Turning 40 can do strange things to a man, but when you’ve packed in as much as Ewan McGregor the outlets for a mid-life crisis must seem limited.
‘I’ve done them all,’ he says of a CV that includes making his breakthrough as the star of Britain’s coolest cult movie of the Nineties, brandishing a light sabre as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi and riding twice around the world on his motorbike.
‘I hadn’t really thought about turning 40, but then it started to worry me,’ he admitted when we met for the first time last summer.
McGregor, who has hit a rich vein of form of late and was in London to make his 50th movie, had only recently hit the big four-zero and become a father for the fourth time.
On moving to California: ‘There’s a freedom that I enjoy there that I felt was disappearing in London’
As we sat in the shade of a tree in Regent’s Park, he reflected on how he felt about reaching this milestone: ‘You see people in the news or people who have great responsibility, and then you think, “Oh no, they are younger than me!” It’s a sobering thought.’
Eight months on, in Manhattan, the Scot has clearly come to terms with his seniority. His hair is styled into an extravagant quiff and he’s dressed in jeans, work boots and a silk scarf.
The silver hoop in one ear might be a subtle hint that he is not yet prepared to give in to middle age.
Another clue comes in his admission that he’s thinking about resuming training for his pilot’s licence: ‘It would be cool to take the kids to school and then go down to the airport and pull out your little plane and go for a flight. It must be an amazing feeling, although I’ve never got past the fear of, What if something goes wrong? Will I be the kind of person that knows how to get out of that situation? Or will I be one of the guys you read about in the news who’s crashed and died and left all his kids fatherless on some dumb whim of learning to fly?
‘I don’t know the answer. What I do know is being a part-time private pilot is the most dangerous bracket to be in.
‘The things firing my imagination at the moment are still motorcycles.
‘I am someone who gets taken up with something, a new thing, and I run with it for a while and then it disappears. It was paragliding, then it was flying, then it was something else. Underneath all of it, always, are motorbikes. That’s never gone away.’
There are other youthful passions, however.
‘I was in a little band when I was at school but haven’t been in one since. I’ve hosted this charity event in LA for four years. Dave Stewart and Macy Gray have both played but this year they were struggling to find someone, so I stupidly said, “Oh, I’ll do it.” I chose five songs and put together a six-piece band. I played acoustic guitar. I’ve never been as scared in my life.’
The quiff, the earring and now this…
‘No, I’m not about to form a band,’ he smiles. ‘But I would like music to be a bigger part of my life.’
Born in Perth to parents who were both teachers, McGregor was allowed to leave school early to pursue his ambitions of emulating his uncle, Denis Lawson, as an actor.
He moved to London in his teens to study drama at Guildhall. While there, he was signed up to appear in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar, which brought him to the attention of Danny Boyle, who cast him in Shallow Grave and then Trainspotting.
‘Your experience of life is what makes you who you are,’ said Ewan
Released in 1996, Trainspotting transformed him into a poster boy of the Britpop era.
‘It was unbelievable to feel part of it. I used to hang out a bit with Oasis, and Damon Albarn was always knocking about somewhere or other, and like a fan I felt part of it. It was certainly a high point of my life. But it was also a time of massive debauchery – but then again, I was in my twenties.’
McGregor hasn’t had a drink in 12 years but his appetites were once legendary – or as one commentator put it, ‘Ewan’s alcohol intake made his friend Liam Gallagher look like John Selwyn Gummer.’
‘I got away with it more or less unnoticed. I was a maniac on the booze but I only remember it fondly.’
That’s not to say there weren’t cringeworthy episodes, such as the time he found himself in Iggy Pop’s dressing room. McGregor laughs again.
‘Oh, it was awful. That was back in the bad old days. I’d played a version of him in a film called Velvet Goldmine. I’d worked with a choreographer to move like him and sang all his music live on stage.
‘He was playing at this Versace fashion show I’d been invited to so I went backstage to meet him. But I was blootered by that point.
‘I came to my senses when something in my brain went, “What are you doing?” He was just sitting there looking at me while I was dancing away, doing my Iggy Pop impersonation to Iggy Pop. It was one of the more embarrassing moments of my life.
‘I was 24 when we made Trainspotting. I’d left home when I was 17 and those are amazing years. You start feeling like you’re your own person.’
He plans to sit down with his daughter Clara to revisit the film.
‘She’s 16 so she can see it now. That was as important a film for me to make as any I’ve ever made, really.’
He says he was disappointed with Porno, Irvine Welsh’s follow-up novel.
‘Perhaps that’s because when I read it I was arming myself for the possibility they might want to make a sequel to Trainspotting, which I’d be very loath to do. I feel like it would be dangerous to try because anything that tarnished its reputation would be a bad idea.’
Ewan shines in Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, a romantic comedy that could do for rods and flies what The Full Monty did for stripping firemen
McGregor’s elevation to the big league came when he landed the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels.
‘I don’t really feel touched by them. It’s difficult to say what changed. They paid me more money than I’d been paid before, not massively, but they put my price up for studio pictures,’ he said in London.
