Beginners actor on new film, the gay history lesson he got and getting naked again

“Yeah,” he says, pondering with a curious puppy-dog look (similar to the one that his adorable pet terrier, Arthur, offers in Beginners), “that’s disappointing. I never felt they were making cheap stabs. That was his life.”

And when you say that with as much innocent charm as McGregor, his dreamy blue eyes leave you no choice but to let that one slide (the Scottish accent helps, too). The 40-year-old’s latest feature, the offbeat comedy-drama Beginners, is a sophisticated look at gay life, as the film’s father figure, Hal (Christopher Plummer), lives openly after almost a half-century in the closet. Now 75, and widowed after losing his wife, he’s free as can be, and his son, Oliver (McGregor) has to make sense of it all – who’s his dad now? Who was he then? And he only has so much time. Hal is dying.

“I thought the two opposing things were really interesting – where somebody is really living for the first time, and dying,” says McGregor, whose grief-stricken character also falls for an equally-as-love-challenged woman, played by Mélanie Laurent.

“There’s of course a lot about love and acceptance,” he says. “It’s a very moving film. It was a blessing for me to do as an actor, and I could only imagine that it has a very deep affect on you; it seems so real.”

Because it actually did happen.

Director/writer Mike Mills based Beginners, the follow-up to his 2005 debut Thumbsucker, on his real-life father, who died shortly after coming out.

“What’s maybe interesting for gay people about it is that it’s an older gay man coming out and really embracing his sexuality and indulging in the gay world,” McGregor says. “He really goes for it with this great gusto that he uses to approach his new gay life, which is really inspiring and lovely.”

In the film, Mills links Hal’s life to pivotal moments in American gay history, like Harvey Milk’s assassination, to better explain why coming out then was so taboo.

“I think it must be very difficult for young gay men to imagine what life was like for a young gay man in the ’50s,” McGregor says. “I learned a lot about it. I don’t think I was as aware of how difficult it was to be gay in that time, and how dangerous it was.

“That image of the older man being thrown in the back of that van because he's in a gay bar – it’s difficult maybe for a young gay man to comprehend that, so it gives you a deeper understanding of what it might have been like to be gay in those days.”

That even McGregor got a gay history lesson might surprise some – he’s been playing gay (or some variation of it) for much of his life, since 1996’s The Pillow Book, in which his character was bisexual – and very naked. Two years later, McGregor was made up as an Iggy Pop-ish glam rocker in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, making out with Jonathan Rhys Meyers in what’s become a beloved moment in queer cinema. And just last year there was I Love You Phillip Morris, about two cellmates – one played by McGregor, the other Jim Carrey – who fall madly in love.

When Beginners reached the actor, it didn’t take him long to sign on for the role as the son of a late-blooming homosexual. McGregor met Mills at a Santa Monica cafe, where they didn’t even discuss the film. Only his life.

“I just wanted to know more about his story,” McGregor says. “That really shows that it’s landed in you if you’re hungry for all those details. Then, that was it. I was onboard.”

McGregor noticed something almost immediately – how Mills refers to his father as if there were two of them. “When he talks about his father, he talks about his straight father and gay father and how wonderful his gay father was and how much more accessible he was,” McGregor says. “It’s very interesting to hear him talk about that.”

During filming, McGregor didn’t try to mimic Mills, and he never felt any pressure to do so. But to get a feel for him, he had Mills record all the dialogue so he could play it back and really get into character.

“It was funny,” he says, “because he was quite nervous about doing it. It was rather lovely to hear. He’s a very, very open man and a very sensitive man. He’s a fucking brilliant director, and I was just able to watch him and soak him up a bit.”

He began to understand Mills’ complicated situation, and how a once-married parent coming out could cause so much second-guessing. “It isn’t a straight-forward scenario,” McGregor says, “and it was nice that we showed that, and that coming to terms of not his father’s sexuality, but with what your childhood meant when you find out that your parents have been hiding this from you.”

And if McGregor’s been hiding anything, it’s his notorious frontal bits, which haven’t, uh, come out either in quite some time. Will we ever get another Pillow Book?

“I certainly haven’t made any conscious decision not to (do nude scenes), but it’s only ever if it’s relevant to the film,” he says. “I made a film called Perfect Sense with David Mackenzie, who directed Young Adam, and it’s possible it might be in there.”

What a relief.

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