Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is an unlikely movie on many accounts. First of all, if you don’t know geography, there are no salmon in Yemen rivers. That’s the point of the movie, a Scottish fisheries administrator (Ewan McGregor) is hired by a Sheikh to transplant fish to his river so he can practice fly fishing. There the government scientist strikes up an unlikely romance with the Sheikh’s representative (Emily Blunt). Director Lasse Hallstrom strikes a balance of comedy, drama and romance.
Blunt and McGregor participated in a press day for the film in Los Angeles, joining together for roundtable interviews. The leading man and leading lady flirted generously and cracked up while discussing the film and some upcoming projects, including the fantasy fairy tale Jack the Giant Killer and the sci-fi action thriller Looper. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen opens Friday. Read the interview after the jump.
Ewan McGregor: No, we can’t talk about that. That’s too classified, I’m sorry.
Emily Blunt: Classified.
McGregor: Sorry, yeah. Chinese, how did you learn Chinese, Emily?
Blunt: I had a very nice Chinese lady, teacher who came around to my flat and she had translated it from the script. The script just had it in English but it simply said in brackets: she speaks this in fluent Chinese. And I was like, “Okay, so I have to learn Mandarin at some point.” And Lasse was incredibly laid back about the idea and I was like, “No, no, we shoot this in two weeks. It’s going to take me some time. We should probably learn this.” And he went, “Ah yes ,we should probably get on this.” Just so laid back. So this woman came around and I learned it phonetically. So I know nothing about how to say hello, how are you but I do know how to talk about salmon.
McGregor: But she nailed it. My wife speaks Mandarin and she said she did a very, very good job.
Blunt: And it was very complex, all the tones. That was very interesting to know that I could be making notes.
Blunt: [Speaks Chinese]
McGregor: Ah, so good. It’s the sandstorm, we’re worried about the sandstorm.
Blunt: Worried about the water pressure, sensitive walls, all that stuff.
When you were getting started as actors, did you think one day, I’ve got to do a movie about salmon transplantation?
McGregor: Well, it’s a goal for many, many young actors.
Blunt: Many actors.
McGregor: In Britain especially. British actors are always looking for a salmon fishing movie. It’s true.
Could that be a hurdle to audiences?
McGregor: I don’t know, I’m never very good at selling a film but I think the title’s very literal. It’s a film about salmon fishing in the Yemen and it’s called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I think it’s interesting, it’s not the run of the mill kind of title so it should pique some interest. And I think we’re doing an enormous amount of press so that people hopefully by the time they hear the title will have heard us somewhere on television talking about so they’ll know it’s not a documentary about middle eastern fly sport fishing, I hope.
Did you learn any fishing tips?
McGregor: It’s a lovely thing to learn to do. It’s really the top notch of fishing because it’s particular. You’re trying to catch only fish that feed from the surface and generally you do it in very beautiful places: Norway, Russia, Scotland. Cold water places so fly fishermen end up traveling a lot and traveling to very beautiful remote places. So I think it’s very good for the soul and the actual challenge of it, it’s far harder to catch a fish that way. So it’s quite spiritual I think in a way. It’s nice.
Did you catch any?
McGregor: No. No, but whenever I’ve gone fishing, I’ve gone fishing very rarely but for those reasons, to be quiet and contemplative and to be somewhere beautiful. The actual catching of a fish is something I’m not really interested in. And you just got really seasick when you went fishing.
Blunt: Yeah, my experience fishing when I was younger was that my dad, who loves to do the deep sea fishing where you have to go way out, which also means huge waves, particularly off the coast of the UK. So we would go off the coast of Scotland and Cornwall and Dad would book these eight hour fishing trips and we’d come back the color of your shirt, just so ill.
McGregor: No offense.
Blunt: Yeah, the color of that. And I’d just be hurling off the side of the boat the whole time. I don’t have good sea legs as they say.
McGregor: But you’ve got good legs.
Blunt: Oh, God bless you.
Ewan, you got to return to the homeland kind of.
McGregor: Yeah, not kind of. Absolutely.
Now that you live in L.A., what was it like going back to your roots and rediscovering a proper Scottish accent?
McGregor: Well, I’ve made four movies in Scotland, five actually now including this one. So there’s no great sense of rediscovery or a homecoming for me because I go there every year. I’m attached to Scotland in my heart and I love it. So I didn’t have to sort of rediscover it but most of the films I’ve made have been in Glasgow which is an amazing city. But we shot right up in the highlands, right in the heart of the highlands and it is absolutely majestic up there. It’s beautiful. So that was new and when you’re filming, you do have lots of time to hang around as you know, so it’s quite nice to hang around just looking up at the hills. I liked it very much being back there. It was lovely and it was very important. It was special to me in that respect. I worked that into my character, into Alfred, who in the novel isn’t Scottish. He’s not written as a Scotsman and I felt very strongly when I read the script that he could be and that it would help if he was. And then when I met Simon, he encouraged me to use this accent, this Morningside accent which is a very uptight Edinburgh accent, kind of a little bit faux posh. I wasn’t sure about it and then I first met Emily, we met in the rehearsal room with Lasse, and I was telling her that I didn’t know whether to use this accent or not. She said, “Let me hear it.” So we read a scene with it and she said, “You’ve got to use that accent. You’ve got to do it.”
