In Cassandra’s Dream, Woody Allen’s latest movie (which opens in limited release on Friday), Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play brothers in London who try to improve their lots in life by falling into crime. It’s a dead-serious thriller from Allen, one that makes his previous dark London movie, Match Point, look almost chipper by comparison.
When the film played at the Toronto Film Festival last September, EW sat down with McGregor to see if every actor is still dying to be in a Woody Allen movie, what it’s like working with the guy, and what Star Wars and The Island did for his career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So this is Woody Allen doing something different, huh?
EWAN MCGREGOR: I don’t know. I don’t know what it is. Last week we were at the Venice Film Festival, having our press conference, and all of the questions were to Woody Allen, as it should be. So, we just sat and listened to his quiet answers, and it was lovely to listen to because there were some great European, deeply intellectual questions flown out that he listened to very intently, and then went, ”Well, all I can tell you is that it’s a story I wrote about two nice boys that were brought up by two nice parents and things went wrong in their lives.” And he is just so simple about it!
He lets the work speak for itself.
Yeah, yeah. People were asking about Greek tragedy and Cassandra and Cain and Abel and the murder being discussed under a tree, and he was like, ”You know, it’s very possible that I’ve read all of the books, and it’s possible that it subconsciously ended up on the paper. But I just wrote a story of two nice boys.”
I always wonder what its like when an actor gets a call and Woody wants to meet with you. Was this the first time for you, getting a call from Woody?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, in terms of directors there isn’t anyone else, is there? There are great directors out there, and I’ve been able to work with some fantastic directors, but there isn’t anybody else like him so, of course, when you get the call, you go straight over to New York.
Have you talked to other actors about that — the idea that if you’ve had some success, you hope that Woody calls at some point, and if he does, you go? Is that the consensus in the community?
Of course. I think so. I mean, sadly, that’s how I felt. Drop everything and go. Not to the point where I pulled out of anything else, because luckily I didn’t have anything else on at the time. You have to do it, and it’s quick. He shoots so quickly, and that’s another thing about him that we can talk about. But in terms of feeling like you’re in a Woody Allen film, there is so much myth about him as well. In the acting community there are so many stories that I had heard about how he doesn’t speak to you or call you by name or direct you, and I heard he fires you. So, you go into it with all this — and then he spoke to me every day, called me by my name, directed me really thoroughly, and I wasn’t fired! So, luckily, none of it came to be true.
NEXT PAGE: ”My first meeting with him, he came and he said, ‘I’ve seen some of your work, and I have a part I think you might be nice for, and I just wanted to meet you in the flesh. Thanks for coming.’ And that was it.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s it like to read a Woody script for the first time with the idea that you might be in it? Did you know anything about it?
EWAN MCGREGOR: No, he didn’t tell me anything about it. My first meeting with him, he came and he said, ”I’ve seen some of your work, and I have a part I think you might be nice for, and I just wanted to meet you in the flesh. Thanks for coming.” And that was it. And I felt like I should say something, even though it was probably a mistake, so I said, ”When are you making a film?” And he said, ”Well, we are making the film in May and really that’s all I can tell you, thanks for coming in,” and off I went. And the next day after they sent the script, and I said I wanted to do it.
Did you read page by page looking for the laughs? Or did you know by that point that it wasn’t a comedy?
No, I had no preconceived ideas about it at all.
Are you disappointed at all that you didn’t get to be in a Woody comedy, just because?
No, just because I think the stuff that we got to play was brilliant. And the brother stuff is unique and not often explored. I have played countless movies against women and exploring the male-female relationship but never a brotherly relationship. I can’t think of any other film of mine, anyway.
And were you eager to go head to head with Colin? Did you know him before?
No, I’d never met him. So, this was the first time, and I got on with him straight away. We worked very hard and we threw ourselves into it because the scenes were massive and full of dialogue, and we were shooting three or four or five of them a day.
