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Jeremy Renner, Breakout Star Of 'The Hurt Locker.'

The actor has been nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of a solider disarming explosive devices in the Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker. Renner describes what it was like to spend hours a day in a Kevlar suit — as well as how it felt to portray a serial killer in the movie Dahmer.

21:41

Other segments from the episode on February 24, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 24, 2010: Interview with Jeremy Renner; Interview with Ewan McGregor.

Transcript

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Jeremy Renner, Breakout Star Of 'The Hurt Locker'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When the film "The Hurt Locker" first opened, it seemed destined to be one of
those really good films that gets great reviews but only plays at select art
houses and has a very limited audience, a film that proves the common wisdom
that Iraq War movies are box office poison.

But "The Hurt Locker" has been rescued from that fate. It was rereleased,
spurred by nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and
best actor. That actor nomination is for my guest, Jeremy Renner.

He plays Staff Sergeant William James, the leader of an Army bomb squad unit in
Iraq whose job is to defuse live IEDs. He's the guy who puts on the protective
suit, walks over to the bomb, analyzes how it's put together, then carefully
cuts the wires. James is accurate and brave, but his fearlessness also gets him
and members of his team into trouble.

In this scene, James and the members of his team, played by Anthony Mackie and
Brian Geraghty, have been sent to check out an explosion. It's likely the work
of a suicide bomber, which would make it outside the team's responsibility.
Their task is defusing IEDs.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (as William James) Jesus. So where's our trigger
man?

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (as JT Sanborn) Burned up into flames, man. Suicide
bomber. Can never find a body in that (censored).

Mr. RENNER: (as William James) What if there was no body? What if it was a
remote det? A really good bad guy hides out in the dark, right? Right here.
It's a perfect vantage point outside the blast radius to sit back and watch us
clean up their mess.

Mr. BRIAN GERAGHTY (Actor): (as Owen Eldridge) You want to go out there?

Mr. RENNER: (as William James) Yes, I do. I could stand and get in a little
trouble.

Mr. MACKIE: (as JT Sanborn) No, man. This is (censored). Look, you've got three
infantry platoons behind you whose job it is to go hajji hunting. That ain't
our (censored) job.

Mr. RENNER: (as William James) You don't say no to me, Sanborn. I say no to
you, okay? You know there are guys watching us right now. They're laughing at
this, okay? And I'm not okay with that. Now, turn off your goddamn torch,
'cause we're going.

GROSS: Jeremy Renner, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the
nomination.

Mr. RENNER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Now, assuming that you have to have some kind of, like, port of entry to
get into a character's mind, what was yours for the character that you're
playing in "The Hurt Locker"? This is a character who's willing to risk his
life every day - not so much because he's a patriot or because he lives in the
wars, it's in part because taking risks and living in the moment is the only
life he's good at. He's not very good at ordinary life.

So, what was your way into that frame of mind?

Mr. RENNER: I had to figure out what fueled him. So I just sort of had to ask a
lot of questions. And if I could tap into what fuels this individual, it makes
him really an individual. It separates him from other EOD team leaders, other
human beings. So, I wanted to make him very specific. And so I had to do a lot
of training in EOD, and that helped.

And there's a lot of little gems that happened throughout the shooting process
and the training process that also informed me of the - like, the bomb suit,
putting that on. I had no idea what that would be like, but there's a certain
walk that came out of that. There's a certain mentality and philosophies that
sort of came to my mind about how peaceful and almost beautifully poetic that
is inside the helmet, and outside is chaos. So there's lots of things that kind
of kept informing me.

GROSS: Now, did they want to use a real Kevlar suit for authenticity and so
that you would really feel what it's like? Or did you need a real protective
Kevlar suit in case there was some kind of explosive problem on the set?

Mr. RENNER: No, I don't think they'd put me in harm's way that way. And I know
Kathryn and all of us were trying to make it as authentic as we possibly could.
I definitely wouldn't have hosen to have it be a fake suit, even if I had that
choice, because the suit was such a big part of that character, a massive part
of that movie - visually, and then just physically. If it was a fake suit
without all the Kevlar in it, I would have not walked the way I walked. I
wouldn't be able to move the way I moved in it. Something very sort of lunar...

GROSS: Yeah, mm-hmm.

Mr. RENNER: ...about that suit, you know, in the desert. It seems - it's kind
of bizarre, and it's such a beautiful visual, as well. So it ended up working
out pretty great. I mean, I have a, again, a love-hate relationship with that
dang thing. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. For any listeners who haven't seen "The Hurt Locker," Jeremy
Renner is wearing this bomb suit, and it looks like a space suit. And, you
know, it's, of course, protective, in case a bomb he's defusing does go off.

Since this is such an important part of the process for you as an actor,
describe the almost ritualistic aspects of putting on the suit, getting
prepared to make the walk down to where the IED is and to defuse it and what it
feels like to slowly put on the suit and have the rest of the world kind of
drift away as you become encased in this protective garment.

