The typical movie actor doesn’t drop out of the business for four months and, leaving his wife and children behind, take off on a 20,000-mile motorcycle trip from London to New York with his best friend, stopping along the way to take some target practice with Ukrainian gangsters and dine on sheep testicles in Mongolia. But Ewan McGregor prides himself on not being the typical movie actor. Sure, he’s had his share of blockbusters, from the three Star Wars prequels (as Obi-Wan Kenobi) to his current summer popcorn movie, The Island, directed by action master Michael Bay. But McGregor, 34, is not usually associated with big-budget commercial films. His credits are an exercise in versatility, ranging from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down to Tim Burton’s Big Fish to Baz Luhrmann’s racy Moulin Rouge, not to mention Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, the unforgettable indie films that first brought him international acclaim. Perhaps no major male star has taken off his clothes in more movies than McGregor, who bared all in Velvet Goldmine, The Pillow Book and Young Adam, among others. As McGregor jokingly told an interviewer, he enjoys “doing it for the sisters.”
McGregor also refuses to behave like a Hollywood actor offscreen. He is unusually out-spoken. He has fearlessly slagged his fellow actors, saying of Jim Carrey, “I just cannot fucking stomach the man,” and of Minnie Driver, “She goes to the opening of an envelope.” He has also been unafraid to bite the hand that feeds him. “They’re all bastards,” he has said, “the studio executives, the studio people, the people who live in L.A.”
McGregor has been a frequent target of the British press and paparazzi, but he has fought back with zeal. “I think we should encourage people to beat up paparazzi–use extreme force,” he has said. “They shouldn’t be shot, but they should be severely beaten up.” Though he is married–to French production designer Eve Mavrakis–and has two children, the tabloids speculated that he and his Moulin Rouge leading lady, Nicole Kidman, had an affair. His response was unequivocal. “I haven’t fucked Nicole,” he said. “I’m a married man. I haven’t been personally involved with all my leading ladies. It maybe would have been somewhat glamorous if I had been, but I have not.”
Born in 1971 in Crieff Scotland to school-teacher parents, McGregor was more interested in music than in academics (he played guitar, drums and French horn). He quit school at 16 to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, Denis Lawson, an actor who had a small recurring role in the three original Star Wars movies.
Writer Stephen Rebello, who recently interviewed Kidman and Matt Damon for playboy, met with McGregor at a beachside Santa Monica hotel. His report: “McGregor had just finished nearly five months of intensely physical shooting on The Island, a $120 million sci-fi, action thriller, for Bay. He has a reputation for being sharp-witted and candid, and though he is laid-back, he has an unambiguous movie-star aura. When he walked through the lobby of the hotel, even blasé L.A. types turned to gawk. He doesn’t need a lightsaber to command attention.”
You’re a member of the generation that grew up with the original Star Wars films. Was it a defining moment when, after being cast in the movies, you arrived on the set and were presented with your own lightsaber?
It was. A props guy brought over a locked wooden suitcase and said, “Are you ready?” He opened it, and there were six or seven lightsaber handles, all intricate and beautiful. He told me to choose one. I knew straightaway which one I wanted. It had quite an aggressive end, and on the handle it had, I don’t know what you’d call them, testicles?
Was it intimidating to take on such a prominent role in this legendary series?
My uncle, who played a tiny role in the first movies as the pilot Wedge Antilles, warned me about it and advised me not to get involved.
What was his objection?
To this day he receives fan mail and gets asked to sign books written about him, all from having a small part in Star Wars. He finds the whole thing fucking ridiculous, so after his experience he was against it. He asked, “Would you like a career after you’re 30?” The danger, I suppose, is that you get stuck in it and never get out. But I’ve managed not to. Star Wars has been important in my career, though the movies were hard to make.
In what way?
They were horrendously difficult because you do so much of your work in front of a blue screen. Backgrounds and effects are added later. It’s tedious, and there’s no soul to them. By the nature of those movies, all the creative work is done afterward. They don’t spend nearly as long on the acting as they do on everything else.
