Ewan McGregor’s name has already been mentioned quite a bit in 2012, largely thanks to Christopher Plummer. The winner of the Oscar for best supporting actor, among other accolades, Plummer made a point of mentioning his “Beginners” co-star in nearly all of his acceptance speeches this year.
But with a number of upcoming projects slated for release in the coming months — including the “Jack and the Beanstalk”-inspired blockbuster “Jack and the Giant Killer,” the disaster thriller “The Impossible” and his current film, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” — McGregor’s name will undoubtedly continue to come up without Plummer’s help. (Adding to the chatter: McGregor also is playing the lead in an HBO adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections.”)
I recently spoke to the veteran actor via telephone about “Yemen,” a dramedy in which he plays a man attempting the unconventional task of bringing fly-fishing to the Arabian Desert. During the conversation, he spoke about learning how to cast a line for the film; the fact that he didn’t have to fish for awards-season compliments from the “cheeky” Mr. Plummer; and how he’d like to do another musical like “Moulin Rouge.”
I read that you worked with a fishing consultant on this film. What did that involve — did this person just teach you technique?
McGregor: It was purely learning the technique of casting a fly rod, which is quite a specific skill. It’s not something that I’d done ever before. I had a teacher in London and we did the kind of basics there.
Fly fishing is kind of — you’re trying to catch fish that feed from the surface, that eat insects off the surface of the water. So you actually cast a line out and the line falls on top of the water and floats on the surface of the water. And at the end of the line, there’s a piece of filament with an artificial fly on the end. You know, there’s people who tie flys who are real artists. So it was learning about that and learning how to do it.
The nice thing about it is that you can do it anywhere, really. You can learn to fly fish in a parking lot, you know. You don’t need to be on a river to learn the technique.
How long did it take to learn?
McGregor: Over the week or two of rehearsal, I was doing it every day for about two or three hours a day. I don’t think I’m very good in the film at it, sadly. When we got to the actual river in Scotland that we fly fish on, and the river in Morocco — neither of the rivers were really wide enough to do proper casts. Also, the weather didn’t play in our favor. It’s very difficult to do if it’s windy and when we were shooting the fishing scenes in Scotland it was a windy day. I think fly fisherman the country over will be tossing and shaking their heads when they see me.
Did you enjoy fishing? As a motorcycle guy, it seems like it wouldn’t be quite your thing.
McGregor: No, I do like it because it’s a very lovely excuse to stand in the countryside and be surrounded by nature. And I love the sound of the river. It’s very solitary and peaceful. I can relate to it in terms of the long motorcycle trips that I’ve taken, in that you’re physically taking care of something technical and your brain is sort of freed up to wander. I can imagine that fly fishermen experience the same freedom of mind that I do when I’m on a long bike trip.
Did you ever catch anything?
McGregor: No. That’s the one part that I’m not interested in, is the actual catching of the fish. Not really for any squeamish reason, because I eat fish and I don’t have a problem with catching fish. I just don’t have the whole kind of game-playing, the sport of it, the hunting aspect of it, if you like ... that wasn’t something that captured my imagination, I suppose.
Well, that might be an asset. You won’t get impatient because you don’t care about the actual catching part.
McGregor: [Laughs] But then I may as well just go for a walk, really.
In “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” there are elements of political satire. Do you think if the film were set in America there would be anything different about the tone of that political satire, or is that pretty much universal?
McGregor: I think the idea of political spin and the game-playing that goes on in the PR offices of politicians is universal. You know, the very fact that we have a term for it, the spin doctor, is kind of — it’s like professional lying or something, isn’t it? And we’re quite happy to accept that. I don’t think it would be very different, I don’t know.
Have you had an opportunity to talk to Christopher Plummer, your co-star in “Beginners,” since he won his Oscar for that performance?
McGregor: I’ve written to him. I don’t have a number for Christopher, but I’ve written to him. I was just so delighted for his success, I really was. I think it was a performance that was absolutely worthy of all the accolades. I was delighted especially with the Oscar because it’s like the cherry on the cake. He was also very sweet and always gave me a little mention, which meant a great deal to me.
Right — you got a good deal out of this because every time he won, he would say something nice about you.
McGregor: It’s funny. He was more kind of backhanded about it to begin with, because he’s quite cheeky, Christopher. I did notice that it became more sort of heartfelt as he went along. [Laughs] But I think it was lovely. I was so happy for him.
You have a number of films coming out this year, and they are all over the map in terms of different genres. Do you decide which projects to take on in a different way than you did when you first started out or is it really the same process?
McGregor: It’s more the same process, I think, than anything else. I just think it becomes more important because I’ve got a lot of films behind me. So what you decide to do is more important as you go along, I think. That being said, the process is still very simple for me. I just really go on my instinct, and if something grabs me, it grabs me. I trust my instincts in that respect — that my taste is looking for something out of the ordinary, something that I haven’t done before.
I think if I read something that feels like a version of other films, where you can just kind of see the movie going by, that I just don’t feel any connection to it. But if I feel something is unusual and territory that hasn’t been explored and a topic that hasn’t been discussed much, then usually my interest is piqued.
Do you think you might do a musical at some point again? You were so wonderful in “Moulin Rouge.”
McGregor: Well, thank you. I loved it. Since then, I spent six months onstage in London in “Guys and Dolls” and I loved that very much. But there’s not very many of them around, to be honest. I think at that time there was a great deal of talk that the musical was back — with “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” and also the really brilliant film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” I felt like maybe that was going to be the case, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.
I think they’re very difficult to get right, and they’re very complicated to make work. I’d love to do another one because I love singing. It’s so powerful to sing your emotions to somebody. I think that’s why musicals are so popular — we receive music in a way that we don’t the spoken word. But we’ll see. I certainly would be up for it if there is another good one.