Mr. RENNER: You know, it takes a couple of guys to get it on, 'cause it's,
again, pretty heavy and pretty cumbersome to try to throw it on right. And it's
really quiet. All you hear is the drone hum of the fan in the helmet and your
own breath. And you look around for snipers, you're looking around, you're
looking for - you know where the IED is. They're not afraid of the IED. They
usually know how it's built before they even get there half the time.

So, there's, again, afraid of time on target and being down there and getting
shot at. Because they can't stop that.

So, it's just an interesting kind of - for me, it was very peaceful, sort of -
I don’t know. I used - I put Beethoven "Moonlight Sonata" in headphones inside
the suit. So it was sort of a, I don’t know, very kind of almost romantic kind
of peaceful place.

GROSS: Why did you do that? Did you know real soldiers who had done that?

Mr. RENNER: No, no. I did that for me, just to kind of put me in a very relaxed
state amongst all the chaos and stress. It just - it made it sort of, like, a
very kind of - again, it's a poetic kind of thing. And...

GROSS: And when you were at Fort Irwin training with real soldiers who were
going to actually be defusing IEDs, were there stories that circulated about
men who were blown up or men who were shot by snipers while trying to defuse an
IED? Or were the men protected from those stories?

Mr. RENNER: No. They were very generous with their own lives, their own
experiences and very candid about kind of the goings on. I remember one thing
that kind of - that they said that I kind of asked about. Like, why do you have
a dog tag in your boot? And they all wore them in their boot, and they wore one
around their neck. And he's like, well, if you get lit up by an IED, usually
you kind of disintegrate into pieces, but you always seem to find a boot.

And he's just saying it while he's eating a sandwich, so kind of cavalier about
it. And I'm like, wow. That's pretty intense. And he's just sort of, like,
yeah. You just find boots. It just happens.

GROSS: Did you need security on the set, and did you have security?

Mr. RENNER: Yeah, we had some security, but I never felt like we had to have
it. It's certainly nice to have some Navy SEALs around you and some Blackwater
guys, and - but I - you know, there may be a few spots where it got a little
rocky. You know, I - you got some guys glaring at you that look like they don't
like you very much. But for the most part, I mean, 99 percent of the time, it
was perfectly safe, in my mind.

GROSS: What was the other 1 percent?

Mr. RENNER: There's a lot of Iraqi refugees that populate, you know, Jordan
right now, a lot of Palestinian refugee camps, very poor and, you know, a lot
of kids are running around. I don’t know, there's a few spots where I just felt
like this - you know, I mean, there was one point where I remember I was
talking with Kathryn and I had the bomb suit on, and we're going over how she
wanted to shoot this one scene. And kids were throwing the two-by-fours with
nails in them down onto us from four stories up, and she - you know, we should
probably walk away.

And I was in the bomb suit, so I would've been fine, but it nearly hit her.
I'm, like, wow. We have to - and they're little kids. You know, they throw
rocks and the whole thing. And, you know, we throw rocks back and have fun with
them. And so it wasn't, I think, anything really that dangerous. It was just,
you know, it could've been a terrible situation for Kathryn if she got hit with
that thing.

GROSS: Now, when you were interviewed on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, you mentioned
that you had a few breakdown moments, but you had them privately in your hotel
room. What caused them?

Mr. RENNER: Well, the strain - the physical strain was a first. And then it
went to a mental strain, spiritual strain, in the sense of, you know, coming
from California and having no experiences in the Middle East, and then it being
during Ramadan, and just all - it was compiled, a thousand things compiled. And
I just tried to hold it together and hold it together and hold it together. And
then every once in a while, I have to go home with a bottle of wine and fully
decompress. And sometimes, I just came out in a mental breakdown in a lot of
ways.

GROSS: You mentioned it was during Ramadan that you were shooting. How did that
complicate things?

Mr. RENNER: Because you can't - and we try to be as respectful to the community
and the culture as we could, so eating and drinking out in public or smoking or
whatever, everything had to happen at night. And then all the prayers - you
have the mosques that go off, I think - is it every four hours? I can't
remember at this point. But - so - and they'd lay down the rugs and the things,
and we have to sort of kind of respect their religion and the practices of
that.

So, kind of, you know, did it get in the way or did it help? I don’t know. I
thought it was pretty kick ass, you know, to be honest with you. It was
beautiful. It was kind of weird at first, those sort of chanting, almost
moaning sounds that come out of these mosques. And then it was just - became
very beautiful. And it just echoes through the canyons and the hillsides of
this country. Oh, my goodness. It was just beautiful.

So, you know, did it slow us down? Yeah. But I think it also helped us in a lot
of ways.

GROSS: My guest is Jeremy Renner. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring
role in "The Hurt Locker." More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeremy Renner, and he's nominated
for an Oscar for his performance in "The Hurt Locker."

And he was also in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert
Ford," "North Country" and "Dahmer" and other films as well.