Harrison Ford once told George Lucas, “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.” Is he right? Is the dialogue particularly difficult for an actor?
If you had really good dialogue in a Star Wars movie, it wouldn’t be a Star Wars movie anymore. The people are two-dimensional, which has almost become the style. I loved being in them. Among the nicest things for me was meeting Hayden Christensen, who is great, and Natalie Portman, because I think she’s a wonderful girl as well as incredibly bright and passionate.
Kids throughout the world collect Ewan McGregor-as–Obi–Wan Kenobi action figures. What did you collect when you were a child?
Star Wars toys too and what you call G.I. Joe but in Britain is called Action Man. Now I collect motorcycles. I have four in London, where I live, and two here. In London I have a Suzuki 1200 cc Bandit, a KTM Duke II, which is a 650 single, and an MV Agusta, which is a 750 inline. I’ve just put a deposit on a 1969 BSA A65 Lightning in England. I’ll pick that up when I get home, which is why I want to get home so badly, [laughs] Also, of course, my family is there. Here I have a Harley-Davidson Road Glide and a Honda RC51, a V-twin sport bike.
Do you still have the bikes you and your friend Charley Boorman took on your 115-day road trip through Europe, Central Asia, Siberia, Alaska, Canada and the Midwest in 2004?
No, we auctioned the motorcycles, BMW R1150GS Adventures, and made something like £200,000 for UNICEF and other charities, which is amazing.
The movie studios that pay you millions of dollars must worry about your motorcycle riding. Do they freak out?
I’m not allowed to ride when I’m making a film. With The Island, I asked if I might be allowed to ride my bike, and they came back with, “Under no circumstances are you to ride a bike.” I had to sign four lawyers’ letters saying I wouldn’t ride.
Did you honor that commitment?
I didn’t ride for about eight weeks. For me that’s like not letting me listen to music. It was a five-month movie. If I hadn’t ridden, I would have gone nuts. I think it’s my release.
You once got paid to ride. You wrote a book and made a documentary, both titled Long Way Round, about your motorcycle trip.
Last year I took that wild trip for four months. There were moments–in the middle of the steppes in Kazakhstan or in Mongolia, for example–when there was nothing but space around me, nothing but grass, no roads. I had the freedom to ride across it on my motorcycle. I felt a true sense of being looked after. Not much else provides that. I’ve felt the same thing looking at a tree with my daughter. With kids, you have great discussions about things like that. It’s nice when you don’t know what you’re talking about because you really meet in the middle. I went, “God, look at that tree!” when my daughter and I saw a huge, beautiful, perfect, enormous blossoming tree on the way to the park in London. She was talking about God and what they get told at school and what do I think, and I thought, Maybe that’s God, that tree. Because how could that be if there weren’t a God? I didn’t know what I was talking about, but it was a lovely discussion.
Not only have you been in the most recent Star Wars movies, but your latest is the big sci-fi action flick The Island, directed by Michael Bay, who did Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. You have publicly railed about how lousy most big-budget movies are, yet you’ve been in some of the biggest. Are you trying to have it both ways?
If my goal had been to do only big action movies, I could have tried to crack into America long before I did. But I always thought the work was more important than the results. So yeah, now I find myself just having finished a $120 million Michael Bay movie because of all the other work I did up until now. It felt like the right thing to do. Had I done it after Trainspotting, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here now. I don’t think I’d be dead, but I probably would have burnt out, whereas now I feel I’m just beginning. I can’t believe what’s coming up: I’m doing Guys and Dolls onstage, then a film in London set during 1938, for which I’ll play four roles–kind of like an old Alec Guinness movie. I feel as if I can pick and choose, and I’m delighted. I think that’s the best you can hope for.
Bay has a reputation for being a screamer. Was he?
