In addition to being immeasurably charming, the rather talented Ewan McGregor has been a mainstay of interesting performances on film for the better part of two decades now. From his early Danny Boyle breakouts through his roles for the likes of Todd Haynes, Peter Greenaway, Steven Soderbergh and Roman Polanski, the actor’s delivered consistently creative work; even when the movies were less than stellar (you know what we’re talking about), his performances always rose above the material. And when the great Christopher Plummer took home his Supporting Actor Oscar recently, he could thank McGregor’s equally nuanced (though largely unsung) turn in Beginners for providing him with the emotional anchor.
In this week’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, McGregor takes up the piscatorial mantle of one Dr. Alfred Jones, a Scottish fisheries boffin reluctantly convinced by an angling-enthused sheik (Amr Waked) and his feisty investment adviser (Emily Blunt) to assist them in their crazy desert scheme. Not too many actors can wear a khaki fishing vest and make it look good, but then not too many actors get away with impersonating Sir Alec Guinness, either.
We spoke to McGregor recently about the movie, during which time he was also happy to talk about some of his favorite films. “But you should make sure that it’s five of my favorite films,” he qualifies, “and not my top five films. It’s definitely not my all-time favorite films, ’cause then I would have to sit down and think about it more clearly.” Duly noted, sir. Read on for more of the interview.
Harvey (Henry Koster; 1950; 83% Tomatometer)
Well, Harvey I’ve always loved because Jimmy Stewart’s one of my all time favorite actors and I think it’s just an incredible performance from him. It’s a very, very moving performance. It’s a really lovely character that he has to play.
Deliverance, I just think is a really incredibly made film — made by John Boorman, who was an incredible director. And I just think it’s a film where you kind of get into the heart and soul of these people and it unsettles you. It’s very frightening ’cause it makes you feel like you could be there, and “What would you do in this situation?”
Jaws, ’cause it’s Jaws, and it’s just a huge, brilliantly made film with rich characters and huge suspense — and a monster that we’d never seen before that happens to be a real one, that we’ve all been frightened of ever since.
Did you and Emily conspire to pick Jaws together?
No — did she pick Jaws too?
It was her number one choice. I think she was promoting “fish” movies.
Easy Rider, ’cause it symbolizes a sort of search for freedom…
And you love motorcycles. [McGregor produced and starred in the TV series Long Way Down, about two friends on a cross-continental motorcycle ride.]
And I love motorcycles. But I also love the way it was made: like they went on a bike trip and they shot it and they made the film up as they went along, I think — and it feels like that. It feels very real. And it’s also circling this very horrible acid trip in it, which really freaks me out.
Right. There’s no film, except maybe The Wild Angels, quite like it.
Yeah. I don’t think there’s any film really like it. It’s got a very cool opening, too, with the drug run to the airport. Very cool.
And then Doctor Zhivago, ’cause it’s a lesson in filmmaking. It’s like a master class in how to shoot and act and light and it makes me very depressed watching it, because we don’t make films like that any more — and I wish we did.
Next, McGregor talks Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, working with Lasse Hallström and keeping a straight face on set with Emily Blunt.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen must have read as something of an odd film on paper.
Ewan McGregor: Well, I thought it would work as a film. I felt very strongly that it would be an amazing film when I read it. I felt that all of the different strands to it — the love story, which is complicated; the actual premise of the movie, the idea of a rich sheik business man wanting to introduce his passion into his country, which happens to be salmon fishing in the deserts of the Yemen; and the political satire, the rich comedy, the characters — I just thought it was absolutely a brilliant film. And it read like that; it was a real page-turner. I thought it was fantastic.
The title makes for a curious prospect, though.
Yeah. Some people have a funny reaction to the title, but I think it’s great. I was worried that they might change it, ’cause there was some talk of doing that. Hollywood generally likes to simplify things and make them brutally clear and understandable, and I suppose they just couldn’t do that with this title because it’s as clear and as understandable as could be. It’s a film about salmon fishing in the Yemen, and it’s called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. So I think it’s perfect. I think it’s odd. I just hope it doesn’t turn people off.
How did you come to read it? Were you looking to work with Lasse, or had you read some of [screenwriter] Simon Beaufoy’s other stuff?