When Kathryn Bigelow, the director of "The Hurt Locker," was on our show when
the movie first opened, she said that she cast you in this because she'd seen
you as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the movie "Dahmer." He's a serial
killer, and a kind of cannibalistic one. He'd eat the remains of some of his
victims. And what she said was that you elicited so much honesty and truth and
actual empathy for a character who she couldn't even having empathy for so, she
was determined to work with you.

And she said she needed someone who has bravado and swagger and almost reckless
quality combined with a profoundly capable skill set. She needed someone who
had the authority to pull off that paradox, and she thought that you could do
it. And, of course, she was right. Were you surprised that she'd even seen
"Dahmer"? I mean, you know, really, it was not a film that got a lot of play.

Mr. RENNER: Yeah. Yeah. It was big within the movie industry and people within
in it, but not too much to the public. It was a small, little $200,000 movie. I
think on paper, I feel like - I think I know why she kind of wanted me for
this.

GROSS: So, she called...

Mr. RENNER: She said I was the only guy - she told me instantly, you were the
only guy to play Will James. And I said, well, here's why I think - and I went
on for two hours on the phone talking about, you know, all the questions and
answers that I had for her. And I asked her how I - how she wanted the audience
to feel and all these sort of things at the end of the movie. But, yeah, on
paper, I feel like Will James could be very unlikeable, or could be very sort
of callous or too much - too cocky or something. He had to be likeable,
otherwise the audiences will check out and not care.

GROSS: Since you got the part in "The Hurt Locker" based on your performance in
"Dahmer," let's hear a scene from that film with you as Jeffrey Dahmer. And
this is from very early in the movie, when you're choosing and then honing in
on one of your victims. And you're in - I think it's like a sporting goods
store. And you're looking through jackets, and you're actually looking at this
young man who's looking at shoes. And he's eyeing a pair of shoes that he
obviously wants, but he maybe can't really afford to buy. So let's hear that
scene.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dahmer")

Mr. RENNER: (as Jeffrey Dahmer) Which ones do you like?

Mr. DION BASCO (Actor): (As Khamtay) Those right there.

Mr. RENNER: These?

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) Yep.

Mr. RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) I'll buy them for you.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) Why would you buy me those?

Mr. RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) Because I like to do nice things for people. It
makes me feel good about myself.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) Are you some kind of nut?

Mr. RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) That's sad.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) What?

Mr. RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) That we've gotten to a point where doing nice
things for people is considered insane.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) I've got to go.

Mr. RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) All right, wait. I do want something from you.
I want to buy you those shoes. Then, in return, I'd like to take some pictures
of you.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) See, I was right.

Mr. RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) Yeah, you were right. It's still a good deal
for you. I buy you these shoes. I'm just going to take a couple pictures.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) Well, what kind of pictures?

Mr. RENNER: (As Jeffrey Dahmer) Just a couple pictures of you, you know, making
a muscle, sitting in a chair, you know, looking tough.

Mr. BASCO: (As Khamtay) I don't know.

Mr. RENNER: (As character) Come on. Let's get you these shoes.

GROSS: That's an example of how kind of seductive you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RENNER: I guess.

GROSS: I mean, how you seduce your victims into coming home with you when they
really shouldn't. A little bit later, you kind of drug him and knock him out
and then drill into his skull.

Mr. RENNER: It's creepy. You know, I'm sitting here talking about it now, and
it's, like, wow. That's really dark, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yes. What did you do to get into the frame of mind for that, because
it's not like it's a zombie movie, like it's a sci-fi zombie movie. This is
like the real thing. Jeffrey Dahmer really did this kind of stuff.

Mr. RENNER: Yes, yes. A lot of things that happen in the movie really happened,
and you know, I had to approach that from a very sort of human thing. I
couldn't just him by what he did. I had to understand again, what fuels a human
being to go to these lengths to do these things. And once again, us getting
into abandonment issues and having his father not be around and not be able to
– a terrible communicator, being a young, gay man - at 14, he realizes, and
he's just – yeah. So I had to come with very human sort of behavior and, you
know, what again fuels this individual, and I needed reasons why.

GROSS: Early on, in order to make a living, you – correct me if I'm wrong – you
worked as a makeup artist?

Mr. RENNER: Yeah, yeah I did.

GROSS: Now, was that special effects, or was it, like lipstick and eyeliner
kind of stuff?

Mr. RENNER: No, more lipstick and eyeliner, more beauty makeup. Because I
started doing a lot of stage, and you know, we had to put on our own makeup to
do these stage plays. And I remember, you know, when you live in a small town,
and you're 19 years old, there's not a lot of jobs you can do outside of Pizza
Hut and those things like that, right?

So I went through this Gottschalks, which is a department store, and I was
fragrance modeling, where you get, like, $25 an hour to spray a card and hand
it out to people during the holidays, right? So me and my buddy do this, and
we're, like, this is awesome, $25 an hour. Like, we're 19. We're, like, this is
great.

