Ewan McGregor Is On the Ride of His Life
Ewan McGregor is straddling a crotch rocket. That’s the only way to describe a garish, neon green Japanese motorcycle, right? I’d ask McGregor, but the Scottish actor and erstwhile Obi-Wan Kenobi is too busy mounting the thing, gripping the handlebars, and laughing his ass off. “Look at it. Fuck!” he says, handing me his phone. “Take a picture of me on it!”
We’re at the Javits Center, New York City’s cavernous West Side convention space, for Progressive’s annual International Motorcycle Show. Though McGregor is a serious enthusiast—he’s ridden on at least four continents, weathering everything from mosquito attacks to wipe-outs— he doesn’t exactly look the part. He’s more Carnaby Street than Sons of Anarchy today, dressed in skinny black jeans, chunky black frames, and a Neil Barrett sweater so perfectly frayed at the collar that it looks intentional. Yet he’s eye- banging this strangely beautiful bike along with the rest of the motorcycle fanatics assembled here. McGregor directs my attention to the engine, going long on its merits despite the machine’s inherent uncoolness: “It goes extraordinarily fast. It stops extraordinarily quickly. But fuck! It’s fucking nasty! I want one just for the laugh.”
I’m reminded of an anecdote McGregor shared about an hour ago over coffee. A few years back, he was shooting a movie in London with Woody Allen. “We were standing outside chatting away, and there were crew members everywhere and cables and tracks on the pavement,” says McGregor. “And suddenly there was a lull in the conversation. I looked over and there was a wee old lady standing next to what looked like a porn star—this girl with peroxided hair, massive tits, miniskirt, big plastic shoes. They had both stopped, not knowing if they should walk all over the equipment. I hear Woody saying”—and here McGregor does his best nebbish impersonation— “‘No, bring your daughter through. Bring your daughter through.’ We both had a little ogle at the girl as she went by. It clearly wasn’t the old lady’s daughter. Anyway, Woody turned to me and rubbed his hands together and went, ‘Well, life could be worse.’”
Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Steven Soderbergh— it’s easy to forget McGregor’s worked with them all. In fact, it seems the surest way to get an Oscar nomination these days is to star opposite McGregor (see: Christopher Plummer in Beginners, Naomi Watts in 2012’s The Impossible, in which she played his wife, and Julia Roberts in 2013’s August: Osage County). If acting is reacting, where was McGregor’s acknowledgement? The man has made something like 40 films in the past 20 years, and yet he’s in the very odd position of being both everywhere and under the radar. Which begs the question: Can you have a comeback if you never went away?
Perhaps that’s why, at age 43, McGregor’s doubling down, subverting his good looks, and digging deeper. Having just completed a run in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing on Broadway (as a playwright who cheats on his wife), McGregor has no less than five wildly disparate films coming this year, including Son of a Gun (out now) where he plays a tattooed Aussie criminal mentoring a young buck, and the indie Last Days in the Desert, in which he plays—wait for it—Jesus. Whether he’s slinging guns or talking to the heavens, an unlikely thread unites these upcoming roles: fatherhood. McGregor laughs this off at first, saying: “I just got old enough to play [these parts].” But there’s something deeper at work here.
More on that soon. First, we have to contend with a middle-aged woman in a stretchy shirt shouting McGregor’s name. This happens a lot at today’s convention. She mentions a mutual friend from the motorcycling community, someone McGregor clearly can’t place, but he nods along with encouragement anyway, smiling that easy smile of his. He asks what brought her to the convention, and she answers by turning around to show off her shirt, which reads INSTRUCTOR across the back. “Life’s too short not to be on a motorcycle!” she says, before adding, “Safety is about the choices you make.” Homegirl’s got a point. Sure, she was talking about defensive driving, but really she could have been talking about the movie business, and the decisions you make when you’re fresh out of drama school and you’re hungry and cocky and every moment feels infused with life- or-death stakes.
Let’s rewind for a minute to the late ’90s, when audiences were introduced to Ewan McGregor, a man’s man and—at the time—probably our most dangerous actor. Long before Michael Fassbender was flashing his dick onscreen and getting drunk at parties, Ewan McGregor had perfected the act. In Trainspotting, he was the heroin addict seen taking a condom off his flaccid penis, embodying the kind of tortured soul whose response to seeing a dead baby in a crib is to fire up a spoonful of hard candy and disappear into the floor. You forget how heartbreaking that film is because its pulse is so quick. The character was Renton, the skinniest lost boy, and when he runs off into the sunset at the end of the film, vowing to grow up and stay clean— “I’m gonna be just like you. The job, the family, the fucking big television. The washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electric tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance,” and so on—it sounded like a death sentence.
McGregor was a fever dream of talent from Crieff, Scotland, whose star burned so brightly it could be seen from Tatooine. Yeah, those Star Wars films were disappointing, but he was the best thing in them. Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann’s splatter-paint musical Moulin Rouge, a chick flick best watched stoned, but McGregor sang the shit out of it. When I get Colin Farrell, McGregor’s co-star in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, on the phone to talk about his friend’s understated talents, he says he’s an “absolute joy to work with,” adding with a laugh: “I don’t think Ewan is as proud of his penis as most men who are as well hung would—or should, or could—be. I think that’s the greatest demonstration of his innate humility, that he doesn’t wear it like a badge of honor.”
The word epic is so overused it’s lost its meaning, but there’s no other way to describe McGregor’s origin story. Fresh out of drama school, he shared an apartment in Hampstead Heath with Jude Law and Jonny Lee Miller, who was dating Angelina Jolie at the time. (Read that sentence again.) “Jonny and Angelina were shooting Hackers,” says McGregor. “Jude had done Shopping. I’d done Shallow Grave. We were all kicking off. It was happening. We were having a right laugh. It’s the ’90s in London. It was quite fun…. That’s all you’re getting.”
McGregor is slightly more forthcoming about the Cannes premiere for Trainspotting in 1996: “I don’t remember very much of the party, but it was apparently one of the great, legendary Cannes parties.” (It was. DiCaprio was there. Robert Altman wandered around unrecognized. David Blaine broke an executive’s watch trying to do a trick. Noel Gallagher from Oasis never left, and was found asleep on a chaise lounge by the pool the next morning.) “Underworld played. It was fucking amazing. I missed their whole set.
I was somewhere else doing something else,” says McGregor with a wink. “We were so very full of ourselves. I was arriving at the red carpet after the screening, and I was just feeling like, ‘Has there ever been a bigger movie star?’ And I walked up to the hundreds of thousands of photographers, and I took my arrogant stance. And then every single lens in the whole fucking area went whoosh. I turned around and Mick Jagger was getting out of a car. And I realized I had to get over myself.”
It’s a funny story, but he certainly had a right to be arrogant. He was even better two years later in the glam-rock cult classic Velvet Goldmine, tearing off his leather pants onstage and practically lighting himself on fire.
With the world spinning around him and Hollywood calling, it helped to hold tightly onto something real. McGregor married French production designer Eve Mavrakis in his early 20s. Unbelievably, their eldest daughter, Clara, is now a student at NYU. When we meet, McGregor’s been in New York himself these past four months doing a play, but he says with a smile: “I don’t see very much of her. It’s not very popular to follow your daughter to college, like, ‘Hey, where are we going tonight?’”
This bit of our conversation is jarring—in part because McGregor doesn’t appear old enough to have a 19-year-old daughter, what with his thick, ginger hair and clear-as-Fiji Water eyes—but also because it means we’ve grown up, too. For a certain generation of men, McGregor represented our own virility writ massively large, a symbol of eternal youth and reckless masculinity. This is the guy who once got so drunk at an Iggy Pop show that he went backstage and did his own Iggy Pop impersonation to Iggy Pop. It’s hard to reconcile anecdotes like that with a recent McGregor tweet: “Eating a midnight snack after 2 shows today listening to the Shipping Forecast online on BBC Radio 4. Perfect. Night all. X.”
OK, so some things have changed. But don’t panic. Because it’s time for a re-imagining on the occasion of his 44th birthday (March 31 to be exact); he’s mellowed with age, but he’s doing some of the best work of his life in more nuanced ventures. In The Impossible, he played a father of three whose world is upended by the 2004 tsunami that hit Thailand. McGregor’s character mostly keeps it together as he struggles to find his wife. Until, that is, he finally gets in touch with his father-in-law and learns he hasn’t heard from her either. The emotional breakdown that follows is so raw, the pain so absolutely soul-crushing, it’s heart-stopping. Maybe literally. A film producer fainted during a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ambulances, meanwhile, were spotted outside a showing in San Sebastián, Spain.
Of his role in that film, McGregor says: “I’ve been a dad for 18 years. Your work reflects your life, and the biggest element of my life is that I’m a dad. That’s the most important thing of all. And yet it’s been relatively unexplored.” Which is to say: He’s ready to pour his grown-up self into his work.
