It’s been a while since we’ve heard actor Ewan McGregor (“Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge!”) speak in his native Scottish accent, yet so much remains enigmatically unfamiliar about his nameless character known simply as “The Ghost” in director Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer.” Adapted by former journalist Robert Harris from his own novel, this fantastically nutty political thriller stars McGregor as an apolitically minded punch-up artist assigned to finish the memoirs of a suddenly disgraced former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan), currently stuck in American exile while awaiting war crime charges for his use of “heightened interrogation” procedures. Like many a Hitchcockian everyman ensnared by conspiracy, McGregor’s “Ghost” soon realizes through his own cat-killing curiosities and investigation that he has every right to be paranoid. I met McGregor at the Waldorf Astoria to discuss government corruption, Polanski’s eccentric working methods, the longest he’s ever felt trapped somewhere, and why he’ll likely never read this interview. Out of respect to both McGregor and one of our greatest living auteurs, I chose not to bring up Polanski’s current legal matters and house arrest.
“The Ghost Writer” is such a gonzo political thriller, but the plot twists turn so naturally. Do you think anything as sinister or thorny as what’s in this film could happen in real life?
I think it is happening. The story is obviously pushed right into the realms of fictitious, novel-y type material with the idea that [MAJOR SPOILER REDACTED]. That’s far-fetched. One of the “ghosts” that Harris talks about when he talks about the novel is that British politics — as a government that makes decisions on behalf of the people of the British Isles — might be a ghostly idea because it’s so wrapped up in American politics now that we’re somehow linked. That’s quite a serious accusation on his part, and on Polanski’s part, as the filmmaker. But it’s not as far-fetched as we might think.
So you’re cynical about politics?
I’ve always been really uninterested in politicians and the acts of the Houses of Parliament, or government as an idea. But I’m interested in politics in that I’m a member of the world, and I have strong feelings of right and wrong, but I can’t get into the ins and outs of it. I find politicians so desperately boring. I don’t trust them and don’t believe in them.
Especially in my country, they’re always getting caught cheating the taxpayer out of money. They get allowances for houses in London, where they’re all supposed to represent their constituency. So they stay with people they know and charge the government for this rental and just pocket the cash. That’s our cash. There are people who should feel society’s not operating correctly, know how to make life a better place for the people of their country, and enter into politics to make their vision come true. I just don’t believe that’s what happens. They get in there and start trading off their political ideals: “I’ll move for you on this, you vote for me on that.” They’re trading their ideals to climb the rungs of power, and that’s unforgivable.
Does power inherently corrupt, even with the best of intentions?
No, because honest people are honest people. You know, they have spin doctors. They have people whose job it is to take facts and make them more palatable for the people. They should be fucking ashamed of themselves to actually have a spin doctor, never mind to actually call them that. [laughs] For us to accept that that’s the case, that we’re going to be told things that are sort of true, so that they’re palatable for us to listen to, is a disgrace.
What about ghostwriters? Are they being deceitful by manipulating someone’s image, or are they simply punching up copy?
I don’t think it’s deceitful because ghostwriting is obviously going to be okayed by the person they’re writing on behalf of. If it’s done properly, it can be quite effective. It’s a skill to be able to interview someone and be able to write in their voice. Since we started all this press, it was interesting to listen to [Robert] Harris talking about ghostwriting. He has quite a slant on it, that there’s an element of failure in The Ghost. Even if he’s written successful books on behalf of other people, the nature of not having your name on that book is kind of a failure.
How would you describe Polanski’s tastes and on-set demeanor?
He’s very persnickety about everything. He’ll spend 20 minutes arranging the books on the bookshelf that are deep out of the focus in the background of a shot. If you shoot a shot, and then the weather changes a bit, a lot of directors will shoot anyway and just [color-correct] it afterward. But he’ll only shoot if the rain’s exactly right, the clouds are right, the sea looks rough enough. He’s a total perfectionist. Sometimes he can nitpick over how you’re saying lines, but it’s always driven towards making the film the way he saw it.
I can imagine, and I asked Robert if this was the case, that he gets up on his feet and acts out all the parts as they’re writing lines of dialogue in his living room: “Maybe she’ll say this,” and he’ll act it out. Whenever we’re on set, I think he’s going back to that model. He’s often sitting with his head in his hands, or you’ll ask him a question and he’ll suddenly just go quiet for ages. Everyone just stops and waits for him to come out with what he has to say. Olivia [Williams] asked him one day what it was he was doing when he did that, and he said he’s trying to remember how he saw that scene when he wrote it with Robert, so that he can answer how he wants it.
Whenever we had a change of location or a new actor would come in, Polanski would really slow down to get into the new part of the story. When we started the exterior stuff at [Tom Wilkinson’s character] Emmett’s house, it’s not that complicated a scene — I pull up in the car, go up to the gate, look through the mail, go back to the car, back to the gate, and speak to Emmet through the [intercom]. We spent all morning looking at different scenarios, trying different positions for the car, and we didn’t shoot anything until after lunch. I quite like that he takes his time because often the pressure of filmmaking is that people don’t, and then you pay for it later because you didn’t make the right decision at the time.