And a position opened up at this Lancôme counter, and I decided, I'm like oh,
wow, maybe I should tell these ladies, maybe they want a guy's opinion on
makeup. And that's – it kind of sold them on the idea, and I got trained to
learn all their products and used all the ladies at the different counters as
guinea pigs to constantly learn and grow be a better artisan.

I was always a – I could always draw and paint and that sort of thing. So I
just thought of the canvas as, you know, the face. So – and understanding what
light does with the eye, and again, it's just awesome. I'm putting makeup on
beautiful women all day. It's this - kind of a great gig.

GROSS: And another odd job that you had, you worked for the police academy,
training cadets in kind of like a role-playing thing. So you were paid to
pretend that you were who?

Mr. RENNER: Yeah, they would – when we were at the college – when we were doing
plays and things like that, they asked some of the people in the theater
department to come over to the police academy on the other campus - and this
was my first paid gig, by the way, as an actor. So I was really excited.

So this police academy, it's a bunch of cadets that they're training to learn
to become cops, right? So the actual real cops would say, look, okay, these
guys, they're students and all, but we want you to treat them as real
situations. So... This is what they know. They got a call. Somebody's unruly,
and you know, they have to come and see what the situation is.

So be unruly, and literally, we're in a tiny, little room, like this booth I'm
in now, and you can say what you want, do what you want, just be unruly. So
literally this cadet would come in. As soon as he walks in, I'd push him to the
ground and kick and spit on him, and he's supposed to try to arrest me. And you
know, I got paid $50 a day to do that.

GROSS: Were you supposed to actually hurt him? I mean, was that part of the
deal?

Mr. RENNER: Well, you know, I didn't try and hurt him too bad, you know, but I
guess I made it as real as possible, but I didn't hurt him, you know, but
enough to make it kind of realistic.

And there were situations where there was, like, you know, if you find a dead
body, or you had play like a little six-year-old boy that got, you know,
fondled by, or something, or whatever. And the women were actually really good
at trying to sort of get that information out of you. It's interesting to kind
of be on that side of it. It's so funny, and I was getting paid. I'm like, this
is awesome.

GROSS: Well, I want to ask you finally about the Oscars. Were you surprised
when you were nominated, and were you, like, waiting by the TV to see if you
were?

Mr. RENNER: Yeah, we were – Anthony Mackie and Kathryn and myself were on the
"Today Show" in the morning in New York, live television, just to make it a
little bit more tense than it already kind of was. I would rather have been
sleeping, but it was very interesting to kind of, to do that because I was
nervous. I was pretty confident that was going to happen, and for Kathryn. For
me, I wasn't sure. I mean, it wasn't out of left field, don't get me wrong,
that the potential was there for me to get nominated, but is there any
guarantee? No.

So the wave of pure ecstasy that came over me was the purest high I've ever
experienced in life. It was pretty awesome.

GROSS: Well, good luck. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. RENNER: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
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Ewan McGregor: From Obi-Wan to 'Ghost Writer'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When he was just 25, the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor caught the eye of critics
with his portrayal of a Glasgow heroin addict in the Danny Boyle film
"Trainspotting." McGregor is only 39 today, but since then, he's made more than
30 films. He played the young Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in three "Star Wars"
movies. His other films include: "Moulin Rouge," "Big Fish," "Black Hawk Down"
and "Velvet Goldmine." McGregor costars in the forthcoming film "I Love You
Phillip Morris," based on a true story. He plays a man who lands in prison and
falls in love with a charming Texas conman played by Jim Carrey.

And Ewan McGregor also stars in the new political thriller "The Ghostwriter,"
directed by Roman Polanski. McGregor plays a writer who's hired to finish the
memoir of a retired British prime minister after the first co-writer turns up
dead.

FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Ewan McGregor.

We'll start with a scene from the film. The ghostwriter is sitting down to his
first interview with the former prime minister, played by Pierce Brosnan.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Ghostwriter")

Mr. PIERCE BROSNAN (Actor): (as Adam Lang) You know the worst thing about my
life? It's so out of touch. Everything's done for you. You don't' drive. You
don't carry money. If I need cash, I have to borrow it from the protection
boys.

Mr. MCGREGOR (Actor): (as The Ghost) This is the kind of details we need in the
memoirs.

Mr. BROSNAN: (as Adam Lang) I couldn't put that in. People would think I was a
complete idiot.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as The Ghost) No, not at all. No, this shows what it's like
being prime minister. That's exactly what the readers want to know: How does it
feel to run a country? How does it feel to be so cut off? How does it feel to
be so hated?

Mr. BROSNAN: (as Adam Lang) Oh. Thanks a lot.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as The Ghost) And so loved.

DAVE, DAVIES, host:

Ewan McGregor, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your character - it's a bit like a blank
slate, right? I mean, he's there to absorb, you know, the narrative that his
subject tells him.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah.

DAVIES: And, as to say, we don't really know who he is. Did you imagine a back
story? I mean...

