Based on the real-life experiences of filmmaker Mike Mills, Beginners (opening June 3 in limited release) stars Ewan McGregor as Oliver, the only son of a recently widowed man who comes out as gay at age 75. At 81, the prolific Christopher Plummer plays Oliver’s dad, Hal, who, only five years before his own death, makes a big splash in the gay social scene and scores a much younger boyfriend. No stranger to queer cinema — the 40-year-old Scot has played gay or bisexual in such films as The Pillow Book, Velvet Goldmine, and last year’s I Love You Phillip Morris — McGregor opens up to The Advocate about his personal coming-out stories and his optimistic assessment of the modern gay experience.
Advocate.com: You obviously have much more experience with gay roles than your Beginners costar, Christopher Plummer. Did you offer him any words of advice or encouragement about his portrayal of Hal?
Ewan McGregor: [Laughs] It’s not for me to give anyone advice, especially not Christopher Plummer. “Now, listen, Mr. Plummer, when you come to this scene ... ” No. He and Goran Visnjic, who plays his boyfriend, both threw themselves into it, and their relationship is totally believable. It’s very touching.
What was it like to have a legend of the stage and screen playing your father?
Christopher didn’t intimidate me because he was a delight. He’s just a lovely man. He’s a wonderful actor, of course, but he’s also a wonderful actor to work with. He’s very modern and contemporary as an actor. Even though he gives an amazing performance, I never felt like I was working with someone who was giving a performance. It almost felt like I was doing scenes with my dad.
Did you two hit it off right away?
We had a very nice rehearsal period with different exercises to help us get to know each other. Christopher and I were sent off to shops, and I had to go buy him a scarf at Barneys. For one of the exercises, I threw a lunch for Christopher and all the actors who play his gay friends in the movie. Most of those guys are gay men in real life, so some of them went around the table and talked about their coming-out stories and how different they all were.
Has anyone ever come out to you?
Yes, friends have come out to me after some time, after I’ve known or worked with them for a while. I’ve always been very happy and delighted that they felt they could do so — and could do so with me. I was slightly surprised that they hadn’t done it earlier. But coming out is so personal, and every story is different.
There’s no shortage of stories about closeted men and women in the entertainment industry. What are your thoughts on the Hollywood closet?
Well, there are a lot of out gay people in the entertainment business. You make it sound like the entertainment business is an environment where gay people don’t feel happy to be gay. On the whole, you find lots and lots of out gay people in the entertainment business who are quite comfortably so.
Yes, that’s true. But I suppose I’m referring more to leading men and women — those actors paid to carry the big-budget rom-coms and action movies. Do you feel that they too can be comfortably out at this time?
You’re really talking about the top echelons of Hollywood, and that’s where being gay might matter. I’m not gay myself, so I don’t know what pressures there would be if I was a gay man in this industry, but you would hope that it wouldn’t even be an issue. Hollywood is a funny place, and it doesn’t bear much relevance to the real world. But I do know in terms of scripts and story lines that you can have very clever ideas that have to go because studios and producers don’t want to offend anyone; they’re so terrified that they won’t get their money back, so they try to appeal to everybody. So maybe we’re not at the point yet where being out is OK for every actor. Maybe some actors still feel like it would damage their potential career choices.
Have you not worked with closeted actors?
I’ve never worked with an actor that I know to be gay but who isn’t out — not that I know of. I have worked with a lot of out gay actors. In my world gay people enjoy great security in the entertainment business because it’s very open, much more so than if you were in a bank or something. So my thoughts about the entertainment business aren’t about people who are closeted but about people who are out.
What I took away from Beginners is that life is too short not to live it as your most authentic self. It’s a universal message, but it’s one that’s especially important for young gay people to hear.
There is great acceptance in this film, and the audience is definitely going to see that. My character hasn’t got any issues about his father’s homosexuality. He has to reflect back over his life with his parents and their relationship because now he realizes that things were different, but there’s certainly absolute acceptance of his father’s sexuality. His father’s incredibly happy to live his life out and openly, because being who he truly is gives him great comfort, so there wasn’t any disappointment or anger. What’s also lovely for young gay people to see in this film is how it tackles gay history in the States. There are lots of facts, details, and montages about what it might’ve been like to be a young homosexual man in the early ’50s, because our writer-director, Mike, is obviously trying to understand why his father felt the need to suppress his homosexuality.
