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Ewan McGregor: “We should all pay tax because those are society’s rules”

Our Kind of Traitor star Ewan McGregor talks family life, the morality of paying tax – and the ‘special feeling’ around Trainspotting 2

There have been quite a few John le Carré adaptations recently – are you a fan of his?

I hadn’t read his books – I haven’t really had a le Carré phase. But I remember Alec Guinness playing Smiley in the TV version of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. I read this one, the novel, after I read the script and I liked it very much. He seems to be having a resurgence with the Tom Hiddleston show [The Night Manager]. It hasn’t been on in the States, so I must be the only person who hasn’t seen it. I will see it – I hear it was very good.

You have lot of good scenes with Stellan Skarsgård in this film – what was it like working with him?

We worked together on Angels & Demons and we developed an unusual relationship after that. To build up to the angry scene, he’d come over beforehand and swear at me: “McGregor you fucking piece of shit!” And I’d swear back at him. That made me laugh. We kept it going over the years – emails and texts where we’d insult each other. Months would go by and you’d be in a meeting, looking down at your phone: “You mother-fucker McGregor!” I’d piss myself laughing.

Sounds intense, in a sweary sort of way. Do you have to psyche yourself up between scenes? Do you agonise as an actor?

I don’t have sleepless nights. I’m not an actor who goes home at the end of the day thinking – shit, shit, I should have done it like this. Every actor works in a different way. There are actors who hate everything they do. I’m not going to name any names but there are actors who, when the director says cut, they go: “Fuck! That was awful.” But I’m not like that – I think everything I do is great [laughs]. I don’t have any judgment at all about how other people work, unless they’re ungenerous towards other actors.

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Our Kind of Traitor shows John le Carré’s anger at the City of London and the dirt flowing around the financial system. Do you share that anger?

Yeah, I agree with le Carré’s… criticisms. I’m depressed that politicians like the Icelandic prime minister – the people we look up to to lead us, the people we give power to make laws – are the people who are breaking them. It’s fucking depressing. Damian [Lewis] had some great lines in the film about the fact if there’s a little bit of criminal money you get put in jail but if there’s billions of it, you’re welcomed and protected regardless. Reading about the Panama Papers and offshore banking, it seems like people who are super-rich have no problem hiding their money while the rest of us pay tax.

To see the end of that disease in our lifetime would be amazing

So tax is a moral issue?

We should pay tax because we live in a society where those are the rules. I believe in that. It’s different for me now because I pay my taxes in America but until I moved and I paid my taxes in Britain I knew I could take a bus, go to the local swimming pool or go to the doctor and get medicine; the streets are cleaned – that’s all possible because people pay their taxes. I wouldn’t want to be someone that didn’t do that.

You’ve made quite a few big trips with Unicef. Do you think of it now as a lifetime commitment?

I do, yeah. I’m happy to be involved – honoured. It would be nice to think there would be an end to the work being necessary. But you hope some things change. Polio, for instance, is now close to being eradicated. To see the end of that disease in our lifetime would be amazing.

Is it difficult to stay upbeat when you see some of the things you’ve seen in India and Nepal?

I know what you mean – sometimes it’s difficult to feel optimistic. I remember visiting a village in India where children get ill and die because there is no doctor, and there’s no way of getting to the nearest town. Although I was there with a doctor able to immunise, I was struck by the terrible sense of hopelessness. In my naivety, I’d expected a sense of – we did it, we got here. When you see the poverty… I heard a baby coughing. I knew it sounded like a baby that wasn’t going to make it. But ultimately I think about the Unicef people who are working to improve things day in, day out. I’m always struck by them because it takes a special kind of courage to dedicate your life to doing that kind of work.

With all the film roles and motorcycle adventures, how do you manage to strike the right balance with family life?

There have been times I’ve turned things down because I just can’t go away. When it was just Clara [the oldest of his four daughters] we used to travel everywhere together but when she got to school that slowed down a bit. We can’t move every time I work, and now that my children are older I tend to go off and work on my own. It’s fine. The longest period was filming Son of a Gun in Australia – a 12-week stint – that’s the longest I’d ever want to be away from them. We strike a balance as best we can.

When you’re playing Jesus Christ – that’s the ultimate in people having pre-conceived ideas on who he is

You never get into trouble for working too hard?

The week I was coming back from Australia I got a call from Gavin O’Connor, a director I’d always wanted to work with, to come and do Jane Got a Gun. I got to be a baddie in a Western – so I had to phone home and say: ”I know I’m coming home but I’ve got to go away again” [laughs].

You recently played Jesus in Last Days in the Desert. That must have been difficult to get your head around.

It was odd. Approaching that role is an unusual situation but I liked it. I just had to try not to think too much about other people’s ideas or expectations. When you’re playing Jesus Christ – that’s the ultimate in people having pre-conceived ideas on who he is. I tried to focus on playing this man at a particular time in his life. He was trying to communicate with his dad, and it just so happens that his dad was God [laughs].

And what about the sequel to Trainspotting? You start filming soon – what can we expect?

It’s going to be special – it feels special already to be back talking with the actors and Danny Boyle. We had a meeting together where we read through the script, and it was extraordinary to hear all those characters come alive again. We start shooting soon in Scotland. It’s going to be great. I think enough time had passed since the first film, so I was absolutely happy to come back and do it again.

Our Kind of Traitor is in cinemas from May 13

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