The Sunday Conversation: Ewan McGregor: roles with controversy

(Matt Sayles / Associated Press)

Ewan McGregor’s next films are surrounded by controversy. There’s Roman Polanski’s unfinished film “The Ghost,” a thinly veiled indictment of Tony Blair. The satirical “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” also featuring George Clooney and Jeff Bridges, alleges that the U.S. military engaged in “psychic spying” against the Russians. And in “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” out in February, McGregor plays tonsil hockey -- and then some -- with Jim Carrey. But first, he’ll star as the young All-American Gene Vidal (father of Gore) in “Amelia,” director Mira Nair’s Amelia Earhart biopic.

You play Earhart’s lover-on-the-side in “Amelia,” but the part itself is fairly straightforward. What was the draw?

Hilary Swank, who plays Amelia, has been a good friend of mine for years, and we’ve always talked about working together. I suppose we kind of kept our eyes open for something. She called me about “Amelia” just as I arrived to start shooting “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” and we struggled for quite some time, but I really wanted to make it work dates-wise. So I literally made the two films at the same time, flying back and forth from Toronto.

How did it go?


Oh, my gosh, I was just happy to be working with her because I think she’s such an amazing actress.

What was it like working with Polanski?

He pushes you quite hard and always demands that you look for the truth of the scene and pushes until you get there, until you stop acting it and you start feeling it. But he’s also got quite a brusque manner, so you have to have a thick skin.

That said, I’m very fond of him. He’s one of the very few completely brilliant directors that I’ve worked with. There aren’t really very many, I have to say, or it’s a shame to say. To be an artist in terms of what you see and what you want to feel out of each scene, a kind of master of the technique and the technicalities of filmmaking, and a master of directing actors, which is usually the one that’s missing -- there are many who have no idea how to speak or to pull good work out of actors -- is very rare. Roman was all those things.


Have you been following the news coverage of what’s been happening to him?

No, I try not to. I was pretty upset. I don’t like to think of him sitting in a prison cell. But I wouldn’t comment upon it because it’s a very complicated issue, you know? It seems odd. He’s been living in Switzerland for years and I’ve visited him there, so this is all very strange.

How much of what goes on in “The Men Who Stare at Goats” do you think is true? The LSD, the telekinesis, the military secrecy . . .

Most of it’s true! In fact, the most unbelievable parts of the film are the true ones. The mundane bits are the bits we made up. The journalist in Iraq -- my story, the character I play -- is an invention. But there was a rumor that the Russian psychics were bombarding the U.S. president with negative energy, and there was a group within the military trying to combat it. It’s crazy, but war is crazy.


For the actors, it certainly looked like a good time.

My first scene with Jeff Bridges we were supposed to be tripping on acid. We had these amazing contact lenses that made it look like our pupils were wide open and we were waiting in this room that just so happened to have this old electric piano in it and I remember Jeff got so excited. He was like, “Oh, man! They put this keyboard here so we can get into it!” And so he started playing these wild, trippy sound effects on this keyboard. Us in our big black eyes, the Dude on keyboard, I just thought, “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

Do you still get recognized for ' Star Wars’?

It depends on where I am. At home in Scotland it’s always for “Trainspotting,” but more often than not, I’m stopped in the street for the two motorcycle reality shows I did [titled “Long Way Round” in the U.S.]. Television really is more immediate, isn’t it? It was very successful here in Britain, so I get complimented for my bike riding more than my film work, which I’m not sure is a good thing.


Is there anyone you really want to work with?

Yeah, I’ve never worked with Johnny Depp, and I’d really love to. Kate Winslet. Rebecca Hall. Directors, I don’t know. I’m odd with directors because I don’t have a kind of wish list. Daniel Day-Lewis? I don’t know. I think I’d like to work with him.

You think?

Daniel Day-Lewis has made me want to give up acting a lot. Whenever I watch him, I think, “What’s the point? There’s no point in carrying on. That’s it.” I remember watching “In the Name of the Father” and coming out of the cinema and burning my equity card and going “I’m finished.” There’s no way I can ever be that good, and it’s so depressing. I feel like I’m talking myself out of it again . . .


Do you think America is ready for “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” which is based on the true story of a man who falls in love while in prison and then stages multiple successful escapes to be with his lover after his release?

It seemed to go down very well there at Sundance. It’s a love story, an escape movie and a comedy, all about this man who goes to incredible lengths to be with the man he loves. I like it because it’s a gay film, which is to say it’s a film about two men in love, and I think that’s an important element of it. But it’s not a film about them being gay. They just happen to be gay. I also got to French kiss Jim Carrey a lot, and I quite like that too.