Sydney, Ewan McGregor's sand-colored poodle mutt, is pooping on a well-kempt lawn in Los Angeles. He eyes the horizon, birds chirp, and McGregor readies the bag. Suddenly, a black Kerry terrier appears, held by a peroxide septuagenarian wearing a too-loose vintage Brentwood marathon T-shirt and too-tight spandex shorts. Sydney, torn by two competing passions, seems unable to decide whether to lunge immediately or finish his business. His eyes dart back and forth. Then, in a beige flash, Sydney makes up his mind, leaving the poop half in and half out. Moments later, sheepishly, tenderly, McGregor tidies Sydney up with a napkin cadged from Le Pain Quotidien. 'Ah,' he murmurs quietly, 'my wee man, Syd.' The tone of the day is set.
An hour later, the three of us are sitting on a picnic bench atop Inspiration Point at the summit of Will Rogers Park in Pacific Palisades. Well, two of us are sitting. McGregor's lying on the bench, face up, bum westerly, legs spread in the air, illustrating an early professional mishap of onstage nudity. The incident in question involved one inopportunely placed vase full of water, two spills (the vase's and, shortly thereafter, his), a racy Joe Orton farce, and a front row of British pensioners, alarmed and titillated by the fast-approaching naked rear end of the then 21-year-old Scot. 'So I'm sliding toward the front row of the audience like this,' he says, 'butt naked, and thinking, What of the front row? They just got my bumhole coming straight at them.' For those unlucky enough not to have been there, McGregor hasn't been shy since.
There are two things my mother knows about Ewan McGregor: He wrote Atonement, and he loves dropping his trousers. One out of two ain't bad. 'I always try not to limit myself in all respects,' explains McGregor in a Scots brogue softened by years in London and, more recently, in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Eve, and three daughters. 'Sexuality is just one of them. I could understand saying 'I would never do gratuitous nudity.' Wait. No. I probably would. I'd probably be quite happy to.' In fact, as my mother correctly remembers, he has. Since his first full-frontal exposure -- during a rehearsal for a play about the Holocaust at Guildhall School of Music and Drama -- hardly a year has gone by without McGregor's privates being committed to celluloid. 'I remember getting a kind of rush out of that first time, a slight feeling of power about it, you know?' recalls McGregor. His butt, since its magnificent sliding debut in What the Butler Saw, has been seen by millions and his penis has appeared on-screen so often -- in Trainspotting, in The Pillow Book, in Velvet Goldmine -- it deserves its own Oscar nod.
The far-flung legend of McGregor's penis, casting its long shadow over the Hollywood Hills -- though accurate -- distracts from a quietly courageous and wildly varied acting career. He's not just some one-trick cock-flashing pony. That the long-delayed and finally upon us I Love You Phillip Morris -- a very good, very, very gay film slated for release in March -- isn't an aberration but one of McGregor's more mainstream films testifies to his unusual oeuvre. Like many of McGregor's choices, I Love You Phillip Morris is an uneasy film. Based on a true story (and a 2003 book by Steve McVicker) the movie follows Steven Russell, played by Jim Carrey, a charming con man and an incorrigible escape artist. In 1995, during a stint in the Harris County Jail in Houston, Russell meets Phillip Morris -- played by McGregor as a blond Southern belle of a man -- in the jail's library. Morris was reaching for a copy of The Federal Reporter on a high shelf. Their eyes met, sparks arced, Russell came on hard, and Morris, happy as a cat, purred and arched into the hand that pet him.
Had what follows not been exhaustively cataloged by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, it could easily be dismissed as fantastic prison pulp: Russell goes to prison (Theft, Case No. 618544), Russell and Morris fall in love. Russell escapes prison (Escape, Case No. 727973), finds Morris, the two live lavishly. Russell goes to prison (Aggravated Theft, Case No. 723526). Russell escapes prison, finds Morris, the two live lavishly. Russell goes to prison, escapes prison, finds Morris, the two live lavishly until Russell gets caught and goes to prison for good (Escape, Case No. 9,856-C). Russell -- Inmate No. 00760259 -- has a maximum sentence that would keep him imprisoned until July 12, 2140 -- 47,595 days after the film opens.
Despite the fact that it stars perhaps the most bankable star in Hollywood -- the worldwide gross of Carrey's movies is more than $4 billion dollars -- and, opposite him, its most talented, I Love You Phillip Morris, has languished undistributed domestically for more than a year, even after a strong showing at its Sundance debut in 2009. 'At Sundance everyone assumed it would be snapped up,' says McGregor, 'but it wasn't.' Perhaps one reason is that the central character is an unlovable (or uneasily loved) sociopathic scammer. But a more likely reason is that in cells, on bunks, on boats, before sunsets, after sunsets, on divans, over ottomans, without panning away or dissolving to white, the two men kiss, fondle, fuck, blow, suck, hold hands, dance, murmur, and eye. In short, they act like lovers do, and, because both Morris and Russell are openly gay men and their gayness seems not to trouble them in the slightest, this is a dicey commercial proposition. 'There was talk,' says McGregor, 'that Disney fended off the release until after A Christmas Carol came out. They didn't want kids thinking [Carrey's] Ebenezer Scrooge was a bender.'
