Scenes of a Sexual Nature - Ewan McGregor interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
EWAN McGregor talks about working for scale in Scenes of a Sexual Nature, not playing it gay, Miss Potter and further motorcycle adventures he has planned with Charley Boorman…
Q. After all your big movies, did you ever think you’d be earning minimum wage again?
A. Yeah, but I suppose it didn’t take me by surprise. If you want to work on good stuff, I think the worst thing you can do is set yourself up any kind of limits. I’ve tried always not to do that in terms of the characters I play.
My choices are based solely on the script, the writing, the story and the characters, and never anything else. And that way you can have great variety and, as a result, great fun in your work. The second you think: “I’m only going to make films in Hollywood or I’m only going to make independent films,” you’re giving yourself boundaries that I don’t think should be there. “No boundaries” is the short answer.
Q. You were on stage in the West End production of Guys and Dolls at the time you made this film. How was the transition from stage to screen?
A. In many ways it was wonderful because my boyfriend in this story is played by Douglas Hodge – and on stage I was Guy Masterson and he was Nathan Detroit. We’d rehearsed together for six weeks, and we’d been on stage for a couple of months I think. So we had this great working relationship anyway and then when we were sent the script – we were both sent it at the same time – we discussed it and thought it was a great scene. You know, everyone’s story in this film is a long scene. And it was exciting to think that we’d be doing that together.
Once we’d committed to doing the film, we were able to work on it before we shot it. Because in our experience, 12 or 13 pages of dialogue in two days is quite a tall order. So, we thought the best way that was achievable was to have the whole thing down. And we didn’t know if Ed [Blum, the director] was going to cut it into sections or shoot it from start to finish. But because we’d done some work on it, we were able to start at the beginning of the scene and play it right through to the end. And that’s in fact how we shot most of it. Most of the angles he set up were played from start to finish. It was more like theatre in that respect than anything else – it was great.
Q. This is the polar opposite of an effects-based film set like Star Wars. Was that part of the appeal – because it gave you an opportunity to act?
A. They’re all different from each other, and I think that your job as an actor is to try and maintain the integrity of the scene regardless of the surroundings. It can be very tricky in a blue screen environment, but it can also be difficult when you’re shooting on location on the street and there’s paparazzi everywhere – and you want to kill the paparazzi – and you’re still having to do your acting! That’s difficult too. So it’s fair to say that it’s all a challenge.
But in this respect we had a very enclosed area of Hampstead Heath, so there were no worries about that kind of thing. We had privacy and we were able to just play the scene. And it was such a great scene to play because it was such a lovely piece of writing.
Q. Did you mix with any of the other cast in the film?
A. Not really. Adrian Lester walked through our scene and it was lovely to meet him because he’s a great actor and a nice bloke. But apart from that we were just self-contained.
However, a lot of the guys around about us in the scene were dancers and actors from Guys and Dolls. because a lot of them had never been on a film set and wanted to know how that worked. Douglas and I spoke to Ed and it turned out he was having problems finding extras, so it was quite handy. We took a bunch of the guys up there.
Q. How is it working for a first-time director?
A. I think it’s exciting working for a first-time director because very often you get someone at their most passionate and at their most committed. I met with Ed and he was so passionate about it and another draw for the film was the way he’d set it up. He’d been so frustrated trying to get films made in Britain and not getting to the point where they were made, that he kind of cut out all the middlemen, of which there are hundreds swanning around Soho doing lunches and snorting enormous amounts of cocaine – and not making any films at all! They’re self-aggrandising arseholes, so he cut them all out of the picture and he had the script written and he and the writer [Aschlin Ditta] took the script to agents, and the agents sent the script to their clients because it was good writing, and all the clients responded to it. So that’s why you’ve got that great cast list.
And then we shot it, and now it’s going to have quite a large release in November. So, it was fantastic to be involved in the project just because of that. The only way to create a healthier British film industry is to make more films and have them seen. We have too many films sitting on shelves that are never going to be seen.
