by Jay S. Jacobs
One of the reasons that Scottish actor Ewan McGregor’s career has been so fascinating is because he is constantly reinventing himself.
The guy is just as comfortable in rough-n-tumble violent drug gang stories (Trainspotting) as arty period pieces (Emma, Miss Potter), black comedy (his breakthrough Shallow Grave, I Love You Phillip Morris), action blockbusters (Star Wars Episodes 1-3, The Island, Angels & Demons), quirky dramas (BlackHawk Down, The Ghost Writer) and even musicals (Moulin Rouge).
His latest fascinating reinvention is in Mike Mills’ intimate comedy-drama Beginners. A highly autobiographical story for Mills, McGregor plays Oliver, a numbed man who learns to love through a few major events in his life. First, his father (played by Oscar winner Christopher Plummer), at 75 years old, decides to come out of the closet as a gay man and live happily for a few years before contracting cancer. When his father passes away, he opens his home to his dad’s beloved Jack Russell Terrier (played by a scene-stealing dog named Cosmo). Then he meets a free-spirited but neurotic French actress (Mélanie Laurent) and enters into a tempestuous and passionate relationship.
Beginners is enjoying enviable buzz as it heads to the multiplexes, picking up wonderful early reviews and film festival acclaim. Soon before the film’s debut, McGregor was nice enough to talk with us and a few other media outlets about Beginners and his career at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.
I have to ask you about the dog, who is so cute in this. How did the two of you bond? Was he always following after you? Did you have little treats?
Kind of both things happened. There’s technical ways you work with animals. Partly that is little treats – actually it was little bits of his food. You have food and there is that thing where you feed the dog – you hold up the food in between your eyes and feed him like that. So, when he looks at you, he’s looking where the food came from, up here. Otherwise he might look at your hands. Then the other thing with Cosmo, who is a lovely dog. He’s an amazing character, that dog. You have to when you’re making a film have two dogs – I think for the insurance or something. There was another dog who looked the same. And Cosmo in fact is a white dog. He didn’t have any brown. So, he had a colorist. There is an animal colorist in LA. Of course, there’s an animal colorist in LA. So, there was another dog who was colored the same way. He was a sweet dog and everything, but he didn’t have nearly the character of Cosmo. So, when we were acting with him – and it was very rarely that we did – it just felt what’s wrong with this? There was this big void. That was just he didn’t have the character that Cosmo has.
Did you want to take him home with you?
I did. I couldn’t. My very first idea about the film with Mike was maybe we could rescue a dog and we could use the dog in the film and then I would keep the dog afterwards. I really would like to have a dog, but my wife’s allergic to dogs and he sheds. Cosmo’s a long-haired dog. I did find a little rescue dog on the last day of our shoot. I found a little dog called Sid who is my dog now. And really replaced Cosmo. I do see Cosmo now and again, with Sid, but I actually found a real Cosmo replacement. He’s the same size. He’s a poodle-mix, but he’s the same size, he’s white. It’s just like having Cosmo around. It’s funny. He’s also got a very strong character.
Did your children take to the dog?
Oh yeah, they love him. He’s a real member of the family now.
With the characters of your parents, why do you think their marriage lasted so long?
I think the marriage lasted so long because they had a partnership. Their marriage absolutely worked, on the levels it worked on. Mike talks very fondly about his mom and dad. In the film, you see him looking back at his relationship with him mum, mainly, because she wasn’t around I guess to talk to any more about it. I think it was a functioning marriage in that it worked to the purposes that it was there for. Mike talks very fondly about his parents, and also about his dad. And about his dad after he came out and his dad when he came out. He refers to him as his gay dad. His gay dad was more emotionally available to him and more present in his life than he had been when he was repressing his sexuality.
Do you think the way the film handles the coming out is a statement on what is going on in our society?
There is something right about our society now in that people are coming out. In the film, Mike looks back over his father’s history and looks very specifically at what it might have been like to be a homosexual man in the early 1950s in America. The pressures that led him into feeling he had to suppress that. It was considered to be a mental illness, homosexuality. People were arrested for sitting in a gay coffee house together. People were thrown in the back of police vans. It would ruin your life, the stigma that was attached to it. That’s changed and is changing. So, I think the reasons – and it’s very personal, I think, for every single individual that causes a gay man to not come out and try and live some idea of normalcy.
Christopher Plummer has been working for so many years, probably before even any of us were born. What was it like to work with such a legendary actor?