Yeah, he can’t stand fucking waiting, and he screams and shouts, but it’s just because he’s incredibly passionate when he’s shooting, incredibly passionate about what he does. I found ultimately I really liked that he’s so arrogant and powerful. It sets you free. When he’s shooting a scene, he’s almost acting with you from behind the monitor. You can feel his excitement. I had my ups and downs with him, but every note he gave me was right. Sometimes he’s not very good at telling them to you, but he’s right. Overall I liked the idea of the movie, and I liked the idea of doing a big fuck-off Michael Bay film. I thought, If you’re going to do action, do it with Michael Bay. The movie is quite interesting and dark and has, as Michael loves to say, cool shit–like, “We need to blow up some cool shit here.”
You co-star with Scarlett Johansson in The Island. She is best known for playing parts opposite actors much older than she–Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Murray and Colin Firth. Do you have a theory about why?
Not many actors her age are good, that’s why. She’s 20, a very wise girl, but she’s lovely, too, a delight. I love Scarlett. She’s brilliant. We became real buddies.
Is it difficult to go from a movie like that to the London stage for Guys and Dolls, your current musical?
I like the change in routine when I’ve been making movies and then swap back into theater. I think it’ll be extraordinary and ultimately great fun. Not having to go to work until the evening and then having my days free will also let me be at home with the two kids. I’m looking forward to being home.
Though you live in London, do you still consider Scotland home? Do you miss it when you’re away?
I do. When I’m away for a long time, after three or four months I start having flashes of home, not of my home in London but of Scotland: places where I grew up, streets where I played as a kid. I have vivid memories of my home in Crieff and the Highlands. I pine for it and love going back.
For many Americans Scotland is Sean Connery, kilts, bagpipes and Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard. What are we missing?
Edinburgh is a staggeringly beautiful city. It’s ancient, and the castle is stunning. Glasgow is a more industrial town. The women in Glasgow are fantastically hard. When you’re growing up and you’re trying to pull them, they’re absolutely terrifying.
And that’s good?
It is. I love them to bits.
How are they terrifying?
They just don’t let you get away with anything.
Can you remember a woman shutting you down in a terrifying Glaswegian way?
Growing up in Scotland, you’re often drunk. I don’t drink anymore. I haven’t in four years. But when you’re growing up there, a lot of heavy drinking goes on and therefore a lot of drunken womanizing. Glaswegian girls just don’t stand for any shit. If you try to chat them up, they cut you down. One time I was just talking about my feelings or something, and this girl said, “You’re being a bit fucking deep, aren’t you?” She was saying, “I know what you want. Just get on with it.”
Were you good at picking up–or pulling, as you call it–girls?
No, I was never really good at pulling girls. I was always too embarrassed about it. I mainly slept with girls I knew, though I enjoyed watching other guys try to pull them. I can’t believe women fall for it. If they do, I think, I can’t imagine why you would want to sleep with someone who fell for a bad chat-up line like that. I was always more interested in sexual relationships as opposed to just sex. Maybe that causes more trouble in the end because you get into a series of short relationships as opposed to just having sex, when both people understand that’s what it is and then move on.
If nudity is part of life and movies reflect life, they’re going to have nudity in them from time to time. Rejecting that is like saying you won’t have anything to do with sex or music. Why would you say that? I think it’s all fine.
Who was your first love?
A girl at Fife College, where I went to do a one-year course as a drama student.
Did you lose your virginity to her?
No, I didn’t.
Who was first?
The first time was fantastic. She was a complete stranger. I’m sure she must now have a twinkle in her eye if she’s up in Scotland somewhere–at least I like to hope so. I was in the halls of residence in Scotland in the college, just a night of the usual going to a pub and then coming back. She was older than I. I was 16 or 17, and she was probably 24. We were sitting around, and one thing led to another. We ended up snogging in the corner of the room. Until it happened I assumed I was going to be fumbling around and stuff. But the next thing I knew, she had taken control of the situation. She was a good teacher. After that I went in and out of relationships. It wasn’t really until I was down in London and later that I had my playboy bachelor time, when I was like any young guy anywhere, just kind of rampant. I started drinking and womanizing, that kind of thing, until I met my future wife when I was 24.
Marriage hasn’t stopped you from doing nude scenes in movies. Have you ever had qualms about them?