‘They also opened me up to a broader audience. Kids now know my work. I’ve had some hide behind the sofa because I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi and they can’t deal with it, and then there are others who won’t believe that I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi when I chase them down the street.’
Rather than chase the easy money from blockbusters, McGregor has mixed up studio productions with smaller art-house movies. It’s a formula that’s worked well in recent years.
His comedy chops were on show with George Clooney in The Men Who Stare At Goats, then he excelled opposite Christopher Plummer in Beginners and now, with Emily Blunt and the hilarious Kristin Scott Thomas, he shines in Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, a romantic comedy that could do for rods and flies what The Full Monty did for stripping firemen.
‘I was 24 when we made Trainspotting. I’d left home when I was 17 and those are amazing years,’ he said
‘I fished when I was on holiday as a kid but never fly fishing,’ he says of playing Dr Fred Jones, a scientist who finds love amid a Yemeni sheikh’s plan to introduce wild salmon to the dry riverbeds of his homeland.
‘I always enjoyed the excuse of sitting in a beautiful place and the game playing with the fish, but I never had any skill at it.’
Four years ago McGregor decided to move his family to California.
‘They say a man who’s tired of London is a man who’s tired of life,’ he says.
‘I’m still not tired of life but I did get tired of London.
‘I felt an encroaching sense in London that liberty and freedom were being lost. There are cameras everywhere.
‘Whenever I was in LA, I just felt this spring in my step.
‘There’s a freedom that I enjoy there that I felt was disappearing in London.’
He enjoyed being back in London last year but says he was shocked by the summer riots.
‘It was like mob culture. People were doing despicable things. They were angry but about what? All they achieved was to make everybody get even more conservative and tighten up.
‘I thought about Amr Waked, who played our sheik in Salmon Fishing…. He was involved in the square in Cairo during the uprisings in Eygpt.
‘What happened in London made me feel embarrassed. It showed that there’s unrest and dissatisfaction and that should be addressed.
‘But people breaking windows in Foot Locker and trying on shoes before they steal them isn’t saying anything other than, “I’m a thief and I don’t want to pay for my stuff”.’
Where does he stand on the issue of Scottish independence?
‘I got in trouble once when I was drunk in a press conference in Cannes and made a rude remark about a Scottish actor who’s very pro-independent Scotland. But behind my comments at the time was the fact that I don’t think it’s for anybody who doesn’t live in Scotland to tell the Scottish people how to feel about Scotland. And I still feel the same way about it.
Ewan as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace
‘I’m a Scotsman and I love Scotland with all my heart. But I also like the idea of Great Britain, and I don’t know that it wouldn’t be a terrible shame to break it all up.’
While making his most recent film, McGregor found himself standing on a river bank feeling the same sense of freedom that he’d experienced on his mammoth motorbike trips with his friend, the actor Charley Boorman.
‘Fly fishing reminded me of them in a way,’ he says.
‘You have a plan, you go to the river, and then you stand there all day long. You feel like you’re part of the landscape; your brain just has all this space to wander. That’s what it’s like doing the big long bike trips. You sit on the bike, you’re taking care of steering it round the corners, but your brain suddenly is released.’
In 2004, Long Way Round was turned into a hit TV series and three years later they set off on a second trip, from John O’Groats to Cape Town, Long Way Down.
This restless pursuit of the horizon is something that runs in the family. His older brother Colin flew RAF Tornados for 20 years.
‘I can’t touch what he did for a living,’ says Ewan.
‘I remember making a film and being in the make-up bus with a load of actors, and we were all moaning about the coffee. Then my phone beeped and it was a message from my brother: “Emergency landed into Basra last night. Slept under canvas next to the runway. We were mortared all night long. Hope you’re well. Colin.” I looked up and said, “We’ve got to stop moaning about the coffee, people. Really, we’ve got to stop.”’
McGregor has no plans for a third trip with Boorman.
‘We should have waited longer to do the Africa trip. These are trips of a lifetime so you don’t want to do them all at once.
‘I think our styles of travelling are different. Charley likes to get somewhere quickly, whereas I like to widdle around a bit more. I’d love to fly my bike into Peru, spend a month and fly back.’
But how did those two epic adventures change him?
‘I found myself contemplating things that had happened to me at school,’ he replies.
‘Things that I had never thought about for 30 years suddenly were going through my brain. It was as if I’d given myself the time for those things to surface again; maybe things that needed to be thought about or things that had to be reconsidered.
‘It’s a way to realise how you’ve changed and if you’ve done that in the way you wanted to change or not.
‘Your experience of life is what makes you who you are; from your early days with your parents, to being a young adult, to having your own kids, and all the places you travel.
‘I’ve been lucky to travel to a lot of places with my work, and then I’ve chosen to take myself to amazing places on my bike. It all informs who you become.’
And in Ewan McGregor’s case, that’s a man who’s living proof that turning 40 is nothing to be scared of.