The other day I overheard someone dismiss Ewan McGregor by describing his career as ‘over.’ That industry insider should do their homework because the ‘Moulin Rouge’ star is about to hit the movie world with a number of highly anticipated films including this week’s “Angels and Demons,” the Sundance Film Festival surprise “I Love You Philip Morris,” Hilary Swank’s Oscar hopeful “Amelia” and Grant Heslov’s “The Men Who Stare At Goats” with George Clooney. Oh, and did we mention he’s currently shooting Roman Polanski’s latest endeavor?
Always a great interview, McGregor took some time this week to jump on the phone and chat about his role as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna in “Angels,” how gay “Phillip Morris” really is and shooting the Iraq-set “Goats” in, of all places, Puerto Rico.
Q: After all the controversy following “The Da Vinci Code” during production and before its release, did you have any trepidation about jumping on board its sequel?
McGregor: No because I didn’t find anything remotely controversial about the script. If there had been something anti-catholic or anti-christian or against someone’s religious beliefs, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it. I’m not interested in doing that. I’m not a religious person myself, but I’m certainly respectful of other people’s religions and I can absolutely understand that its important to people. So, I wouldn’t want to be involved in a movie that disrespected that or went out of its way to criticize or denigrate someone’s religious beliefs.
Q: With a project like ‘Angels,’ which is based on a novel, will you read the book or just stick to the script? I know a lot of actors get very passionate about either ignoring or living by the original source material.
McGregor: Depends really. I think usually what happens with me is that I’m sent the script first. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a script for a book I’ve already read, so if I want to do the film then I’ll read the book. I don’t go back to it before each scene because I really believe you can’t shoot the book, you’ve got to shoot the script. And if there is any discussions to be made about the adaptation, they are best made long before you get on set. That’s almost the job of the writer and the director to boil it down and then my job is to make that scene work, y’know? I don’t want to pull into things that necessarily confuse it. I believe the writers would have put it in there if they thought it was necessary.
Q: What made you want to play the mysterious Camerlengo in ‘Angels’?
McGregory: He’s a great character, y’know? Different levels that some things that the audience and the characters think that they know about and others they don’t. My job is what to let the audience know and when and what to let the other characters know and when. [Those kinds of layers] were fun to play. He’s quite a complicated, layered character. That’s what made him interesting. And the fact that he’s a priest. To be playing someone who has devoted their life to represent their religion is quite an unusual situation for a contemporary guy my age to do that. I don’t know many people, in fact I don’t know anyone who has done that with their life. So, it’s interesting to play that. And then I thought a lot about people who do represent religions. Be they rabbis, priests, lamas, there is something extraordinarily self-confident about them and their rock solid belief in their faith. It’s not questionable. So, there’s a scene with Tom Hanks where I question his belief in god and if he believes in god and unless I can have achieved that self assuredness as a priest, I don’t think it would have played.
Q: Is he power hungry? Or does he need to do this to save the church?
Well, I think it’s both. I don’t want to give this away, you shouldn’t write too much about the end of the film for those who haven’t seen it, but the truth of the matter is he absolutely believes the church is going down the tubes and is on the road to ruin. All it’s liberalization. I feel he’s a deeply religious man. He believes more in his church. He thinks that the Church needs to be saved. Then comes his ego which gets in the way, because he thinks he’s the one to save it. So, like most megalomaniacs, he believes he’s doing it for a reason. And the reason justifies his act.
Q: Had a chance to see ‘Phillip Morris’ at Sundance this year Wasn’t sure what I thought about it at first, but a couple of days later it had settled rather well. It was announced just this week the picture will be released by a relatively unknown distribution company next Valentine’s Day. Are you surprised it took so long to find a distributor?
McGregor: Well, I dunno that I’m surprised. They always talked about having a Valentine’s Day release, so in that respect maybe they were looking for the right people. I dunno. I’m glad it’s finally kind of settled. It seemed to play very well at Sundance and I enjoyed it very much. I think they just had to find the right people to push it in the right way. Y’know there was a lot of talk about it at Sundance about it not being a ‘gay movie.’ Well, I think it is a gay movie. Of course it’s a gay movie. It’s about two gay men or three gay men, y’know? And a man whose relationships are with men. And although the humor isn’t born out of the fact it’s about gay men, it’s a funny movie. Y’know, I never wanted to be worried about the fact that it’s a gay story because it is. I hope they locked it that way. You can imagine that the people who deal with such things going, ‘Oh, let’s make sure people don’t think it’s a gay movie and y’know that won’t sell.’ But of course it is, and it’s a good film.
Q: It’s interesting, I’m curious to see if they can spin it in a non-gay way. That would be hard to do.
McGregor: I think it will do very well. It’s a funny movie. Jim is great in it. It’s good fun.
Q: What can you tell us about Grant Heslov’s directorial debut ‘Men Who Stares At Goats’? Are you one of the characters with powers or the agents who are working with them?
McGregor: I discover them. Most of the film is played through flashbacks from a road trip that George Clooney and myself are making through Iraq and I’m a journalist whose wife has run off and left. And in my grief over the relationship, I take myself to war, but I end up staying in a four star hotel in Kuwait unable to get into Iraq. And I meet this guy who talks about this secret division of the army and I think it’s going to make a better story so I follow him on this road trip through Iraq looking for his long, lost buddies. From that story, we flash back to the creation of this secret regimen. It’s a very amusing picture. Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, George Clooney and myself. We had such a great time, it’s hilarious.
Q: Did you shoot it in Morocco?
No, we shot it in Puerto Rico and New Mexico.
Q: For Iraq? Wow. That’s pretty amazing.
(Laughs.) Yeah, well there are financial incentives to shoot in Puerto Rico. We shot lots of our interiors there. It was a very strange affair to be shooting Iraq interiors in the rain forests of Puerto Rico, but it worked.
Q: What was it like to work with Hilary Swank on the upcoming biopic ‘Amelia’?
McGregor: Y’know, I’ve loved Hilary for ages and been friends for a long time and I wanted to work with her a lot and never got a chance until she talked about ‘Amelia.’ And then I was making [‘Philip Morris’] with Jim down in Louisiana and it didn’t look like I was going to be able to do it because of the dates. Suddenly, they managed to work it out that on my days off from ‘Philip Morris’ I could go an shoot that. Literally, for two months I flew back and forth between Louisiana and Toronto, Canada. And if I had a day off I was in an airplane and if not, I was working on one of the two movies. It was quite exciting. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed playing different characters. I loved working with her. I’ve so admired her since the start. I think she’s an incredibly talented actress and to see we were very similar actors and we both loved playing the scenes. We had a great time.
Q: You sound like you’ve been really busy over the past year. Do you have anything else lined up or are you taking a break?
McGregor: I’ve been working with Polanski in Germany and Berlin for the last few months. I’ve had an amazing time. Very challenging and very long, tough days, but great. I’m just about to finish that film. I’ve got the summer off and then I go back to Scotland in August to do a film with my friend David Mackenzie who I did ‘Young Adam’ with. We’re doing a second film up there. And then I’m making a film with Mike Mills in LA in October. So, I’m looking very much forward to that as well.
“Angels & Demons” opens nationwide tomorrow.