In addition to being immeasurably charming, the rather talented Ewan McGregor has been a mainstay of interesting performances on film for the better part of two decades now. From his early Danny Boyle breakouts through his roles for the likes of Todd Haynes, Peter Greenaway, Steven Soderbergh and Roman Polanski, the actor’s delivered consistently creative work; even when the movies were less than stellar (you know what we’re talking about), his performances always rose above the material. And when the great Christopher Plummer took home his Supporting Actor Oscar recently, he could thank McGregor’s equally nuanced (though largely unsung) turn in Beginners for providing him with the emotional anchor.
In this week’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, McGregor takes up the piscatorial mantle of one Dr. Alfred Jones, a Scottish fisheries boffin reluctantly convinced by an angling-enthused sheik (Amr Waked) and his feisty investment adviser (Emily Blunt) to assist them in their crazy desert scheme. Not too many actors can wear a khaki fishing vest and make it look good, but then not too many actors get away with impersonating Sir Alec Guinness, either.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen must have read as something of an odd film on paper.
Ewan McGregor: Well, I thought it would work as a film. I felt very strongly that it would be an amazing film when I read it. I felt that all of the different strands to it — the love story, which is complicated; the actual premise of the movie, the idea of a rich sheik business man wanting to introduce his passion into his country, which happens to be salmon fishing in the deserts of the Yemen; and the political satire, the rich comedy, the characters — I just thought it was absolutely a brilliant film. And it read like that; it was a real page-turner. I thought it was fantastic.
The title makes for a curious prospect, though.
Yeah. Some people have a funny reaction to the title, but I think it’s great. I was worried that they might change it, ’cause there was some talk of doing that. Hollywood generally likes to simplify things and make them brutally clear and understandable, and I suppose they just couldn’t do that with this title because it’s as clear and as understandable as could be. It’s a film about salmon fishing in the Yemen, and it’s called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. So I think it’s perfect. I think it’s odd. I just hope it doesn’t turn people off.
How did you come to read it? Were you looking to work with Lasse, or had you read some of [screenwriter] Simon Beaufoy’s other stuff?
I’d worked with Simon before on something, another film that he wrote. I met him with Danny Boyle at a couple of events — or I presented Danny Boyle with an award for Slumdog, and he wrote that with Danny. So I knew Simon. I thought he did an extraordinary job, because the book — many of the chapters are literal e-mail correspondences, which would become very tedious on screen; although we have a little element of that here and there. I thought he did a really great job, and also, you know, changing the Prime Minister’s PR to a woman I thought was really clever. Originally in the book it was a British politician who we would all recognize, but I think we wanted to be more general in our fun picking over the politics.
When we first meet your character, Dr. Alfred Jones, you’re looking rather staid with your gray cardigans and posh accent — what was it like playing someone so different from what we’ve seen of you?
Well, I think they’re all different, the characters I play. I don’t feel there’s some kind of mold I have to break out of in order to play this guy. I just think that every character that I approach is unique and different and has a role to play in that particular story. So it wasn’t an attempt on my part to change anything, it was just an attempt to carry on doing what I do — to, you know, play characters in films or on stage or whatever.
Did you enjoy playing him?
Yeah I really liked it. I think there’s very much fun to be had with him, to play someone who’s kind of stuck and repressed and awkward, and not very pleasant, in fact, at the beginning of the film — and yet to find humor in that was great fun, and a great challenge, yeah.
Emily was very complimentary of your working relationship. How was it, working with her?
She’s fantastic. I mean, she’s an incredibly funny girl. She’s a lovely girl, and we just had a great time. I knew from the moment we met at rehearsal that we were gonna have a good time making this film. We pushed each other, I think, and freed each other up just to play in front of the lens. And that was also very much with Lasse’s direction — he likes to work in that way; he likes to give you a freedom to throw things around and no two takes were the same. We just had a really wonderful time. She’s a very talented actress.
Did you guys add stuff on set that wasn’t necessarily on the page?
I mean, that’s the whole process of making a film, really. We didn’t make any changes from the storyline, really, I mean we shot what was on the page, but of course making a film is a process of making that real — so, yeah, [Lasse] was a great partner in that.
I hear he’s a little eccentric.
