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Ewan McGregor: 'I would never bad-mouth religion'

Ewan McGregor is startled by accusations of anti-Catholicism in his new film. Causing offence is alien to him, he tells James Rampton

Thursday 14 May 2009 00:00 BST

The president of the Catholic League, William Donohue, is irate about Angels & Demons, Ron Howard's new big-screen adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller about dastardly dealings at the Vatican. In his latest booklet, Angels & Demons: More Demonic Than Angelic (cover price $5), Donohue rails against Brown and Howard, claiming that they "have collaborated in smearing the Catholic Church." He also rages that the film-makers "do not hide their animus against all things Catholic." He adds that cinemagoers should be aware that the movie, " a fable. It is based on malicious myths, intentionally advanced by Brown-Howard."

Brown and Howard are no strangers to this sort of row. Their last collaboration – Howard's 2006 movie version of Brown's even more blockbusting novel The Da Vinci Code sparked a similar furore. That film infuriated religious campaigners around the world and was banned in places from Chennai to Manila.

But Ewan McGregor, who stars opposite Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons, can't see what all the fuss is about. In the movie, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) dashes around Rome in a desperate attempt to avert a sinister plot to blow up the Vatican with anti-matter purloined from the CERN Large Hadron Collider.

McGregor plays Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, an ultra-zealous Irish Papal deputy determined to defend the Church from malign forces. In an impassioned speech to a Papal conclave, McKenna declares that, "our Church is at war, we're under attack." He urges his colleagues to defend the Church against enemies who "are threatening us all with destruction at the hands of their new God, science."

The movie proffers all the thrills and spills of a death-defying theme-park ride. But it also explores the eternal power struggle between science and religion. It is a very topical subject; look at the highly-charged debate in the US about stem cell research. It is also an area which has always had resonance for dramatists – Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo puts the microscope on exactly the same issue.

The 38-year-old McGregor is a spry, witty presence with a healthy disdain for the more egregious excesses of the movie business. His words are often accompanied by a mischievous twinkle in the eye.

McGregor, who hails from Crieff, on the edge of the Scottish Highlands, begins by explaining why he does not believe that Angels & Demons denigrates Catholicism. "I don't think it is anti-Catholic. For a start, none of these critics have viewed the film, so they're complaining about something they have not seen. The Vatican were offered several screenings, but turned them down.

"There is one line in the movie that could possibly cause offence, where the murderer says to Langdon, 'be careful, you're dealing with men of God.' But that character is quite clearly a psychopath, so he can't be taken seriously. Anyone who causes mayhem in the Church is comprehensively punished, and at the end, even though he's a non-believer, Langdon takes great pride in being there for the installation of the new Pope. Religion has won the day against the odds. If anything, it feels ultimately like a very pro-Church film."

The actor adds that he would have no interest in a Catholic-bashing tract. "I wouldn't have wanted to be involved in an anti-Catholic film," asserts McGregor. "I'm not religious, but I respect other people's faiths. It's not my place to be involved in something that bad-mouths religion."

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Rather, McGregor regards Angels & Demons as "an old-fashioned, rollicking good thriller with high stakes and a bomb ticking. It's a stonking great Hollywood movie with a soundtrack that blasts the speakers apart! It's old-school. It reminded me of that terrific thriller Juggernaut. I always remember Richard Harris in that film as a drunken bomb disposal expert shouting, 'should I cut the red or the blue wire?' Great stuff!"

Before making Angels & Demons, McGregor had a couple of years away from the big screen. He undertook two epic motorbike rides with his friend Charley Boorman (which were turned into the TV series Long Way Round and Long Way Down) and starred in two West End shows, Guys and Dolls and Othello.

"After Othello, I wanted to get back to making films," says McGregor, whose hobby is collecting old motorbikes. "Since then I haven't stopped. I've made four in the last year." He is just completing The Ghost, Roman Polanski's eagerly anticipated take on Robert Harris's best-selling novel, which will be released later this year.

