Scot Juggles Many Roles on Screen, Stage




LONDON -- "It's early,'' Ewan McGregor says with a smile as he launches into conversation at a less-than-sociable time of day. "I apologize for the earliness of the hour.''


That's not all McGregor says on that particular topic, but it's as much as can be printed coming from the feisty star of film - and, for the moment, stage - whose language is considerably saltier than most Hollywood films.


Not that McGregor has much to do with Hollywood, despite his starring presence as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in what should well be next year's biggest movie, the first of three "Star Wars'' prequels.


His admiration for "Star Wars'' wizard-creator George Lucas notwithstanding, the 27-year-old Scot speaks mostly disparagingly of the U.S. studios and of bloated blockbusters like "Independence Day'' (a pet peeve), and of producers too timid to voice an opinion lest they get fired.


"They're so terrified,'' says McGregor, who hardly needs a journalist's prompt to tackle a topic head-on. "I've sat out there with studio heads - you know, people who are supposed to know better than I. And they go, 'Oh, my God, your last movie was so ... Oh, my God ... it was just, oh, my God.' And I'm like, 'What? What is it? What was my last movie? What do you think?' And they're all so terrified to say anything in case it's the wrong thing, and they suddenly lose their job.''


Fear certainly doesn't enter into McGregor's own conversational orbit, and you could argue that the same take-no-prisoners quality fuels his work on screen.


After all, how many actors would allow their bodies to become experiments in calligraphy, as McGregor did last year in Peter Greenaway's "The Pillow Book''? Or leap to attention as a heroin addict and take a swim in a toilet bowl in "Trainspotting''?


Currently, McGregor can be seen as an Iggy Pop equivalent in all but name - the character is aptly known as Curt Wild - in Todd Haynes' provocative, surprisingly melancholic "Velvet Goldmine,'' a requiem for the bygone glitter of glam rock.


And just when it looked as if McGregor was incapable of suggesting quietude on screen, along he comes as shy Billy, the telephone repairman who woos an even more withdrawn Jane Horrocks in "Little Voice.''


"Hallelujah, that's a stroke of luck, that one,'' says McGregor of appearing back-to-back in such dissimilar movies. "The two right next to each other - it's just everything you could want.'' In "Velvet Goldmine,'' the actor dons tight-fitting, spangly gold with matching nail varnish to play a pop icon who thinks nothing of dropping his trousers in performance.


"It's debauched and mad, like the '70s were,'' McGregor says with a grin, before offering a caveat: "I get off quite lightly in the camp stakes because I'm the butch American guy.''


"Little Voice,'' by contrast, finds him delicately handling pigeons. "It's very, very British,'' he says of that movie. "There's something really lovely about it.''


While British actors of previous generations tended to move from play to play, McGregor is attempting the same spread of work on screen.


"People like Jimmy Stewart would make three to four movies a year. It was almost like repertory theater, but in movies,'' he says. "That was my idea of what being an actor was like, so I guess I'm just trying to do the same thing now.''


His approach typifies a career that has traveled its own idiosyncratic path while making McGregor, no doubt unintentionally, the thespian embodiment of "Cool Britannia.''


These days, he's one of the few acting success stories that his own country's press - a notoriously fickle lot- have notably taken to heart.


"That's what's nice about him: He's got sense and optimism written all the way through,'' remarked The Observer newspaper in a profile in early October. Chimed in British GQ, which cited McGregor amongits Men of the Year: "Ewan McGregor is the kind of movie star it's OK to like. A lot.'' His colleagues agree.


"He's a hip actor in an unhip role,'' says Mark Herman of the actor's participation in "Little Voice.'' Last year, Herman directed McGregor as an amorous horn player in the little seen, if terrific, "Brassed Off.''


Jenny Topper, artistic director of north London's tiny Hampstead Theater, where the theater-trained McGregor is making his London stage debut through Jan. 2, says, "Ewan himself is so unaffected and open and natural. He has no side whatsoever.''


And, she adds wryly, "He can talk the hind legs off a donkey.''


That much may be due to sheer Scottish loquacity, a trait used to advantage in the actor's bravura stage turn as the scrappy, prone-to-soliloquies radical in David Halliwell's "Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs.''


The play - directed by McGregor's uncle, the actor Denis Lawson, has become the hottest ticket in town.


For his efforts as Malcolm, the anarchic art student of the title, McGregor is being paid a less-than-stratospheric $400 a week.


"I wanted to do a play. I needed to do a play,'' he says of a career move that must have left his agents speechless following the multimillion-dollar "Star Wars'' franchise.


"The theater is a joy, a joy,'' he says. "It's brilliant.''


The task, he says, is about "actors and a director wanting to do it, to get it on. We're not stuck out in the East End ... with a burger van giving us food at 12 at night. We're standing on stage and doing what we want to do.''