Ewan McGregor's big-screen breakthrough came with Danny Boyle's thriller Shallow Grave; soon thereafter the actor and director would reteam on Trainspotting, then again on A Life Less Ordinary. Though perhaps best known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi for George Lucas in Episodes I through III of the Star Wars Saga, McGregor has also worked for Woody Allen (Cassandra's Dream), Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer), Tim Burton (Big Fish), Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine), Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down), Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!), Peter Greenaway (The Pillow Book), Ron Howard (Angels & Demons) and Bryan Singer (the upcoming Jack the Giant Killer), and that's just scratching the surface of his resumé. Recently, he collaborated with director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) on his semi-autobiographical dramedy Beginners, in which McGregor plays the Mills surrogate. Both men spoke to me at the St. Regis Hotel, while doing their press duties during the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival.
Groucho: Ewan, you were given the freedom by Mike to create Oliver as a unique character, but I was also surprised to read how much of a Method actor you are in terms of wanting to glean from Mike something of his voice. Maybe you could talk about the recordings that he did for you, also the process of wanting to draw like Mike?
Ewan McGregor: That’s not Method acting, though. That’s just acting.
Mike Mills: And people should all know that whenever he does any accent, he gets a recording of someone saying it. So it wasn’t just because of it being kind of autobiographical that he did that...
Ewan McGregor: But it’s true, if you’re doing an accent you would have recordings of people who are from that area or speaking in that accent, but it’s not necessarily true that you'd always have them reading—
G: The whole script.
EM: The whole thing that's there. And I did have that, because I was playing Mike, and I don’t—I had freedom to play him as I liked, but I was trying to play Mike. I didn’t want to impersonate him. And copy his voice and his movements and everything absolutely, but I did want to feel like him and so, of course, there’s the ways you play a character, with your voice and your body. So I wanted to feel like I was Mike when I spoke, and I wanted to feel a bit like him when I moved, you know? And so that’s where you start off from. That’s where I started off from. As you would with anybody, I think. And then through our rehearsals, and then playing the scenes, you know, you would employ more or less of what you—just whatever felt right, really. But I think method acting is a very overused and under—
G: Under—understood, yeah. But you do like to do research for your roles.
G: You don’t. You just did in this one?
EM: I don’t. No I don’t—I mean I wouldn’t even call that research. That’s just—
EM: Preparation, yeah. Research I find very boring. I mean, research is like historically looking back through the time—and I’m not very good at research at any level, because I find it quite—I don’t know how it helps really, you know? Not for me anyway. But it depends: if you’ve got a technical thing that you have to play, or let's say your character is an archer. Well, then you would have to know how to fire a bow and arrow. You’d have to know how to do that, and look good doing it. I played a chef, and I’m not a very good cook, but I hopefully look like I can cook, you know, even though I don’t really understand why that ingredient would go with that, it doesn’t matter because in the film I’m just using that ingredient with that ingredient. You know? So it’s all just whatever’s required for that character. And if it involves sitting in a library looking through research books, you won’t find me there, I don’t think.
MM: You know, of all the actors I’ve met, he’s like, very smart about what he does, but he’s very trusting of his intuition. And very much about, like, the feeling and the bond [he's] having with the other actor. I’ve never seen someone, like, so kind of alive and present with the other actor, and working with them in this very, like, organic, subtle way that was really beautiful to watch.
G: It’s striking how much listening is going on in this film. I mean genuine listening. There’s the patience to see that happening. You don’t usually feel that when you’re watching a film...
EM: Yeah. He’s very much of a listener, Oliver, for sure.
MM: Yeah, a lot is happening to him.
MM: So, and that’s a hard thing to do. It’s hard to be—reactive acting, I think, is about the hardest thing, if you don’t have a bat to hit something with, you know? And I think that’s his genius. He has to turn off now when I talk…
MM: He—watching Ewan watch things, it’s amazing how much information comes across, and how mercurial, and its kind of beautifully built twists and turns can be in—just in a closeup. And I kept saying to him, "I want to do a silent film with you," just because so much—and stuff happens in a way that’s very genuine, and clearly expressing something that I don’t know exactly what it is, you know? And I love that...
G: One acting approach is to focus on verbs that best describe actions and motivations: I understand this approach came up in your rehearsals.
MM: I think verbs are very important. Adjectives I'm a little fuzzier about. (Laughs.) But verbs, that is a thing. And I do know about that. It is important to talk very simply, and not get overly intellectual. And verbs are actions. And verbs are a great way to kind of help express that. It's a thing I know, as a director, that I've read about.
EM: That it's a good idea to give your direction using verbs?
MM: Yeah. And if you're talking, like, three sentences, you're fucking up.
EM: So when you speed ahead in a car, "Drive! Drive! Drive!"