It’s a toss-up whether he or Sir Sean Connery is the best-known Scotsman in the world, but Ewan McGregor is proud that his movie-making debut as a director is in a Jewish story.
With good reason: his wife and four daughters are Jewish, and he was able to channel his experience of their faith on to the screen.
The film is adapted from Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel about a seemingly happy and successful all-American family man – “Swede,” played by McGregor – whose daughter turns into a terrorist.
“I am very proud this is my first Jewish story. I am married to a Jew. My children are Jews,” he says. “For me, that was a really beautiful part of (making the film) that I am very proud of. I was able to bring all my experience of that faith on to screen at last.”
McGregor previewed the film in London recently, followed with an on-stage Q&A with Danny Boyle, who has just directed him in T2 – The Trainspotting sequel. McGregor, who will also be seen in Beauty and the Beast in a few weeks, appreciated Boyle’s enthusiastic to his film.
The mutual admiration wasn’t always so. In 2000, when Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as the lead in The Beach, McGregor was hurt. He had given brilliant performances in Boyle’s Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1996) and A Life Less Ordinary (1997) and felt he was a core part of the creative team.
He says that grievance is now in the past, “but it took a long time for it to be in the past. It wasn’t just about The Beach. It’s deeper than that in the way it was handled.
“I felt very much like his (Boyle’s) actor and I felt very involved: part of this new piece of British cinema.
“It was a lot to put behind us and it has taken 20 years to do it. It’s a great shame we didn’t work together for all these years.”
Now they have: McGregor began playing Renton in T2 the day after he finished on American Pastoral. “I loved it,” he enthuses. “It was great after having this directing experience to go back and work with one of my favourite ever directors.”
Trainspotting moved at the frenetic pace of the Iggy Pop music that accompanied McGregor’s delirious dashes through Edinburgh streets.
The actor warns the tempo of T2 is in keeping with the more advanced age of its protagonists. “We didn’t try to remake Trainspotting. It has its own rhythm and unique pace and energy which is not the energy of 20-year-old people. The characters are no longer 20-year-old people.”
McGregor makes shooting T2 sound like the perfect pick-me-up after American Pastoral. He relished his experience but acknowledges it was exhausting. As well as directing, he appears in almost every scene.
“I am serious about my work. I took it very seriously. There was a lot of money at stake. There was reputation at stake, my own.
“I was going to be standing in front of a professional film crew and professional actors, all of whom I admire. I didn’t want to fail – to mess it up and make a crap film. I woke up to that responsibility heavily every morning.”
He wants to direct again – to make a low-budget feature with unknown actors in Scotland.
“I’d like to find a very contemporary story with young people. I’d like not to be in it. I’d like to have less money and a shorter space of time. I think maybe it should be a young urban romance.”
He agrees Scotland has struggled to compete with others part of Britain in attracting film production. The country doesn’t have its own purpose-built studios.
“We’ve got really great technicians in Scotland, on a par with anywhere else in the world I’ve worked. Also, we’ve got extraordinary scenery and cities – an awful lot to offer,” he says.
“I can’t see that it would be anything other than a benefit to have a film studio in Scotland. We end working in old factories. For film-making, it’s not ideal. If it’s raining you have to stop shooting. If a plane goes overhead or a lorry goes by, you have to stop.”
At the same time, he’d be reluctant to argue for public money to be spent on a film studio rather than on, say, the health service.
Ewan Gordon McGregor
Born 31 March 1971, age 45
Lives Los Angeles
Wife Eve Mavrakis, production designer, married 1995
Clara Mathilde McGregor (1996)
Esther Rose McGregor (2001)
Jamyan McGregor (2001, adopted from Mongolia in 2006)
Anouk McGregor (2011)