Mr. MCGREGOR: Not really. Not really. No, I didn't. I mean, I think there are
certain things that we know about him as a writer - as a ghostwriter. You know,
there's a certain kind of element of failure in his life in that he's not
putting his name to his writing. You know, he's writing - adopting the
personality of the celebrity that he's writing for. And in his case, we know
that he's written a book about a rock star and we know that he's written a book
for a magician. And so we know that he's probably writing about slightly cheesy
celebrities and adopting their character for his writing. So there's a slight
element of failure in him already as a writer, that he's not even putting his
name to his own work.

DAVIES: You know, one of the interesting things - we don't want to give away
too much of the plot to "The Ghostwriter," but your character gets involved in
what he thinks is simply a writing a memoir from a retired prime minister, and
it becomes a much thicker story. I mean, the minister is - turns out is
involved in allegations of war crimes - that seems, to a lot of people, modeled
after Tony Blair and his, you know, involvement with the Iraq War.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Oh, yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. Did that kind of political side of the film appeal to you? Does
it matter?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah, it matters. It's nice. It's the point. It says a great deal
about politics. It says a great deal about our politicians, and I like that. I
didn't see that as being the major part of my decision to make the film. In the
beginning, I read the script very much through the Ghost's eyes, and the
political aspect of the film, I wasn't as bothered about at the time. And now
that I see the film, of course, and I see its relevance and how British
politics seems to get closer and closer to our movie storyline day by day, then
I'm quite happy to be involved in that.

DAVIES: You know, the film was directed and co-written by Roman Polanski who,
of course, burst into the headlines really after shooting, I believe, when he
went to Switzerland and was placed under arrest, you know, to face extradition
to the United States for the, you know, his - the incident in 1977 when he pled
guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

Was there any air of sort of controversy surrounding Polanski at all on the
set? Did you have any qualms about working for him?

Mr. MCGREGOR: No. There wasn't any air of controversy working with him on set.
His case and his situation has nothing to do with me. I wasn't involved in any
of that, and I didn't discuss any of that with him.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCGREGOR: I worked with him purely as an actor wanting to work with a
master filmmaker, and he's one of our greatest living filmmakers. So I was
happy to be his actor.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah.

DAVIES: I wanted to talk to you about the other film you have coming out soon,
which is "I Love You Phillip Morris," in which you co-star with Jim Carrey. He
plays a charming scam artist who is in and out of prison. You play his gay
lover, and you meet in prison. And in a scene we're going to listen to, you're
both in prison. You don't share a cell. And, in fact, you are having trouble
sleeping at night because a guy - one of the inmates next door is screeching
all night. And then you discover that he had been savagely beaten in the yard,
and you suspect that Jim Carrey, your lover, may have hired thugs to beat up
this screecher as a favor to you. And in this scene, you confront him about it.
Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "I Love You Phillip Morris")

Mr. MCGREGOR (as Phillip Morris): Get up. Did you pay to have the screecher
beat up?

Mr. JIM CARREY (Actor): (as Steve Russell) Me?

Mr. MCGREGOR (as Phillip Morris): Don't (bleep) with me. Did you pay to have
him beat up?

Mr. CARREY: (as Steve Russell) You hate that guy.

Mr. MCGREGOR (as Phillip Morris): Just answer the question.

Mr. CARREY: (as Steve Russell) Yeah. Yeah, I did.

Mr. MCGREGOR (as Phillip Morris): Steven, that's the most romantic thing that
anyone ever did for me.

DAVIES: And that's prison romance in the film "I Love You Phillip Morris," with
our guest Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey.

This character that you play, kind of a sweet, trusting soul isn't he? Tell us
about him.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah. Phillip Morris, he's - he finds himself in prison for
forgetting to return a hire car that he'd hired. I think Phillip was probably
slightly forgetful and also a bit of a partygoer, you know, and he forgot to
return a hire car. Anyway, one thing led to another, and he ended up in prison,
where he met and fell in love with Steven Russell, who was in prison for fraud.
And he's a con artist, a quite experienced and clever con artist, but not
clever enough to stay out of jail ultimately, I guess.

DAVIES: Right. This is a true story. How did you build the character? Did you
get to know the character - the person it was based on at all? Or...

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yes. I spent probably a couple - a day-and-a-half with Phillip. I
flew into Arkansas where he lives and I spent, you know, a day and a bit with
him. And, you know, I spoke to him about the details in the script to an
extent, but what was more important for me as an actor was just to hang out
with him, and we went for coffees and went for walks. And I was just able to
see him and get a sense of who he was.

And my - you know, I was quite clear with him that I wasn't going to be doing
an impersonation of him in the movie. I think our Phillip in the film is a
slightly gentler, slightly more tender version of the real Phillip, who has
slightly more of an edge to him than my Phillip Morris in the movie. The script
is a true script.