He’s sort of… his general style is just sort of bonkers, Lasse. He’d affect, in a way, a kind of clumsiness. He’d often walk on set and make himself trip up; he sort of plays the buffoon a little bit. But at the same time it creates a very relaxed atmosphere. And he doesn’t enforce his opinions on anyone. He’s got good opinions and his notes were very accurate, I thought. He’s just an oddball. He would sometimes not want to rehearse, he would just want to shoot. And he shot an awful lot of stuff on his iPhone while we were working. In fact, of all of the stuff in the film, there’s this little iPhone sequence that he shot. Sometimes you just thought he was more concerned with his iPhone movie than the one we were shooting. [Laughs] But I think it’s all very meant; it’s all tactical. He knows what he’s doing and he certainly knows who these characters are. His skill is really apparent in the film, because by the end of the film we really care about the project and we really care about Alfred and Harriet getting together; he manages to hold all those balls up in the air.
There must be a whole other version of the film on that iPhone.
Maybe, yeah. [Laughs] He filmed hours and hours of it. By the end of the film he had a special rig for his iPhone — like a Steadicam built for it.
Meanwhile the First AD is directing the picture…
No, not really. [Laughs] I don’t want to suggest that he wasn’t paying attention to the film, ’cause he was. He’s just got a very funny manner. We adored him. Emily and I both had such a laugh with him. I think on the DVD there’ll be a very funny blooper real, because Emily makes me laugh all the time and we’d often crack up in the middle of the scene. And then we had lots of carry-on with Lasse in between takes and stuff, which all ended up on an outtakes reel.
It’s a wonder you maintained any serious poise in this film.
[Laughs] Well sometimes it was very difficult. There are moments in it where I can see Emily about to go. There’s a moment where — well, you’ll have to look out for them. But there’s moments where I can see her about to laugh. [Laughs] They had to do a bit of quick editing away from her. [Laughs]
Not to take anything away from her performance, but I find there’s something about her — in all her movies — where she seems like she’s about to crack up.
Yeah. Well she really allows herself to come through her work, which I think is really difficult, and really brave — and she does that in bucketloads. There’s a lot of her in her work, and it shows great confidence and skill that she’s able to do that.
Originally published at Rotten Tomatoes, March 2012
Emily Blunt arrived proper for most audiences as Meryl Streep’s sarcastic, binge-dieting assistant in The Devil Wears Prada — in which she stole many a scene from the Oscar legend — and since then has proved a versatile star across all kinds of genres, be they comedy, drama, sci-fi and most things in between. She’ll soon be headlining The Five-Year Engagement, Nicholas Stoller’s comedy reunion with Jason Segel (for whom she appeared in The Muppets), trading quips with Colin Firth in Arthur Newman, Golf Pro, and starring in Rian Johnson’s (Brick) much-anticipated time-travel thriller, Looper.
This week, Blunt co-stars opposite Ewan McGregor in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, director Lasse Hallström’s picturesque comedy-drama about a fisheries expert enlisted by an eccentric sheik to bring a river to the Arabian desert. We had the chance to speak with the actress recently about the movie, her friendship with McGregor, and some of her forthcoming projects.
Well, speaking of fish — you just chose Jaws to promote Salmon Fishing, right?
Emily Blunt: [Laughs] Exactly. Anything to do with sea life.
So did you find yourself at that point in your career where you’re thinking, “I really want to do a fishing movie”?
[Laughs] No. I don’t really like eating fish, apart from sushi, and I wouldn’t count myself a very good fisherwoman, but I loved how unique the story was, and how it just seemed to step out from the crowd of generic scripts that you read. It was just so hopeful and lovely and I loved the characters — I thought they were all kind of flawed and they were all going through something, these and life transitions. So I thought it would be fun to play.
Your character’s name — Harriet Chetwode-Talbot — is somehow very amusing; especially every time Ewan says it in his accent.
[Laughs] Yeah. I like the way he says it in his accent as well. I really loved her name and I thought it said a lot about her as well. I knew where she came from and what she was about. It’s a very revealing name in a way.
You said you felt like you and Ewan were “separated at birth.” What was it that clicked so well between you?
I don’t know, I mean we just seemed to have this very accelerated friendship and we got along like a house on fire. We laughed — we laughed so much together, and so it did sort of feel like I’d known him forever. I have found that whenever I have had a chemistry with someone on screen it’s usually benefited from having a really warm rapport with them off screen. I think I was really lucky with Ewan. I mean everyone has chemistry with Ewan — it’s impossible not to have chemistry with him. He’s one of the most well-loved people in this industry. Everyone loves Ewan.
Part of the chemistry must come from having a good director, and Lasse Hallström seems to do this kind of movie so effortlessly. What’s he like?
