In Beginners, actor Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a man attempting to redefine his own life through his grief. When he meets the unpredictable Anna (Melanie Laurent), he is flooded with memories of the father (Christopher Plummer) who came out of the closet at the age of 75, after the death of his wife of 45 years, and learns to appreciate that honesty while questioning what he thought he knew of his childhood. Prior to his death from cancer five years later, that new gay life brought father and son closer than they’d ever been, teaching Oliver that love could only truly be found through bravery, humor and hope.
At the film’s press day, Ewan McGregor talked about how much he enjoyed working with his co-stars, including the adorable canine that played his dad’s dog, how he loved the dichotomy of these two love stories – between man and woman, and father and son – wanting to get a feel for writer/director Mike Mills since this was such a personal story for him, and how he really hopes that audiences will go see this beautiful piece of filmmaking. He also talked about how he’s currently filming Jack the Giant Killer for director Bryan Singer. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
EWAN McGREGOR: It’s impossible to say. They’re all very wonderful actors. Cosmo was great to work with. He’s a lovely little dog. He’s got a wonderful trainer, Mathilde [de Cagny]. She’s a French woman, who’s not quite as rigid as a lot of the animal trainers tend to be. They’re usually quite strict because they know how to get dogs to look in the right place, but when you’re watching films, sometimes you can feel the trainer behind the camera with a treat. The dog’s not really quite looking at the actor. The dog is looking past the actor. She just doesn’t work that way. We really got a chance to get to know Cosmo and play with him and become friends with him. Occasionally, she would come in when she wanted him to do something very specific. He’s just a wonderful little man.
How hard was it to leave him, when the film was finished?
McGREGOR: Oh, it was impossible! And, I haven’t really. I still see him, now and again. I’ve totally replaced him in my life with another little dog. I found my dog, Sid, at a rescue place, called the Lange Foundation, on Sepulveda. I realized, as I was nearing the end of the shooting, that I didn’t want to be without Cosmo, so I started looking for a dog ‘cause Cosmo belongs to Mathilde. He’s not my dog, although it felt like he was mine. And, I found this little poodle, called Sid. He’s now my dog. I found him on the last day of our shoot.
McGREGOR: Sid Vicious, or Sidney Lumet. Any kind of Sid you choose. There are lots of great Sids. I like short British names – Sid, Bob, Wilf, stuff like that. He’s a beautiful dog. He’s not Sid Vicious, so it’s quite ironic that he’s called Sid. He’s exactly the same size as Cosmo, and he’s white. I’ve replaced him because it was devastating to leave him. I was doing the EPK interviews for general press people, at the end of the shoot – it was the last week – and, as I was talking about saying goodbye to Cosmo, I started to cry. It was really embarrassing. I was saying, “It’s been lovely to work with Melanie and Christopher, and next week I’ve got to say goodbye to Cosmo,” and I started crying.
Do you think Cosmo was devastated to leave you?
McGREGOR: He seems to still remember me. He remembers me, when we meet up. Occasionally, we all go for walks together. We had two sections of the film. We shot the film as two movies. Christopher and I rehearsed for a week, shot the father and son story for two and a half to three weeks, and then we stopped and rehearsed with Melanie for a week, and we shot the second part of the story for two and a half to three weeks. When we started the second part of the story with Melanie, Cosmo got quite jealous ‘cause I was knockin’ about with a pretty French actress. He wouldn’t speak to me so much anymore.
McGREGOR: What I loved about the film, to begin with, was the opposite things that are happening in both stories. The first story is about a man who comes out in his 75th year and starts living his life as his true self with his true sexuality, for the first time, and he blossoms and is having the time of his life because he’s free and no longer suppressing this huge part of his personality. He’s living and, at the same time, he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and he’s dying. I thought those two opposing things were really interesting. Somebody was living for the first time, and dying. And then, in the second story, it’s two months after Oliver’s father has passed away, and he’s in the depths of grief and so sad because he’s missing him. Both of his parents have died now, and he’s having to look back over his childhood and work out what it meant, with his father gay and his mother knowing that his father was gay. At the same time that he’s experiencing all that confusion and sadness, he’s falling in love, which is the most wonderful experience in the world. So again, there were these two opposing things going on. I thought that was a really wonderful character to play. There was a really great lot of stuff for an actor to play. I didn’t look at them specifically as love stories, but there is a lot about love and acceptance.