When it appears on American screens, I Love You Phillip Morris will be, to some extent, down-gayed. (Or perhaps it's ungayed, degayed, or less-gayed.) As part of a bid to find U.S. distribution, the film has been recut, leaving out some of the gayest moments. After a rather touching episode of Florida Key fellatio, for example, Morris spits over the side of the boat into the Atlantic Ocean. 'There were two alternatives,' explains McGregor. 'There was the spit, and there was a really nice slow swallow, where I look at him and just do a loud swallow. I really like that one, but I guess they went for the more obvious spit over the side.'
Nevertheless, I Love You Phillip Morris is loudly and insistently gay. Carrey, as Russell, sees dicks in everything: clouds, baguettes, himself. At one point, he yells, Scrooge-like, 'I'm gay, gay, gay, gay, gay.' But Carrey playing gay is 80% Jim Carrey and 20% the character. In McGregor's slightly coquettish Morris, however, there are only trace elements of Ewan McGregor. In his place, there's a sly character, part wolf, part sheep, and wholly formed.
'I'm very keen that it's a gay movie,' McGregor insists. 'There was quite a lot of talk at Sundance that 'Well, it's not a gay movie. It's a film about guys who happen to be gay.' And I was thinking, it's nothing but a gay movie. It's about a gay couple, about a man's sexuality, and he comes out. It's not the point of the film, but let's not pretend it's not a gay film.'
Though I Love You Phillip Morris may be some sort of Rubicon for Carrey, McGregor has kissed boys his entire career. 'The first bisexual character I played was in [1996's] The Pillow Book. There's tons of sex in that film. We didn't even bother putting clothes on between scenes. I had quite a full-on sex scene with a 75-year-old Japanese guy,' he recalls. 'We're kissing, and I remember going, He's got a mustache and that's kind of weird. Oh! That's definitely a scrotum. That's odd.'
Though his silver daddy moment was somewhat lost in the Trainspotting scrum, McGregor's next movie, Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine, wherein he plays a barely disguised Iggy Pop to Jonathan Rhys Meyers's epicene 'David Bowie,' brought his propensity, willingness, and talent for kissing men to a wider audience and, in so doing, provided the raw footage for a fantasy reel of dreamy leading men locking lips. In fact, upon reflection, theirs might be about the most satisfying gay kiss ever committed to film. It's got all you need: gold lam', an Oscar Wilde quote ('The curve of your lips rewrite history'), the deceptive vulnerability of McGregor with his wide grin, the cruel-seeming beauty of Meyers. Oh, and eye shadow -- dark, glam pools of it. 'I remember when I kissed Johnny,' says McGregor. 'It was just a rush at the end of the day. It was just an electrical moment, because you look around and some of the British electrician guys -- who are all mainly closeted homosexuals, I think -- were sitting around going 'Fuck, no.' But I like kissing boys on screen. As a straight guy, it's quite an interesting proposition. Anything on a film set that takes you by surprise like that, that gets your blood up, is good.'
Judging from his career, lots of things seem to get McGregor's blood up. The actor is less guided by the usual Hollywood obsession -- the bottom line -- than by a healthy full-blooded sense of adventure. (In fact, as of 2008, he's the official face of Adventure, a cologne by Davidoff.) Twice, McGregor has circumnavigated the globe on a motorcycle with his friend Charley Boorman, the first time latitudinally, the second time longitudinally. (The trips formed the basis of two television shows, Long Way Round and Long Way Down.) His roles are those of an inquisitive mind, hungry to feel more and also feel different, not necessarily those of an acquisitive one. And thus, his career is less a direct path to the A-list than a meandering peregrination, beset by low-grossing spurs and indie digressions. But what Hollywood might see as dead ends, McGregor considers his best work. 'When it gets to the top end, they're really reluctant to step out of any box, which is why the movies become very bland,' he confesses. 'When people come up to talk about a movie like Velvet Goldmine, it's much more interesting than talking about, for instance, Angels & Demons.'
So, though McGregor fought in the Battle of Naboo, he's also jerked off as James Joyce (in Star Wars episodes 1 through 3 and Nora, respectively). He's been a song and dance man in the strange Down With Love and the stellar Moulin Rouge and an action figure in Black Hawk Down. But in lesser known movies like Young Adam, Stay, The Pillow Book, Phillip Morris, and in the forthcoming movie Beginners, by indie auteur Mike Mills, McGregor gives breath and depth to characters rarely written and even more rarely lifted from the page into a body. 'I'm always interested in playing different people, in different situations,' he says, sitting bolt upright, suddenly serious and eyeing the Pacific Ocean stretching below us. 'It doesn't matter to me whether someone is in love with a man or a woman. I find the idea of love and romance interesting. I'm a sucker for it. I like playing someone who's falling in love because I like the sensation of it.' He pauses to give Syd an affectionate pat. 'People do extraordinary things when they're falling in love.' n
I Love You Phillip Morris opens on April 23.