McGregor plays a ghostwriter employed to finish the memoirs of a deposed British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), after the previous writer had died in suspicious circumstances. While working on the book, the ghostwriter discovers a dark secret about Lang. At the same time, the former Prime Minister faces the threat of indictment for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

There are striking parallels between Lang and Tony Blair. So what might our ex-Prime Minister make of the movie? "I don't know what Blair will think of The Ghost," muses McGregor. "But to me it's incredibly on the nose. After we started shooting, all the allegations came out about the British government colluding with the US in the kidnap and torture of terrorist suspects. In the movie, Lang is accused of the very same thing

"I like the fact that in the film the authorities are mounting a case against Lang for war crimes. That may seem extreme, but I don't like the notion that since the war Tony Blair and George Bush are off doing their own thing. I can see Bush on the golf course with a cigar while there are young men and women who will never come back from Iraq.

"It's as if he's saying, 'those are the decisions I made as President, and now I'm off for another 18 holes.' The people who made those decisions should be held accountable, but I doubt they ever will be. They seem to have got off scot free. It's that unaccountability I can't stomach."

McGregor has also relished working with Polanski on The Ghost. "It's frustrating when directors just say 'that was great' all the time. You think, 'where's this going?' You hope to be pushed to become better. But with Roman you're constantly being challenged, and it's great. From your very first words as an actor, he's going, 'no, no, no, that's wrong'. It's certainly challenging, but once you go along with him, it's brilliant.

"He also allows you all the time in the world. Sometimes on a set, you're on a really tight deadline – you see the director saying to the script supervisor, 'we've only got fourteen seconds for this scene.' But there's no pressure with Roman. He's only interested in making it more and more real. It's no coincidence that he's a legendary director."

Over the past fifteen years, McGregor has proved himself a highly versatile performer, starring in films as wide-ranging as Trainspotting, Star Wars, Moulin Rouge!, Young Adam and The Pillow Book. This year, he is once again underscoring his versatility with several very different offerings. In I Love You Phillip Morris, to be released later in the year, he headlines opposite Jim Carrey ("it's a gay prison- break romance – yes, it's another one of those!").

McGregor is also starring in Amelia, a biopic about the pioneering air-woman Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank), and with George Clooney and Jeff Bridges in The Men Who Stare at Goats. The latter is a comedy about a real-life clandestine American military unit which attempted to use New Age tactics to bamboozle the enemy. "They thought they could run through walls and achieve invisibility," McGregor smiles. "They practised by trying to make a room full of goats go into a trance and fall over! I've wanted to work with Jeff Bridges ever since I saw him as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. In our very first scene together, we had to act out a huge acid trip in an old Iraqi hospital. Acid tripping with The Dude – how cool is that?"

Clearly, it's great to be in demand. The only drawback for McGregor is that he has to be away from his family for long periods. He is married to the French production designer Eve Mavrakis and has three daughters. He vows that once he finishes work on The Ghost, "I'm going to spend lots of time with the family. I'm going on a big summer holiday with them. If you're filming this intensely for a year and a half, you really miss them. That gets me down. You're in danger of becoming an absentee father.

"Hotel life can be lonely," he continues. "When you're working abroad, it sounds glamorous. But you can find yourself working all day and then in the evening you don't know anyone. That can be pretty solitary."

Despite rubbing shoulders with such Hollywood big shots as Brosnan, Clooney and Carrey, McGregor remains unimpressed by celebrity culture. "Celebrity doesn't mean anything to me," he says. "I see it for what it is. I've never courted tabloid fame. I'm obliged to take part in promoting my films, but I'd never dream of acting in order to do publicity. I do publicity in order to act. I know there are some people who only act so that they can appear in magazines, but that doesn't interest me."

McGregor goes on to reveal that he has a particular horror of the Hollywood publicity junkets that all major stars have to participate in these days. "I recently did one in Rome. I sat there from 10am to 7.30pm, and I had a different journalist in front of me every four minutes. Because their time is so short, they all ask you the same questions and you don't have time to give any meaningful replies.

"By two o'clock in the afternoon, you look at your watch and tears appear in your eyes as you think about how you're going to be spending the next five hours of your life. Inside, you're screaming, 'make it stop!'"

The actor is saddened that instant celebrity has become such a modern-day obsession. "When they're asked what they want to be when they grow up, so many kids these days say, "famous" – like it's a profession! But simply being famous doesn't make you happy. You don't wake up and think, 'that's it, I've got enough fame now, I'm content.' Chasing fame leaves you feeling empty."

McGregor concludes that, "as I get older, I realise that only three things make me happy: my family, my work and my ever-expanding collection of old motorcycles!"

'Angels & Demons' goes on general release this Friday

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