If nudity is part of life and movies reflect life, they’re going to have nudity in them from time to time. Rejecting that is like saying you won’t have anything to do with sex or music. Why would you say that? Sex and nudity–the world’s made up of these things. I think it’s all fine.
Did the wedding bells break up your gang of friends?
That happened when I stopped drinking. A lot of my friends weren’t ready to or didn’t need to stop. I really needed to. It’s difficult if you’ve been drinking as much as I drank. To stop is very difficult. When you finally do, it’s impossible to be hanging around people who are still indulging.
Why did you stop?
I knew I was lucky, and somehow I knew that if I didn’t stop, everything would go tits up–my career, my family, everything. I was trying to be a great actor, a great husband, a great dad and a really good drinker. I couldn’t do them all. The drinking was the thing I cared for least, yet I kept finding myself sitting with strangers in fucking pubs.
Did you have to stop altogether? Could you have remained a casual drinker?
For a long time I tried not to drink heavily. I couldn’t do it. It’s not within my power to go out and have a couple of pints and then go home. I would always be crawling in at five or six in the morning, full of regret and remorse. So I stopped. I’ve been sober for four and a half years. I don’t think about it anymore. Smoking’s different.
Is it harder not to smoke?
I gave up smoking for about a year, then started again on my motorcycle trip last year. Someone was rolling a cigarette and said, “Do you want a roll-up?” Out of the blue I thought, Fuck yeah. I was obsessed with smoking again, to the point where I couldn’t think about anything else. I love smoking, and that’s the trouble. I can be in a pub now with people drinking and not think about it, but if I smell a cigarette, I’m like, Fucking hell.
Are you worried that if you curb too much of your behavior, you may lose your edge?
All that really matters to anybody else–or all that I think matters to them–is my work, because personally, my life is my own business. But I think drinking and being out of control narrow your options in front of the camera. It doesn’t mean you can’t be that way, because I did it. There are great actors who are great drinkers and great drunkards. But I would suggest that when you work drunk, you find one way to play a scene and that’s it. When you’re sober in front of the camera, you have choices. You go, Oh, I could play it like this, but maybe I could try playing it like that. That reminds me of being young again; that’s how I started off in the business, with Lipstick on Your Collar, The Scarlet and the Black and Shallow Grave. I would never have been drunk at work then, but later, there I was, suddenly drunk at work. I was just ashamed of myself, really.
Did your wife say, “You’ve got to quit”?
Well, I was devious about it. She didn’t know. And none of my directors ever said, “You know, I’d rather you didn’t drink at work.” None of them. And they must have known. I was reeking of it.
Do you wish your directors had laid down the law?
Yeah. “What the fuck are you doing?” I suppose it would have been different if drinking had gotten in the way of my work. Some people are fine and happy with it. Originally I was a happy drunk. But later I was miserable because it’s a depressant.
After the movie I met people who were heroin addicts who said I’d gotten it right. Only one person has said to me that they wanted to do heroin after watching the film. I suggested that maybe they had stopped watching halfway through.
You’re a convincing addict in Trainspotting. Do you know about heroin from personal experience?
I never did heroin, but I worked with heroin addicts before we shot the movie. I got to the point where I knew about it from them. After the movie I met people who were heroin addicts who said I’d gotten it right. Only one person has said to me that they wanted to do heroin after watching the film. I suggested that maybe they had stopped watching halfway through.
Later you made Velvet Goldmine, the 1998 movie about the pan-sexual 1970s glam-rock music scene. You did frontal nudity, sang and wore makeup in the style of rockers like Iggy Pop and David Bowie. You’ve been known to wear makeup offstage, too. Do you enjoy it?
From Velvet Goldmine I got fond of wearing nail polish and eye makeup. I used to wear it quite a lot. We all wear makeup when we go to events–men and women alike. I’ve also had some good makeup artists, and I like to let them have a good time. I don’t think we should pretend we’re not wearing makeup when we are. I quite like the look of it.
You and Christian Bale have rooftop sex together in Velvet Goldmine. Seven years later you’re starring in summer blockbusters like Star Wars and The Island, and Bale is in Batman Begins. Do you see the irony?