Really, really wonderful. He’s a fantastic man and a great actor. He’d tell stories about some of the people he used to work with. He was in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. He worked with some incredible people. But he’s very modern actor, a very contemporary actor. When we were playing the scenes, I didn’t feel like I was playing the scenes with an older actor, who is giving a great performance, but he really gives a great performance in this film. Absolutely fantastic. I felt like I was working with my dad in those scenes. It’s like I was Oliver, he was my dad. He was a very modern, contemporary actor to work with.
It’s been said not to mention The Sound of Music to him, because it pisses him off to talk about that…
Oh, yeah. (laughs)
Did you find yourself having to hold back?
No, because I don’t think of him just from that film. I think he’s a great actor. I didn’t come with any judgment or ideas. I try not to do that. And I found him to be just the most charming man. I loved being around him.
How much input did Mike allow you to have in regard to your character?
You always bring more than what’s on the page because the page is just words and you’re a human being. That’s our job to do that. That’s something we always do. There was never any pressure from Mike to make a kind of impersonation of him or to copy him in any way. He wanted the character to be my character – for me to have the freedom to create Oliver as I wanted to. But, I did want him to be like Mike. I wanted him to sound like him and to move like him. Although, I think if you walked onto our film set and you didn’t know what was going on, I don’t think you would look at me and then look at Mike and go, “Oh, he’s playing him.” It wasn’t like that. But I worked on his voice. I had Mike record all the dialogue, so I could listen to that and work on his accent, work on his voice. I would watch him and try and incorporate some of his physicality into what I was doing.
Did Mike tell you about his relationship with his father on a personal level?
Yeah, absolutely. We talked a lot about his life and his memories of being a child and his mother. We talked a lot about his mother. I’m not really involved in the scenes because Oliver, is the young boy who’s a brilliant actor [Keegan Boos], as is the mother [Mary Page Keller], she’s brilliant in the film. But I wasn’t in those scenes, but it was important to know who Oliver was and where he came from. So, we did talk about that a lot. Yes, we did.
The film also examines marriage. You’ve been married sixteen years. That’s a pretty big accomplishment in Hollywood. You read more about them falling apart than staying together…
That’s reflective more of the media than the marriages themselves. We don’t read about the marriage… “Still together!” It isn’t quite as big a headline as “They’ve broken up!”
When you do a film that really examines marriage – and this shows a more offbeat relationship – do you ever stop to think of what you’ve accomplished from the work you’ve done in film?
I don’t feel like our marriage is an accomplishment. An accomplishment sounds like an effort or something. I’m just in love with my wife, I was when I met her and I’m in love with her now. I’m very lucky that we found each other. And this film looks at marriage from a different perspective, you’re right. But I still think there was love in their marriage. I think, there obviously was… it was complicated. Of course, it was. But as Mike says – I’ll tell you this story because he told it in front of journalists, so I’m sure he’s happy to tell it – but he has two sisters who don’t appear in the film, He didn’t write them in the script. They’re older than him, ten years and seven years older than him. So, his parents – his gay father and his straight mother – had his sisters and then, seven years later, had Mike as an accident. He’s a product of their recreational sex. So, it’s not that they were… I think people imagine that maybe it was a terrible marriage and a terrible struggle, but there they are. They were fooling around, so.
How do you feel about gay marriage? Do you support it?
Yes, absolutely. I find it difficult to understand why it would even be an issue. I don’t know why we would not support gay marriage. Marriage is the union of two people who are in love with each other, that’s all. I really don’t, in my life, have any prejudice against peoples’ sexuality. I never have had.
I think it’s mostly religion and the religious issues and connotations.
I don’t know. Religion should be much more about love and less about all of the stuff that it seems to bring around in the world.
The motorcycle journeys that you do what are they all about? Do you have any coming up?
No, I haven’t got any plans at the moment. They were just adventures. Me and my friend Charlie decided to do a long motorcycle trip. Wed done lots of other things with motorcycles. It’s one of my passions, riding bikes and collecting old oily ones that don’t run very well. It was a thing we hadn’t done. I read a book written in the 70s called Jupiter’s Travels, which is a wonderful travel book written by a journalist called Ted Simon. It was an inspirational book to read, about seeing the world from the back of a motorcycle. It offers you a great deal of freedom. People are very nice to you when you’re on a bike, because they appreciate the vulnerability of it. So, it’s a lovely experience to go into some of the more remote parts of the world that you might not otherwise see and see what people are up to there.
Did you ever have a major breakdown on the bike?
Yeah, we had our troubles. The bikes we rode are BMWs, which are pretty bulletproof. It’s difficult to break them. And we tried. (laughs)
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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 1, 2011.