The Two Sides of Ewan McGregor
Ewan McGregor talks to Sorted about his belief system, his approach to playing the dual roles of Jesus and Satan, and how his work as a UNICEF ambassador is helping children to survive.
Let’s begin with a sweeping generalisation: successful actors, more so than most other professions, are blessed with broadened minds. They travel the world, inhabiting characters for weeks, months and in some cases years, gaining new perspectives as they invest themselves into foreign cultures, tackling issues and playing out scenarios so we can bear witness to their experiences for our entertainment.
Effectively these people are not just financially privileged but are enriched with experience – and, dare we say, wisdom – most of us can only dream of. They give us glimpses into worlds beyond; they are, perhaps, the world’s best ambassadors for adventure.
Ewan the humanitarian
And none more so than Scottish actor and humanitarian Ewan McGregor OBE. His adventurous, ambitious spirit is infectious. He possesses a childlike wonder that suits his cheeky smile; his roguish charm marries his rugged, seasoned looks. On screen, whether portraying someone else (in person or in voice) or embarking on one of his motorcycle odysseys, the McGregor we see seems genuinely invested – interested – in whatever he’s doing, and the world around him. He is someone who, in a trend of besmirching and dismissing the A-list elite given the other things going on around the world right now that are of significantly greater importance, we may just want to cling on to and nurture.
From Nineties knockabouts like his breakout performance as drug addict Renton in Trainspotting to a more mature range of roles in the Noughties and beyond, McGregor’s breadth is wide indeed. He has been Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, warring identical twins in the TV version of Fargo and in 2015, embarked on religious oddity Last Days in the Desert, playing dual roles again: intriguingly, Jesus and Satan. It was a film that divided opinions (although it received generally favourable reviews from critics) given its potentially controversial subject matter.
Playing Jesus – and Satan?
Tackling the temptation of Christ would be a big deal for any actor, but McGregor, as always, played it his own way.
I never really went onto the set thinking about playing Jesus in the way that people may have thought,’ the 49-year-old reminisces. ‘There can sometimes be a bit of an abrasive reaction to any film which deals with a project involving religion, but I have to say that there wasn’t anything in the script which was deemed to be controversial. It’s not my desire to engage in something controversial like that and it never would be. I’m getting too old for that!’
Despite this, the film drew not inconsiderable criticism from some quarters, with certain viewers decrying it as lacking in scripture, straying from the biblical account, and at select points displaying it as ‘antichrist material’. Other watchers, though, praised the film for its ‘updated’ take on the temptations presented to Jesus by the Devil, even if those elements weren’t necessarily scripturally accurate.
‘In any film you have licence to bring the present into the past,’ continues McGregor, ‘you have to. You must also allow scriptwriters and directors the ability to stray into new ideas and interpretations that draw people in. It’s no different to advancing the detail or the drama or the fantasy from a novel into a screenplay. If any film didn’t stray from the direct material of a novel or original story it would be unwatchable.’
By his own admission, McGregor doesn’t these days qualify himself as directly ‘religious’, mostly for the reason that he doesn’t attend church. He does, however, recount his childhood in Perth suburb Crieff being infused with ‘vaguely Christian values’, and he has raised his four children (with now ex-wife Eve Mavrakis) in the Jewish faith.
‘There is a lot of faith in our house,’ McGregor chuckles, but he recognises that it’s not his job to enforce those beliefs. ‘My daughters have always had the freedom to decide what it is they believe in and how they want to live their lives, and I would never want to steer them away from that,’ he says, adding that their faith, along with his own open mind, naturally influenced his decision to take on the dual role.
‘I can safely say I would never have accepted that role had I been an atheist, or if my belief system was so radically different to the subject matter in the film. I feel that would have been something of a hypocritical way to go about painting the story that was laid before us; so for me it was interesting to try to tell the story, but from a position of having slightly stepped back. it would have been wrong to be too invested, too close. What was incredible as well was the freedom to embark on what was a significant period of enlightenment and research. As an actor, you’ve got to feel lucky to be granted that sort of opportunity.’
Although McGregor sees himself as taking a ‘fluid’ approach to religion, he says he approached the film ‘as someone brought up with Christian values, who is nowadays just as much influenced by Judaism in the sense of the people who are around me and who have made me the person I am today.’
He continues: ‘I think most of us are like that. There are events in our lives that guide us down the route of faith and belief and comfort; the other instances may make us feel we need to take more salvation in the people and things around us, and I think that’s a pretty legitimate way to feel. Obviously, I’ve been around people who are wholly committed to the church and to their belief systems, but I also respect those who want to find their own way through things, and at their own pace.’
While Last Days in the Desert was overtly religious in its story-telling, McGregor was just as keen to explore its other themes. ‘It’s assessing how fathers and sons get on with each other, and it examines their unique relationships with each other,’ he says. ‘It just so happened that the main protagonist is Jesus, that’s all. We never set out to upset anyone of faith or to insult what is detailed in the Bible.
The power of film
‘In fact, I made sure that I went into it with good knowledge of the Bible and about how Jesus is portrayed, and the many stories which shape the type of person that he was. I equipped myself probably more than I should have and more than I needed to.’
