Ewan McGregor: 'I was in a mafia guy's home and his friends came in and took off their guns, it was terrifying'
The Trainspotting sequel arrives next year, but Ewan McGregor has other things to think about. The Scottish actor tells Susan Griffin about his directorial debut, 40-something identity crises and why he's not interested in playing unrealistic blokey stereotypes.
This summer, Ewan McGregor and Danny Boyle reunite to shoot the sequel to the seminal 1996 movie Trainspotting. McGregor isn't one to lament life's missed opportunities, but admits he's disappointed it's taken this long to collaborate with the director again.
"I'm very excited. I sort of regret we spent so long not working together. I think that's a shame," says the Scot, who also worked with Boyle on 1994's Shallow Grave and 1997's A Life Less Ordinary.
The film will also mark the return of original cast members Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle.
"It's such an amazing script, penned by John Hodge who wrote the original Trainspotting script, so there's a real excitement about it," adds McGregor, still boyishly handsome at 45. "Like every movie you do, you have things to think about leading up to them. There is a nervousness about it, but I'm not nervous because it's a sequel to Trainspotting."
So has he - or his life - changed much in the past 20 years, since the first movie?
"I feel like the same person, really," insists the actor, who's now based in LA and has been married to production designer Eve Mavrakis since 1995. "There are things about my life that are very different. I've got four children - at that point, I was about to have my first child - I'm still doing the same job; I still love acting; I enjoy the thrill of reading new projects..."
His latest movie is Our Kind Of Traitor, a thriller based on John Le Carre's novel.
"I don't read thrillers, to be honest. I don't think I've read a Le Carre novel before this one," admits McGregor who plays Perry, a university lecturer who's cheated on his barrister wife Gail (Naomie Harris), in the film.
"Something's chipped away at his masculinity and he's made a big mistake in his marriage. He's trying to repair the damage he's done and the hurt he's caused," he adds.
They're in Marrakech when Perry meets the charismatic Russian Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), who befriends the couple over games of tennis and lavish parties at his villa, before revealing his involvement in the Russian Mafia.
Hoping to defect with his family to Britain, Dima asks for their help to deliver classified information to the British Secret Services.
"Part of your thinking when you approach a role is, 'What would I do?'," says Perthshire-born McGregor. "My only experience of meeting a character like Dima is a mafia guy I met in Ukraine, when Charley (Boorman) and I did our round the world motorbike trip in 2004.
"We ended up in his house and this guy's friends arrived, and they were all taking off their weapons as they came in the door. It was terrifying," he recalls, laughing at the memory.
"But there was something very attractive about this man. He was charismatic, interesting, the same way Dima is in this movie. And I can absolutely imagine that if that man had said to me, 'I'm in trouble, my family are in danger, could you give this file to someone back in your country?', I would've said yes."
As the film's director, Susanna White, has remarked: "Ewan wasn't afraid to play a character that was weak at the beginning of the film but who gains strength." It's a challenge McGregor enjoyed. "There was something very interesting about playing a man who's fractured his marriage," he says.
"His wife is the main earner, he feels emasculated somehow, and ends up in bed with one of his students.
"He's maybe not the man he thought he was going to become, or not living the life he imagined he was going to live. There's definitely a 40-something internal crisis that's going on with him," he says.
Does he relate on any level?
"I've got a great life, I'm a very happy man, but I think all of us look at our lives in a different way as you get into your 40s. In your 20s, you're just like, 'Whatever'," he reasons. "You're not really analytical about it. At least I wasn't."
McGregor left Scotland for London at 18, to study at the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama, and landed a role in the TV series Lipstick On Your Collar shortly before graduating. This was followed by The Scarlet And The Black and Being Human, before Boyle cast him in Shallow Grave. Soon, he was racking up movies, including Velvet Goldmine, Little Voice, Big Fish, I Love You Phillip Morris and Angels & Demons.
He's also earned two Golden Globe nominations, for 2001's Moulin Rouge! and 2011's Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, and starred as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first three episodes of the Star Wars franchise.
Like Tom Hanks, McGregor's great appeal is his 'Everyman' quality.
"You're trying to play real people in real situations. There are no bad guys; there are people who do terrible things. People are complicated," he says.
It's why he doesn't offer a clear-cut response when asked where he rates himself in terms of masculinity. Is he closer to Dima or Perry?
"In every given situation, you're at different levels. There are times when your masculinity is so important to you, you have to display it to everyone all the time. That's not who I am, but I suppose it's there when I want or need it to be.
"And then other times, it's not that important. It doesn't seem to have been very important in my work - the sort of steely, Hollywood, leading man," he explains. "People who don't react, who are cool and have women falling all around them - I've never met anybody like that. So to try and portray that is not very important to me."
Before this year's out, he'll also release his directorial debut, American Pastoral. "It took me a long, long time to have the b**** to do it, but I'm really glad that I did," McGregor says with a laugh, when asked about his move into the director's chair.
He also stars in the movie, as the father of a girl whose new political affiliation threatens to destroy their family.
"I started working on it in January last year, and we shot it in September - that's nine months of living in that story, preparing for it, so to act in it didn't require any thought at all," he adds.
"I plan to do some more acting work until I find the next thing I want to direct. And I'm not rushing to do that," he adds.
"It took me 20 years to find the first one, it might take me that long to find the second - maybe I never I will, I don't know."
- Our Kind Of Traitor is at cinemas now