Ewan McGregor is back to give horror a shot to the head by starring in the Stephen King follow-up to ‘The Shining’. The 48-year-old Scot thinks that the horror genre is back with a bite.
Since his breakthrough 20 years ago in Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ McGregor has proved his indie credentials before shifting into studio mode for the Star Wars franchise. Despite carrying weight in Hollywood, he reveals to RSNG why he still can’t take criticism…
Ewan McGregor is in the middle of a quiet coughing fit when I enter the room. ‘Sorry,’ he rasps, ‘water went down the wrong way!’ He flashes that lupine grin and chuckles as he tries to contain himself. Eventually a few clears of the throat and we’re out of the danger zone. ‘Was close there for a minute.’
He may be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood since his but the 48-year-old Scot never fails to disarm in person, and answers openly and broadly, rarely with a stiff vibe – although maybe he’s just that good an actor?
Today he wants to talk about ‘Doctor Sleep’, a horror movie in the mould of ‘The Shining’, it’s Stephen King’s own follow-up to the 1977 classic.
His character, Danny Torrance, is now fully grown – an adult still coming to terms with the trauma he endured as a child. He encounters Abra, a teenager who wants to work with him in harnessing her own extrasensory gift in defeating Rose the Hat and her followers, The True Knot, who are looking to recharge from the ‘shine’ of innocents in their yearning for immortality.
It’s all a long way from McGregor’s early days. Trainspotting was the film that made the man – a roguish heroin addict determined to shake his vices and start anew, the actor embodied the epitome of 'cool' for a generation and secured his indie credentials with a string of low budgeters, from The Pillow Book, Velvet Goldmine, Boyle again for A Life Less Ordinary and The Serpent's Kiss.
And then he made the unexpected crossover to studio movies with the biggest studio franchise of them all – Star Wars. As Obi Wan Kenobi in The Phantom Menace, many worried Ewan had sold his soul for the right price - but this new move only sought to stretch his already broad range and now the star expertly navigates both sides of the big screen spectrum.
He went on to solidify his movie star credentials with Moulin Rouge, Black Hawk Down, The Island, The Impossible and Angels and Demons while maintaining his indie crown in Woody Allen's Cassandra’s Dream, Beginners, The Ghost and Big Fish.
*RSNG Why has this film – the follow-up to The Shining* not been made before now?
EWAN McGREGOR, ACTOR ‘It is incredible to think it hasn’t, but we are in an era of prequels and sequels and all that, and I think the expectation is that this is the treatment films should get, whereas in reality some films and some storylines are best just left in the past.’
RSNG How do you approach a film like this that has such a notable story, and one that everyone knows?
EM ‘The original The Shining movie is so iconic and such a statement piece of horror that you know you can’t go near it in terms of your approach or your ability to reinvent. That’s really why Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep became a whole new story, tagging on to the reality of old.’
‘And that’s the way we have approached the film. The original story is untouched and everything that connects that desperate setting will stay as it is, certainly in this project. Our intention was always to create a totally new story and I think we’ve done that very well.’
RSNG Are audiences tuned in to the horror genre at the moment?
EM ‘I think it needs a big film such as this one to draw it back a bit. Obviously the superhero genre has been the one that has really come to the fore in the past 10 or 15 years, and the blockbusters are either in that area or just high-octane special effects productions.’
‘Doctor Sleep is really neither of those, but I think that’s a brave and an important stance to take. You can’t start challenging something simply by just repeating it, and we’re all looking for this particular genre to make a comeback.’
‘When you have a platform as strong as ours it’s very possible.’
RSNG Who has inspired you most across what is more than two decades in film?
EM ‘I drew from all my directors, I discovered something different in their work and I discovered some stuff that I didn’t want to do myself.’
‘Because from my experience as an actor, if I walk on to set, and I haven’t rehearsed on the actual set, and I’m pointed at my mark, and this is where you walk to and this is where you stop, I’m feeling immediately uncomfortable. And if I feel uncomfortable in that situation, then every actor I work with will feel the same, unless I do what Danny did with me.’
‘I have a bond with actors because I am one and I believe in actors and giving them the fertile environment to nurture and grow. And some directors are unaware of that need. Some directors don’t want that preparation time.’
‘They feel that if you don’t do it first on camera, you’ll lose the spark and the spontaneity that comes with the first try. Something special. Which can a very successful method. Herein lies my point, there’s no right or wrong way.’
RSNG Critics seem to be largely positive?
