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Ewan McGregor on motorcycles, The Impossible and Spanish directors

If you need any encouragement to set out on a motorcycle ride into the great unknown, Ewan McGregor is the man to seek inspiration from. The star of upcoming film, The Impossible, reckons the wisdom he gained from meeting people in faraway places is unmatched. The Scottish actor reveals all about his motorcycle escapades and playing a father in a harrowing real-life story.

Scottish actor Ewan McGregor
Image Credit: Getty Images
Scottish actor Ewan McGregor stars in the upcoming film The Impossible.

Ewan McGregor, actor and keen motorcyclist, returns to the big screen with The Impossible. Based on the true story of a Spanish family that survived the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami tragedy in Thailand, McGregor had to dig deep into his acting reserves to portray a father of two desperately trying to keep his family together.

Outdoor enthusiasts will remember McGregor for his Long Way series. In 2004, McGregor and his friend, Charley Boorman, rode 31,000km from London to New York, via Central Europe, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Siberian Russia and Canada on BMW R1150GS Adventure all-terrain motorcycles.

Their journey was chronicled in a book and a documentary called Long Way Round. They followed that with a ride and TV show to South Africa, Long Way Down. We chatted to the 41-year-old actor about motorbikes, travelling and his most gruelling acting role yet.

How was your experience in Spain?

I love the country, but I wasn’t there on holiday. The Impossible was a strange film to make, mainly because it is a true story, which actually happened and was a real disaster. Thousands lost their lives in the 2004 tsunami, and many more lost loved ones due to the disaster. So I think you carry that with you all the time. And when you shoot, it’s your responsibility to respect that and to respect those people.

It’s a complicated scenario, because you are putting a movie camera on and recreating something that really happened in Thailand with a family who lived through that and were affected by the event. You carry that responsibility and you never ever want to feel like you are just using it for the movie. But at the same time, you are making a movie, and you want it to be as good as possible. If you are going to tell the story, tell it well.

Juan Antonio Bayona directed the film. Is there any particular reason that you wanted to work with him?

I’m infatuated with Spain and the directors from the country. There is just something about them that I like, a quality. As an actor, I go with my gut instincts. Occasionally the thought of working for a director or being alongside an actor gets me interested. But if the story can’t live in my head when I read the script, I feel like I can’t be bothered to live with it on set.

Had you met the real Spanish family that this movie is based on before you started shooting?

I didn’t actually meet them before filming. We started shooting the movie in Alicante and the family was down there, but I met them for the first time in Thailand, in the hotel where they were in 2004 on the day of the tsunami. It was extraordinarily emotional for them.

I don’t think that they had returned to Thailand since the disaster. They had wanted to go back sooner, but they really wanted to wait until they could do it together as a family.

As a father, it must have been a really gruelling role to play.

It was one of the first times that I’ve had the chance to explore being a parent on film. I’ve been a father for 16 years, but I haven’t really explored parenthood on screen until now. And that’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the script, a chance to do that, albeit against this unbelievably horrendous tragedy.

Do you remember the moment when you heard about the 2004 tsunami?

I obviously remember being horrified by it, but I don’t actually remember where I was at the time.

Did you have any second thoughts when you read the script? Did you think that the tsunami might be trivialised for the purpose of entertainment?

No, because I think the objective is not necessarily to entertain, the objective is to tell the story, and I felt by looking at this family’s story, it made me understand the tsunami in a much broader sense.

It’s a film about genuine human beings and I like to be involved in films that are about that, about exploring what makes us tick. I think that films should be allowed to do that. It’s about survival, our instinct to survive and how strong that is. It is about the human instinct to help others, which I really think comes to the fore during situations like this.

Is there anything that you like to take on your long motorcycle journeys?

I always have one of my favourite books, The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara, in my backpack when I go on motorcycle trips around the globe. I have read that book many times. I just love it.

When will your next motorcycle trip be?

I don’t have any planned at the moment. I felt after our Africa trip in 2007 that it would be a while away. I don’t know if we’ll do another one together with Charley Boorman and our group. It may well be that I do some other stuff on my own or with my wife and the rest of my family. I’d like to travel, not on motorbikes, but in a truck or something; it might be good fun to do some of that stuff with them.

So I don’t have any plans at the moment. I did two very long motorcycle trips with my friends. I did a big one in 2004 and in 2007. And they were almost too close together. They take a lot of preparation and they both took more than four months to ride. So I think we’ll wait a little while before going on another one.

What do you take away from your trips?

ust the people you meet and the experience of meeting people in out-of-the-way places. When you’re travelling by road on a motorcycle, you’re so vulnerable to the elements, traffic and temperature. And when you’re travelling through countries where people are familiar with that concept, like in Eastern Russia or Africa, people know what you are going through.

In nomadic cultures, like in Mongolia and much of Kazakhstan, they’re very aware of this fact. They travel by horseback, so they understand your vulnerability. So when you turn up somewhere, they look after you because that’s what happens to them when they travel. I suppose ultimately what you come away with is that some people are really nice to each other, even when they have very little.

Often the people that have the least are the most generous. That’s what I experienced in Ethiopia.

We stopped in a village there and these people took us into their little hut. I think the woman had one small root of ginger, and she made us this ginger tea that I’ll never forget – it was a fantastic. And I’m pretty sure that was her only piece of ginger. And they gave us bread, they were extraordinarily good people. They fed us and sent us on our way.

You come back very inspired. And it’s something that you have to go out there and discover, because we can’t be like that with each other in cities, it doesn’t seem to work. And it’s a shame, because I think it’s in our nature to be nice. But when you’re out there in the middle of nowhere, if you car breaks down or you fall off your bike or run out of petrol, you just know that somebody is going to come by and help you. They always do.

Are you a creative person?

At the moment I like to build bicycles, because I’ve ridden motorcycles a lot of my life. I made a film called Perfect Sense in Scotland, and my character was a fixed-gear rider. He rides track-racing bikes on the street. He’s also a chef but, much to the director’s annoyance, I became obsessed with bicycles. I wasn’t really interested in cooking, but he kept dragging me into kitchens trying to get me to look like a chef. But I just kept standing outside and tinkering with a bicycle. I’m not a very good cook, but I can build a quite nice bicycle.

I enjoy things like that because they’re creative. Bikes are artistic and all have an individual look. You have to collect the right components, put them together and they are like little works of art, but you can ride them down the street. I think that’s really nice.

Would you write your autobiography?

I haven’t thought about it, but I’d be interested in trying to write stories. The actor Dirk Bogarde wrote some really beautiful stories that I loved. In his later years, he wrote some really nice novels, and I like the fact that an actor ended up as a writer. That’s nice.

I’m not sure that I would be a very interesting person to read about. I quite like people that write their autobiographies and people find them in the attic after they die, and they expose themselves as being horrible monsters or having had 15 wives or something in secret. I like the idea of people who expose themselves after they die. I don’t know though, I haven’t really got anything to talk about. It would be really boring.