Far up in the Hollywood Hills, on the deck of a modernist glass box, Ewan McGregor takes in the view as he waits for the photographer to arrange the last shot. There’s a sparkling infinity pool just below, a colossal Spanish-style mansion once owned by Bond producer Albert Broccoli across the street, and the vast, languid expanse of Los Angeles stretching out toward the San Gabriel Mountains.
Beyond all the lights and action, 160 miles southeast, is the Anza-Borrego Desert, a barren land of red rocks and sandstorms and no cell service where McGregor shot his latest film, Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert, in theaters this month. It might be his most ambitious role yet—“It’s an impossible role, really,” he says—but when he first encountered the script, he failed to even grasp the film’s subject.
“I turned the first page,” he says, “and there was a guy walking in the desert. No descriptions as to when or where. And it was beautiful and poetic and unlike anything else I’d ever read. Five pages in, he sees someone walking towards him, and as he gets closer he realizes it’s himself. When they meet, face to face, the character says a line, and above that line it said ‘Lucifer.’ And I went, ‘Oh! ****! It’s Jesus—that’s who we’re talking about.’”
McGregor—also the star of Our Kind of Traitor, an adaptation of the John le Carré novel out in July—arrived hours ago (30 minutes early) on his Italian motorcycle, a jet-black Moto Guzzi Stelvio he rode each weekend to and from the desert film set. “We’d wrap on a Friday night,” he says, “and I’d get on my motor bike and ride back, get home at two in the morning, and on Sunday afternoon I’d ride back again.” Now, as the sun sets, he has appropriately slipped into evening wear: patent-leather shoes (no socks), a black T-shirt, and the sort of vanilla tuxedo you might’ve seen in Jazz Age Shanghai nightclubs. Where did his stylist get it? He looks at the label. “Neil Barrett! I know Neil. He’s a friend.” A light wind blows, and he turns up the lapel. The outsides of his eyes are faintly lined. He’s lightly stubbled. His hair is Beckhamesque.
McGregor is 45, but he’s more than plausible as the 33-year-old Christ of Last Days, a loose adaptation of the prophet’s 40-day fast in a wasteland outside Jerusalem (a landscape captured in harrowing beauty by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off his unprecedented third straight Academy Award for The Revenant). While preparing to play Jesus—and also the Devil—McGregor read the Bible, but he was only able to truly fathom the role when he realized it was a story about fathers and sons. “He was a rabbi, a preacher, the Holy Man, of course, but he’s also a young man who’s frustrated about not getting clarity from his dad.”
McGregor discovered the project on a Christmas trip to Tulum with Lubezki. There, he met one of the cinematographer’s childhood friends, Rodrigo García, a Colombian filmmaker—and the son of Nobel Prize–winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez. “I was getting ready to do this film in Australia, Son of a Gun,” McGregor remembers, referring to his role as a notorious Aussie criminal who breaks out of jail. “I was trying to get bigger. Rodrigo could see me sweating my arse off with TRX straps. And I could see that he was taking notes. But he didn’t tell me anything about this film.”
When he got back to LA, he found an e-mail from García’s producers asking if he’d consider the film. “They said, ‘He’s so embarrassed because he met you socially, and he feels that it’s an imposition.’ Eventually he e-mailed me and said, ‘It’s too dangerous an idea, you’ll never want to do it.’ It was like a red rag to a bull.”
It wasn’t an entirely natural role. Even though he’s Scottish—a people so religiously bisected that all Catholics support one Glasgow soccer club and all Protestants another—McGregor admits that he’s totally unreligious. “Church was just something you went to because you had to for school. I can see that it must be a great comfort—I just don’t have it myself.” He sees his nonbelief as neither an advantage nor a disadvantage. “I’ve played murderers, but I’m not a murderer. This should be no different.”
He grew up in Crieff, a market town known for its whisky, the son of high school teachers and the younger brother of a star cricketer and dashing prefect who became a pilot in the Royal Air Force. His idol, however, was his uncle Denis Lawson, a star of the West End still most famous to American audiences as the pilot Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy. (“Still the only man I call in a pinch.”) When young Ewan was miserable at school, his parents encouraged him to leave early. After two years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in London, he left early again, this time for a part in Dennis Potter’s series Lipstick on Your Collar in 1993. A year later, a young English director named Danny Boyle cast him in his film debut, the black comedy Shallow Grave. Two years after that came Trainspotting.