DAVIES: We're speaking with actor Ewan McGregor.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Ewan McGregor. One
of your early successful films was "Trainspotting," which was - you did with
Danny Boyle, and a film, I guess about a group of heroin addicts in Scotland.
And I thought we might listen to a piece of this. This is from kind of the
opening of the film. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Trainspotting")

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as Renton): Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental
insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home.
Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three
piece suite on hire purchase in a range of (bleep) fabrics. Choose DIY and
wondering who the (bleep) you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that
couch, watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing (bleep) junk
food into your mouth.

(Soundbite of shouting)

(Soundbite of song, "Lust for Life")

DAVIES: And that's my guest Ewan McGregor from the opening of the film
"Trainspotting." That takes you back to earlier in your career. And we hear a
very thick Scottish brogue there. Is that what you sounded like as a young man
in Scotland?

Mr. MCGREGOR: No, that's an East Coast accent. The book "Trainspotting" was
written about a bunch of guys who live in Leith in Edinburgh on the East Coast,
and that's the kind of strong - much stronger accent than I ever had. Yeah.

DAVIES: You grew up in a rural area of Scotland, is that right?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah. In a little town called Crieff near Perth, probably 60-70
miles north of Glasgow, right in the - that's just before the Highlands start,
a very beautiful part of the world. Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. And according to what's written, you knew you wanted to be an
actor from a young age, right?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Mm-hmm. Yes. My uncle is an actor. Dennis Lawson is my uncle. And
when I was growing up, I was always very interested in him, and he would arrive
and he was a very colorful character. And Crieff is a conservative kind of
farming town, really. There's a lot of farming there, and it's a beautiful
little town. But when my uncle arrived up, he was quite - he had something
about him that I liked very much that was different. And so from a very young
age, I wanted to be an actor because I wanted to be like him. But I suppose, at
the time, I didn't know much about what being an actor meant. And - but
however, I dedicated the rest of my life to finding out.

DAVIES: And how did you parents react to this ambition?

Mr. MCGREGOR: They were always supportive of me. And indeed, when I was - I
started my penultimate year when I was 16 of school, and I just was in trouble
all the time and sent to the head master and not happy. I was - I didn't like
school very much, and they wouldn't let me do the kind of things I wanted to
do. I was interested in music and art, and my school wouldn't let me do that.
They thought I was copping out. So I ended up having to do physics and math and
things I wasn't in the least bit interested in. And as a result, I ended up
being quite unhappy. And my parents saw it, and they, you know, after doing six
weeks of the first term of my penultimate year at school, my mother told me
that, she said that, you know, she said I've spoken to your dad, and if you
would like to leave school, you can. And then that was it. I never went back.

My life kind of went into wide screen, and I was off a week later. I was
working in Perth Repertory Theatre, and I was a member of the stage crew there
for six months putting up the sets, taking down the sets. They gave me little
walk-on parts now and again, and I was working in the theater. I was working
with actors, and I was being able to watch and learn about my profession -
about the thing that I wanted to do.

And so from there, I went to a one-year theater arts course in Scotland, and
from there I went to a three-year acting course down in London at the Guildhall
of Music and Drama and started working straight out of my final - I didn't
complete my last year, because I got a job.

DAVIES: Yeah. Did acting turn out to be more difficult than you thought it
would be? I mean, it's certainly easy to be excited about it when you were a
kid, but it's a craft, right? You had to work at it.

Mr. MCGREGOR: You do have to learn it. But at the same time, it's very - it
isn't complicated. I like to keep it very simple, acting. I don't think it is a
- there's a great many tortured souls who are actors and make it very, very
complicated. But I think it's quite straightforward, acting. And I try and make
it as uncomplicated as possible. On film work, you know, and on the stage,
there are technical things that you learn through experience, and drama school
is merely just a place to give you an environment where you can learn by doing
lots of classes and different kinds of classes. But mainly, you're just in a
safe environment where you can try to act and where your results don't
determine your future any way. So you can fail.

In drama school, you can be in a play and be terrible in it, and it's okay.
You're not going to - you know, it's not going to affect your career any way.
Of course, once you come out and you start acting in film or on stage, then
your work has more - there's some more danger element to it because you can -
if you fail, you might not get another job.

DAVIES: Right. Well, you got a job in a TV series, "Lipstick on Your Collar,"
and then this film "Trainspotting" with Danny Boyle was, I guess, sort of a
breakout role for you. I mean, and there you're with a band of young people in
Glasgow, I guess, who are using heroin. And, I got to say, I mean, you're a
very convincing heroin addict. How did you prepare for that role?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGREGOR: Well, we worked with an organization up in Glasgow called the
Calton Athletic Club. They're a recovery group for heroin addicts. So we indeed
worked with people who were no longer taking heroin. And we had a man called
Amon(ph), who was our onset advisor. Whenever there was any drug-taking scenes
or heroin scenes, then he was there, and we were able to make sure that what we
were - what were doing with the syringes and the spoons and the matches and
whatever was accurate and correct.