January’s Son of a Gun required McGregor to hang out of a very real helicopter as his character escaped prison. “We had to wait for ages in the helicopter port,” he recalls. “Suddenly they rushed us out, ‘We’re on! We’re on! We’re on!’ I go to roll the door and the door’s not there. They go, ‘Yeah the door’s not going to be there. OK, go!’ Two minutes later, we’re 10,000 feet in the air. I’ve got a fucking machine gun on my legs and some lap strap. I shit myself. When a helicopter banks, it really banks.”
But the promise of an adrenaline rush isn’t why he took on a small film by a first-time director—nor was it strictly the chance to play the villain for once. “I don’t like to think of characters in black and white, good and bad,” he says. “It’s not really the way things work.” No, McGregor took the job because of the film’s human story. Son of a Gun lives and dies on the relationship between McGregor’s career criminal and the twentysomething kid he schools. This one’s a paternal love story masquerading as a crime drama. When McGregor read the script, he thought: “I haven’t done this before.” Likewise, he calls the upcoming Last Days in the Desert—in which he plays Jesus talking to God as he wanders the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights—the “ultimate father-son story.” The Real Thing, meanwhile, may be a play about passion and infidelity, but the most affecting scene in McGregor’s recent production came in act two, when he sat down to talk about monogamy with his cynical teenaged daughter.
That innate charisma and charm that has always defined McGregor’s onscreen appeal is just being channeled in a new direction. Says Natalie Portman, who co-stars with a villainous, gun-slinging McGregor in September’s Jane Got a Gun: “I think effortless charm is a perfect quality for a villain. The people who can hurt you most usually do so by charming you and then letting you down. He has a real dark side underneath, which we saw so well, even back in Trainspotting. He can really do anything.” Portman adds, “It seems like Ewan has figured out what’s important in his life now, and what’s worth fighting for.”
McGregor has plenty of emotional heart to draw from. While he insists on maintaining his privacy, he can’t help but talk about his four daughters as we push through the convention center.
What’s the energy like at home in L.A.? He deadpans: “Feminine.” Do your daughters ride motorcycles?
“No, my wife would absolutely kill me. That’s the one thing—that and tattoos. Clara, my eldest, started talking about tattoos. I said, ‘Dude, I got my tattoo when I was 30 years old. You’re 17? 18? I can assure you that what you think you want on your arm now isn’t what you’re going to want on your arm when you’re my age. Don’t do it.’”
It’s also a good time to take stock of his career, which McGregor hopes will soon include directing. In a way, his life is coming full circle. He’s playing a bumbling inspector in the Pink Panther-esque comedy Mortdecai with Johnny Depp. But there’s also talk of a Trainspotting sequel, which picks up 20 years later, with Renton living a decidedly different path abroad. “He’s now a Glaswegian running a gym in Amsterdam,” says McGregor with a laugh, thrilled at the prospect. “I haven’t seen a script or anything. But it seemed to be quite real. I spoke to Danny [Boyle] about it. I met him randomly in a restaurant [last year] before he went up to Scotland to sit with our writer John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald, the producer.”
Star Wars is also getting a J.J. Abrams-ified reboot, though McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is somewhere on the sidelines. Will he have a cameo? “They didn’t ask me to do anything in it,” says McGregor. Though he likened the slow pace of shooting those tech-heavy blockbusters to “watching paint dry,” he insists he’d happily suit up again.
Our time at the motorcycle show is wrapping up. Yet McGregor can’t stop thinking about that obnoxious, fast-as-heroin Kawasaki with 1400cc (whatever that means) that we spotted earlier. The actor has 12 or 15 bikes back in L.A., he reckons—some at his house, some in storage—but nothing like the crotch rocket on display here. McGregor usually rides vintage Moto Guzzi bikes, including one he’s dubbed the “Shit Storm,” which is “totally rusty and fucked up and looks like it came out of a river.” It’s the highest compliment, he assures. Sometimes he takes the bike up the Pacific Coast Highway. I ask what it feels like to be out on the open road. “Like a form of meditation,” he says. “You’re cut off. Nowadays you could have your phone in your helmet, but I wouldn’t do that. It’s time to daydream and think.”
He takes one last spin around the green hornet, seriously contemplating a purchase. “I’ve always wanted one,” he says. “Maybe it’s an itch I need to scratch. Look at the fucking pipes! This is like a Harley engine turned on its side.” He smiles and then imitates the sound of the engine: “They just screech—eeeeeerrrrrrrr.”
For a second, he looks like a kid again.
Text by Mickey Rapkin. Photographed by Simon Emmett. Styled by J. Errico.