Why isn’t Oliver more shocked or upset upon discovering that his father is gay?
He’s meeting a new dad. Mike talks about how much more emotionally available and accessible his gay father was to him than his straight dad was, so I think Mike actually benefited from his father’s coming-out. He had a richer relationship with him before he died. So, like Mike, Oliver was happy for his dad to finally feel like he could be himself. I’m really fascinated by Mike’s story. When I first met him, I was hungry for details about his life and what his relationship had been like with his father and his mother. I was more interested in finding out about the story than I was about the script or the film.
Like Beginners, I Love You Philip Morris also deals with a gay awakening. Why do you think it took so long for Phillip Morris to —
To come out? It’s sort of funny, the idea of the film being in the closet.
Yes, exactly. And once it did come out in the U.S., it struggled to find an audience. Although Beginners also focuses on a gay relationship that’s based on a true story, does it have more mainstream appeal?
No, I think Philip Morris is more mainstream. Beginners feels like much more of a lovely art movie to me. I really don’t know why Phillip Morris didn’t come out for so long, but I don’t know that it was purely its gay nature that prevented it from being released. I think it was with a distributor that ended up going bust or something. But Jim Carrey was in that big Christmas Carol movie, and I did hear rumors that Disney didn’t want to have Phillip Morris released before that because they didn’t want people to think that Ebenezer Scrooge was gay. It’s like, bloody fuckin’ hell, that’s unbelievable if we’re going to go to that level.
Phillip Morris was finally released in December 2010 to good reviews, especially for your and Jim’s performances, but it went virtually unrecognized during awards season. Was that at all disappointing, or were you prepared for that snubbing?
It didn’t really strike me as the kind of film that would be an Oscar contender because it’s too comedic. If it had been made into a straight-out drama about their lives, then maybe it would’ve been more in contention. But it didn’t bother me one way or another, because people saw it and really liked it. It’s actually a film people come up and talk to me about a lot. That’s more important to me than any awards.
When you appeared on Good Morning America, you put George Stephanopoulos in his place when, amid off-camera laughter, he poked fun at a picture of you kissing Jim Carrey. You’ve also criticized the crew members who showed signs of disgust when you kissed Jonathan Rhys Meyers on the set of Velvet Goldmine. Why is it so important for you to combat that kind of homophobia and not just let it slide?
I would do that about anything in my life that I feel isn’t right. If people are prejudiced about anything, I would always challenge it, because you should wear your beliefs on your sleeve. I do that with my kids: I put them right if they step out of line about something. This just happened again on Regis and Kelly. The audience didn’t know what the film was about, so as I was describing it, I said something like, “It’s based on a true story about our writer-director’s father, who came out in his 75th year and told his son that he was gay.” When I said that, a woman in the audience laughed! It was unbelievable. I think she immediately realized that she was out of order, but it was so odd.
We hate her. Did you let her have it?
No, I didn’t call her out, but it was very clear from my reaction that I didn’t think it was a funny or stupid thing. This is just some woman in a chat show audience, but she reflects America in some way, doesn’t she? Things take a long time, as all things do, but we’re definitely moving forward.
How do you see us moving forward?
When I was at school, I didn’t know anyone in my year who was gay. “Gay” was very much used as a derogatory term for something that was stupid. My kids now go to school where there are gay people in their class, and I know some little boys in my oldest daughter’s class who are gay — and they were out at 13, 14. So we are moving forward, hopefully to the point where in 10, 15 years, or sooner, we won’t be sitting down talking about what it’s like to play gay. It’ll just be a part of a character’s makeup, which is how I’ve always thought of it. I’ve never played gay. I’ve played characters who are homosexual or bisexual men, but I’ve never approached them thinking, OK, now I’m going to play gay. Sexuality is a very important part of what makes us us, but it’s not everything.