And also, he was there to - you know, for me, I needed to find out what it was
like to overdose and what it was like to withdraw from heroin addiction,
because there was a quite long sequence where my character was going through
withdrawal, which is a horrendous and painful process. And I was able to
question him about all of those things in great detail because he had lived
that life and was no longer living that life. But this organization don’t use
methadone. They just support each other off the drug and they're there and they
organize football matches. And, you know, indeed we, the cast - the guys from
"Trainspotting" - we had a football match with the ex-heroin addicts - the
Calton Athletic boys - and they ran circles around. You know, we didn’t - they
really hammered us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah.

DAVIES: You know, this all has one of the most memorably disgusting scenes in
cinema.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: It’s the case where your character Mark Renton desperately needs to
find a bathroom and finds one - how was it described in the film? The...

Mr. MCGREGOR: The worst toilet in Scotland.

DAVIES: The worst toilet in Scotland. And it is a truly wretched men's room,
which you character ends up somehow dropping something he needs into the toilet
and then diving in after it. You want to say a little bit about shooting that
scene?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah, there's something quite poetic about it - something quite
beautiful about it in a way. It's odd, once he gets into the toilet, it's quite
serene and beautiful down there, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGREGOR: I showed it to my kids. I've got two eight-year olds, you know,
I've got a 14-year-old as well, but one day I was talking to them about this
toilet scene. And, of course, I wouldn’t show them "Trainspotting," because
they're too young. But I did show them the toilet scene because I thought it
would be fun for them to see their dad going down a loo. And what I remember of
shooting it was, you know, we did three or four takes. I mean, they had a very
clever set where I could slide down the toilet like that. But it was - they
thought they had it and Danny said okay, let's move on to the next sequence.
And I suddenly thought, no, he has to go around a u-bend. He has to go around
the bend, so when I get in, I...

DAVIES: In the pipes you mean?

Mr. MCGREGOR: In the pipes, my feet should turn around as if he's kind of gone
around the u-bend. And I asked for another take and put the, you know, managed
to stop myself just when my feet were sticking out the loo and turned them
around and then carried on as if I'd gone around the u-bend and I was very
pleased with myself about that little moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You were in the three most recently made "Star Wars" films. You played
the young Obi-Wan Kenobi and I read that your uncle, Denis Lawson, who is an
actor, had played a very minor role in the first three "Star Wars" films and
that he advised you not to get involved in "Star Wars." Is that right?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah. I mean very minor role in your opinion, maybe, but in the
"Star Wars" fans, he played a very important role of Wedge, the star-fighter,
Red Baron - Red Leader. I can't remember. But when I got closer and closer to
being cast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, as I kind of got closer, I did question whether
it was the right thing for me. Up until that point, I'd been involved in mainly
kind of independent, low-budget independent films and I had a very tight
relationship with Danny Boyle and Andrew MacDonald and John Hodge and we made,
you know, "Shallow Grave," and "Trainspotting," and "Life Less Ordinary." And I
felt like that being part of that filmmaking team was my identity as an actor.

I felt that that was the most important thing about my work was being in that
group of kind of new British wave of cinema. And I didn’t think that "Star
Wars" was quite who I was or what I was about. However, the closer I got the
more I wanted to do it and I took advice from people. I spoke to Danny Boyle. I
spoke to people I respected to see what their opinion of that was. And my
uncle's - just lived a life of - "Stars Wars" had kind of overshadow - I think
Alec Guinness was quite interesting about it as well, that after this whole
life of amazing acting, that his whole amazing career, that he felt remembered
just for those three movies, or, in fact, just that one movie really, that he
was in. My uncle said, don’t do it.

DAVIES: And that's because there are such obsessive cult followers of the films
that you will forever be known as the guy who held the lightsaber?

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yes. I don’t mind it. I don’t mind that I am because I've done
lots and lots of other things. And for me, I'm very happy with the work I did
in "Star Wars." I'm happy to be part of that legend. I think it's great and I
really like being Obi-Wan Kenobi. I have no problem with it. I've always been
quite open about the fact that they were technically very difficult to make.
There's a lot of green screen and blue screen, and for the actor, there's very
often not another actor to act with — so you’re playing to a tennis ball on a
stick or a piece of tape on a green curtain or whatever and, you know, that's
just not easy. It becomes a very technical exercise.

It's always for the actor probably easier to be in a set or in a location with
other actors to play off. It's just normal, you know. But that's just the way
it is. Every film has its own challenges. And the challenges on "Star Wars"
were being believable when you’re surrounded by green curtains.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MCGREGOR: In fact, most of the sets and the flooring and everything, you’re
very often just on an entirely green place. You’re in a very green place.

DAVIES: Oh really? And so, the entire environment is added later.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Yeah. It's odd.

DAVIES: Well there is some dialogue, and I thought we'd listen to just a bit.
And this is you in a brief conversation with Anakin Skywalker, the father of
Luke Skywalker. He's played by Hayden Christensen. So this is our guest Ewan
McGregor playing Obi-Wan Kenobi.

