You might remember him from such movies as The Island! Down With Love! Eye Of The Beholder! Movies.ie talks to the 21st century’s answer to Troy McClure.
In many ways, for the last 13 years Ewan McGregor has been living off his one truly great cinematic performance, that of wide-eyed cutie-on-the-make Renton in Danny Boyle’s zeitgeist hit Trainspotting.
He’s certainly never reached those dizzy heights again, either with a film that’s been as universally loved, nor with a role that McGregor has truly made his own. And that’s because, in many ways, back in 1996, McGregor was that wide-eyed cutie-on-the-make, having already utilised his cheeky young charms to fine effect in both Boyle’s debut feature, Shallow Grave (1994), and the BBC Dennis Potter adaptation, Lipstick On Your Collar (1993).
That’s all changed though. These days, he’s a multi-millionaire actor who makes incredibly bad movies. Something he’s been doing for the last 13 years.
Sure, at a push, you could give him the 2003 indie fave Young Adam. Or maybe even Baz Luhrmann’s overcooked, overrated, kaleidoscopic mess of a musical, Moulin Rouge! (it’s such a shame second choice Hugh Jackman didn’t land that part). But there’s really nothing else to get excited about. And there’s certainly been plenty not to get excited about.
Since breaking through with Trainspotting in 1996, McGregor has given us, in chronological order, (deep, deep breath); Karaoke, The Pillow Book, Tales From The Crypt, Emma, Brassed Off!, ER, Nightwatch, The Serpent’s Kiss, A Life Less Ordinary, Desserts, Velvet Goldmine, Little Voice, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Rogue Trader, Eye Of The Beholder, Anno Domini, Nora, Moulin Rouge!, Black Hawk Down, Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones, Solid Geometry, Down With Love, Young Adam, Big Fish, Robots, Valiant, Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith, The Island, Stay, Stormbreaker, Scenes Of A Sexual Nature, Miss Potter, Cassandra’s Dream, Incendiary and Deception.
See anything there you like? Thought not. Even when McGregor is handed a gift of a role, that of the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’ big, shiny, useless Star Wars prequels, he still looks like a winning entry on Jim’ll Fix It, a stupid grin never too far from his lips as he tries to hold himself back from shouting, “Jesus Crisp! I’m in Star Wars!!”. His acting is so unnatural, he makes Orlando Bloom look like the young Marlon Brando.
And McGregor’s at it again in his latest outing, Angels & Demons. Having taken refuge in the West End (alongside another of Hollywood’s fallen faves, Kevin Spacey), and given himself a little time in PR heaven by biking around the country with his fellow rugged millionaire, Charley Boorman, McGregor is beginning to make his presence felt on our screens once again. Unfortunately for McGregor, recent outings such as Miss Potter and the truly woeful Woody Allen offering Cassandra’s Dream haven’t exactly stopped the rot, and so our little prodigal actor is turning to the blockbuster once again for salvation. Or maybe he’s just doing it for the dirty great big wad of cash.
A sequel to Ron Howard’s torturously dull big-screen adaptation of Dan Brown’s 84-million-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons is actually an earlier book, but we’re still in the numbingly capable hands of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (played, once again, by Tom Hanks). Faster and punchier than the first film, Angels & Demons is still more than a tad crap. And our boy Ewan turns in another Jim’ll Fix It performance as Father Patrick McKenna, a little lost Ulster boy who found a father figure in an archbishop who would go on to make Paddy his righthand man when he got the Pope gig.
The film opens on Father McKenna tearfully taking a hammer to the Pope’s ring, as is the Vatican’s custom when the big fella passes away. And that’s when we get to hear Ewan McGregor’s Irish accent.
So, did he hang out with Bono to get this one right? With Father Dougal?
“What did you think,” asks McGregor, eyes widening.
I thought it was alright, I answer, eyes widening. If I was in a pub, I might just think you’re Irish, but sober, I’m not so sure…
McGregor lets out a laugh. “I worked on it before, and I did the best I could. I didn’t hang out with Bono for it though. I’d have liked to, but I didn’t get the chance…”
We’re in Rome, fittingly enough, at the St. Regis Grand just off the Piazza Della Republica. Last night, we got to see Angels & Demons. I haven’t met anyone, as yet, who has a good word to say about it. Not that the original source material was loved either – being a lover of books, I refuse to read Dan Brown, this Jeffrey Archer with bible studies. Funnily enough, McGregor hasn’t read the books either. Nor seen The Da Vinci Code. Now, there’s dedication.
What to say about the ending of Angels & Demons though, a finale apparently toned down from the original book, but still, on screen, coming across as something from a Naked Gun spoof. Did McGregor perhaps suggest something a little more down to earth for his character’s big action sequence?