Blunt: It was so funny and it changed you completely.
McGregor: It’s very helpful.
Blunt: It was instant and I think that’s what is really nice. I think that’s what I like about all the physical aspects of creating a part and it is important, voice and the way you move, how does this character feel in your skin, how would she sit, how would she do that, what would she feel? You want to feel them in your bones a little bit so I think changing your voice like that, it just did something to everything about you. It was crazy. Very cool.
McGregor: So that was nice and then when we’re in the helicopter going back, all of my job was to sort of unpeel Alfred from this rock at the beginning where he’s all locked up. So we’re on a helicopter going back to Scotland, do you remember Lasse came up with some terrible dialogue for us to say. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. But I thought he should say he hasn’t been home for a long time. So for Alfred it really is like here’s the first layer coming off him where he’s come out of the office, out of the scientific miserable marriage, he’s in the highlands of Scotland for the first time in a long time and then he gets sent off fishing by the Sheikh very cleverly tells his butler to send him fishing. We see that he’s different, he’s slightly calmer and nicer. I don’t know, it was nice. It’s nice to do up there. It’s nice.
What does it take to get out of a rut like Alfred was in in the movie?
McGregor: Oh God, there’s two ways to go. Massive change, death.
Blunt: Or draught.
McGregor: I don’t know because everybody’s got different ruts.
Blunt: And different ways of getting out.
What’s a tip you’ve learned?
How about for Alfred?
McGregor: Oh, I see. Well, it was a very slow process of peeling back the layers and for him it meant change and ultimately leaving his marriage.
Blunt: You had wonderful melting hauteur in this.
McGregor: What does that mean?
Blunt: It means melting haughtiness. Hauteur.
McGregor: Is that like a fashion thing?
Blunt: I don’t know actually.
McGregor: Haughty melting couture?
McGregor: I think that’s a lovely thing to say, thank you.
Blunt: You’re welcome.
You can chart the progression of your character by how well combed his hair was.
McGregor: Well, no, that was very important. I mean, that’s absolutely a tool. You use costume, makeup, hair. The accent softens as you go through. So at the beginning he’s much more up tight with his accent. By the end it’s much softer.
Blunt: And your hair just evolves fantastically.
McGregor: The hair was really part of that absolutely. So those are all tools to do that, to make that work.
Blunt: It was funny being in the makeup first in the morning when they put in the early Fred side parting. He’d look in the mirror and just go, “Aw, fuck.” By the time we got to Morocco it was like, “Yeah!” Like a Vidal Sassoon ad.
McGregor: It was good. It’s nice to play with all that stuff. It’s really helpful.
You say Lasse is laid back. Is that a good style for you?
Blunt: I don’t mean in the sense that he doesn’t care about these aspects but I think Lasse is incredibly collaborative and I think he’s very open and I think he’s willing to let you find it and you play with it. I think he works quite similarly to how Ewan and I like to work which was a relief, that he likes to keep things fresh and spontaneous. So going into a scene, how it was on the page usually wasn’t how it ended up when we started doing it and that’s a real joy when you can stretch a scene around and make it and go down different little paths that you didn’t expect. Lasse is really a quirky dude. He’s really odd in the most wonderful way and I don’t know if I still can get a read on him because he always plays the part of the buffoon and he’s always making silly jokes and tripping himself up to make us laugh. It’s like he plays the part of a clown to diminish his position on set. I think he wants to be part of the gang. He doesn’t want to be seen to be the one with all the answers because I think he likes to see them unravel for themselves.
McGregor: I think all great directors, he stands in the middle of a great many brilliantly creative people and he lets them all work to their best and he just gently kind of wrangles that but he lets everybody excel. Poor, inexperienced directors are the ones who feel that they have to make every single decision and everything has to go through them. The actors must stand here and do this.
Blunt: And everyone gets straight jacketed which is not pleasant but I think what you want in a director is a point of view and you also want a kind of openness and for them to instill some kind of confidence in you. But I think a point of view is important for sure.
Where does salmon rank on your list of favorite fish?
Blunt: I don’t like salmon.
McGregor: I do like salmon. I think they’re unbelievably interesting in terms of their life cycles.
Blunt: No, I mean to eat.
McGregor: No, no, I’m coming to that.
Blunt: Oh, I’m sorry.
