Ewan McGregor: ‘I have been living a midlife crisis since my teens’
‘If you always wanted a convertible and you get one then why should we demean that?’
Did T2 Trainspotting 2 really happen? Or am I confusing the film with a weekend spent contemplating mortality with my least interesting contemporaries. It did. I wrote something about it last year. Ewan McGregor really has reached the deeper waters of middle age. He doesn’t look 47. Then again, you probably wouldn’t look 47 either if you lived the nice life McGregor lives.
Anyway, he positively cackles – the Perthshire accent is largely unaltered – as he arrives in Claridge’s to discuss Disney’s peculiar Christopher Robin. The film is nominally the latest in the studio’s hitherto successful attempt to make live-action beef from their many animated cash cows: Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Jungle Book. Weirdly, Marc Singer’s drama is every bit as much a mid-life crisis flick as was T2. Modelled on AA Milne’s own son, Christopher Robin was the young boy whose toys – a bear named Pooh, a piglet named Piglet and so on – inspired the most durable of children’s story cycles.
Maybe actors don’t have midlife crises. Maybe the opportunity to play with character and story wards off such psychological inconveniences
“I don’t remember being read the books as a kid,” says McGregor (for, I’m guessing, the 12th time today). “I was probably read them when I was really young. But I’ve read them to my kids. So they are so familiar to me. Especially the first volume. And then the cartoons. They have just always been around.”
Deviating from the true story told in last year’s likable Goodbye Christopher Robin, the new film imagines the grown man, talking bears largely forgotten, as a harassed, unsatisfied management drone in an upmarket luggage company. The reappearance of his anthropomorphic chums causes him to re-evaluate his life. He learns to connect with children. He accepts that there’s more to life than work.
I wonder if McGregor sympathises with this version of Robin. “Ha ha! I have been living a midlife crisis since my teens,” he says. “I don’t really believe in it. It’s a label they put on something that’s demeaning. If you buy a drum kit in your mid-30s because you miss drumming then go for it. If you always wanted a convertible and you get one then why should we demean that? I don’t like that. It is something that maybe makes people happy.”
Maybe actors don’t have midlife crises. Maybe the opportunity to play with character and story wards off such psychological inconveniences.
“We do get to play. You’re right,” he says. “We get to work with great people. We meet interesting, crazy people. That makes a difference.”
Looking back at the last decade or so of McGregor’s life, there are no obvious pointers to middle-aged breakdown. Last year, he and his wife, Eve Mavrakis, divorced after 22 years together, but, sadly, that’s the sort of thing that happens a lot in this business. He directed an indifferently received – but by no means awful – adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Actually, the closest thing to his own description was his journeys on motorbike with old chum Charley Boorman in 2004 and 2007. Shown on TV as Long Way Round and Long Way Down, those trips were, however, taken when he was still fairly fresh faced.
He remembers it as a sort of return to childhood irresponsibility.
“I got that when I did those motorbike trips,” he says. “There was a night in Siberia where it was marshland. The only time you can cross that is on summer. You couldn’t leave the road. At night we’d stop and just put our tents up on the road. And then it would stay light all night because we were so far north. We’d be kicking stones about. It suddenly felt like when we are kids.”
McEwan’s first childhood was spent in and around the Scottish town of Crieff. Both parents were teachers, but there was high-class acting blood in the family. His uncle is the durable, still ubiquitous character-actor Denis Lawson. It sounds like an idyllic sort of life. There are no tales of Dickensian trauma (or whatever adjective we’d use for Sir Walter Scott’s equivalent).
“I would spend my summers in this wood called the Knock, near Crief,” he says. “I would get on my bicycle, go and get my friend Eric and we we’d go to the woods. We’d then go back home at night. I don’t know what we did. We were so busy in there. We were making dens. All summer long was spent in there. There is a sense when you have no responsibility – and we can’t maintain that, obviously – of just knocking around and kicking about.”