“No, I wasn’t struck with it as being something that needed to be changed,” he says. “It’s the ending of the book, it’s the ending of the screenplay, and it’s in keeping with the rest of novel, so, it didn’t strike me as something that needed to be changed.”
This is pretty much the answer McGregor gives to any query about his character, his preparation, his feelings about both his character and the story he’s telling. It was all there in the screenplay.
His co-star, rising Italian star Pierfrancesco Favino, who plays Inspector Olivetti, created an entire back story for his conflicted cop, putting a wedding ring on his finger and the belief that he was constantly on the phone off-camera to his wife. For Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, playing scientist Vittoria Vetra, a trip to the European Organisation For Nuclear Research (or CERN, as it’s known in its native Switzerland) was crucial, as was an entire change of wardrobe from Dan Brown’s vest and skimpy shorts.
Ask Ewan McGregor about his character’s shift from Italian in the book to Irish in the movie, and he practically shrugs his shoulders.
“It was Ron’s choice to do that. I played no part in the writing of it, or the ideas of it, so, it was what was presented to me. The change from Italian to Irish, that was a way of incorporating the story of the Pope being his adoptive father. It was a device for that, more than anything.”
Ask him about playing a priest, he mentions a 1993 BBC adaptation of Stendhal’s novel, The Scarlet And The Black, in which his character at one point trains to be a priest, “so, I had worn the cossack before”. Interesting. And building Father Patrick McKenna’s character, giving him a back story? “Yeah, I’m not very big on doing all that, to tell you the truth. I’m not really big on…”
The Mike Leigh method?
“Yeah, I don’t really go down that road. It’s just not the way I work. I tend to do as much prep and research as I think the character demands, and I kind of just go on my instincts. If there was something very technical that my character does, I’ll try and learn that. If he’s an archer, I’ll go and learn how to be as best an archer that I can be before we start shooting. But I think in terms of playing someone like this, we had to be accurate with the Catholic rituals – which I wasn’t familiar with, not being a Catholic, and having been to only two christenings in my life – but we had a Father Dominic from New York who was our advisor, who showed us how it’s all done, and all the backstage stuff too. They sent me lots of videos too about the Vatican, but they were so boring.”
So, no Father Ted tapes in there?
“I wish. They were just these monotonous videos about the protocol of the Vatican, and it was deadly boring.”
Time to try and inject a little fun into proceedings. I ask McGregor how deep he thinks Camerlengo Patrick McKenna’s love for the late Pope ran. We do, after all, meet him as he destroy’s the Pope’s ring.
“That’s is the protocol, when the Pope dies he has to destroy the Pope’s ring.”
I’m hinting at brotherly love of the deepest kind here, I explain.
“Ah, I see what you mean,” laughs McGregor. “I didn’t pick that up, sorry. I don’t think there was any suggestion of that. It didn’t cross my mind that there was any homosexual relationship with his adopted dad.”
Not much fun there. What about working with Tom Hanks? He’s a gutless swine, right?
“He’s lovely. He’s a sweetheart.”
I heard he always steps on the toes of his co-stars when it’s their turn for a close-up…
“No, he’s a sweet, sweet man, he really is. All the stories you’ve heard are true; there was no starry behaviour with Tom. There’s a scene in my office where there’s four or five of us in there, and they did the wide shot first, and then gave us each our close-ups. And you would think they’d do Tom first, but he was last. You would think, maybe, if you were Tom Hanks, he might insist he could do his first and then have someone else read his lines, but there was none of that. He was there for all of us.”
Hmm, even less fun there. I know, let’s talk about Star Wars, man. After Ewan gives a little speech about how wonderful Angels & Demons director Ron Howard is with actors, pointing out that some directors just don’t get actors, I ask if perhaps he’s referring to George Lucas, a man about whom few actors have a good word to say.
“I didn’t say that,” McGregor quickly jumps in. “Your words.”
He picks up my microphone and puts it to his lips. “Your. Words.”
Now that the dust has settled and all the money has been counted up, how does McGregor feel about those unloved Star Wars prequels now? They were pretty much doomed from the start, right?
“They’re as much a part of my career as any of the other films that I’ve made,” he answers. “I’m not that touched by them. I don’t come face to face with the fanbase – never have done, really. I don’t go conventions, so, I’m not aware of all that. I don’t come across them very much. It’s nice to have kids that love them, and to have a bunch of films that kids have seen. Up to that point, I didn’t have many films that kids went to see.”
So, does that mean McGregor likes or dislikes the Star Wars prequels?