x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

It's all in the mind

"I can only play a scene as if it's real. If it's funny, it's funny, and if it's not, it's not.

One might have thought that Ewan McGregor would have had enough of Jedi mind tricks taking on the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the much-derided Star Wars prequels. And yet in The Men Who Stare at Goats, the actor from Perth, Scotland, again finds himself playing a role in which beings can reach a higher plane by using the power of their minds. McGregor plays the Michigan-based journalist, Bob Wilton, who hears about a military operation that aims to train soldiers to use their dormant psychic powers, and embarks on an odyssey to Iraq in the company of wacky soldiers played by George Clooney and Jeff Bridges in Grant Heslov's comedy based on the factual writing of Jon Ronson.

So, did McGregor get cast because of his previous Jedi-knight experience, or just because the 38-year-old actor is one of the world's most recognisable stars? "I was interested to speak to Grant about that myself when we first met, because I wondered if that was why they wanted me to do it," he muses. "I didn't know if it was an in joke but he claimed that he'd not even thought about it, that he didn't make the connection. I don't know if that is true or not, but there we are. I think it's good fun to play those lines."

Speaking of déjà-vu, McGregor is making a habit of playing journalists. "A journalist gets to ask a lot of questions and gets a lot of answers, and it leads the audience into the stories," he says. "So there is an advantage to being in the role. This is at least the third journalist I've played - this one, the guy in Down with Love and the character in Shallow Grave." Goats also offers the second comedy performance from the actor this year. However, McGregor admits that comedy does not come easy to him. "In this film I didn't find it so much of a jump to do comedy because there is a finer line with it. Much of it comes out of the situation and the acting is quite realist as a result," he says. "I did a film earlier this year, called I Love You Philip Morris, with Jim Carrey and in that the gags were more evident. It's partly Jim's style. He's a comedian, the moments of comedy are more pronounced and I felt obliged to try and play those moments, but it didn't suit me. It didn't suit my acting to try and make something funny. I quickly learnt that I can only play it as real, and if it's funny, it's funny, and if it's not, it's not. If I try to make the joke work then it's not funny. I don't know why."

Funnily enough, the director questioned whether McGregor wanted to play Bob Wilton because he was the straight man of the piece. "I didn't know that I wanted to play the straight-man role. Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and George Clooney's characters are big and colourful, but once I chatted to Grant about it, he said that was never the way that he saw it and that the character has some colour about him."

Indeed, the movie is told from Bob's point of view. The actor talks in such a broad Scottish accent that it always seems amazing that he can cover it up when, as he often does, he is playing an American. A technique often used by actors is to speak with the accent of the character throughout the shoot, whether the camera is rolling or not, but McGregor says that's not his style: "I don't. I probably should, a lot of actors stay in the accent all day and it's a much better way of doing things because you don't have to go in and out, I don't do that because I think it's too embarrassing."

Despite his role in the film, the Trainspotting star remains sceptical as to whether there is some untapped power of the human mind. "I don't know," he says. "My cynical side thinks that we've been around on Earth for a long time as people and if we have all these powers, surely we would have discovered how to enhance them by now. But, then again, things can happen when you feel like you knew it was going to happen. You think about someone that you haven't thought of for years and then they turn up that day, or you meet them the next day. There are coincidences that happen that feel slightly unworldly and that make you think that maybe there is something to it. I don't know about running through walls and things, though. I think that is maybe pushing it a little too far." This article was corrected on 18/10/09.