "They [the Film Council] buckled and gave us the money in the end. I hope they're glad that they did because this is a very important film for Britain."

To the outside observer, McGregor's credentials as a champion of low-budget, independent British cinema may seem slightly compromised by his own frequent forays to Hollywood, but his passion for films "made for British people and about Britain" is self-evident. He rages against movies "pandering to the States, set in Britain and yet about American culture and not really making sense to anyone." Young directors, he suggests, should take films like Young Adam and Shallow Grave as their inspiration. He believes in the old adage that the more specific a film's setting, the more universal its appeal.

McGregor himself was brought up in Crieff, a small, sleepy Perthshire town which no longer even has its own cinema. Privately educated at Morrison's Academy, the son of teachers, he comes from a very different background to Renton, Begbie and co in Trainspotting, the film which made him an international name, or Alexander Trocchi, the renegade heroin-addict writer of Young Adam. Speaking about Trocchi, he sounds surprisingly censorious, calling him "a miserable bastard" and decrying the way he treated his family.

He seems to have doubts about Renton, too. Whether he'll repeat the role in the movie version of Porno, Irvine Welsh's follow-up to Trainspotting, remains to be seen. He doesn't rate the novel as highly as its predecessor ("it's the same story, there's nothing new in there other than lots of pornography") but will wait to read the screenplay before making up his mind.

In the meantime, he's shortly to be seen in Down With Love, a sex comedy in the Rock Hudson-Doris Day vein set in early 1960s New York. He plays louche, debonair magazine journalist, Catcher Block, "man's man, ladies' man, man about town." The first time we see him, he hoves into view dangling from the ladder of a helicopter, dressed in a white tuxedo and sunglasses. (He is on his way back from a night on the town.) Catcher has a bachelor pad, full of gadgets to help him seduce air hostesses. Renée Zellweger is the prim New England feminist author whom he is determined to make fall in love with him. Shot in eye-popping day-glo colours (with pinks and yellows to the fore), this is a very kitsch affair indeed, and McGregor tackles his role with commendable, self-parodic zest. Only his very tepid duet with Zellweger over the closing credits falls flat. "I don't know if [the film] is campy," McGregor says with comic defensiveness, when asked if he's following in Rock Hudson's footsteps, "but it's absolutely in the style of those 1960s sex comedies with mad colours, very obvious movie sets and shot entirely in the sound stages of Hollywood with back projection. But yeah," he shrugs, "that song is a bit syrupy."

He plays the younger version of the Albert Finney character in Tim Burton's father and son drama, Big Fish, and may also appear in Jodie Foster's Flora Plum, a Depression-era yarn about the relationship between a circus freak (his role, apparently) and a young orphan girl. He is attached to several other projects including Marc Forster's Stay (about a therapist at an Ivy League college trying to stop a student committing suicide), but for the next few weeks, he is stuck in Lucas-land playing Obi-Wan Kenobi for one last time in what he refers to as "a small art house film called Episode 3." Is he fed up with Star Wars? That's a question he refuses to answer. "It's a technically difficult film to make," he says diplomatically, then falls silent.

'Young Adam' opens on 26 September, 'Down With Love' on 3 October