I just met him downstairs here at the hotel a little while ago for the first time since we shot that film. And ever since, no phone messages. He hasn’t written or anything, [laughs]
Did you have celebrity crushes when you were growing up?
There was a film of the musical Oliver, with Oliver Reed, and the first I can remember was a massive crush on the girl who played Nancy, Shani Wallis. I remember the kind of empty horror I felt that Reed had killed her in the movie and about how wrong it was, because I wanted so much for her to be my girlfriend. Then a big moment for me was when I saw Olivia Newton-John in Grease. I was born in 1971, so I guess I was seven. I remember my friend Eric Strickland and I used to play the record of Grease and sit in class with our fingers crossed for months because we thought if we did that, Olivia Newton-John would just come into the classroom.
Did you prefer Newton-John in her good-girl clothes or her sexy bad-girl black outfit?
Not the good-girl clothes. [laughs] It was quite funny to be sitting in class with our fingers crossed, really, honestly believing she would show up.
Did you have erotic fantasies about her?
I was too young to remember. But I did later–about everyone. I had them about everyone who was alive or had been at some point. I had lots and lots of those, but I can’t remember anyone specifically.
Do you recall when you first discovered masturbation?
Yeah, I remember it was a bit confusing and a bit terrifying. My brother was particularly unhelpful. I asked him about it, and I think because he was a bit embarrassed, he didn’t clarify masturbation and what the results were. For a while I was left thinking, Fucking hell! I didn’t know if there was something wrong with me. I was 12 or something, and my brother was just an awkward teenager. A couple of years later, when I was a teenager, he didn’t want to talk to me about it at all.
Were you often compared to your brother, Colin, who is two years older and seems to have always been a standout?
I suppose. We were at the same school, and certainly when he left at 18 to continue his education it was a bad time for me. I was 16 and had just started my penultimate year of school. I was miserable because I knew what I wanted to do, which was act, but I was still in an academic school, and I wasn’t interested in being there.
Were you a bad student?
I’d been thrown out of math, basically because I came back from the holidays after having passed my exams and couldn’t understand what the fuck the teacher was talking about. I remember looking at the blackboard and not knowing what the fuck anything meant, as if everything I knew before the holidays was gone. My school’s reaction was “Let’s not put you through this,” and they put me in a typing class instead, which I loved because I was allowed to drink coffee. I felt very grown-up. I still can’t type or do math, so it wasn’t really a solution, but I did learn to love coffee. I started to get in trouble a lot, and I would be sent to the headmaster, who became a good friend of mine, actually.
What kind of trouble did you get into?
They kept saying I had an attitude problem. I think a lot of it came from my brother having been head boy, which is the ultimate honor–a really archaic system of choosing people who represent the school best. I wasn’t head-boy material. Academically I was all right. I wasn’t brilliant. But I was very musical and loved anything that had to do with performing. That’s what I wanted to do. I liked music and art.
Did you perform at home for your family?
When I was very young and my mum had parties, I’d do my turn with the hairbrush in front of the stereo and stuff. I remember in one of the store windows in Crieff there was this gray sweater with a star on it. I thought it would be a sweater to wear when I did my turns. When I was in my teens I did a lot of Elvis. I loved Elvis and still do. I still get the chills listening to him sing.
Were you a fan of his movies as well as his music?
Yes. Roustabout was my favorite, the circus one where he rides around on a motorbike–a silly little Honda CB77 or something. I don’t know why he wasn’t on some massive Harley, because it’s an American movie.
As a teenager you played in a band. People were surprised to hear you sing in Moulin Rouge, but apparently it was a return to that period of your life.
Yeah, I was in a band called Scarlet Pride when I was 15 or 16. We used to play in schools and at birthday parties. We were truly terrible. We played covers like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock and Roll.” That’s the one I remember the clearest. I think we also did a Phil Collins song. I think it was “You Can’t Hurry Love.” We did “Twist and Shout” as our finale. Hey, we were young. We weren’t good. I was the drummer. There was a girl on bass–sultry, long hair, nice.
Did the band attract groupies?
