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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ewan McGregor: Filthy and Gorgeous

By Joshua David Stein
The Scottish actor has never been afraid to take chances, drop his trousers, or kiss a boy. Now he comes clean.
Sydney, Ewan McGregor’s sand-colored poodle mutt, is pooping on a well-kempt lawn in Los Angeles. He eyes the horizon, birds chirp, and McGregor readies the bag. Suddenly, a black Kerry terrier appears, held by a peroxide septuagenarian wearing a too-loose vintage Brentwood marathon T-shirt and too-tight spandex shorts. Sydney, torn by two competing passions, seems unable to decide whether to lunge immediately or finish his business. His eyes dart back and forth. Then, in a beige flash, Sydney makes up his mind, leaving the poop half in and half out. Moments later, sheepishly, tenderly, McGregor tidies Sydney up with a napkin cadged from Le Pain Quotidien. “Ah,” he murmurs quietly, “my wee man, Syd.” The tone of the day is set.

An hour later, the three of us are sitting on a picnic bench atop Inspiration Point at the summit of Will Rogers Park in Pacific Palisades. Well, two of us are sitting. McGregor’s lying on the bench, face up, bum westerly, legs spread in the air, illustrating an early professional mishap of onstage nudity. The incident in question involved one inopportunely placed vase full of water, two spills (the vase’s and, shortly thereafter, his), a racy Joe Orton farce, and a front row of British pensioners, alarmed and titillated by the fast-approaching naked rear end of the then 21-year-old Scot. “So I’m sliding toward the front row of the audience like this,” he says, “butt naked, and thinking, What of the front row? They just got my bumhole coming straight at them.” For those unlucky enough not to have been there, McGregor hasn’t been shy since.

There are two things my mother knows about Ewan McGregor: He wrote Atonement, and he loves dropping his trousers. One out of two ain’t bad. “I always try not to limit myself in all respects,” explains McGregor in a Scots brogue softened by years in London and, more recently, in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Eve, and three daughters. “Sexuality is just one of them. I could understand saying ‘I would never do gratuitous nudity.’ Wait. No. I probably would. I’d probably be quite happy to.” In fact, as my mother correctly remembers, he has. Since his first full-frontal exposure -- during a rehearsal for a play about the Holocaust at Guildhall School of Music and Drama -- hardly a year has gone by without McGregor’s privates being committed to celluloid. “I remember getting a kind of rush out of that first time, a slight feeling of power about it, you know?” recalls McGregor. His butt, since its magnificent sliding debut in What the Butler Saw, has been seen by millions and his penis has appeared on-screen so often -- in Trainspotting, in The Pillow Book, in Velvet Goldmine -- it deserves its own Oscar nod.

The far-flung legend of McGregor’s penis, casting its long shadow over the Hollywood Hills -- though accurate -- distracts from a quietly courageous and wildly varied acting career. He’s not just some one-trick cock-flashing pony. That the long-delayed and finally upon us I Love You Phillip Morris -- a very good, very, very gay film slated for release in March -- isn’t an aberration but one of McGregor’s more mainstream films testifies to his unusual oeuvre. Like many of McGregor’s choices, I Love You Phillip Morris is an uneasy film. Based on a true story (and a 2003 book by Steve McVicker) the movie follows Steven Russell, played by Jim Carrey, a charming con man and an incorrigible escape artist. In 1995, during a stint in the Harris County Jail in Houston, Russell meets Phillip Morris -- played by McGregor as a blond Southern belle of a man -- in the jail’s library. Morris was reaching for a copy of The Federal Reporter on a high shelf. Their eyes met, sparks arced, Russell came on hard, and Morris, happy as a cat, purred and arched into the hand that pet him.

Had what follows not been exhaustively cataloged by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, it could easily be dismissed as fantastic prison pulp: Russell goes to prison (Theft, Case No. 618544), Russell and Morris fall in love. Russell escapes prison (Escape, Case No. 727973), finds Morris, the two live lavishly. Russell goes to prison (Aggravated Theft, Case No. 723526). Russell escapes prison, finds Morris, the two live lavishly. Russell goes to prison, escapes prison, finds Morris, the two live lavishly until Russell gets caught and goes to prison for good (Escape, Case No. 9,856-C). Russell -- Inmate No. 00760259 -- has a maximum sentence that would keep him imprisoned until July 12, 2140 -- 47,595 days after the film opens.

Despite the fact that it stars perhaps the most bankable star in Hollywood -- the worldwide gross of Carrey’s movies is more than $4 billion dollars -- and, opposite him, its most talented, I Love You Phillip Morris, has languished undistributed domestically for more than a year, even after a strong showing at its Sundance debut in 2009. “At Sundance everyone assumed it would be snapped up,” says McGregor, “but it wasn’t.” Perhaps one reason is that the central character is an unlovable (or uneasily loved) sociopathic scammer. But a more likely reason is that in cells, on bunks, on boats, before sunsets, after sunsets, on divans, over ottomans, without panning away or dissolving to white, the two men kiss, fondle, fuck, blow, suck, hold hands, dance, murmur, and eye. In short, they act like lovers do, and, because both Morris and Russell are openly gay men and their gayness seems not to trouble them in the slightest, this is a dicey commercial proposition. “There was talk,” says McGregor, “that Disney fended off the release until after A Christmas Carol came out. They didn’t want kids thinking [Carrey’s] Ebenezer Scrooge was a bender.”

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