Take, for example, an aside he offers about Haywire, which is in theaters Jan. 20 and is the ostensible reason for our sit-down. Helmed by Steven Soderbergh, the international spy thriller stars Gina Carano as an agent on the run, and McGregor as one of several GQ-ready spooks — played by Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum — who either employ or are out to extinguish her. Soderbergh, McGregor explains, put the cast at the preproduction mercy of a former Israeli special agent, who had them all packing fake blue .9 mm pistols to set the level of paranoia just right.
“I didn’t take my gun anywhere....I don’t want to be that guy who’s getting drawn on in the supermarket, when I’ve got my kids around, because I’ve got a rubber gun down the back of my pants,” he says, cracking up. “I kind of chickened out of it....Well, I got the point.”
Getting the point seems to be a McGregor specialty, and why not? He has been working for almost 20 years and has 50-something films to his credit. He is presumably set financially (though he refuses to take the bait when the subject of a back end on Obi-Wan Kenobi action figures is broached: “It wouldn’t be gentlemanly to talk about that”). He’s taken on a variety of work since, including a few that didn’t quite land as intended. If something less than megastardom followed that early-Naughts hot streak, McGregor seems perfectly at ease where he is now. He’s been on a bit of a new streak lately, which started in 2010 with Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and continued last year with Mike Mills’ terrific Beginners, in which he played an angst-ridden, grief-stricken thirtysomething casting about Los Angeles with Mélanie Laurent and a Jack Russell terrier.
He has, in short, achieved the sort of work-life balance that would be maddening to the world at large if he didn’t tend to be such a goddamn nice guy about the whole thing. Unprompted, he twice rearranges the proceedings at the café to keep a very pale, very sweaty reporter out of the baking SoCal sun. He pitches the umbrella himself on the second go-round.
“[It’s] almost unnervingly natural, how relaxed he is,” says Carano. A mixed martial artist by training and a total acting novice before Haywire, she has a unique perspective on the matter.
“He’s so smart. Everyone else was so excited, and he’s just relaxed and cool and has all the smart, witty things to say, but he’s kind of quieter,” she says, recalling the cast’s first meeting in a hotel. “And then we all went downstairs and I see this guy take off on his motorcycle — the coolest, most antique motorcycle — and it was Ewan. I was like, ‘That’s Ewan McGregor.’ He’s just way too cool.”
Haywire and Beginners aside, McGregor is moving toward more familiar domestic territory on-screen these days. He’ll play, as he puts it, “a proper dad” in this year’s The Impossible, about a family upended by the tsunami in Thailand in 2004. Despite his being a father for nearly as long as he’s been working, it’s something of a first.
“It’s nice to feel like you’re working on grown-up films and playing a grown-up person,” he says of the development.
In March, he’s especially against type as a buttoned-up Scottish fisheries expert in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Lasse Hallström, the Swedish-born director of Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, who worked with McGregor on Salmon Fishing, cites the actor’s “sense of irony” as one of his greatest strengths. “Privately, he has a wonderful sense of humor,” the director says.
At the café, McGregor considers what’s left to accomplish. He says he’d like to direct, unaware of or, more likely, unbothered by the cliché. But acting, he says, is still an end itself.
“If every now and again one’s like a step out, that’s fine,” McGregor says of his role selection these days. “I’d like to feel I’m still climbing the ladder, if you like, but at the same time, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Because I’m really happy where I’m at.”
By now McGregor’s tea bag is on the glass tabletop, and the sun is starting to let up a little bit. It’s the time of day when, one imagines, the dutiful parents of the L.A. metro area line up their cars for the post-school pickup. Or maybe it’s the perfect hour or two to be on a bike, tooling around Southern California. Either way, our allotted time is drawing to a close and McGregor is soon back off to the real world.
But not without one last bit of insight.
“Your ambition,” he says with that smile, “can be to carry on doing what you’re doing.”