Absolutely not. We were hopeless. We didn’t tour Britain or anything like that. We didn’t even tour Crieff. [laughs]
Did your schoolteachers encourage your interest in music and art?
They wouldn’t let me do art and music because they thought I was copping out. I thought, Well, I might be copping out if I wanted to be a banker or something, but I want to be an actor, so actually art and music are really good things for me. I wasn’t allowed to choose, though, so I thought, Fuck it. As a result, I got into trouble a lot. I was depressed.
How did your depression show itself?
I wouldn’t get into fights with people or anything like that, but I became disrespectful to teachers. I think a teacher’s job is to encourage you to want to learn. I was never encouraged to learn. I always felt, This is the shit I have to remember to pass the exams. So I would answer teachers back, which you’re not allowed to do. I did it because I felt aggrieved with some of the things they were saying.
What did they say?
I got in trouble with one because she felt I shouldn’t have a job if I was so interested in art and music. She thought I should be going to concerts and things like that and didn’t think I should be bothered by money. I didn’t think it was her place to be telling me what to do on the weekend.
What jobs did you have?
I worked from the age of 14 or 15, washing dishes on the weekends in a hotel, because it gave me money and I liked working. I also like to think of myself as a really good dishwasher. Then I became a waiter and barman, and I worked my way through hotels. I was a car valet one summer, and I worked at a trout farm, which was rather beautiful. First thing in the morning I’d feed all the trout in the ponds. I still really enjoy working, and I get pleasure out of hard work.
What did you do with the money you earned?
When I was 16 I bought my first car. Working for it myself, buying it and looking after it put me to a degree in good stead for my future. Today I get frustrated with actors and, very rarely, directors who don’t turn up on time, for instance. We’re paid an enormous amount of money for the work we do in the theater, and if you’re lucky enough to be playing leading roles in the cinema, you can be paid a truly enormous amount of money. It seems to me the more money people get paid, the lazier they become. They turn up late, or they don’t know why they should rehearse. I think bad behavior from actors is often linked to their insecurity.
How did your parents react, as teachers, to your school problems?
Brilliantly. I mean, they let me leave, really, when I was 16. Driving into Crieff one night, my mum said, “I’ve spoken to your father, and if you’d like to leave school, you can.” I had imagined I would have to stay until I was 18, so for me it was like being let out of prison early. That’s slightly dramatic, but the release was unbelievable. I felt my life broaden immediately. A week later I was walking into a theater and getting involved in its production of A Passage to India.
Did it cure your depression?
Yes. I wasn’t depressed and didn’t have attitude problems anymore. I was inordinately keen, and I felt for the first time in my life that I was learning what I needed to learn to do what I wanted to do. I started learning about things happening in the world. I realized how little I knew about what was going on. At 16 I went to live in Kirkcaldy, doing a theater-arts course at Fife College. I went to an anti-apartheid meeting and listened to a black South African talk about his experiences and realized I didn’t really know what apartheid was. I thought, I’ve been at school since I was five years old and I don’t know about apartheid. They didn’t talk about it.
What was it like when you left Scotland to study theater in London?
If you were going to read a novel about an actor becoming an actor, all the elements would be in place at Guildhall University. I trained there for three years and then went to work, which was a perfect path. London was crazy. I vividly remember our first day there. The auditions to get in are tough. A week ago I watched American Idol, which I had never seen before; it was very much like auditioning for drama school. I know that feeling of standing in a room and being in the half of the group that is kept and watching the other half go out. There is an unbelievable feeling of excitement the nearer you get, then callbacks and finally getting in. In those days they put up a list of those who got in. I had met a guy during the auditions and asked, “Do you mind if I call you tonight, and you can tell me if I got in or not?” I took the train, got off at the Kirkcaldy station, stood in the phone box, lit a cigarette, dialed his number, and when he said, “You’re in,” I went fucking ballistic. I was walking on air for weeks. It was the biggest moment of my life. A day or two later I went back to Guildhall. I was a drama student there with 24 other people who felt every bit on top of the world as I did.