Closing in on the half-century, he would, in early times, be reconciling himself to elder statesman status. But it doesn’t work that way now
McGregor attended an independent school in Crieff and then took a foundation course in drama at Kirkcaldy College of Technology. He was good enough to secure a place at Guildhall School of Music and Drama – alma mater of Daniel Craig, Simon Russell Beale and Christopher Robin co-star Hayley Atwell. And a few months before graduation he was cast as the lead in Dennis Potter’s well-remembered TV series Lipstick on Your Collar. It was his collaboration with Danny Boyle that helped make him a signature face of the Major years. Shallow Grave was an indie hit. Trainspotting, an unqualified smash, helped usher new levels of British (and specifically Scottish) cultural confidence.
He retained his dignity in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. He warbled convincingly in Moulin Rouge! At the start of this decade, he stretched himself in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.
Closing in on the half-century, he would, in early times, be reconciling himself to elder statesman status. But it doesn’t work that way now. He seems to be playing a man at least 10 years his junior in Christopher Robin. I wonder if he took any inspiration from Milne’s son – actually christened Christopher Robin Milne – who came to hate the stories that made him uncomfortably famous.
“No. Because I was very much playing the Christopher Robin from the book,” he says. “That was very clear cut for me. There was a beautiful film last year about the real Christopher Robin and I never confused the two in my mind.”
The character faces up to uncomfortable truths in a surprisingly gloomy film. He has to deal with financial slowdown. Christopher may have to fire people. Mind you, even Ewan’s done that.
“I have done,” he says with a shiver. “A nanny once. Who was drinking and taking pills. That was a long time ago. I sacked her on the spot. There was no question about that. It’s different for [actors]. We don’t have employees. I think I would be terrible at it.”
He is open to the idea, jokily worked through in Benjamin Hoff’s book The Tao of Pooh, that the quietly optimistic bear is a philosophical figure. The French have Sartre. The English have Pooh.
“There is certainly a philosophical nature to it. It’s about trying to figure yourself out,” he says before going on to ponder how we are all too tied up with our handheld devices to take stock of the ground we stand on.
“Everybody does it,” he shrugs. “We’re not guilty. It’s not necessarily something we are doing wrong. That’s how life feels now. It would have felt differently in the 1930s when he wrote Pooh. He still embodies these ideas.”
Next up, McGregor gets to play the adult Danny Torrance, protagonist of Stephen King’s The Shining, in an adaptation of Dr Sleep, the author’s recently published sequel. King fans will understand the sensitivities here.
“It’s complicated,” he says bouncily. “Because there was the novel and then Stanley Kubrick’s film. And Stephen King didn’t get behind that. The film will be viewed as a movie. Because it is a movie. But it’s also an adaptation of his novel. It will be interesting to see if we can satisfy both camps.”
And then onwards towards a status as Scottish national treasure. Sean Connery can’t live forever. They may end up putting a statute to him on the Royal Mile. Stranger things have happened. Eerily unchanged since his arrival in the 1990s, McGregor does a good job of seeming philosophical about it all.
“We have this privilege of playing all these parts with different actors and directors,” he says. “It’s such a wonderful job. Regardless of their box office success they all teach you something.”
Even Revenge of the Sith?
The recent Disney live-action adaptations ranked
When Disney had an unexpected smash with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010, the studio hastily embarked on a new strategy: remake all those cartoons as live-action crossovers. Dumbo, Aladdin and the Lion King are all imminent.
6. Alice In Wonderland (2010)
Tim Burton’s film made no sense. It’s as much a faux-fantasy in the style of Narnia as a reworking of Lewis Carroll’s playful puzzle. Still, it made a fortune. We’re not considering the awful sequel.
5. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
A bland, unimaginative facsimile of the original featuring a lead turn from Emma Watson that does nothing to establish her credentials as the new Liv Ullmann. The 13th highest-grossing film of all time.
4. Maleficent (2014)
There was some hassle with reshoots, but Angelina Jolie saved the day with a delightfully malign turn as the fairy who gets in the way of Sleeping Beauty. Great fun.
2. The Jungle Book (2016)
A kind of miracle. Top-end CGI is used craftily to create a fresh take on Kipling’s story that still retains many flavours of the much-loved 1967 version. Scared Warner Brothers’ upcoming adaptation of the same story all the way to Netflix.
1. Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Nobody much cared for (or remembered) the 1977 live-action/animation hybrid, but David Lowery’s moving, funny, poignant version made space for itself in the new canon. One of the decade’s best family films.