Did you ever get to sit and talk to Woody and ask what his reasons were for writing this? Or does he let the script speak for itself, even with the actors?
Yes. And he wasn’t too interested. Even if you wanted to discuss your motivations or whatever. I got the impression that he wasn’t interested. I thought that he beautifully directed the acting, and I was amazed at how challenging he was. For instance, for one scene in the movie, he told me to take it down so you could hardly hear what I was saying, and that kind of force, that’s all Woody. He really directed it beautifully, but I don’t think he was interested in how you got there. Not really.
Interesting. What are your favorite Woody Allen movies?
I like Zelig and I liked Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway. I really liked Zelig. I really like the Sean Penn one, Sweet and Lowdown.
Just because some of his movies are ”bad” and some of his movies are ”good,” do you worry about that at all when you’re going in?
No. I just think he is a great filmmaker, and he’s made an enormous amount of films. And there are a number of them that are great, and far greater than any other director you could name. In terms of how many great films he’s made, Woody Allen has beaten everyone, hands down. He’s got so many great films and so I don’t worry about it being a bad one, and if it were, in other people’s opinion, I still would have gotten a chance to work with him.
So, this is something you can check off your to-do list?
I’d really like to do it again. I really would.
NEXT PAGE: ”Something like Trainspotting has more [impact on my career], because people went, ”F—! What’s with this?” So, in a way it’s got more of an impact than Star Wars, when people are expecting something like that anyway.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where are you in your career now? What kind of stuff do you want to do next?
EWAN MCGREGOR: I just go on stories, really. I always have done that, and unless I was going to write stuff for myself to do, or produce stuff, which isn’t really my bag, I wait for something to plop down on the doormat and grab me. That’s what I like to do.
Did the Star Wars films give you the freedom to do what you want for a long, long time?
I don’t think so.
No, I don’t think so. I think that they are so much of their own thing. It’s about Star Wars. It isn’t really about me or Hayden [Christensen]. But it’s difficult to tell how they affect you career-wise. That’s why its best not to play that game. It’s best to be in it for the stories and for the love of it and — well, not just for the love of it, because I like to be paid well, when I can be — but what is more important is the stories, really. If you’re making your decisions based on that, then you do end up working with first time directors and you work with Ridley Scott and Tim Burton, and I’ve been lucky to work both with fantastic directors who were starting out and others who have been making films for a long time. But my feeling is that, in terms of impact, something like Trainspotting has more, because people went, ”F—! What’s with this?” You know? So, in a way it’s got more of an impact than Star Wars, when people are expecting something like that anyway.
Do you still worry about finding work?
I don’t worry about it. I take time to do these big motorbike trips and my agent might draw in his breath when I tell him I would like to do another one because its four to five months out of the game, but I think this is what life is all about. I am satisfied and happy with the work I’ve done, and I think people hire me because I am good at what I do. I like to think so anyway. I sometimes get parts that are more challenging than others, and I think, from what I’ve been reading recently, that there’s an awful lot more of that to come. A lot of the scripts that I’ve been reading lately are quite brave, independent films that are about things that matter, and some of the roles quite extreme. So, I’ve got a feeling, and I don’t know what you think, that people are demanding more of movies.
So, you think you’ll always go make movies like The Pillow Book?
Oh, I hope so. But at the same time if you get something that appeals to you from the bigger studios, I don’t mind that either. I’m happy to do both. There is a lot of potential at the moment because it seems to be changing. I think studios are less [sure] about what to finance, since throwing $200 million at a film doesn’t guarantee success like it used to. And that’s good.
Was The Island a sting for you?
I liked it. I thought that was a good film! I thought for that kind of movie, it was a good one. I thought Scarlett was good in it and I had a good time working with her. And Djimon [Hounsou] was f—ing gorgeous in it, and brilliantly mean in it and cool. And Michael Bay blew up a lot of s— in it. And it was at this time when, after Pearl Harbor, people just wanted to pan [his work] and it just so happened that I was working with him when it happened.