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Ewan McGregor talks Ghost Writing

The Ghost
31 August 2010

For Ewan McGregor, the plan is to keep mixing it up. He has worked with some of the very best contemporary directors – Tim Burton, Ridley Scott, Woody Allen – and recently, Roman Polanski, a filmmaker he describes simply as “a legend.”

His impressive film CV also includes A Life Less Ordinary, Velvet Goldmine, Rogue Trader, Young Adam, The Island, Miss Potter and Deception. He has made two hugely popular documentaries based on his motorbike trips with his close friend, Charley Boorman – Long Way Round (2004) and Long Way Down (2007).

He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their three children.


Q: Are you pleased with the finished film?

A: Yes I am really pleased with it and glad it’s retained its title here too. It’s called The Ghost Writer everywhere else. Here in the UK it’s The Ghost because they wanted to keep the connection to the book. But, yes, I’m really happy with it and I think Roman has done an amazing job.


Q: Did you have to do any research for the character?

A: I didn’t do any. I didn’t need to. I felt like when I read the script I knew exactly who the character was and I could really strongly see him. Sometimes it’s quite vague but in this case I felt I knew he was as soon as I read it. All of the details of who he was where there when I read the script the first time. I saw very strongly that it kept coming back to this adjective that he’s ‘unimpressed’ with everybody. He’s not that bothered.


Q: Robert Harris was saying that you really had to flesh him and that you really brought the character to life..

A: Well I don’t agree. I think he was there on the page.  At least I saw him very clearly when I read it. There’s not much back story to him in the book or in the screenplay but I still felt I knew who he was – late 30s, a writer and all we know about him is that he went to Cambridge and he ghost writes celebrity books or maybe other books too. But the two we know about are the autobiography of some rock and roll guy because Olivia’s character (Ruth Lang) talks about that and then we know he wrote a book called ‘I Came, I Sawed, I Conquered’, which is the autobiography of a famous magician. So that’s all we know about it. And the Cambridge thing, I thought we’d play him with a Standard English accent. Fairly posh. And I find that accent quite difficult to do without feeling really posh and I thought it would be interesting if he was slightly down a notch, class wise and perceives himself to be already an outsider. But in amongst the ex prime minister of Great Britain and his wife and his secretary and that he’s even more out of place by making him sound like he came from London – not that I’m suggesting that there aren’t posh people in London – and that’s where I started from and then I was in the hands of Roman.


Q: And he had a lot of input into how you played the character?

A: Absolutely. And the weird thing about him not being around to do press, and he’s not going to be at the opening of the film in Berlin, is that I really feel more than most movies that he’s as responsible for me playing the part the way I do as I am. It’s completely wrapped up in him. He’s a taskmaster, quite tough. He pushes both you and the crew quite hard. He wants everyone to be as perfectionist as they can and to find colour and detail.


Q: In what way is he a hard taskmaster?

A: He just doesn’t fuck about and you’ll be doing something and he’ll go,’ No, No, No!’ And your ego is dented. But once I’d realised that he’s like that with everyone and more so with people that he likes  – he’s more polite with people he doesn’t care for, I think, because its about the work. And after work he’s a different man. It’s not like Jekyll and Hyde or anything. I mean he’s very gracious if you’re ever in his company. He’s a very gracious host. He asks if you want a coffee and he looks after you.  But when you’re working he’s all about the work and he tells it the way it is and I found that once I’d got used to that and realised it wasn’t me, it was just how he directs. Then I learned a great deal from him, more than other directors.


Q: Working with Polanski has got to be a highlight for any actor. How did it start?

A: I didn’t meet Roman either until two days before we were starting to shoot, at a wardrobe fitting.  We’d had a few conversations on the phone in advance, nothing in great depth. And I was making Men Who Stare At Goats and I was in the car park, we were shooting in the desert in New Mexico and I was on the phone to him and we talked a bit about casting and who he was looking for the ladies parts and I think Pierce was already on board and there was lots of pleasant stuff about looking forward to working with each other and then I said, “well Roman is there anything you think I should be doing between now an the start of filming. Anything you want me to read or watch or think about?”  And he went, “ Uh. No. Get some rest. And I’ll see you in January. ‘ And I did. I just turned up on set and there he was.



