Ewan McGregor caught the tinkering bug from his grandfathers. One of them, on his father’s side, was a motoring obsessive who passed on his love of old vehicles.
‘He had an old British car and a couple of British motorbikes, and was very rarely seen in the house since he was always in his garage,’ says McGregor, whose own collection of vintage motorbikes — he puts it at ‘around ten, maybe one or two more’ — is his great personal passion, and indeed his primary mode of transport in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. ‘Where engineering’s concerned I know my limits, but I tinker all the time, and find great pleasure in it.’
His maternal grandfather, Laurie Lawson, was a tinkerer of a more serious bent: a watchmaker, servicing the wristwatches and clocks of the denizens of Crieff, the tiny Perthshire town where McGregor grew up. He would spend time in his grandfather’s workshop, watching him meticulously taking apart, fixing and reassembling.
‘He was a brilliant watchmaker and jeweller, and he spent his life in there, working away on these tiny, intricate machines to keep them going. I admired that greatly. I love the idea that with these great old watches and cars and machines, with some care you can keep them going for ever.’
McGregor’s own career shows something of a tinkerer’s spirit At 42, he has accumulated one of the most varied CVs in his cohort of actors. The past 18 months alone has seen him swing from offbeat romantic comedy opposite Emily Blunt in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen to gut-wrenching drama in The Impossible, a real-life tale of the Asian tsunami. Indeed, in the 17 years since his breakout performance in Trainspotting, he’s mixed blockbusters like the Star Wars prequels and Moulin Rouge with much more esoteric fare — one thinks of his turn as Jim Carrey’s crush in the queer-rom-com/prison-drama I Love You Phillip Morris.
His next appearance is opposite Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in August: Osage County, the film version of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer-winning play about a harrowing family gathering.
‘I just go on my instinct,’ McGregor says of the roles he picks. ‘I’m more concerned now with who’s directing than I used to be — I used to not care very much and think it was just about the writing, but I’ve learnt it’s important you’re working with great directors — that’s not necessarily the same as experienced directors though.’
In fact, McGregor recently travelled to Australia to shoot Son of a Gun, a crime thriller, with a first-time director, Julius Avery. ‘He’s only directed a short film that I saw, called Jerrycan [a Jury Prize winner at Cannes], but it was brilliant and I think he’s going to be a very good filmmaker.’
McGregor is naturally drawn towards the road less travelled. Sometimes that means literal roads — in 2004, he and his friend Charlie Boorman biked 18,000 miles from London to New York, via Russia Kazakhstan and Mongolia, for the documentary Long Way Round. A few years later they followed this with another trip heading south from John O’Groats to Cape Town, though McGregor says the time for such epic endeavours is past. ‘I’ve got a two-year-old daughter [McGregor and his French wife, Eve, have four children, of which the youngest two are adopted] and this is the special time when you want to be around. I’m away enough for my work, I couldn’t face the idea of going away more.’
Talk of family brings him back to his grandfather’s area of expertise. McGregor’s own timepiece of choice, made by the Swiss company IWC, for whom he is a brand ambassador, is a massive, retro-chic aviation piece — a version of IWC’s famous Big Pilot watch, originally designed for German airmen in the war — that’s sold as part of a pair, the second being considerably smaller. ‘It’s meant to be a father and son thing, except that I haven’t got any sons,’ he says. Instead, McGregor gave the smaller watch to his wife.
With its antique stylings it’s a watch that suits McGregor’s determinedly old-fashioned tastes, whether that be vehicles, clothes or indeed actors (he names Jimmy Stewart as his favourite). Biking around Los Angeles, he spurns modern protective gear, settling instead for Brando-in-The-Wild-One-style T-shirt, turned-up jeans and boots.
‘I do have a sort of classic taste, but I’ve always been into the older things. Most of my bikes are from the Fifties and Sixties — there’s a nostalgia that I feel like I must tap into. I think we had a better aesthetic sense back then, and we knew how to make things work. We don’t have that sense of keeping things going.’
To illustrate, McGregor relates a story of when he, Boorman and their crew were biking across the wastelands of Mongolia, and one of their bikes broke down and had to be replaced. ‘We bought an old two-stroke 250cc on the black market somewhere, which broke down all the time. We had all our brand new tools we’d been given in London rolled out on the floor, and we didn’t know how to fix it. Then a guy would ride up on a horse, jump down and fix the bike in five seconds.’
Perhaps tinkering only gets you so far after all.