“Rent Boy,” McGregor’s character in the 1996 cult classic, is caught between two worlds: the heroin-addled nether-land of his junkie friends and the conformist middle-class milieu of his parents. Despite those bleak choices, Trainspotting is buoyed by the iconic refrain “choose life,” part of the searing McGregor monologues that bracket the story. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed through McGregor’s life and career. When his drinking reached its nadir—at a Versace show in Milan in 1999 when he impersonated Iggy Pop to Iggy Pop, who had no idea who he was—he quit the bottle. When he met French production designer Eve Mavrakis in 1995, he quit bachelordom. When he finally decided to quit smoking, in 2009, he went cold turkey with hypnotherapy. He briefly quit making arthouse films to make Star Wars, primarily because his uncle’s role in the originals was part of the tapestry of his childhood. But, mostly, he’s chosen a life of smart, risky, subversive roles—The Pillow Book, Velvet Goldmine, Beginners. They haven’t always been the obvious choices, nor have they made for the easiest path to permanent A-list stardom, but they’ve always been decidedly his.
McGregor’s latest choice is to direct—something he’s been wanting to do since he was inspired 15 years ago by the novel Silk, about a 19th-century French merchant in Japan. But he admits he “didn’t have the courage to see it through.” (It was eventually made, starring Michael Pitt and Keira Knightley.) Then he saw the 2006 documentary Deep Water, about the 1968 nonstop round-the-world yacht race. “Britain’s man on the moon!” he exclaims. “I thought this was it.” He found a producer and a writer. “And the writer said, ‘It’s so weird, I’ve been asked to write this before.’” It was already being made. “With Silk, I really bottled it,” McGregor says. “This time I tried harder to make the film, and couldn’t.”
McGregor’s shot at directing finally came with the forthcoming American Pastoral, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. For the past four years, McGregor has been attached as an actor, but the film kept losing directors. “One day my agent told me, ‘Look, you’ve always talked about directing. Maybe it’s right in front of your nose.’ I was doing Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing on Broadway. We had Mondays off, so I said, ‘Give me Monday. Let me think about it.’ I woke up, made a huge pot of black coffee, and spent the whole day with the script going, ‘Can I do this? Do I have the guts to try?’ I always had this feeling that they”—Hollywood producers—“didn’t take me seriously.”
At the end of the day, he phoned Tom Rosenberg, the head of Lakeshore, the film’s production company, and told him he’d wanted to direct for a long time, but only if he had a story that he was burning to tell. This was it. “I’ve realized I could never take a film just for a job,” he says. “It’s so painful.” Impressed, Rosenberg said maybe. But after calling his foreign distributors, he said no. Other potential directors fell through. Finally, Rosenberg pushed the release back six months, cut the budget, and gave the reins to McGregor. It’s out in September, starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Connelly, and McGregor himself as a golden boy whose charmed life goes horribly awry.
“I’m used to working in blocks of three or four months,” he says. “My responsibility is complete when I’m working in a character, but really only to that character and my other actors. Once I’m done playing that role, I just **** off. And somebody else has to worry about it.” This, of course, is entirely different. “It’s like a big rucksack I put on. It’s been full of bricks, and gradually I’ve taken a brick out here or there. Now I’m starting to work with our composer, and we have to do our sound mixing. But I can watch the film with its temp music. It’s the film that I wanted it to be.”
Has his experience on the other side of the camera changed McGregor’s approach to acting? “I’m pretty sure I’ll be a much easier actor to direct,” he says, laughing. Directors to benefit from his newfound empathy include Bill Condon, who cast him as Lumiere, the candlestick, in next year’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, and his early mate Danny Boyle, who will begin filming the sequel to Trainspotting this summer. Loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s novel Porno, it picks up the thread of the Edinburgh junkies’ lives 10 years after the celebrated original. The lag between the making of the films, however, has been longer. “The truth is that it’s been 20 years,” McGregor says, with a long exhale.
After working together on three pictures, McGregor and Boyle publicly parted in 2000 when the director, having promised McGregor the lead in his adaptation of the cult novel The Beach, instead cast Leonardo DiCaprio. “We didn’t see each other for years,” McGregor says. “Then I bumped into him at the Shanghai Film Festival [in 2009]—we were there trying to get Angels and Demons by the Chinese censors—and Danny was the head of the jury. It was the first time I’d seen him properly.” It was brief; they were cordial. “Then, three years ago, I met him at a restaurant in London. He said it was incredible timing—he was just about to go up to Edinburgh to look at our old locations from Trainspotting, trying to get inspiration for the sequel. So I knew it was in the cards.
“We were always professional friends anyway, Danny and I. We didn’t hang out together outside the work we made—I think Danny’s a very private man, and I don’t think that’s so unusual with actors and directors. But I’ve missed him and the way he runs the set. He’s certainly gotten some of the best work out of me that I’ve ever done. It’s been a sort of wasted time. I’ve always considered it a shame.”
Recently, he’s spent that time poring over each scene of American Pastoral with veteran cinematographer Martin Ruhe. “I’ve learned the most about directing in the edit room—the mistakes you’ve made, the shots you don’t have, the shots you’ve wasted time on that you’ll never use. These are all lessons to be learned for another time.” He smiles, looking out at the lights of LA, and runs his hands through his hair. “In the meantime, I’ll go work with Danny Boyle again. It’ll be his film, and I can just be Rent Boy.”