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith")

Mr. HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN (Actor): (as Anakin Skywalker) You're going to need me
on this one master.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as Obi-Wan Kenobi) Oh I agree. However, it may turn out just to
be a wild bantha chase.

Mr. CHRISTENSEN: (as Anakin Skywalker) Master, I've disappointed you. I haven't
been very appreciative of your training. I've been arrogant and I apologize.
I've just been so frustrated with the council.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as Obi-Wan Kenobi) You are strong and wise Anakin and I am very
proud of you. I have trained you since you were a small boy. I have taught you
everything I know and you have become a far greater Jedi than I could ever hope
to be.

DAVIES: And that's our guest Ewan McGregor in "Revenge of the Sith," the "Star
Wars" film. And, you know, the reason I wanted to play this clip was that, you
know, in this film you are playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, who was played by Alec
Guinness in the first three films and you’re playing that character at a
younger point in his life. And when I heard that, I can hear Alec Guinness in
your voice.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Mm-hmm. That was my job, was to take the amazing and legendary
performance that Alec Guinness gave in the first "Star Wars" film and play that
character as a younger man. It was difficult to make that voice - put that
voice into a younger body, if you like, because it's such a legendary figure
and we know that voice. We know Obi-Wan Kenobi's voice from those first "Star
Wars" films so well, and to put him in a - put that voice on a young man, it
was quite hard to make it work. But I tried my best. That was really my - that
was my job, was to try and do that, you know.

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we're speaking with actor Ewan McGregor. He
has two new films, "The Ghost Writer," which is now in theaters, and "I Love
You Phillip Morris," which is soon to be released.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we're speaking with actor Ewan McGregor. He
appears in the film, "The Ghost Writer," which is now out in theaters. He'll
also be starring with Jim Carey in the new film "I Love You Phillip Morris."

You know, when you read about your career, one of the things people write a lot
is that Ewan McGregor never stops working. I mean, there have been times when,
I think, you’ve been flying back and forth between sets of two different films.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And then some think that you haven't been selective enough. You know,
that you should be more careful about some of those that you make. I don’t
know, what drives you to the level of filmmaking that you do?

Mr. MCGREGOR: I just like it. I really enjoy working. I'm a working man. I have
a family to support. I mean, whether I'm selective enough or not, it's very
difficult to say and it's really - with my work I like to have real freedom of
choice in it and I don’t like to kind of confine myself by saying I’ll never do
this or I wouldn’t do that.

I mean, I wouldn't ever make a movie that was morally against my own, you know,
I wouldn’t make a film that stood for something I didn’t believe in or - but I
wouldn’t say I'll never sing or I'll never do a sex scene or I’ll never do this
or that because I simply don’t know, until I've read it, what’s required.

DAVIES: You know, the other thing I've read about you - I don’t know if this is
a record, but that you've appeared frontally nude five times in film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Is that just because you happen to be in projects where it called for
it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Does it say anything about you and your career choices?

Mr. MCGREGOR: I don’t know what it says really, other than, you know, movies
reflect life, and in life you're naked some of the time. And movies are about
the dramatic side of life. And sex and sexuality and love and romance are in
definitely in that area of drama. And, so I think it's obvious that if you're
going to have a career in acting and drama, you're going to be called upon at
some point to explore those areas - and I have done.

You know, my second film was an amazing picture called "The Pillow Book" with
Peter Greenaway and it was a film about a girl's sexuality. It was about sex.
And in that film I was called upon to be naked a lot and I was called upon to
have sexual scenes with the actress and with the actor who played my boyfriend
in the film and none of that was gratuitous or uncalled for because it was what
the story was about. It was a film about sexuality. And it's a really beautiful
film. It's one that I'm - whenever I'm asked, you know, of a film that I like
the most of all of them, that film always kind of springs to mind in that it
was a very beautiful and interesting movie, and probably one of Greenaway's
more accessible films, I think.

DAVIES: You know...

Mr. MCGREGOR: I just never had a problem with it. I don’t - I'm not embarrassed
about being naked and - but I don’t, you know, I don’t insist on being naked in
movies for the sake of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MCGREGOR: You know, I don’t say well, we should definitely put a nude scene
in here. In fact, in "The Ghost," you know, I was doing the press last week and
somebody said to me, would you like to talk about the nude scene? And I went, I
can't remember a nude scene. Is there a nude scene? And in actual fact, all it
is is when I get into bed at one point and I let the robe fall to the floor as
I slip under the covers, and for the briefest microsecond you see my bum. And
this was what the journalist was interested in talking about - this huge naked
scene, you know.

DAVIES: Ewan McGregor, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. MCGREGOR: Thank you very much. It's been my pleasure.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Ewan McGregor spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. McGregor stars in
the new Roman Polanski film "The Ghost Writer." You can download podcasts of
our show on our Web site at freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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