EM ‘I don’t read reviews.’
RSNG Why not?
EM ‘I haven’t done for a very long time because I can’t take criticism, it upsets me too much. I can’t do it so I choose to eliminate it from my life. How I’ve been for a long time and I’m happily encased in my bubble.’
‘The only time when I learn of a rubbish review is when I get a text from a friend saying, “hope you’re doing alright, fuck them, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” haha!’
RSNG When was the last time you read one?
EM ‘It was before I went on for Guys and Dolls one night, someone handed me a paper saying, “there’s a nice write up about you.” So I thought, let’s break this rule. And it started off with, “McGregor isn’t without his knocks and proceeded to list off all the crap that’s been said about me.” I tossed it away before I got to the apparent ‘good bit’ haha!’
RSNG There was a bit of bad blood there between you and Danny for a while?
EM ‘We didn't speak for 10 years so it wasn't good.’
RSNG About The Beach…?
EM ‘It was over The Beach and some business was handled badly. I was hurt by it yes, I was very surprised and I wasn't pleased at the time but I'm glad it's behind us now. That's the nature of relationships, you go through ups and downs.’
RSNG Because you two were like the dream partnership…
EM ‘I think there was a stage in my career where I was Danny Boyle's guy, I was his actor and that's who I felt I was.’
‘Of Danny, Andrew McDonald, John Hodge, whom I met when we worked on Shallow Grave, it was the first time for all of us on a film and there was that connection there. Danny understood me, I understood him, you know, he got the best out of me.’
‘We understood the high level of quality desired, you don't get trust very often. He could have asked me to do anything because I know it would have been something very trailblazing and special.’
‘I really missed that connection between us so I'm really glad that we're working together again.’
RSNG You've really stretched from big budget to independent, obviously more independent, is it strange to work on something like Beauty and the Beast? Or Star Wars? After working on Danny Boyle's ground-breaking films?
EM ‘Star Wars was the biggest conflict professionally because at that point, I saw myself as an actor who worked on independent projects, who had edge, a grit. A propensity for the left of centre.’
‘I worked with, as you say, Peter Greenaway, Todd Hayes. It really didn't feel like me, even going in for the audition, I'll give it a go but what am I doing here? It honestly felt like selling out. I was looking at it through a prejudiced angle. I saw it as big studio, soulless, out to make money and nothing more.’
‘But George Lucas is an artist. A creator of worlds. He won me over because I believed every single thing he said, I believed in him and wanted to be part of that world.’
‘And it didn't limit me in any ways. Between making these films over a duration of 10 years, I worked with Woody Allen, Baz Luhrman, it didn't do me any harm. I've had a chance to work with some of the world's greatest directors and no one considered me in a different light because of Star Wars.’
RSNG Would you be up for making more Star Wars films?
EM ‘Yes and yes. There's that period between episode three which I finished in and episode four where Alec Guinness first played Obi Wan, there's something to play around with there. Disney need only to call me, haha!’
RSNG Have you ever done a job just for the money?
EM ‘Well, sometimes you get an offer with lots of money and there's no way you can turn it down, haha! But it's never been for just the money. Sometimes you've done a string of independent films, so why not? This could be fun.’
RSNG Is an Oscar the dream?
EM ‘I'd love one. I would. I'm certainly not waiting around, planning my next move around it, but it would be great.’
RSNG You seriously aren't ageing – what is the McGregor secret?
EM ‘Make-up and lots of it, haha! There's no secret because I think I'm maturing along with the rest of them. Just exercise I reckon, that seems to be key to staying healthy.’
‘Not in the gym, I'm a stranger to the gym. Getting around outside, walking, running, cycling. It's not a question I'm asked very often. Will that do?’
RSNG Your parents had originally thought you would follow your brother's academic path?
EM ‘There was a void of expectation when my brother left home at 17 because he was very good at school. He was the head boy and the teachers all loved him. When he left there was this expectation that I would take his place but I wasn't like that.’
RSNG Did you grow up with the sense of rebelliousness that you sometimes get to show in your work and life?
EM ‘I grew up in a very conservative setting. But it was also a very beautiful childhood simply because of the setting. The open spaces and the nature really gave me a love for life that you just don't get I imagine if you grow up in a big city surrounded by concrete.’
‘So I think that helped feed my fantasy life and gave me some sense of adventure. I don't know. I think I always had some natural sense of fun and mayhem. I would never want to curb that. It's who I am.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trainer for Dr Sleep, the follow-up to The Shining…