This is typical of McGregor, who reveals himself to be quite the deep thinker; a man who finds substantial personal enrichment in immersing himself in the subjects his roles deal with. He recognises, too, the power of film not just to entertain, but to educate. In this case, he relished the opportunity to explore the deeper meanings behind the film.
‘As with all things, the best stories involving faith are those that present to the reader an idea,’ he says. ‘Someone sat in a big city isn’t going to relate too much to a guy in a desert, and he isn’t supposed to. What’s supposed to happen here is the ideas, morals, values and beliefs that we offer can be understood, taken on and perhaps adapted to other types of lives. That’s really how the whole thing works.
‘The fact the script doesn’t deal with Jesus in any kind of controversial way made it an easy choice for me to go into the project, and I think I came out of it a better actor too. Ultimately, the director, Rodrigo Garcia, invented a story of a time when Jesus was in the desert, and made it so it’s more focused on the parental and child side of a paternal relationship.’
Head out on the highway
Away from work, ‘wandering the desert’ isn’t all that far from how McGregor spends his own spare time – although any such wandering is performed astride his beloved motorcycle. Together with his best friend Charlie Boorman, McGregor has embarked on epic adventures from London to New York (in 2004: 22,345 miles given that they took the ‘long way round’); in 2007 the intrepid duo travelled over three months from John O’Groats to Cape Town for the ‘long way down’; and in December last year, they took the ‘long way up’ from Patagonia to California – another three-month adventure.
While some may take a cynical view that McGregor has been indulging his recreational passion a little too much with these journeys, he has used them as an opportunity to further the aims of global children’s charity UNICEF, for which he’s been an ambassador since 2004. Likewise, the books and TV series based on those trips raised awareness of his and the organisation’s work, visiting UNICEF programmes along the routes and (in April 2012) delivering vaccines to children across Nepal, the Republic of Congo and India.
It seems these journeys are when McGregor is at his happiest, most at ease. ‘I like exploring the world and being able to appreciate different cultures,’ he says. ‘If you think about it, taking a motorbike trip from Scotland and riding all the way to South Africa was crazy, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling in a way that is hard to explain. Wherever you are, you have the feeling that you don’t need to be anywhere else. You experience moments where you feel that you have understood everything about life, about the universe. It’s a powerful feeling.’
He continues on the themes of freedom to explore – ‘just by getting on the bike you are able to run away and leave everything behind’ – and to think: ‘When you’re spending hours and hours out on the road, you have a lot of time to think about your life, obviously, but you also spend a lot of time not thinking about anything and not thinking about all the things that are part of your daily life,’ he muses. ‘You find yourself just enjoying the experience of being on the bike and then getting satisfaction from the experiences you have when you meet people [whose cultures and worlds] are different from your own.’
We must do more
This adventurous spirit has always been part of McGregor’s fabric and, in his lifelong pursuit of enlightenment and discovery, so is a desire to help those in need. His work as a UNICEF ambassador included a visit to northern Iraq in 2016, to see how children’s lives had been devastated by years of conflict. He said at the time: ‘Children uprooted by conflict can find themselves alone, without family and in grave danger. No child should be alone. Many of the children I met in Iraq had been forced to flee their homes, risking their lives on dangerous journeys and have been exposed to unimaginable horrors. Wind forward a few years and the world is still facing an unprecedented refugee crisis and we must do more to protect the extraordinary number of children who have been torn from their homes by violent conflict.’
He talked of one girl he met, Mirna, who told him how her family slept in a disused, half-constructed shopping precinct for over a year, with sentiments that lose no relevance today. ‘The community donated food, clothes and supplies to her family and really came together to welcome displaced people,’ he said. ‘This act of humanity should be replicated everywhere, especially on our own doorsteps. It’s up to us to tell our friends, our neighbours and our governments that refugees are welcome.’
Such humanitarian endeavours – among many others – have not gone unnoticed. Indeed, McGregor earned his OBE for services to drama and charity (another dual role), and in 2016 he received the BAFTA Britannia Humanitarian Award, which is presented to a BAFTA colleague ‘who has used the art form of the moving image or their position in the entertainment industry to create positive social change, and actively shine a light on important humanitarian issues.’
And as for his services to drama, McGregor forges ahead. He’s building on his pre-pandemic successes such as Christopher Robin, Doctor Sleep and The Birthday Cake with parts in next year’s Pinocchio (a darker version of the children’s fairy tale – co-directed by surreal-horror auteur Guillermo del Toro and animation expert Mark Gustafson – voicing Cricket); and then the five-part TV serial Halston – playing the titular American fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick who rose to international fame in the 1970s, as he ‘leverages his single, invented name into a worldwide fashion empire that’s synonymous with luxury, sex, status and fame, literally defining the era.’
Whatever McGregor’s future holds, it’s bound to be more adventurous than before, and always aimed at satisfying his childlike hunger for wonder.
‘As a child I was a big dreamer,’ he smiles. ‘I loved imagining myself as part of fantastic stories and that sensation is still part of me.’