Actor Ewan McGregor, who plays Henry in The Real Thing, speaks with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod about his role in The Real Thing.
Ted Sod: Let’s start with some biographical information -- where were you born and educated?
Ewan McGregor: I grew up in a small town called Crieff in Scotland. I left school when I was 16 and got a job working backstage. Occasionally, if there was a one-line part or a little acting role I would get that. The first thing I remember having a line in was a production of Pravda and from there I went to a one-year theater arts course in Kirkcaldy, Fife, which was a really solid theater training -- we would have to construct sets, make costumes, advertise the shows. We would all have an acting role and a production role. It was a really good theater arts course for people who were too young to get into drama school. After that, I went to London and spent three years at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. One term into my third year I got cast in Dennis Potter’s series, "Lipstick on Your Collar". I left college to do that and I was off and running.
TS: Did you have any teachers who you felt were influential?
EM: Yes, Patsy Rodenburg. She's the only person I'd ever go to really. I went to her for a few movie roles when I wanted to do something with my voice, and I went to her another time when I was doing a play.
TS: I believe one of your uncles is also in the business.
EM: Yes. And the only other actor to come out of Crieff, to the best of my knowledge, is my uncle Denis Lawson. He's my mother's brother and was my inspiration once I decided to become an actor and has remained my inspiration throughout my life really.
TS: You worked with him on a play. Am I correct about that?
EM: After leaving drama school I spent seven years making movies and TV shows and I wanted to go back to the stage, but I was terrified after such a long break. I went to my Uncle Denis and I said, “Look, I really want to go back onstage, but I want you to direct me because I'll be terrified and I'd be happier if you were in the room.” He found this great play that he’d done in the ‘60s entitled Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs by David Halliwell. For the first time back on stage in so long it was a real kick up the ass. It was a great cast and such an amazing experience.
TS: Do you still feel a bit of terror going on the stage?
EM: Everybody's nervous to go onstage. I can't imagine it would be quite as exciting if you weren't. I think it’s part of the process for me. I never walked onstage totally without some sort of nerves or adrenaline running. And I wouldn't want it any other way, really.
TS: Talk about the role of Henry in The Real Thing. What attracted you to it?
EM: Well, I met Sam Gold, the director, and I wanted to work with him. I knew him by his reputation and when I spent time with him, I felt like he was someone that I could work with and feel comfortable with. He sent me some scripts. After reading some things that were still in development, he sent me Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Luckily for me, I suppose, I've never seen the play. I read it without any preconceptions. I just totally fell in love with the character of Henry. I love his mind and his language and all his relationships and observations about life and love. I'm absolutely drawn to him and I find every time I read it that there's another little gem in there that I discover for the first time. Right now I haven't got the bigger picture of it because we haven't even begun to rehearse, but I feel like it's an extraordinary play. It's very accessible. Stoppard is a very clever writer.
TS: Is it complicated as an artist yourself to play a character who is an artist, or is it easier?
EM: No, I don’t think it’s complicated to play artists because in a way we know what it feels like to sit in that place of creativity. I’ve played a lot of writers and I think it's because writers like to write about writing. And in this play, there's even discussion about what good writing is and why it's important -- the respect of words that writers have. It's Stoppard, a very brilliant writer, writing about his love of writing.
TS: Is there any kind of research or preparation that you have to do other than reading the text?
EM: I just threw myself into the text. I've been attached to the play for over a year, so I’ve been reading it and re-reading it. I'm familiar with it in a good way – more than I've ever been with a text before rehearsals. I'm feeling super-excited. And those horrible nightmares I'd experienced before rehearsals, I haven't experienced them at all. I absolutely think it's because I've had so much time to steep myself in the words. I've enjoyed it very much. Every time I open the script I am provoked into thinking about the things that Stoppard wants me to think about.
TS: Will you talk about Henry's relationship to the women in his life? What do you make of his relationship with his teenage daughter, Debbie?
EM: I think Henry's very close to Debbie. I think he absolutely adores her -- his only daughter. I think the scene where she leaves to go off with a young man is one of the tenderest, most beautifully written scenes I've ever read in my life. It’s the scene that we all wish we had with our own daughters. I stopped off in London to have lunch with Tom Stoppard before coming back to America and I thanked him for it. I said, “I'm looking forward particularly to saying that speech every night.” There's an absolute beauty in what he tells her about being in love – the way he opens up and tells her about what our lovers expect of us and what being a lover is about. It's quite incredible, open and intimate.
TS: I find Debbie very mature for her age. I expect she will be the window into the play for some of our school audiences.
EM: She's completely the child of an actor and a writer. She is absolutely the offspring of people who are very interested in themselves.
TS: What about Charlotte and Annie? They're very different women – don't you think?
EM: Yes, I think they are very different. Charlotte seems somewhat embittered by her relationship with Henry. I mean, she's had nine affairs. And she assumes that he is having affairs left, right and center, although he isn't until this one with Annie. Charlotte thinks that there is no such thing as true love or commitment, only bargains. She suggests that they're idiots for believing in love. And Henry doesn't believe that. He says, “It's the kind of idiocy I like.” I assume that we've got to accept that it's not the real thing between Charlotte and Henry and what’s happening between Henry and Annie is.
Previews begin October 2 at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Real Thing, Upstage