While balancing atop the back of a broad, wooden elephant, Ewan McGregor’s Christian, a penniless poet dressed in a black tuxedo, desperately implores the courtesan with whom he’s infatuated to share his passion. “Love is a many-splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love,” he pleads to Nicole Kidman’s Satine, whose rippling hair, fleshy lips, and flowing gown are drenched in a shade of red normally reserved for Valentine’s Day cards. He breaks into song, she responds with heavy breaths and heaving breasts, and eventually they kiss under the soft, seductive glow of the moon. The heart of bohemian Paris, it seems, beats with theirs.
Despite some obvious similarities to the Baz Luhrmann musical, McGregor’s latest film, Beginners, is the anti-Moulin Rouge. Instead of sweeping gestures and histrionic declarations of amour, the Scottish actor’s character, an emotionally shut-off illustrator named Oliver, stammers his way through his courtship of Anna, a mysterious French actor played by Mélanie Laurent. While navigating the dating scene with self-conscious ineptitude, Oliver is also coming to terms with his father Hal’s second life as a gay man, a revelation he shared at the age of 75, following the death of his wife and Oliver’s mother. Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, soon falls for a much younger man (Goran Visnjic). Together, the unlikely lovebirds frequent dance clubs that play “wonderfully loud music,” cuddle together on the floor, and host Harvey Milk–themed movie nights at what’s now become Hal’s bachelor pad. Just as he begins to settle into his life as a proud gay man—a freedom he denied himself throughout his marriage—Hal is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Beginners is based on filmmaker Mike Mills’ relationship with his own father, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 79.
To help his actors bond prior to the film shoot, Mills sent McGregor, 40, and Laurent to Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles. “He thought the roller coasters were a good metaphor for falling in love,” says McGregor over the phone from Surrey, England, where he’s currently filming Bryan Singer’s adventure epic, Jack the Giant Killer, a 3-D retelling of the classic fairy tale. “Just like a roller coaster, falling in love makes you feel exhilarated and nauseated at the same time. You never know what’s coming next, you’ve got no control over it, and you don’t want to eat afterward.”
Unlike most conveyor-belt romantic comedies, in which the protagonist’s parents are reduced to wacky clichés, if they’re present at all, Beginners places as much significance on the intimacy between a father and his son as it does on the nascent love affair central to its plot—which meant that McGregor and Plummer were also thrown into camaraderie boot camp. “The first day I worked with Christopher, Mike sent the two of us to Barneys in Los Angeles. He gave me $200 and told me I had to buy Christopher a scarf,” McGregor says, laughing at the memory. “But Christopher was obsessed with getting a pair of black skinny jeans. He ended up with about $1,000 worth of black skinny jeans—which I had to pay for since he had no money on him—and one scarf because that’s what I’d been told to get.”
Mills’ experiment paid off. The chemistry between his three leads serves to anchor an otherwise whimsical narrative, through which floats all manner of quirky tropes: a Jack Russell terrier who speaks in subtitles, an interstitial slideshow depicting “happy people” from generations past, and a Harold and Maude–like driving sequence through the streets of suburban Los Angeles. Despite these idiosyncratic flourishes, it’s Beginners’ trifecta of lost souls who turn an otherwise acutely personal history into a universal love story. “The longer I do this job, the more often I come in contact with it being done very badly,” says McGregor of filmmaking. “Working with Mike was a fucking privilege. It was one of the greatest experiences of my career.”
Which is saying a lot. McGregor, who began working in his twenties, starred in three movies (Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave among them) prior to his breakout performance in 1996 as a heroin addict in Boyle’s era-defining drug odyssey, Trainspotting. Since then, he’s surprised audiences at every turn: as a thinly-veiled ode to Iggy Pop in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine; as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the reboot of George Lucas’ Star Wars; and as a shiftless transient opposite Tilda Swinton in Young Adam, which earned him a BAFTA award in Scotland. His upcoming projects—and there’s no dearth of those—seem equally destined for cinematic acclaim. In addition to Jack the Giant Killer, in which he stars opposite Nicholas Hoult in the title role, McGregor is set to release Haywire (an action thriller helmed by Steven Soderbergh), The Impossible (about a family caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, co-starring Naomi Watts), Perfect Sense (a romantic drama set during an epidemic that robs the afflicted of control over their emotions, and then their senses), and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of the award-winning novel by Paul Torday, also featuring Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas).
In truth, McGregor’s patchiest films are the ones that have found him plucking his heartstrings—with the exception of Moulin Rouge, the gloriously maudlin spectacle that earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in 2002 and confirmed his reputation as a sensitive heartthrob with serious pipes. Down with Love, for example, a post-modern battle of the sexes that had him sparring with—and bedding—Renée Zellweger, went over like a lead balloon when it was released in 2003. Even 2010’s subversively twisted prison comedy, I Love You Phillip Morris, in which McGregor and Jim Carrey dropped the soap with abandon, sputtered in distribution hell for two years before it was released with a paltry mewl.
Thankfully, McGregor has finally found a starry-eyed drama—devoid of jailhouse sex and Madonna-tinged dance sequences—that’s at once subtle and soaring. “When I was a really small kid, like 5 or 6, I was obsessed with romantic movies,” he says. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a real appetite for those types of movies from the ’30s and ’40s. I like them more than the romantic films of today because they didn’t make any excuses for being romantic. We tend to shroud ours in comedy because it’s embarrassing to be romantic, but that wasn’t the case back then. I like savage and painful love in movies, and that’s one of the great things about Beginners: Its characters don’t really know what’s going on, but they feel really good when it’s going right and they’re destroyed when it’s not, and that’s a lot like real life."
To hear him speak, one gets the sense that McGregor, who has three children with Eve Mavrakis, a French production designer and his wife of 16 years, is no stranger to grand proclamations of love. “As people, we do these irrational things that we sometimes look back on later and think, What the fuck did I do that for?” he admits. When asked for specifics, he says, “I would never discuss that with you, because I think my romantic life is my own.” Following a tense pause, the phone shakes with his uproarious laughter, because even though he’s uncompromisingly private, McGregor is also an affable guy with a robust sense of humor. Still, details are not forthcoming.
“It’s not like I feel the need to protect myself or my family from some nasty thing,” he says about the media. “At the same time, I’m very clear about what I do for a job.” But is it not, at least in part, an actor’s job to give audiences more than just a stellar performance? “Fuck, no,” he says. “Where’s that rulebook? I’ve had journalists ask me the most unbelievably prying, sexual questions, and the idea that I might actually answer them—what kind of madness is that? Actors are professionals who have a job to do, and that job really shouldn’t involve the public pointing fingers at us when we come out of the house on a Sunday morning in baggy clothes. Whole magazines are devoted to gawking at famous people in their normal lives, like we’re some kind of collective freak show, and to me that’s just ridiculous.”
McGregor will, however, happily discuss his undying love for the craft of acting, which he’s careful to separate from the circus of celebrity. “Here’s the thing about fame,” he says. “You’ll never wake up with enough of it. You’ll never go, ‘That’s it! I’ve done it! I’m really fucking famous now.’ But you can wake up in the morning feeling successful, feeling as if you’re really good at your job, that you’ve given it 110%, that people like your work, and that people want to work with you again. If you’re just after fame—and god knows, some people are—then you’ll never be happy. Happiness derives from making great work and finding someone to love.” Come what may.
Photography by Laurence Ellis. Styling by John McCarty.