Angels & Interviews: Ewan McGregor

IGN’s exclusive chat with the Angels & Demons actor.
by Jim Vejvoda

May 14, 2009 – IGN Movies chatted this morning with actor Ewan McGregor, who stars opposite Tom Hanks in director Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Dan Brown novel Angels & Demons. Please be advised that the following article contains SPOILERS.

Angels & Demons follows Harvard religious expert Robert Langdon (Hanks), who discovers evidence of the resurgence of an ancient secret brotherhood known as the Illuminati. When Langdon learns that the clock is ticking on an unstoppable Illuminati time bomb set to destroy the organization’s enemy, the Catholic Church, he jets to Rome where he follows a 400-year-old trail of ancient symbols that mark the Vatican’s only hope for survival. The film begins with the death of a Pope and the ancient ritual of Conclave, the process by which the College of Cardinals elects a new Holy Father. The process is famous for being shrouded in secrecy, with the Cardinals secluded until their important work is completed. The only communication with the outside world comes in the form of smoke released from the Sistine Chapel. Dark smoke indicates that a two-thirds majority vote has not occurred, and white smoke (and, recently, bells) indicate that a two-thirds majority has been reached and a new Pope has been elected.

McGregor portrays Camerlengo Patrick McKenna in the film. “The camerlengo is the Pope’s right-hand man. His aide, his personal secretary, and he, under Vatican law, is in charge of the Vatican when the pope passes away until the new Pope is elected,” the actor explained. McKenna, however, isn’t in Brown’s book; his character’s function was served by Camerlengo Carlo Ventresca instead. “Well, in the book he’s Italian and probably older and Ron wanted him to be Irish. Just for the pace of the film they changed his backstory a little bit to help the story speed along,” the Scottish star said.

McGregor calls the relationship between the late Pope and McKenna “very close. The Pope is somebody who has a more liberal attitude towards science and feels that science, in fact, can help us understand God’s world and whereas Patrick, who I play, has a much more extreme, right-wing attitude towards things. The story is at the beginning of the movie scientists at CERN have created anti-matter and are nicknaming it ‘the God particle’ and my character feels that if scientists are able to claim the act of creation, what is left for God and what will happen to his church?”

McGregor is no stranger to big franchises, having starred in the Star Wars prequels. But the actor didn’t find his experience with that franchise particularly helpful in preparing him for the controversy and outrage that surrounds Dan Brown’s works. In fact, McGregor doesn’t view the film series based on Brown’s books to be a franchise at all. “I don’t see it as being any huge difference from any other films I make. I don’t feel like I’m stepping into a franchise. When I was offered the script, I was just stepping into the shoes of that character so that’s what grabbed me,” he explained. “To begin with, I don’t look at the project as anything other than that: the story and the characters and, of course, who’s directing and who is acting with you. But I think the idea of a franchise is all to do with how the film is perceived and sold afterwards. But it’s not like being offered a part in Spider-Man or Batman or something. It’s very different from that.”

The big draw for McGregor to make Angels & Demons was director Ron Howard. “I’ve wanted to work him for a long time and we were supposed to work together on a project some years ago but it didn’t end up happening and so I was thrilled to work with him on this. I think that’s where it came from to begin with, and then I liked the script. I felt it was a good page-turner, a really thrilling story and an interesting character to play.”

He added, “I’ve been directed by actors before and I’ve always felt it’s like a bonus, you know? It’s a good thing and certainly with Ron I felt like that. A director who knows how to act has an extra string in terms of helping you unlock a scene. I realized one day walking on-set and from my discussions with Ron, I knew the approach to play (the character) rather than just knowing what he wanted out of the scene. That’s always been my experience working with actors who then direct. There’s a really nice understanding of what they want you to do.”

Speaking of directors, McGregor is currently shooting The Ghost for Roman Polanski. The political thriller also stars Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall, although most of McGregor’s scenes have been on his own. He plays the lead role of an unnamed ghost writer who uncovers dark secrets while penning the memoirs a retired British prime minister (Brosnan). “It’s an extraordinary experience to work with Polanski. He pushes you hard, as he does the crew, and I find it to be fantastic. I’ve never worked harder in my life,” McGregor said. “It’s relentless, as you can tell from the book. The ghost is in every single scene. The way Polanski shoots he likes it to be from the Ghost’s point-of-view as well so it was a great opportunity to work with him. He’s a fantastic director.”

McGregor’s future releases also include Amelia, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and I Love You Phillip Morris. The latter film, which stars McGregor and Jim Carrey as two gay lovers in prison, famously struggled to find a U.S. distributor until Consolidated Pictures Group acquired it this week. McGregor tends to think the film’s struggle was due more to economics than concerns over its subject matter. “I’m not in the distribution game. I don’t know. I think certainly at the moment given the current financial climate companies are reluctant to spend money on things that aren’t absolutely dead certain to get their money back. And it might be more of a reflection on the financial situation in the world at the moment rather than the result of a film about two gay men,” he said. “I would be reluctant to think that Americans would be reluctant to see a film about that. I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, it’s not in my world but I don’t live in middle America. Maybe I’m naive about certain things.”

Angels & Demons opens Friday.


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