I’d worked with Simon before on something, another film that he wrote. I met him with Danny Boyle at a couple of events — or I presented Danny Boyle with an award for Slumdog, and he wrote that with Danny. So I knew Simon. I thought he did an extraordinary job, because the book — many of the chapters are literal e-mail correspondences, which would become very tedious on screen; although we have a little element of that here and there. I thought he did a really great job, and also, you know, changing the Prime Minister’s PR to a woman I thought was really clever. Originally in the book it was a British politician who we would all recognize, but I think we wanted to be more general in our fun picking over the politics.
When we first meet your character, Dr. Alfred Jones, you’re looking rather staid with your gray cardigans and posh accent — what was it like playing someone so different from what we’ve seen of you?
Well, I think they’re all different, the characters I play. I don’t feel there’s some kind of mold I have to break out of in order to play this guy. I just think that every character that I approach is unique and different and has a role to play in that particular story. So it wasn’t an attempt on my part to change anything, it was just an attempt to carry on doing what I do — to, you know, play characters in films or on stage or whatever.
Did you enjoy playing him?
Yeah I really liked it. I think there’s very much fun to be had with him, to play someone who’s kind of stuck and repressed and awkward, and not very pleasant, in fact, at the beginning of the film — and yet to find humor in that was great fun, and a great challenge, yeah.
Emily was very complimentary of your working relationship. How was it, working with her?
She’s fantastic. I mean, she’s an incredibly funny girl. She’s a lovely girl, and we just had a great time. I knew from the moment we met at rehearsal that we were gonna have a good time making this film. We pushed each other, I think, and freed each other up just to play in front of the lens. And that was also very much with Lasse’s direction — he likes to work in that way; he likes to give you a freedom to throw things around and no two takes were the same. We just had a really wonderful time. She’s a very talented actress.
Did you guys add stuff on set that wasn’t necessarily on the page?
I mean, that’s the whole process of making a film, really. We didn’t make any changes from the storyline, really, I mean we shot what was on the page, but of course making a film is a process of making that real — so, yeah, [Lasse] was a great partner in that.
I hear he’s a little eccentric.
He’s sort of… his general style is just sort of bonkers, Lasse. He’d affect, in a way, a kind of clumsiness. He’d often walk on set and make himself trip up; he sort of plays the buffoon a little bit. But at the same time it creates a very relaxed atmosphere. And he doesn’t enforce his opinions on anyone. He’s got good opinions and his notes were very accurate, I thought. He’s just an oddball. He would sometimes not want to rehearse, he would just want to shoot. And he shot an awful lot of stuff on his iPhone while we were working. In fact, of all of the stuff in the film, there’s this little iPhone sequence that he shot. Sometimes you just thought he was more concerned with his iPhone movie than the one we were shooting. [Laughs] But I think it’s all very meant; it’s all tactical. He knows what he’s doing and he certainly knows who these characters are. His skill is really apparent in the film, because by the end of the film we really care about the project and we really care about Alfred and Harriet getting together; he manages to hold all those balls up in the air.
There must be a whole other version of the film on that iPhone.
Maybe, yeah. [Laughs] He filmed hours and hours of it. By the end of the film he had a special rig for his iPhone — like a Steadicam built for it.
Meanwhile the First AD is directing the picture…
No, not really. [Laughs] I don’t want to suggest that he wasn’t paying attention to the film, ’cause he was. He’s just got a very funny manner. We adored him. Emily and I both had such a laugh with him. I think on the DVD there’ll be a very funny blooper real, because Emily makes me laugh all the time and we’d often crack up in the middle of the scene. And then we had lots of carry-on with Lasse in between takes and stuff, which all ended up on an outtakes reel.
It’s a wonder you maintained any serious poise in this film.
[Laughs] Well sometimes it was very difficult. There are moments in it where I can see Emily about to go. There’s a moment where — well, you’ll have to look out for them. But there’s moments where I can see her about to laugh. [Laughs] They had to do a bit of quick editing away from her. [Laughs]
Not to take anything away from her performance, but I find there’s something about her — in all her movies — where she seems like she’s about to crack up.
Yeah. Well she really allows herself to come through her work, which I think is really difficult, and really brave — and she does that in bucketloads. There’s a lot of her in her work, and it shows great confidence and skill that she’s able to do that.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is in theaters now.