Q: And then you plunged straight in…

A: Well, there’s a huge amount of emphasis on the work and him putting the work together and taking you through it almost step by step in rehearsals and we’d generally start in his trailer if there was a new scene or a new actor, because I was there from start to finish, all the time. . So I became like one of the crew and like, when Tom Wilkinson arrived we’d meet in Roman’s trailer and he’d make coffee for us all and then we’d read through the scenes for as long as he thought it needed to be done and he was really pernickety at times. ‘No, no, why would you say it like this? People would not say it like this!’ And you’d go, ‘Ok Roman, fucking hell.”  (laughs)


Q: That sounds pretty intense…

A: I don’t mean to paint a bad picture. It’s just his way. He writes with a co writer- he wrote this with Robert and so he’s seen the film in his head and acted it all out. So when he hears it, if it’s not quite right then it takes him a while to get it the way he’s seen it in his head. Then we’d take it onto the set, rehearse it a few times on the set and that could go on for a very long time or not, depending on how he felt it was. Then once we had the scene he’d talk to the technicians about how to shoot it and sometimes that would take a long time and sometimes not and then once we started to shoot, generally speaking he was quite freeing, he’d let us go. By which time everyone knew what he was after and once the camera were turning there was a freedom and a pace to it. But it was very fascinating the first day we shot 22 hours. First day of four month shoot and I went, “Fuck. Four months of this.’ (laughs) And it was quite normal on a Friday just before the weekend to have a monster day 20 hour days were quite the norm.


Q: Did you talk about the whole ‘is it Blair, is it not Blair’ issue?

A: No, not really. Pierce did have that conversation. I think that was the first thing he asked him when hey met in Paris.  He’ll tell you. He asked Roman, “Am I playing Blair? And he said, “No, you’re not playing Blair?’  And Pierce said ok and looked at loads of stuff about Blair anyway because it’s quite clear in the book that it’s swinging that way. But it meant that Pierce didn’t have the responsibility of feeling that he was impersonating Blair or playing Blair because it wasn’t.


Q: You’ve had an extraordinarily varied career. Is that the plan, to keep mixing it up?

A: You’re right, I’ve had a very varied career and I’m very grateful for that. I feel lucky to have experienced all that I have; working with people like Tim, Ridley and Woody was just amazing. And now I’ve worked with Roman and that was fantastic. He’s a legend. On my first day on set I couldn’t take my eyes off him, I’ve never examined a director and the way that they work, so much before. He’s brilliant, just brilliant, and absolutely warrants his reputation as a great director. I’ve watched all of Roman’s films – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist, I’ve seen them all. And it’s hard to predict what he will do next because they are all so different and I love that about a filmmaker. I can relate to that myself, because I love to keep mixing it up. But this was Polanski and he made Tess for goodness sake – and I absolutely adore that film – so it took me about a split second to say ‘yes.’ But then you do wonder what it’s going to be like, what he is going to be like. And I wasn’t disappointed, he’s amazing.


Q: Was your uncle (actor Denis Lawson) a really big influence on you becoming an actor?

A:  Yeah, definitely.  I was so young when I wanted to be an actor, I was nine or something, and I just wanted to be like him.  I wanted to be like my uncle Dennis. He would come back home to Crieff and he was this colourful, flamboyant character and I suppose I just wanted to be like my uncle and he was an actor and so that was it. And you know, there’s lots of him in my acting – I see lots of him. I’m always calling him up and going ‘fucking did you again today.’ And then when he sees the film we’ll discuss what scenes he thought I was most like him (laughs). He was my only reference to acting when I was a kid.


Q: Are you still living in London?

A: No, I’ve moved to LA. I’ve had a house there since 2005. I bought a house there when I was doing The Island and stayed in it now and again and rented it out. But whenever we were there we always had a great time and last year I just thought that we should try living there and I have to say I’m really enjoying it and my kids really love their school there. I’ve still got the house in London, I haven’t sold up or anything but at the moment we’re spending more time there.  And you know, the most important thing is to have your family and friends around you and I’ve got a bunch of people there that I really like, I’ve got really strong friends there. And there’s something quite nice about being a Brit there because when other British actors come over you always hear about it and somehow you end up having dinner with people you might not meet otherwise. That’s not a reason to live there but it is quite a nice thing that happens. So I’m enjoying it very much.



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