Ewan McGregor’s certainly used to taking direction – but it’s a little different when the character you’re playing is, essentially, your director.
It was a challenge McGregor was eager to take on when he agreed to star in “Beginners,” a somewhat autobiographical account of writer-director Mike Mills’ extraordinary experience dealing with the aftermath of his mother’s death, his father’s decision to come out of the closet late in life, and coming to grips with his own complicated romantic relationship history.
“It was never like a load to carry,” McGregor tells PopcornBiz of transforming into a slightly fictionalized version of Mills for Mills. “He never made me or asked me to impersonate him, but I wanted very much to feel like him, and so I had him record all of the dialogue."
"It was quite interesting because it was like a script read that he did with his assistant Sara, and occasionally you could hear him chatting with her and going ‘Oh God, I really f***ed that up,’ and he’d say to me ‘Don’t feel like you have to do anything like that’ and ‘That was really terrible.’ And he was like making excuses for his performance as himself. I still have it – it’s like a nice, funny play reading."
“I was able to try to get a flavor what he sounds like, and certainly feel like I was him in terms of the clothes I was wearing,” he says “And then I was able to watch him on set every day, observe his movements and how he interacts with people. It was never intimidating or, I was never kind of left feeling ‘Sh*t, I didn’t really quite get him there. I always felt that together we found the right way to play it.”
McGregor says he came to “Beginners” as intrigued by Mills, a former graphic artist and the filmmaker behind the acclaimed indie “Thumbsucker,” and his real story as much as he was in playing the role. “I read the script and I just liked it very much, and then I met Mike,” he explains. “We sat and had coffee for two or three hours and I was mainly interested in finding out more details about the story. I realized I wasn’t really talking to him about the script or the film, I was just interested in more facts and details of the story and was just on board right from then, really.”
The actor also got to carve out a very personal bond with veteran actor Christopher Plummer, who plays his newly out father in the film, and was thrilled to discover that despite their age differences they came at acting from similar perspectives.
“For his generation, he’s a really contemporary actor,” he says. “I found him to be really modern to work with. I think acting was very different when he started out, and when I was playing the scenes with him I really felt like I was there with my dad. It felt like we were really achieving a feeling of reality when we were working.”
Their father-son dynamic formed even before the cameras rolled, when Mills sent McGregor and Plummer on shopping mission together. “Mike sent us off to Barney’s,” recalls McGregor. “He gave me $200 and said that I had to buy Christopher a scarf, and I believe he told Christopher ‘Okay, you are gay now.’”
During their department store excursion, says McGregor, “Christopher became obsessed with skinny jeans – that’s all he wanted to buy. He said, ‘What are those?’ I said, ‘Well, they’re just black jeans, Christopher.’ ‘They are very tight. And as I was trying to drag him back to the scarves, he kept disappearing over to the jeans section. He’s in his eighties, but he’s sharp as a knife and doesn’t need to be looked after in a shop or anything, but it gave me an idea of what it might be like to be [the characters]. And that’s what it was like in Barney’s – it was very funny. I did eventually get him a scarf – after having put about $1,200 worth of black skinny jeans on my credit card.”
“I haven’t seen him since we finished the shoot, but I’m pretty sure that he’s still knocking around in them,” laughs McGregor. “God knows he had enough pairs.”
"Beginners" opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday