Motor Mouths

 

OFF-ROAD TRIP: Actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman talk boots and bikes with Louise East as they describe their motorbike ride from London to New York

Within seconds of my meeting Ewan McGregor, he has heaved me onto a massive BMW motorbike and is cooing over my red cowboy boots; "Look at these boots, Charley. Don't they look great on the bike?" Charley Boorman comes over to take a look, and we all admire, first my boots, then the three hulking great motorbikes McGregor, Boorman and their cameraman rode from London to New York earlier this year.

Overland is hardly the logical way to get to the Big Apple, taking in, as it does, some of the world's most inhospitable landscapes (Siberia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan) and bureaucratic border-crossings (Russian Federation), but apparently, it's the kind of route to make a die-hard biker weep with longing.

And for all that McGregor and Boorman are both actors - the former with a stellar career that spans indie favourites such as Trainspotting and blockbusters such as Moulin Rouge and Star Wars, the latter's a quieter affair, including roles in The Serpent's Kiss (during which he and McGregor met) and Deliverance (directed by his father, John Boorman) - it's clear they are both dyed-in-the-wool bikers.

When I arrive at the Shepherd's Bush garage used as production office for the subsequent book and television series, McGregor and Boorman are much more interested in fiddling with their bikes than sitting down at the table to talk. Feeling like the worst kind of engine-illiterate girly, I am reduced to murmuring, "Goodness, what big bikes. Do they need a lot of work?" McGregor looks up, throws a very knee-weakening grin in my direction, and says "Nah. We're just trying to nick as much stuff as we can before it's all finished." Yet when I do manage to herd them over to the table and sit them down, they're extremely verbose on the subject of their awfully big adventure.

Words such as "amazing" and "incredible" , are tossed out with the abandon of Miss World contestants. There are endless exchanges along the lines of, "Charley, what was that town we stayed in ...?" "Tomtor." "Tomtor, yeah. Crazy town." "Yeah, crazy."

At several points on the interview tape, McGregor's voice all but disappears as he jumps up to point out places on the 18-foot long map tacked to the garage wall; the middle-of-nowhere point in Siberia at which they finally ditched 40 kilos-worth of "essentials" such as a thermos flask, soap-dish and toilet-roll holder or the gruelling section of the route called the "Road of Bones". Such is their enthusiasm, I begin to feel like a bossy maiden aunt, determinedly persevering with questions like "And what did you learn from your trip, young man?", when all McGregor and Boorman want to do is reminisce about really big potholes and the wonderful sing-song in Magadan.

Still, their passion is understandable. Over three and a half months, they covered 18,478 miles, sometimes riding well over 400 miles a day, during which time they didn't see their families (both are married with two small children). Nor was it without its dangers; producer Russ Malkin tells me about another team circumnavigating the globe at the same time as McGregor and Boorman, whose trip was abandoned when two of the bikers were killed by a logging truck.

During their safe, but eventful trip, McGregor and Boorman spent the night with a gun-toting Ukrainian and his pals, Ewan got "shot" in the eye with a font of petrol - twice; they sat down to a stew of steaming hot bulls' testicles, oh, and to boot, they visited several UNICEF projects.

As they rode, they squabbled about whether the countryside of Kazakhstan or Russia or Mongolia looked more like Scotland, where McGregor grew up, or Wicklow, where Boorman did. "It got competitive," Boorman says. "As soon as one of us saw a little bit of heather we'd shout over the mics: 'God, this looks like Ireland.' 'Scotland.' 'Ireland.' "

While there was a back-up jeep, containing spares and communication equipment, for most of the trip it was just the bikes, McGregor, Boorman and the cameraman, all held together with a wing and a prayer. "It's truly inspiring," says McGregor wistfully. "Those tin boxes held everything we needed to survive. Bikes represent freedom in a way a car doesn't, because you're out there, on your bike, but part of the world."

The idea of riding from London to New York was dreamt up at McGregor's kitchen table in 2003. "When you're nuts about motorbikes, sooner or later, you get to the point where you really want to do a long journey," Boorman muses. "But the route was certainly Ewan's fault." McGregor yelps indignantly and points out: "It just seemed so obvious. It's basically a straight line."