Q. With your busy schedule, it must have been easier to do a short shoot like this?
A. At the time I was in Guys and Dolls for six months, so in many respects I had all the time in the world. But the thing about being on stage is that it takes such a massive amount of energy that you really guard your time off.
It’s quite interesting that with my family and stuff it sounds like a great schedule – you’re working only in the evenings except for Wednesday and Saturday. But in actual fact you’re so knackered and you have to really protect your time off, that it’s trickier than you might think. So, the idea of doing a film for two and a half or three days doesn’t seem like a big deal, but then we were shooting all day long. And then the first day of the shoot we went on stage that night, and we’d been in the sun all day long. I thought I had sunstroke and I really worried. I thought: “I’m going to blow this tonight.” And all night long I kept thinking:“Oh no – that’s alright. I got through that bit – alright.” So it worked out.
Q. How did you approach playing a gay character and doing gay scenes?
A. I just wanted to play it as a scene between two people. I think the idea of playing gay is unhelpful. These are gay men in the scene, so that takes care of itself. I think you’ve just got to play the truth of the scene, and that makes you a gay man. I mean, what is a gay man? There are as many different types of gay men as there are straight men, you know. So I think we were just concentrated on the themes of it and the truth of it.
I think the themes are quite particular to a gay couple – the idea of fidelity or infidelity has been part of the relationship. It would be a different scene if it was a man and a woman talking about the guy who’s always sleeping around. However, in the rules of their relationship, if you like, it’s allowed – although it’s causing Brian [Hodge] to be sad, you know. So that’s their dilemma. And then I think the idea of wanting children would be very different if they were a man and a woman instead of two men.
But then I thought these are just two people who are in love with one another and it was important to make the relationship feel like it had been lasting for a long time, because they’re supposed to have been together for 14 years. I like to think we did. I wasn’t aware of trying to be gay in it. I was just trying to play the scene, really.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your role in Miss Potter?
A. I play Norman Warne, who was Beatrix Potter’s publisher. He came from a family of a publishing house in London. It’s a love story between he and Beatrix and they were engaged to be married. And it was lovely to work with Renee [Zellweger, who plays Beatrix] again having done Down With Love with her. It’s always nice if you have continuity with the actors and come back to work with someone a second or third time. It’s lovely and we had a great time.
Q. Are you going to hit the road again with Charley Boorman?
A. Next year. We’re going to go from John O’Groats to Cape Town, down through Africa. It should be amazing. It’s been really successful as far as Long Way Round, in terms of it being an incredible experience that we’ll never forget and also it’s certainly changed Charley’s life. He’s now published his second book, Race to Dakar, which is great. I finished it last night – I thought it was a good read. So, we’re off next year. It should be really nice – same team: Claudio on the camera, Russ and Dave and Jimmy. We should have a good laugh.
Q. Anything you’ll do differently this time?
A. Take less! I mean we just had so much kit last time that we never needed. So I think it’ll be an exercise in taking the bare minimum.
In actual fact, the only things you might need are things that would go wrong on the bike because you’re travelling through generally populated areas and so as long as you’ve got a little bit of food, some water, and ways to purify water, and something to sleep under, you don’t really need anything else. I mean, you could carry all the spares for the bike but then you may as well just have someone else on another bike. But we’ll find out if we take too little. I’d much rather have too little than too much.
I also think this time we’ll probably meet up with our support crew more because we have a good time when we’re together and I think security in Africa might be more of an issue in some of the countries we’re going through – Sudan, for instance, and we’re going to try and nip into the Congo. So there will be areas where we might need them.
Q. But isn’t it more interesting when things go wrong…?
A. Absolutely. I did a bike trip around France once and nothing happened. I just rode round France and came home and it was fairly boring [laughs].
Whereas when the bike breaks down in the middle of Mongolia and you have to buy a Russian one that doesn’t work, and you meet guys coming out of a truck in the steppes, and they fix the bike for you – that’s what the journey’s all about. It’s important to remember that, because you can get obsessed with timekeeping and sticking to this notional schedule that you made up in a room in Shepherd’s Bush.