He’s incredible. He’s so wonderfully odd as a person. He’s quirky in the most lovely way. He has really wacky ideas for stuff, but mainly he just creates a really lovely environment on set — it’s very atmospheric set, so you can establish chemistry, you can just work without stress and find new bits of sparkle, new bits of nuance. He creates that, so it’s very much all about the actors. He’s heaven to work with, really.
Were you bringing moments to the film that weren’t on the page?
Yeah, and he was very encouraging of it. He was very encouraging to keep making the moments more and more alive. It wasn’t that we needed to change the script that much, it’s just that when you get there on set, sometimes — if the scene doesn’t read as you’d imagined it — you have to find a different route to make it work. Lasse’s all about adapting and making it work; and adding. He’s a very layered director.
You shot in London and the Scottish Highlands and Morocco — it wasn’t just a holiday, I hope.
[Laughs] No. We were doing six day weeks in Morocco, which is quite tiring; but the environment was so fabulous. We were sitting in Bedouin tents in between takes drinking coffee, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m in heaven.” I’ve never shot in Morocco before. The people were lovely. We shot in this city called Ouzarzate, where I think every desert scene in every movie you’re ever seen has been shot. It’s a city that has been cultivated around a movie industry. I think you recognize sets from other movies, and there are camels drifting around that have probably been in Lawrence of Arabia, you know. [Laughs]
Ever since your early roles it’s been apparent that you have a gift for comedy. Was it always that way, or did you work at it?
I’ve always really enjoyed doing it. I don’t know if it’s something I necessarily work at, but I do make a point of trying to be in comedies, and bring comedy to roles when it’s necessary. It’s definitely something I really, really enjoy — that’s for sure.
Would you like to be doing more comedy?
Yeah, but I did a lot of it last year. I did Five-Year Engagement, which was a really big comedy, and then the one I did with Colin Firth [Arthur Newman, Golf Pro], which was another kind of dark comedy. So I do tend to gravitate to those roles quite a lot.
You’re back with Jason Segel in Five-Year Engagement, after your cameo in The Muppets — what’s it like working together?
He’s awesome. He’s a friend of mine. He wrote it with me in mind — at least that’s what he told me; he’s probably told five other girls the same thing. [Laughs] But yes, it was very easy working with him because we’ve known each other a while and we’re friends. We had a trust of each other straight away, and that made it very easy to do those scenes. I think you’ll probably see that. Hopefully the friendship comes through onto the screen. He’s great fun.
Did that friendship lead to you reprising your Prada character in the The Muppets?
Yeah. I was actually shooting the Muppets cameo, which he had asked me to do, and then he came into my trailer and that’s when he pitched me Five-Year Engagement.
Just how many “highly-strung personal assistant” roles did you get offered after The Devil Wears Prada?
[Laughs] Hundreds. I still get offered highly-strung roles. [Laughs]
So you’ll only do one again for the Muppets.
Yeah. Because it was for Jason, you know, and it was the Muppets. You don’t say “no” to doing a cameo in The Muppets. Those guys are icons.
Was Miss Piggy difficult to work with?
No. Miss Piggy was… Miss Piggy was quite difficult to work with, actually.
Who was worse — Piggy or Streep?
Ah… I would say Piggy. She’s more abusive. More openly abusive. [Laughs] Working with Meryl’s character in Prada, she was more deathly… deathly quiet, which I think was more intimidating.
You have a couple of scenes with Kristen Scott-Thomas in this — who’s very funny, too. How was she?
She’s ludicrous — she’s brilliant. She’s quite intimating when you first meet her and then your realize that the best way to approach her is to take the piss out of her — she really likes that. She’s a real laugh, actually.
Looking at the roles you’ve taken so far, they’re pretty diverse. Is there a method? Are you attracted to certain kinds of characters?
There’s not necessarily a strategy, no. It’s more just I’ll have really a instinctive reaction to a script. I’ll say, “Oh, that script I love,” or “That character I love,” or it scares me or it challenges me or I find it funny — but it’ll be very instinctive. It’ll usually be that the movie I’ve just done is very different from the one that I’ll do next. So I do try and vary it up as much as I can. I don’t strategize movies on where I think they’ll take me, or what I think will happen to me if I do them.
What was it like working with Rian Johnson on Looper?
He’s phenomenal. Rian is spooky-good. I mean, I think Rian’s gonna be a huge, huge deal in the industry and I think he’s my favorite director that I’ve ever worked with. He’s made a very cool, original film.
Are you a time traveler from the future in the movie?
I can’t say! I can’t reveal any details. I do wield a big gun. And I live on a farm.
Originally published on Rotten Tomatoes, March 2012