We all look up at the red line leaping up and down the map like a hyperactive pulse-rate. "Well sort of. Originally we wanted to ride across the top of the Bering Strait, but it's impossible because the road system ends here." He leaps up again and points to a spot in the middle of Siberia.

Originally, too, they planned a road-trip just for two, but on realising the cost and preparation involved, decided to form a production company to make a television series and write a book. They sold the rights to these in advance to fund the full-time staff needed to organise the trip's logistics, but combining a personal odyssey with the needs of a television series provided its own tensions.

The book, Long Way Round, written up from daily video diaries, is admirably frank about the fraying tempers and spats caused by hunger, lack of sleep, missing their families, and the anxiety of the unknown.

"When we're annoyed with one another, then it's in there, because that's the way it was. I mean, when do you ever spend 113 days with your best male friend? It doesn't happen. You're bound to have days when you piss each other off," says McGregor. "It was a real f**king rollercoaster. Probably more so for me than for Charley, as I would have quite big dips, sometimes on an hour-to-hour basis."

Then there were the slightly more comic complications. In Kazakhstan, local officials got wind of the trip, and laid on a dignitaries' welcome which saw McGregor and Boorman furtively fleeing a constant police escort, in a kind of topsy-turvy version of Easy Rider. In the Ukraine, they bumped into a local mafioso, who insisted on treating them to a home-cooked meal, some excruciating guitar-playing and a go on his Kalashnikov. Then there were the bulls' testicles, which Charley couldn't keep down, but Ewan munched with a certain grim machismo: "It didn't taste awful, but it did pop."

For Ewan McGregor, the trip also brought him up against his own rather stratospheric fame. In a flea market in Kiev, two stallholders debated whether Big Fish was one of his better movies. In Kazakhstan, their arrival would be heralded by a rally of flash bulbs, and border guards asked for photos with "Mr Star Wars". Ironically, in America, McGregor was recognised only rarely, aided by the Grizzly Adams beard grown during the trip.

Back in London, McGregor is keen to play down his own celebrity, insisting "it was never an issue" on the road, and getting snappy for the first and only time when I ask him whether his role as the young Obi-wan Kenobi had a big impact on his career. "No. Don't ask me Star Wars questions." It may be that he has learnt his lesson from the occasions on which he was less than flattering about Hollywood in general and Star Wars in particular - quotes that got him into trouble with Fox executives and haunted him for years.

Initially prickly when I ask whether it was a relief to escape the film world for a while, he later concedes, "it was never an escape, never 'Oh, I've got to get away from this terrible celebrity' but I have to say ..." he pauses, "it was refreshing. The thing about film-making, as an actor, is that you have all your decision-making taken away from you. The only decisions you make are what you do in front of the camera. Apart from that, someone says 'we'll pick you up at 6.30, your lunch is at one, you can have this, this or this.' You become like a child because you're not being allowed to decide anything for yourself. On this, it was wonderful to make the decisions together."

For now, McGregor is firmly back in the Hollywood kindergarten of big-budget movies. Currently filming The Island, a sci-fi flick also starring Scarlett Johansson, McGregor also has Episode III of Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith due out next year, and work is about to begin on Britain's first computer-generated animated feature, Valiant, in which McGregor stars as a young pigeon behind enemy lines in the second World War alongside John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, Ben Kingsley and John Hurt.

Boorman has a less packed schedule - grimacing comically, he refers to "a few projects in the pipeline".

Towards the end of the interview, the maiden aunt prevails, and I finally get to ask them what they learnt during the trip. "If there's anything I've learnt," says McGregor enthusiastically, "it's that people don't know what's going on in your head unless you tell them. If you're feeling really pissed off about something, you need to say what it is or nobody can help you. Also, you can only do what's in front of you at any given time. My moments of greatest happiness were when I was just thinking about the stretch of dirt road that was underneath my front tyre. That's a great lesson if you can learn it for your everyday life."

And Charley, your life lesson? "Always bring a pack of baby wipes with you."

Long Way Round is published by Time Warner Books (£14.99 in UK). The television series of the same name starts on Sky One on Monday at 9 p.m.