McGREGOR: I got told the story by Mike’s agent – he’s my agent now, too – as we were going up a chair lift at Sundance, skiing during the festival, and I thought it was a lovely story. I had the script at home, so I read it when I got back, and then met Mike at a little café in Santa Monica, where we sat for hours. We didn’t really discuss much about the script or the film. I just wanted to know more about his life and his story. If you’re hungry for all those details, that shows that it’s really landed. Then, I was on board. Mike went off to try to get the financing, and cast the film. And then, we almost were doing it, but it fell apart a little bit. But, we got there, in the end.
Why did you decide to have Mike read you all of the dialogue, and how did that help you to play Oliver?
McGREGOR: It was very important, at the beginning, because I wanted to feel like Mike. He didn’t really want me to do an impersonation of him. I never felt any pressure from Mike to be him, but it is him and it’s his story. I wanted, very much, to feel like him, so I had him record all the dialogue. I had it for quite a long time before we started filming, and I had it on my laptop, so I could listen to it, every now and again. It was very funny because he read it with his assistant and occasionally there were bits of chat between them. You could hear him going, “Oh god, I really fucked that up.” It was quite funny because he was quite nervous about doing it. It was rather lovely to hear. But, I found it really useful, not to try to mimic him, but just to feel like I had a flavor of his sound. And then, once I spent more time with him and was on set with him, I was watching him all the time. I wasn’t trying to mimic him or do an impersonation of him, but I wanted that feeling of Mike Mills. He’s a very open man. He’s a very sensitive man. He’s a fucking brilliant director. I was just able to watch him and soak him up a bit.
McGREGOR: Well, I think it’s true. It must be very confusing to be somebody’s child and find out that there’s this huge part of their life that they kept from you. Mike was very happy for his father and speaks so fondly of his father, after he came out. And, in the movie, there’s a certain amount of looking back over his childhood, especially with his mother. There are some nice moments, where you see the complex nature of it. He’s completely supportive of his father, but he challenges him a little bit. It isn’t a straightforward scenario, and it was nice that we showed that coming to terms with what his childhood had meant, when you find out that your parents have been hiding this thing from you.
Did you have fun doing the graffiti?
McGREGOR: Yeah, but there was a killjoy person behind us. As soon as we had checked the gate and were moving on, they were taking it off. That’s a really boring job, isn’t it? Mike would put a very thin pencil mark up there, and then I would follow his lead. It’s quite nerve-wracking because you have to do it quickly. And then, it’s so long that you’re terrified you’re going to misspell it. You can lose track with where you are, so he put a very faint line there, which I followed. He also had to space it out. It was very carefully stamped out.
Why would you tell audiences to go see Beginners?
McGREGOR: I don’t know. I never like to sell a film like that. It’s not my business to, really. They can go and see it, if they’re interested and they want. It’s a very moving film. It’s a very beautiful piece of filmmaking. It’s an unbelievable piece of filmmaking. It’s Mike’s second feature film and it looks like it’s been directed by a grand master. It’s a really beautiful movie. He absolutely encouraged us not to really act, but to be in those scenes and live that other reality for a little while and create these worlds. It was a real blessing for me to do, as an actor. I can only imagine that that is all on screen. It’s got its own pace and it has a very deep effect on you because it’s so real.
Have you retired from doing frontal nudity in film?
McGREGOR: No, I certainly haven’t made any conscious decision not to. But, it’s only ever there if it’s relevant for the film. I made a film, called Perfect Sense, with David Mackenzie, who directed Young Adam, and it’s possible it might be in there. I can’t remember.
What’s with your Errol Flynn mustache?
McGREGOR: I’m making a film with Bryan Singer, called Jack the Giant Killer, where I play a medieval knight, so I’ve got it for that. I have to keep it this length for continuity.