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Far, Far Away

Ewan McGregor is missing Round 1 of the 'Star Wars' hype, working on a film for neither fame nor fortune.

May 10, 2002|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GLASGOW, Scotland — Ewan McGregor could easily be living the high life right now. He could be getting wined, dined, fawned upon and treated like a superstar at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, the press junket for "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" (in which he plays Obi-Wan Kenobi) hanging on his every word.

Instead, McGregor, 31, has been toiling here in his native land on "Young Adam," a low-budget British film that calls for its cast and crew to work in decidedly unglamorous, even spartan conditions. It is set in 1954, and much of the action takes place on a barge traversing the canals around Glasgow. The film's producers have re-created the harshness of life for canal workers in that era and are shooting on canal towpaths in some of the city's most insalubrious areas.

On this particular day in April, the production finds itself beside a stretch of canal in Ruchill, an impoverished part of Glasgow south of the city center. The water is dark and murky, and the grass areas beside the canal, out of camera range, are strewn with litter. A preponderance of open, empty potato chip bags suggests that local juvenile delinquents use this site for inhaling glue or solvents. McGregor looks around him. "Aye, it's bleak, isn't it?" he says.

It is, and one wonders if he has a masochistic streak, opting for long hours of modest, low-profile labor over all the attention, perks and luxury accommodations that a star actor with a mega-movie to sell can expect. But McGregor's reasons are simple: "Young Adam" didn't wrap until today, and he is in almost every scene; having committed to the film last summer, and then having stayed with it even when funding originally collapsed late last year, he simply wants to see it through.

He is also eager to stress that his absence from the Lucas ranch implies no lack of enthusiasm for "Attack of the Clones," which opens nationwide May 16. (McGregor is planning to attend the film's lavish Hollywood premiere on Sunday.)

"All that hype looks after itself," he says. "It doesn't have anything to do with me. The 'Star Wars' series is the star, so the hype is built in. For 'Attack of the Clones,' I've seen the second trailer and I thought it was brilliant. It had the flavor of the first three 'Star Wars' movies. So I think the new film will be an improvement on the last one we made," "'Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" from 1999.

Is McGregor unhappy with that film? "No, it was fine, but it had a lot of setting up to do. It had six movies to establish. And all that stuff about the senate wasn't even mentioned in the first three, so all of that had to be explained."

In the latest episode McGregor plays an older, wiser Obi-Wan--a change of pace for the boyish-looking actor--who must teach the ways of the Jedi Knight to the brash Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). McGregor thinks the film will be more pleasing than "Episode I" to the "Star Wars" faithful.

"I have a feeling that in 'Episode II' we have more opportunity to get back into the heart and soul of what the first three films were about," he says. "I think it's got more action in it, and it'll be more fun to watch."

Still, McGregor has no regrets about staying away from the "Star Wars" junket to complete "Young Adam." He stars as Joe, a young drifter who works on a barge with Les (Scottish actor Peter Mullan, from "The Claim" and "My Name Is Joe") and his younger wife, Ella (played by Tilda Swinton, from last year's "The Deep End"). Joe and Les find the corpse of a young woman in the canal and fish it out. Shortly afterward, Joe embarks on an affair with Ella.

"Young Adam" is directed by David Mackenzie, a Scottish veteran of shorts and documentaries, making his feature film debut.

"There's some beautiful stuff to play in it," McGregor says with enthusiasm. "A lot of looks and moods, and scenes without words. It's really tasty stuff. It feels like proper filmmaking. We've really moved into the area of not allowing the audience to do any work at all, explaining every line and the one that's just gone--and talking, talking, talking, like nobody does in real life. It's gone insane.

"But this film isn't like that at all. It's more like Steve McQueen stuff. He'd cut all his lines and only say the lines he needed to say. This whole script is written like that.... I think this film could really make a difference."

The film's producer, Jeremy Thomas, calls McGregor "a real man of the people." "He's here, he's in one of those little trailers divided into three tiny spaces for actors, and he doesn't complain. He doesn't ask for anything special, and he doesn't expect it."

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