McGregor: I just wanted to get the fish science in there. Like the fact that they go out to sea and they come back to exactly their – they come down the coast of Scotland and they turn left up the river they were born on.
Blunt: How do they do it?
McGregor: And they go back to where they were born to spawn and then they die. I think they’re really fascinating. I think they’re very tasty with eggs in the morning.
Blunt: I have a fantastic turtle story. It’s amazing. The mommy turtle comes up the beach.
McGregor: Is it a joke?
Blunt: No, no, no. It’s real. This is amazing.
McGregor: It sounded like, “The mommy turtle comes up the beach and says…”
Blunt: She has all the eggs, the little turtles hatch and they start to go down the beach and a lot of them don’t make it. A lot of them do it at night when there’s less birds and stuff. They go down the beach, probably like 1/8 of them actually make it, maybe less, 1/10. They go out to sea and years and years later, when they’re ready to be mommy turtles, they come back to the same beach that they were born on. Is that not friggin’ awesome?
McGregor: Well, it’s the same as the salmon.
Blunt: No, it’s not.
McGregor: Smoked salmon I’m very partial to. Scottish smoked salmon first thing in the morning with a bit of eggs.
Blunt: [Makes throwing up sounds]
It’s good for your skin too.
McGregor: Is it? To lay it on?
Blunt: It’s oily, oily. If you had a salmon mask.
McGregor: Tomorrow morning when I’ve got salmon all over my face, “No, this journalist told me it’s very good for your skin.”
What was it like swimming in 18” of water in the river scene?
Blunt: Freezing. Freezing!
McGregor: It was cold and also it was sort of you’re literally scaffing along the stones. We’re trying to make it look very serene and nice. “Oh, this is nice, isn’t it?”
Blunt: That was actually the best acting we did in the movie because we would be getting into the stream, we’ve be walking in like that and the desert climate just plummets at night. I mean, it’s freezing. Your whole body would just be [shivers] like that and at the last minute we’d plunge in, and then we’d be like that. Everything in your body is fighting.
McGregor: The chatter.
Blunt: Having to say “It’s wonderful,” I feel like I sound really strained. I think that’s why I had to ADR that line. It sounds like, “It’s wonderful!”
McGregor: The only trailer I’ve seen, I’m barely in it. Fucker. But I’m in it. I’m in it more than I’m in [the trailer]. Basically none of us really appear.
Blunt: Who’s in it?
McGregor: Nick, who’s a lovely young actor, very nice, Nick Hoult. He’s a very talented young boy. What was the question, why am I not in the trailer? I don’t fuckin’ know. I think it’s a disgrace! What, do they want to sell the film, or not?
What will we see when we see more?
McGregor: I’ve got no idea. I just hope it’ll all be fine. I’m not selling this film today, am I? I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s a lovely film.
Emily, I’d love to see some of Looper. What kind of part do you have in that?
Blunt: I play a very tough Kansas farm girl.
McGregor: Is that the one with the shotgun that you sent the picture of? Oh,.
Blunt: Pretty cool. It’s pretty cool. I don’t know how much I can say about Looper actually. I’m sort of sworn to secrecy on that one because there’s a lot of complex twists and turns in it. But it’s a very cool tightly woven thriller and set in an incredibly real way in this futuristic backdrop.
McGregor: Is it in the future?
Blunt: Yeah, it’s like 2030. Or like 2040.
McGregor: Looperrrr. There’s a film title.
Both this and Hunger Games are about publicity stunts manipulating people. How do you see modern society right now as celebrities?
How do you see modern publicity stunts?
McGregor: Well, I don’t think, first of all, there is the element of the publicist, the British prime minister’s publicist spinning everything. I think in terms of politics that’s an absolute reality. That’s how they got their name. They’re called spin doctors so it’s like professional liars. To take facts that they don’t want us to know about and spin them into something else. What are we playing at that we accept that? I think that’s ridiculous.
Blunt: I think the tabloids are professional liars too.
McGregor: But the Sheikh certainly, the salmon project in the Yemen isn’t a publicity stunt. It’s what he really believes in and it’s a very true passion of his that he’s not using for publicity reasons. He does it because he believes in it I think.
Blunt: When she was saying, “How do we feel about the media?”
McGregor: I never speak to the media. I try very hard never to speak to them.
Blunt: I don’t know, I think a lot of the tabloids are professional liars really. I think stories are created in a very reckless way nowadays. When it comes to this is people’s lives that you’re talking about. So I do think it’s definitely getting worse in that sense, the media, when it comes to people in the public eye I guess, people in this profession. But yeah, it’s better not to read anything.
Blunt: Don’t Google yourself. It’ll ruin your day.
I read the first fish you caught was Ewan’s dog?
Blunt: Yeah, poor little Syd. I just gave it a go, because these two persuaded me I should.
