Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, and one adorable, well-trained, scene-stealing Jack Russell terrier star in the independent comedy/drama Beginners. The film is based on writer/director Mike Mills' life, with the idea for Beginners stemming from the relationship he had with his father. "Beginners started when my father came out of the closet," explained Mills. "He was 75 years old, and had been married to my mother for 45 years. His hunger to completely change his life was confusing, painful, very funny, and deeply inspiring. Change, honesty, and openness can happen when it seems least likely. Even as he passed away 5 years later to cancer he was energized, reaching out; he wasn’t in any way finished."McGregor plays the film's version of Mills with Plummer tackling the role of Mills' father. And at the LA press day for the Focus Features release, McGregor talked about taking on a role based on the film's director, his initial meeting with Christopher Plummer, how the film deals with the issue of grief, and why he signed up for Beginners.
On the appeal of starring in Beginners:
Ewan McGregor: "I was told the script by a friend of mine, Rich Klubeck, who is Mike's agent, someone I've known for years who is now my agent - but he wasn't at the time. We were at Sundance and we were skiing. He told me the story while we were on a chairlift and I was really intrigued by it. I remembered that I had the script at home, but I hadn't gotten to it yet. So when I got back from Sundance I read it and I loved it."
"I loved the story very much and the structure of it, I thought, was very lovely. I loved the way it drifts back and forward from the two movies, if you like, very seamlessly. It was written like that; it was written as you see it. There are some changes, but not many major ones. I really liked that. So then I arranged to meet Mike, and there's a coffeehouse I really like in Santa Monica. We sat for two or three hours and we chatted away, and I was fascinated by him. I had never met Mike before. I liked his film Thumbsucker very much, but I didn't know any of his other work, really. I realize now that I did more of his work, his record album covers and stuff, and some of his commercials I'd seen. When we were talking, I was very interested in his experience and his story, and we didn't talk so much about the script or the filmmaking of it. But I was fascinated by him and his mother, and learning more about his mother and his two sisters who don't appear in the film. I was fascinated by that. I thought that's the best thing to be, if you're hungry about the details of the story. That's a really good place to be. And, also, I just really liked him. He's such a lovely, gentle man and I was really drawn in by him."
On playing a character loosely based on the film's writer/director:
Ewan McGregor: "It wasn't [difficult] because it's Mike. It's difficult to express how good he is as a director, how wonderful it is to work with him. It was never ever a pressure - I never felt it was a burden. I never did, not right from the very beginning. I knew that it was a very autobiographical script. Of course it is; it's the story about his father and his childhood, at least the first part."
"You know, we shot the two films separately. We shot the father and son story, and then we shot the second story. Certainly, the first story is his story. The second story, there must be some of his life in there. However, whenever I've heard Mike talk about it he's always said these are all problems that friends of his have had, in terms of being able to commit to being in love with somebody. It's a kind of study of that as opposed to, certainly, I don't think his story with Miranda [July, his wife] is worked in. She's not French, for starters."
On building his onscreen relationship with Christopher Plummer:
Ewan McGregor: "Well, we had quite a funny start. We met at the Beverly Hills Hotel where he had a suite. Mike had taken a room there for us to rehearse in. And then we met, we had lunch, and then he sent me and Plummer off to Barneys. He gave me $200 and said, 'You have to buy Christopher a scarf.' So off we went in the car. I was with Christopher Plummer in the back of a car on our own - no director. We were let loose. [Laughing] We were driven down there and we go into Barneys, but in the car he said, 'What are those?' I said, 'Well, they're just black jeans.' 'They're very tight.' And I said, 'Well, they're probably what you would call skinny jeans. They're skinny jeans.' So Christopher got it in his mind that all he wanted was to get some skinny jeans."
"He found the jeans department and I was going, 'Christopher, the scarfs are over here! Look, what do you think of this one?' And he was hellbent on getting the skinny jeans. So sometime later he'd tried on eight pairs of jeans and he had this stack of jeans that I had to then put on my credit card because he didn't have his wallet. I had to get reimbursed from the production for all that money for his jeans. [Laughing] And I did grab a scarf on the way out as sort of an afterthought. But that was how we started [bonding]."
The film processes memories by comparing signposts of each year. What's his relationship with memories?
Ewan McGregor: "I always have to look back at how old my kids were or what movie I was making at the time. I mean, my work is a real chart of time passing and the years, like what happened when. I have to go back and go, 'Well, I was making that film so it must have been 19..." That's how I would do it. I'm usually quite good at it, but not all the time. Sometimes I can't the order of which film came first. This one, I was trying to remember was the summer of 2009 we made it, I think. Not last year but the summer before."
On what he'd tell his younger self:
Ewan McGregor: "I don't know. That's a good question. 'Everything's going to be okay.' I don't know. It's a very interesting concept, the idea of looking back at yourself. I mean, I've got some very... If you try to think about it or do it, there's one me that I can remember when I was really young that I can go to like that [snapping his fingers]. He's crystal clear. Playing on my own outside the house, and I can be back there in a minute. And then other times are difficult to pinpoint."
"I don't know what you would tell yourself. I suppose something as basic as that: 'Everything is going to be all right.' Because there are moments when you are troubled, you look back and you went through a difficult time when you were unhappy or something, it would be nice to know that your older self is letting you know that it will be all right, that you'll come through it."
