The Scottish actor Ewan McGregor plays a real life father on vacation in the movie The Impossible. The story of a real Spanish family in Thailand when the devastating 2004 tsunami hit their seaside resort, scattering their family across the region. Directed by José Antonio Bayona, McGregor says in this interview that for a long time he has been following the Spanish filmmaker. The Impossible was shooting between Thailand and Spain where the actor had the opportunity to learn about Spanish culture, traditions and pick some words of our language. Ewan McGregor has received the San Sebastian Film Festival's Donostia Award for career achievement.
The actor attended the Spanish event for the European premiere of The Impossible, which screens out of competition. It is produced by Spain's Apaches and Telecinco Cinema. McGregor is one of the finest stars of his generation, who demonstrates his versatility across a multitude of genres styles and scope. McGregor's credits include Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Killer.
Q: Why you wanted to work with a Spanish director?
I’ve been infatuated with Spain and the directors that are coming from the country, it’s been a while now. It’s something about them that I like, a quality. As an actor I go on my gut instincts. Occasionally, the thought of working for a director pricks up my ears, or being alongside an actor gets me interested. But if the story can’t live in my head when I read the script, I feel I can’t be bothered to live with it on set.
Q: So for a father, it must have been a really grueling role to play The Impossible.
Well I felt it was one of the first times I had had a chance to explore being a parent on film in my work, I’ve been a father for sixteen years, and then apart from Nanny McPhee 2, I’ve got some kids, not one of my biggest roles, (laughter) I haven’t really explored Parenthood. And one of the reasons I was drawn to the script is that it was a chance to do that albeit against this unbelievably horrendous real tragedy, but still it’s kind of a look at the love we have, that unique love that we have for our children.
Q: Do you remember the moment when you heard about the Tsunami?
Yeah, I remember obviously being horrified by it, but I don’t remember where I was though.
Q: Had you met the real family, the Spanish family this movie is based upon , before you started shooting?
I didn’t meet them before. We started shooting the movie in Alicante and the family was down there, but I met them in Thailand for the first time, in the hotel where they had left in 2004, on the day of the Tsunami, they arrived back there too. It was extraordinarily emotional for them, I think they had never returned to Thailand since the Tsunami, and they had wanted to, but not until they could all do it together.
Q: How was your experience in Spain?
I love the country but I wasn’t there for holidays. The Impossible was a strange film to make in that respect for lots of reasons, and the main one being that it’s a true story and it happened and it was a real disaster, and thousands of people lost their lives in the Tsunami and thousands upon thousands of people lost loved ones in the Tsunami, so I think you carry that with you all the time. And when you shoot, it’s your responsibility to respect that and to respect those people, especially when you are making a film, it’s a complicated scenario, because you are putting a movie camera on and recreating something that really happened in Thailand with a family who lived that, who were all affected by the Tsunami and then so you carry that responsibility and you never, ever want to feel like you are using it for the movie, for the purposes of the movie, yet you are making a movie and you want the movie to be as good as possible, and as effective as possible, because you are telling the story and if you are going to tell the story, you want to tell it well.
Q: Did you learn some Spanish?
Some words here and there from the crew and the director. I wish I could speak Spanish because I would love to shoot a movie in that language, being able to play a character in another language it has to be a very different experience. But I love the life style that you have in Spain.
Q: Is there any book written in Spanish that is close to you
Yes. Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara is one of my favorite books. When I go in my motorcycle trips around the globe always get that book in my backpack. I read that book many times. I just love it.
Q: When are you going on the next motorcycle trip?
I don¹t have any planned at the moment. I felt like after our Africa trip in 2007 that it would be a while away. And whether we do another one together with Charlie and our group, I don’t know. It may well be that I do some other stuff on my own or with my wife or with my family. I’d like to travel, not on motorbikes, but in a truck or something; it might be quite good fun to do some of that stuff with them. So I don’t have any plans at the moment. I did two very long motorcycle trips with my friends. I did a big one in 2004 and in 2007. And there were almost too close together. They take a lot of preparation and they were both over four months to ride. And I think we¹ll wait a little bit before another one.
Q: What do you take away from them?
Just people you meet. And the experiences you get of people and the way places you know. When you’re traveling by road in a motorcycle that it’s a very conducive experience in the world because you’re so vulnerable to everything, to the elements and traffic and temperature. And when you’re traveling through countries where people are familiar with that like in Kazakhstan or in Mongolia or Eastern Russia or in Africa and some African countries; people know what that’s about. And Mongolia for instance, it’s a nomadic country as is much of Kazakhstan so they’re aware of it. And they travel by horseback really so they understand your vulnerability so when you turn up somewhere they look after you because that’s what happens to them when they travel. I suppose that ultimately what you come away with is that people are really nice to each other even when people have very little. Often the people that have the least are the most generous that’s what I experienced like in Ethiopia. There’s a little village in Ethiopia where we stopped and these people wanted to give us, take us into their little hut. And we went into their hut and I think the woman had one small root of ginger; ginger root. And she made us this ginger tea that I’ll never forget it was a fantastic tea in her little hut. And I’m pretty sure that was her only piece of ginger. And they gave us bread and they literally were extraordinarily good people and they fed us and sent us on our way. You come back very inspired with human kindness and that we’re very nice to each other. And it’s something that you have to go out there and discover because we can¹t be like that with each other in cities, it doesn¹t work. And it's a shame because I think in our nature that's what we're like but in cities we can't be like that. So when you're out there in the middle of nowhere if you break down or you get punched or you fall off or something or you run out of petrol, you just know that somebody's going to come by and help you and they do, always.
Q: Is there anything else creatively that you're good at?
I've become really into things all the time. At the moment I like to build bicycles, because I've ridden motorcycles a lot all my life. I made a film called Perfect Sense up in Scotland. And my character was a fixed gear rider. He rides track racing bikes on the street. He's also a chef but I became obsessed with bicycles much to the director's annoyance. I wasn't really interested in cooking but he kept dragging me into kitchens trying to get me to look like a chef. But I kept just standing up outside just tinkering with a bicycle. I'm not a very good cook. But I can build a quite nice bicycle. I enjoy that and that's creative. And they're artistic and they all have a look and you have to collect the right components and put them together and they are like little works of art. But you can ride them down the street. I think that's really nice.
Q: Have you ever thought, you are quite young, but having your own autobiography, do you ever want your story…
I haven’t thought about it, no I haven’t, but I’d be interested in trying to write stories, I loved . . . Dirk Bogarte wrote some really beautiful stories, he wrote some really beautiful books. In his later years, he wrote some really nice novels, and I like that as an actor who ended up going into writing that way, I think that’s nice. I’m not sure that I would be a very interesting person to read about, I don’t know, probably not really. I quite like people that write their autobiographies and people find them in the attic after they die, and they expose themselves as being horrible monsters, or having had 15 wives or something on secret, I like the idea of people who expose themselves after they died. I don’t know, I haven’t really got anything to talk about. It would be really boring.
Q: You should just do it so you can write something and leave it in your attic.
A: Yeah, maybe I can just write something that is a whole crock of shit. (laughter)