Mike Mills’s indie darling “Beginners” has earned the simple short hand as the film that finally won Christopher Plummer his Oscar. While it was a story of underdog triumph for the 82-year-old actor, it has left its star, Ewan McGregor in a familiar spot: completely overlooked. McGregor — who shot to fame with “Trainspotting” in 1997 and has appeared in some of your favorite movies since then — often gets the cold shoulder when people discuss the best actors of this generation. Fortunately, McGregor will have no problem standing out in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” his latest film which finds him wooing Emily Blunt, dealing with political bureaucracy, and — duh — salmon fishing in the yemen.
Based on the novel by Paul Torday, “Salmon Fishing” imagines McGregor as Dr. Fred Jones, a fisheries expert who’s enlisted by a sheik to bring Salmon fishing to the Arabic nation. In the Quixote-like quest, Jones meets Harriet (Blunt), a representative for the sheik, who forces him to reconsider his married life and priorities. Written by Academy Award winner Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” combines romantic comedy tropes with political satire and a classic love story that recalls “Casablanca.” McGregor rang up Moviefone to discuss his newest film, why “Beginners” was one of his favorite movie-making experiences, and just whether he would star in something like “The Phantom Menace” again.
This movie is really different from the standard romcom; there are a lot of moving parts and tonal shifts.
I loved the story. I thought it was an unusual story and a really great character to play. I was excited to work with Emily Blunt and [director] Lasse Halstrom. I thought it was a great storyline — not like something I had read before. It has a nice political satire going on in it, which I always think is good. The love story is very cool — and it’s complicated. It’s not all cut and dry. It’s smart — it’s not straightforward. I think life’s like that, so I liked it because of that as well. I’m inspired by good writing and creative writing — people who have got ideas that maybe haven’t been touched on before. That’s what draws me to a script. It’s quite simple. It just goes off my taste. I don’t make it very complicated.
It also doesn’t hurt that you and Emily have some incredibly chemistry together.
We had a great laugh. She’s a lovely, lovely girl. We hadn’t met before — we met just to do the film. She’s a very easy going actress. She’s very funny, very straightforward and uncomplicated to work with. I like her very much. She just made me laugh for like three months. It was easy to bring that out — it’s not essential, but it’s nice that it’s there. It’s lucky, really.
I wanted to talk to you about “Beginners,” because that was such a lovely movie and you give this really wonderful — and under-appreciated — performance. How closely did you work with Mike Mills on the character, especially since the film is quasi-autobiographical?
You always have input in your character, because you’re the one saying the lines at the end of the day. I worked with Mike very closely. I love him — he’s such a lovely man, and he’s a brilliant director. Brilliant. The way he runs the set, the way he structures the work around the acting. He has musicians come and play every Friday morning we had a different musician playing on set in between takes. He’s got a really nice way of working. He did nice rehearsal with me and Christopher [Plummer], and then with me and Melanie [Laurent]. We worked in a very special way. We didn’t really touch the dialogue at all; we hardly read scenes, we just worked together on different things. He’d send us off places — all to do with getting to know each other and bonding. But it really worked for the work. I loved it. I love the film that we made — I think it’s a really beautiful piece of work. I’m delighted for Christopher’s success — it’s been fantastic to see.
Did you get frustrated at all when Christopher was getting deserved praise, but perhaps at the expense of people noticing your work?
Christopher has been very lovely in what he said — he always mentions me, which is very nice. He’s got a nice way of veiling his compliment. He’s a very cheeky man; he often slags me off by way of complimenting me. I like him very much. It’s nice when you’re up for awards, and when you’re not it doesn’t much matter. I think it’s nice that they exist; they exist after the fact for me.
“Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace” came out in 3D last month; looking back to that franchise, was there any trepidation on your part about signing on to playing such an iconic role in an iconic film?
I was very aware of it. I didn’t take it lightly, the idea that it was such a huge thing. It wasn’t, at all, the kind of work I had been doing up until then. I did think about it long and hard, I spoke to a lot of people about it; got advice from directors I appreciated and respected. But the closer I got to getting the part — I was going back for recalls and auditions and screentests — the more I wanted to do it. I’m glad I did. It was great to be involved in — to be in that franchise and that legend of Star Wars is really satisfying. It’s nice. Children speak to me about it — before then there hadn’t been many films that I made that children would have watched. I’ve always been very happy about it. They’re quite tricky to make; they weren’t easy films to make because it’s so technical, there’s nothing there. Green screen, blue screen, no actor — acting to a tennis ball on a stick isn’t the kind of thing that I trained for, but the technical difficult doesn’t take away from the pleasure of being in it.
I know you have a part in “Jack the Giant Killer,” but would you want to make another franchise film again at some point?
There aren’t any other films like Star Wars. They’re kind of unique.
“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is out in limited release on Friday. For more on the film and McGregor, check back to Moviefone later this week.
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