Did Beginners make him want to do more personal projects, like hitting the road again on his motorcycle?
Ewan McGregor: "I do long for it now and again, but at the same time it's difficult to justify taking yourself away for four months from your kids when you have to be away from them for your work anyway. 'Okay guys, I'm off.' It's quite difficult to justify. And having done two of them, really quite long trips - they were both over four months long - I don't know that I'm ready to do it again for a while."
"And, in actual fact, I've thought much more about doing it with them, taking them. On this trip we met an amazing family from Belgium when we were in Zambia. There's some areas we have to camp in organized campsites. It's just a field, but you're not allowed to just camp on the side of the road - most of Africa you can. In this one there was a campsite and we were setting up our tents and things, and this old beaten up Land Rover arrived with a trailer on the back. It stopped, the doors opened and these kids came out like monkeys out on the roof. They opened up all the roof tents, sorted out that, and they were about...there were two of them crawling on the roof and one was about seven years old, one was five years old. There was a one and half year old in the chair seat inside. And the dad got out and rolled a cigarette. The woman - this is very stereotyped - started cooking. We went to talk to them and they'd been on a four year around the world trip. They'd already done the Americas so they'd come from Belgium and somehow gotten over to Alaska. They'd worked themselves all the way down to South America. They'd gone over to Capetown and they were working their way up Africa. So they were about halfway around. They were going to head up all the way over to Israel and then through Europe and back. And I just looked at these kids and I thought, 'My god, that's the most amazing education you could give your children ever.' My wife would never let me do that, but I did think it would beat any school in the world, seeing the world like that."
"You could do little bits of it. I've always had this idea to go to Iceland and do a once around the island in a couple of weeks in a four-by-four. I think you could really do that with your kids. There's people around all over the place; it's not a scary thing to do. And it's very beautiful I think, Iceland."
On dealing with grief in the film, how audiences relate to that emotion, and why they can be entertained by the subject:
Ewan McGregor: "Well I think it must be sort of reassuring. I mean, I can only just remember on set when we were shooting the latter scenes of the story with Hal (Christopher Plummer) when he was very close to death and then again with the scene where he has passed away, it was important I think for some of the guys on the set, the guys who play Hal's gay friends - the PrimeTimers. Some of those men were very emotional on the set and then I became very emotional on the set, and then Mike was clearly very moved on the set. People either recognized or remembered when somebody they loved or a parent or a loved one passed away, or were imagining what it might be like when their parents passed away. So, I don't know if you'd call it 'entertainment value' but I suppose it's somewhat reassuring. It's part of life and it's not often explored. It's something that we don't like to think about very much. I didn't like to think about it very much."
On the film's relationship advice about women:
Ewan McGregor: "I don't hold onto any advice about women. I really don't think there is any generalized advice to be given or taken about that kind of thing. I think love is something that happens between two people and it's not something you can really... I have friends who are my age and they haven't found a partner. They ask, 'How did you know that it's the right woman? I'm not sure about this and that and the other.' And I've no answer for them. It's not something that I've ever analyzed or asked myself. I met my wife years and years ago, and I didn't ever ask those questions. I just knew that I wanted to be with her and I still do. I don't think there's any real advice. [Journalists] in another room asked me that. It's a funny thing. 'You've been married for 16 years. What's the recipe for a long marriage?' I say, 'You have to marry my wife.' [Laughing] But I'm in the way."
On his current project, Jack the Giant Killer, and how it compares to the other big movies he's worked on:
Ewan McGregor: "Very similar. I'm realizing that you have to sort of alter your expectations about what you're going to do when you get there on a big film. Because when you're used to working on smaller films like I am, you do maybe three scenes a day. You really get going. There's pace and rhythm, and you don't have any money to solve problems with. You have to do it there and then. And on the big films it's just incredibly slow. It's just really like so slow...it's like watching paint dry. I realized you have to adjust your expectations. So you go to work and you maybe do a bit of a scene, and everyone seems to be quite happy with that. And I'm in my trailer going crazy, going, 'We've done two set-ups today and people are going yay. Are you kidding? How much money have we wasted today by not shooting stuff?' It's an enormous amount of money, an unbelievable amount of money wasting. You can't believe, and all of the independent filmmakers would just die if they knew how little is achieved on a daily basis. It's really shocking."
Is it cool to be a knight killing giants?
Ewan McGregor: "Oh yeah, it's good. When you get to be the knight killing giants it's really great."
[And to clarify that he's not cutting down or slamming Jack the Giant Killer] "That's just a generalized thing. It's just a general thing, and it's just the way that big movies function I think. It's also 3D, the camera's on a crane. It's technically much more complicated so it takes longer. But, it's longer."
"It's lovely to work with Bryan [Singer] and there's lovely actors. Stanley Tucci, Billy Nighy, there's a lovely actress, Eleanor Tomlinson, and Nick Hoult is playing Jack. They're a really nice cast, so it'll be good. It's just a different ballgame when you're on big films. The pace is much slower. It was the same on Star Wars and The Island, and everything. It's just slower."
* * * * * * *
Beginners opens in limited release on June 3, 2011.