Ewan McGregor's never shied away from controversy with numerous provocative roles over the years, but he's playing the polar opposite in his new movie Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, released in cinemas on Friday, April 20. The Scottish actor talks about playing a repressed character with a prissy accent, and his new life in LA.
By Susan Griffin.
Once upon a time, Ewan McGregor was renowned for heady (on-screen) displays of heroin addiction and full frontal nudity. But times are changing, it would seem.
The Scot's latest incarnation is an introverted and repressed fish scientist by the name of Dr Fred Jones, in a big screen adaptation of the 2006 novel Salmon Fishing In The Yemen.
Amid the big bangs and bulging biceps of the season's blockbusters, it could be considered a brave move to release a film with the words 'salmon fishing' in the title, but McGregor doesn't see it as a problem.
"I've only ever known it as that, so I don't see it as an odd title. I can't think what else it would be called," says the actor, wearing black jeans, T-shirt and biker jacket.
At 41, his boyish features are fuller, his hair is sleeked back rockabilly style and a stud earring twinkles in his right ear.
He's also very tanned, perhaps a by-product of now living in Los Angeles with his French wife Eve, their two biological daughters, Clara, 16, and Esther, 10, and two adopted daughters, Jamiyan, 10, and a one-year-old whose name is still not known to the media.
As expected, given the title, the film boasts shots of men wading through water with a fishing rod in hand, but there's a whole lot more to this contemporary fable.
"Really, it's a love story - a complicated love story - which is what I like," says McGregor.
Fred Jones is a man trudging through life and enduring a "functional marriage" when he's approached to oversee a project he believes to be utterly ridiculous: to introduce salmon fishing into the arid valley of the Middle East's Yemen.
The impetus behind the scheme is a rich Sheikh who believes it will help promote peace and spiritual reflection in a land ravaged by conflict.
Slowly but surely Jones's stubbornness abates and he finds himself warming to the plan, while simultaneously growing closer to the Sheikh's attractive and charming facilitator Harriet (Emily Blunt).
The hare-brained idea even stumbles across government backing when the Prime Minister's fearsome spin doctor Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) spots the ideal opportunity to deflect attention from their latest blunder.
"It has a very unusual plot and there's a certain amount of political satire in the film as well," says McGregor.
"Kristen's just brilliant. She's got some of the best lines in the film, in any film really, and as the Prime Minister's PR woman, she's brutal - a real ball-breaker," he says with a grin.
When the book was published, it prompted one reviewer to comment: 'If you imagine The Office crossed with Yes, Minister, you may get an inkling of how very funny it is'.
It was the humour in the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (of The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire fame) that attracted McGregor to the project.
"I like the tone of the whole piece. It doesn't feel like one of those big British movies that we're used to," he says.
As the socially tactless Jones, McGregor's character creates a few chuckles and the actor relished playing someone who's the polar opposite to many of his roles. That said, he admits he struggled with how far to go with Jones's "prissy" accent.
"Fred's not Scottish in the book but there was no reason why he shouldn't be," he explains. "I just couldn't decide between English or a Morningside (an area of Edinburgh) accent, which is so uptight, it's perfect for him.
"But it's such an unromantic accent and as he's the romantic lead of the film, so I wasn't sure if it would work."
It was Blunt who finally persuaded him to opt for Morningside.
"She said, 'You've got to do the accent'," remembers McGregor, revealing the vocal inspiration was "an old, distant relation" called Betty Burnside.
It's not only Jones's voice that has altered in the transition from page to screen, the character's also younger.
"There was talk of putting silver in my hair, but I felt we could achieve his uptightness through the acting," says the Scot. "Also, it wasn't important to me to make him older. Fans of the book might think that's a great mistake, but it's possible to achieve the same effect [without ageing him] because there are people younger than I, who are more uptight. It's not necessarily an age thing."
The film offered the Perthshire-born actor the chance to return to his Scottish roots as a segment was filmed up in the Highlands.
"It was the first time I'd shot up there since the scene in [1996's] Trainspotting, so it's been a long time," says McGregor.
"It was lovely because we all stayed in a hunting lodge - a rather splendid house with nice grounds. After work, we'd all hang out, and there was a pond where we could do a bit of fishing and we have dinners together."
He breaks into a mischievous grin. "Nicest of all was the guy who played the butler, Hamish. He worked for a day and then had a day off, the same day Kristen was off. They spent the whole day going around the Highlands together. I don't think he could believe his luck!"
Next year will mark twenty years since McGregor made his screen debut in a TV short called Family Style. Two decades later and he's one of Hollywood's leading lights with a roll call of diverse projects, including sci-fi epics, musicals and erotic art house movies beneath his sporran, but McGregor insists there's usually a common thread - and that's good old fashioned romance.
"It doesn't matter to me whether someone's in love with a man or a woman," he says as that famous smile creeps across his face.
"I find the idea of romance interesting. I'm a sucker for it."
Extra time - Marine based movies :: Moby Dick (1956): The big screen adaptation of Herman Melville's novel, starring Gregory Peck as a man determined to hunt for a white whale named Moby Dick.
:: Jaws (1975): The original and best of the franchise sees a scientist, fisherman and police chief in cohorts to hunt a great white shark that's been terrorising an island community.
:: A River Runs Through It (1992): Brad Pitt stars in this Robert Redford directed movie, which tells the tale of two very different brothers who share a love of fly-fishing.
:: The Perfect Storm (2000): Based on real-life events, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg are part of a crew who set sail on the ill-fated Andrea Gail in 1991.
:: The Shipping News (2001): Inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Kevin Spacey stars as a shipping columnist who travels to his ancestral home, where he learns to fish, as well as discover his family's dark history.
:: Salmon Fishing In The Yemen is released on Friday, April 20