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"Ewan, I've known you for years; you're one of my favorite actors, and I've always loved watching you," Angelina Jolie told the guests at a private screening of "The Impossible" and reception she hosted for Ewan McGregor last month in London. Jolie continued, "But I watched this and I didn't recognize you. It's strange to say it's one of the best performances of the year -- it really doesn't give it credit, because it doesn't feel like a performance. It comes from such an honest place. It was so deeply emotional; you rarely see this kind of emotion from a man onscreen. … As an actor I'm in awe."
It doesn't take Angelina to recognize that this is a wrenching performance from the 41-year-old Scottish actor -- although it doesn't hurt! He plays Henry, a father who takes his wife, Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three sons on a dream holiday in Thailand that becomes a nightmare when the tsunami of 2004 hits the seaside town where they're staying. "The Impossible" is challenging to watch, an unflinching look at a family unexpectedly separated by disaster in a sea of humanity coping with loss and trying to keep hope alive.
McGregor gained the attention of American audiences as the star of Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting," back when those same audiences didn't know who Boyle was, either. The Scot sang opposite Nicole Kidman in "Moulin Rouge," played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the "Star Wars" reboot, and recently earned a second Golden Globe nomination for "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen."
As McGregor's "Beginners" co-star Christopher Plummer testified when he was scooping up awards for playing McGregor's father, "I want to salute my partner, Ewan, that wily Scot, Ewan 'My Heart's in the Highlands' McGregor, that scene-stealing swine from the Outer Hebrides."
Thelma Adams: So, you got an Angelina seal of approval. Did you blush?
Ewan MacGregor: It was so lovely of her to do that screening at all. She's totally about the goodness of her heart. I was absolutely flattered.
TA: She's right, though -- you rarely see "this kind of emotion from a man onscreen." I'm thinking particularly of the moment in the aftermath, when Henry can't find his wife and eldest son. He calls home on a borrowed cell phone to tell his father-in-law what is happening, surrounded by a circle of bedraggled strangers.
EM: It was Henry's moment to let go. Up until that call, he didn't have the time. The survivors I talked to said they had so much to do to endure that crying was a luxury. That was the moment where Henry let it all go. Until he speaks to his father-in-law, he's had no word from his wife and eldest son. It makes it even worse, hoping that his father-in-law would say, "They called me, they're OK." But when the in-law hasn't heard anything. … The next thing, Henry's looking at the places where they took the bodies. They were lined up and people had to search through the bodies. It's beyond imagination, that hell.
TA: How did you dredge up that raw emotion?
EW: I'm not really able to analyze it. I drew from stories told to me by the people that I met -- those on the crew that had lived in Thailand, the hotel staff, so many stories of people's suffering and loss during that horrible event. I'm always trying to think my character's thoughts: I was thinking about Henry, and not knowing where his son and wife were at that moment.
TA: What drew you to "The Impossible"?
EW: I was so touched by the script. I'm not often deeply moved, and I was when I read it. I had a vague recollection of when the tsunami happened in 2004. I felt something quite deep and emotional about what happened to those that were there. It was also an opportunity to play a father for the first time, properly. I've been a father for 17 years almost. I have four daughters, and it's odd for that not to be a significant part of my body of work.
TA: You established a strong bond with the younger boys who play two of your sons, Thomas and Simon.
EW: I got to play powerful emotional scenes with those two boys. I became so fond of them. I really enjoyed our chemistry, particularly in the scene when I send my two boys away. There was a threat of a second wave coming, and everyone had to get to higher ground. Henry decided to send his sons off, but he still hadn't found his wife and eldest son. When we played the scene, and I told Thomas that he has to look after his little brother, and he has to be the daddy, there's real chemistry between me and that little guy. I'm proud that I have that in my daily life all the time with my girls, and to play that onscreen was really special.
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TA: By the way, on a lighter note, congratulations on your Golden Globe nomination for "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen." Last March, when it premiered, I teased your co-star Emily Blunt about how the filmmakers tried to make you seem frumpy by putting you in a cardigan. Emily said, "Well, they had to do something! They gave Ewan a side parting. … As the movie went on, as Fred's life loosened up, his hair loosens up, too. By the desert scene, he has this Calvin Klein model hair. … You can't have a knight in shining armor with a side parting. He has to look a bit bed-heady."
EW: I think he had terrible hair at the beginning -- at the end of the film, not as bad hair. I love my character. I had fun with how awkward he was. I was surprised and so happy about the recognition because I love that film so much, and especially because Emily was also nominated. It came out of the blue. It made me laugh because making it was so much fun. The director, Lasse Hallstrom, is slightly bonkers in a good way. We had fun and laughed and enjoyed each other. And out of that came some funny banter -- and moving work.
See a clip from 'The Impossible':