You left the university when you were hired to star in the British TV miniseries Lipstick on Your Collar, written by Dennis Potter, and then you were in an adaptation of Stendhal’s* The Scarlet and the Black*.
I remember my uncle saying to me at the time, “Now you’re an actor.” It was incredible.
At one point you shared a house with Jude Law.
It was a fantastic time. It was the three of us–me, Jude Law and Jonny Lee Miller, who was Sick Boy in Trainspotting. I had been living for a year and a half on my own in a one-bedroom flat in Regent’s Park. I think my lease had run out or something. I had to leave, so we decided to take an apartment together. None of us could be bothered to look properly for a good place, though, so we took the first one that came up, and it was a bit of crap. Because we were all working actors–luckily that was happening for us all–the three of us were never much there at any one time.
Kind of like having fellow flight attendants as roommates.
Yes, that’s right. But my biggest memory of the place, apart from some crazy nights, is the bathroom. The floor was tiled with wall tiles, so if you went to have a pee in the middle of the night, you quite often ended up on your back. Your feet just slid away from you. I think we put down rugs or something in the end but only after several falls. It was so stupid.
Which of you was the neat freak, if there was one?
They’re both quite neat. We used to get trashed on the weekends, and I remember to my dismay getting up with a terrible hangover many times and they’d be vacuuming, dusting, cleaning. Or they’d be whistling around the house while they paid bills. It’s depressing when you’re in that state and others are on top of it.
At that time you made three movies with director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge–Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary. You later had a falling-out with Boyle when he cast Leonardo DiCaprio instead of you in The Beach. Has that relationship been patched up?
That’s a relationship that’s over, I think. And it’s a shame, because we did some really brilliant work together. We had a director-actor relationship unlike any other I’ve had. But Boyle and his people didn’t treat me very well. It wasn’t just about The Beach–it was that they were dishonest with me about it. It cost us our friendships. I had the rug pulled out from under my feet. It wasn’t that they cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the part. That was irrelevant. It was how they dealt with me. That was extraordinarily out of character for who we were and what I thought we meant to one another. It was a betrayal. I’m sorry, because who knows what we could be doing together now.
Do you get angry?
I’m not a violent person, but I can get very angry.
It always has to do with injustice. I am an optimistic person; I forget there’s another side. When I come across violence, I’m always shocked and disappointed. If I see violence for the sake of it–or bullying, racism, sexism, backstabbing or people driven by ego–I can get angry. I feel extremely disappointed. There’s just no place for those things in my world.
Is it true you turned down blockbusters such as The Matrix and Bridget Jones’s Diary?
I didn’t turn down The Matrix–not to my knowledge, anyway. Fucking people will hang if I did. But I have turned down other things that have become successful. I’ve turned down parts that got people Academy Award nominations, but I’m absolutely delighted for them. If I say no to something, then it’s not my part anymore; it’s theirs. I took off almost a whole year to do that bike trip, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I missed out on a whole bunch of stuff, but that’s just the way it is. Now that I’m going into Guys and Dolls for six months, a lot of people have said, “Aren’t you worried about the films you’re going to miss out on?” I miss out on a film if I take another film, anyway. You can’t do everything, so just enjoy what you’re doing.
How would you cope if one day the fame were to disappear?
It has never been about fame. I’m not interested in fame, because you’ll never be famous enough. You’ll never wake up one day and go, “I’m fucking really famous, and I’m really happy.” If you chase fame, you’re just going to end up miserable and unhappy. Some people are willing to pay a huge price for it, but not me. For me it has always been about the work. You can go to sleep saying, “I did the best work I could do today.”
Do you have that feeling often?
I really like success. I’m good at what I do. I’m easy to work with, I’m proficient, and I take pride in that. I like to think I don’t cause anyone any trouble. I get on with it.
Are you competitive with your fellow actors?
I’m not competitive about my work. I do it the way I do because I like to be really good at what I do. I like to be on top of my game. I like success. I take pride in my work. Although I’m not competitive about work, I’d like to take you on at a racetrack on a motorbike. Now there I’d give you a run for your money.