The Contenders: Ewan McGregor finds emotional depth in ‘The Impossible’

Actor Ewan McGrego costars in "The Impossible," about a family swept up in the Indian Ocean tsunami.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Actors often talk about the scene: The big moment in a script when their character is supposed to do something brave, or when they must dig deep to tap something inside themselves — when an emotion is unveiled that proves so true it is somehow scary.

For Ewan McGregor, that moment couldn’t have been more heightened during the making of “The Impossible,” Juan Antonio Bayona’s harrowing drama about a family’s experience during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

It was a moment in a bus station when his character, a man whose wife and oldest son have been swept away in the charging wall of water, finally breaks down while contemplating the sheer magnitude of his loss. It’s an emotion hard enough to tap in the most intimate of filming work. But in McGregor’s case, it had to be done in front of a slew of extras invited to join the shoot via party-like fliers left around bars in Thailand that read, “Come be in a Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts movie.”


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“When you walked on the set, you have 300 holiday makers going, ‘There he is. There he is. Look. Look,’” McGregor said with a laugh. “And you’re expected to cry your eyes out in front of them five minutes later.”

Bayona knew the pressure of the moment wouldn’t be easy, so the Spanish director also made sure to include actual survivors of the tsunami — men and women who had lost loved ones in the giant wave. They all told their stories before it was McGregor’s turn, helping him find his way to the emotional depths he needed to reach.

“There was something in the energy of those people that, when we started to cry, those hands that were on your back, there was a great deal of understanding in them,” McGregor said. “There was something very special about that.”

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The Scottish actor’s entire four-month shoot in Thailand was filled with those kinds of moments, when the fiction they were playing was made real by the setting, the extras or the actual family upon who’s story “The Impossible” is based.


Unlike his costar, Naomi Watts, who was able to spend a lot of time getting to know the real-life survivor, Maria Belon, McGregor met her husband, Enrique Álvarez, only after shooting had already begun.

“I was nervous to meet my guy. I wondered what he might think,” McGregor said. “But when I did meet him, I thought there were similarities between what I was doing, that I discovered from the script. There is an inwardness to him. He’s a very gentle, quiet man.”

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Álvarez must have felt the same way. According to McGregor, a photograph of him in character was sent to Álvarez near the beginning of the shoot, before they had laid eyes on each other. “He told me at the premiere in Toronto that he showed the picture to his friends and his wife and said, ‘He’s got me, he’s got me. How did he ever know? He never met me.”

Bayona always envisioned McGregor taking the part of Henry, even though the actor’s very storied career had never included playing a father.

“If you take a look at the characters he’s played,” said the Spanish director,” he’s very versatile. He’s played a junkie [“Trainspotting”] and Obi-Wan Kenobi [the “Star Wars” movies], but the truth is that I always saw a lot of humanity there, no matter the character.”


And playing a father after being one for the last 16 years was a big lure for McGregor, who is currently in Oklahoma filming John Wells’ adaptation of “August: Osage County” opposite Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep.

“This film is very much about being a father and exploring those unique relationships we have with our wife and kids,” the actor said. “Though I’ve been a dad for a long time, I haven’t played one properly. In this film, it’s very much about that.”


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