McGregor: I did. It was my fault.
Blunt: I didn’t want to. I was perfectly happy sitting by the fireplace in our Scottish pub.
McGregor: I said, “Come on.”
Blunt: I said, “Oh no, I’m fine. I don’t even have any Wellington boots. I’m fine.” He was like, “Come on, it’ll be fun.” And he has this lovely little dog, Syd, who’s just our friend. I love that dog so much. He was just scampering around behind me and I hooked him first cast.
McGregor: It was actually a very nice cast as well.
Blunt: It was a nice one.
McGregor: It just got caught in his fur. He was all right.
So it can be used as a weapon.
McGregor: Yeah, yeah, it’s very effective. It wouldn’t be nice to be whipped across the face by a fly?
Did your character describe herself as quiet and shy like Hitler?
Blunt: [Laughs] I think that was a line. You’ll have to speak to Simon Beaufoy about that.
Blunt: “Like Hitler.”
McGregor: She said she’s shy like Hitler.
Blunt: I know, it’s out there.
McGregor: The first time I saw the film I didn’t notice it.
Blunt: It is a bit out there.
Was it those things that drew you to the film?
McGregor: It was the Hitler line that made you sign up, didn’t it?
Blunt: Really, I was like I’m gonna be like Hitler, signed. That’s sort of a combination really. I don’t tend to pick out specific moments or anything. It just either leaps out to you and speaks to you in a way or it doesn’t, and I just loved it. I loved it in the first ten pages I loved it. I thought it was so funny and had such wit, I think there’s something whimsical about it. It felt different and that’s always a good thing.
Ewan, were you excited that the Star Wars movies are coming out again in 3D?
McGregor: It’s all about Star Wars.
Blunt: I know.
McGregor: Who do you write for, Starwars.com? I was excited about it in terms of there’s another generation of kids that didn’t see it in the cinema, because I think the first one came out I don’t know how long ago, was it 10 years ago or more?
McGregor: Was it?
Blunt: Look at these nerds. They’re like, “99.”
McGregor: So there’s a whole generation of children that didn’t get to see it in the cinema, so it’s nice that they get the chance.
Blunt: Your kids don’t care though.
McGregor: Not really but kids love it. I think that’s one of the things that’s easy to forget. I come across it every day with friends’ kids and people I meet in the street’s kids. The absolute passion for the Star Wars movies that they have is exactly what we had when we watched them when we were kids. I’m probably older than both of you but really not by very much. That’s easily forgotten when you’re an adult. I love when kids ask me stuff about Star Wars. It’s such fun.
Blunt: You do?
McGregor: They want to know how to film. Some of them don’t know, there was one kid once that didn’t believe. His mom was like, “That’s Obi Wan Kenobi.” He’s like, “No, it’s not.” I said, “Yeah, I was Obi Wan Kenobi.” And they were like, “Nah.” Then I chased him, going, “I am Obi Wan Kenobi!”
Blunt: Kids just crush you with that. I had a girl come up to me and she went, “Are you the girl from Bridge to Terabithia?” And I was like, “I’m not actually.” And she went, “Are you the girl from the Gilmore Girls?” And I went, “No, no, I’m not.” And then she went “Mmm.” And she walked away and I heard myself go, “But I was in The Devil Wears Prada.” And she turned around and she went [makes a face] ignored me. Kids just crush you.
How often do people say “one stomach flu away from my goal weight.”
Blunt: I would say it happens every other day. Or it’s one of the quotes. It just depends, if you’re traveling it’ll be someone on a plane and it’s lovely because those lines I was given in that film were just heaven. That’s why I loved playing that part. It was just a gift truly. It was wonderful. So I don’t mind when people quote it but sometimes they get the quote wrong and you feel you have to correct them. They’re like, “I’m just one stomach virus away from..” and I’m like, “No, that’s not it. That’s not it, never mind.”
Ewan, how are you going to celebrate your birthday on March 31?
McGregor: I’m going to be skiing I think probably. I’m going to be skiing in Utah I think.
You look so fit.
McGregor: You’re very kind.
Blunt: She’s saying your body looks great. I love that you said fitness.
McGregor: I don’t do any fitness at all. I don’t really, no, not really. I’ve got four kids that I’m hurling around a lot.
Blunt: We actually both, when we were doing Salmon Fishing, we both separately without telling each other had started doing Bikram Yoga which was really weird and then neither of us, because we were living on other sides of London.
McGregor: We didn’t carry on with it, did we?
Blunt: No, well I tried it.
McGregor: It’s so strict.
Blunt: It’s strict. Have you done it?
McGregor: It’s not the heat. It’s the teaching styles that are strict. Come on, we’re here to relax.
McGregor: Kundaliniiiiiii. That’s my favorite kind of yogaaaa.