LOS ANGELES — In a recent interview, Ewan McGregor revealed details of a film he made about the 2004 tsunami that severely affected Thailand. Titled “The Impossible,” Ewan said the screenplay is based on the true story of a family caught in the catastrophe that killed thousands.
“We shot it over a year ago,” said the native of Scotland of the film written by Sergio G. Sanchez, which chronicles one of the worst natural disasters of our time. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona, whose credits include “The Orphanage,” directs.
Ewan added that he and Naomi Watts play parents who, with their three young boys, get caught in the tsunami in Thailand. “The real family is Spanish but we play them as Brits,” said Ewan. “It is a very sensitive subject. You always had to be mindful of the fact that many people lost their lives or their loved ones in that tragedy, and that we were making a movie out of it.”
In that context, Ewan stressed that he and the filmmakers were very careful in depicting the story. “I always made absolutely sure … that the story never became the backdrop to an action movie or something like that,” he said. “We were telling a true story; that was quite difficult to achieve, because the nature of making a movie is that things do become too dramatic. It would be wrong …”
Although he has not yet seen the film, Ewan said he has been getting good feedback from people who have done so. He hopes to see it this month.
Ewan praised Juan as “a very fine young director. It was a huge undertaking to make that film. He wanted to use real water, so they spent six or seven weeks in a huge filming tank in Alicante, Spain. Naomi and the boy who plays our eldest son spent six weeks shooting in the water there, which was very difficult. Then we shot our story in Thailand. Juan went off and shot like a third scale model of the actual wave hitting the hotel that our characters were staying in.”
Recalled Ewan: “We stood in the same positions in the hotel swimming pool where the family was when the wave hit … The real family came to visit us on the set in the hotel that they haven’t been back to since the tsunami. It was a very strange experience but, hopefully, we made a really wonderful film.”
“The Impossible” is slated to be shown later this year. In the meantime, Ewan stars with Emily Blunt in director Lasse Hallström’s “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” Ewan plays a fisheries expert who is asked by a consultant (Emily) to make a sheikh’s (Amr Waked) dream of introducing fly-fishing as a sport to his desert territory. Ewan’s character scoffs at the idea as impossible, but the rest of this comedy-drama shows the challenge of finding hope in the unattainable.
“It’s a really refreshing look at that different culture.” Ewan enthused. “And mixing the Yemeni and Scottish cultures up in the Highlands—we had the sheikh character’s security guards all wearing kilts—I thought that was a nice touch. I like the fact that the Yemeni character in our script was a very inspirational, spiritual, and peaceful man. Amr mentioned that it was nice to be hired in a British or a western film where he wasn’t playing a terrorist.
Discussing his character’s expertise in fisheries led Ewan to look back on his early jobs as a teenager. “Funnily enough, I worked on a fish farm once,” he said. “I was on a trout farm in Scotland. The first thing I had to do in the morning was walk up and down this field full of huge holding tanks and feed the trout. Then, I’d have to net some of them out and kill them for people who wanted to take them home to eat. That was pretty grim.”
Ewan recounted that he actually had a lot of jobs as a teener. “I was a dishwasher when I was 14. Washing dishes all day long on a Saturday was gruelling. Most of my other jobs were outdoors. I was a BMW car valet for a while. Most of the cars arrived straight off the factory in Germany. They were clean already. You just had to tidy them up. That was boring.”
Asked if he was still good at washing dishes, Ewan answered with a chuckle: “I’m quite good at washing cars.”
Hailed as one of the finest actors of his generation, Ewan— who is married to French production designer Eve Mavrakis (they have four daughters)— said he cherishes all of his roles. “All of them—when you play a part, you don’t just learn lines and say them,” he emphasized. “You put your heart and soul into it. It’s hard enough making a film that it would be impossible if you didn’t care and didn’t invest some of your love into that piece. So the truth is, the parts stay with you a little bit.”
Recalling an interview he did for the Blu-Ray release of “Shallow Grave,” his first movie, Ewan said: “They showed it to me and … I carried on the dialogue like it was yesterday. I remembered every word. I did that movie almost 20 years ago. Funny, isn’t it?”
There are some films he remembers fondly: “‘Trainspotting’ was amazing because of the cast and Danny (Boyle, director). How effortless, brilliant, and quick it was. Also for what the film became and how important it was in my career and for British cinema. Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Pillow Book,’ was important to me, too, for different reasons. It was like a dream to make that film. ‘Moulin Rouge’ was another memorable film because of its scale and how wonderful it felt to walk onto that set with all the dancers, music, lights, and colors … I’ve worked with some amazing directors—Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Ridley Scott …”
On being a father, Ewan said: “You become a different guy when you become a parent. I think of my life in two halves— before my children and after.”
Asked how having four daughters has transformed him, Ewan replied: “It’s not because they’re all girls, although I’m a better actor because there’s a lot of emotional drama in my house.” Laughing, he quipped: “There’s not much football.”
What has been his biggest personal dare that’s similar to his character dealing with the idea of bringing fish to Yemen? “The biggest challenge I ever set for myself was to ride from London to New York on my first huge motorcycle,” he said. “The trip was documented in ‘Long Way Round.’ We left London on three motorcycles and we arrived in New York four and a half months later, having ridden across the greatest land mass on earth. That was my biggest personal challenge and success like the Sheikh achieves in this film—something that many people said wasn’t possible and would never work.”