WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.
While we endlessly applaud Naomi Watt’s emotional powerhouse of a performance in J.A. Bayona’s “The Impossible,” there’s no leaving out Ewan McGregor who is every bit as good. McGregor stars as Henry, husband to Watt’s character of Maria and the father of three young boys. After the Thailand beach resort they are staying at is laid waste by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Henry goes on a desperate search for Maria and his eldest son Lucas who are separated from him in its aftermath. McGregor convincingly portrays a man physically and emotionally battered by this horrific tsunami which destroyed thousands of lives, and he gives the movies of 2012 one of its most heartbreaking moments with a cell phone call back home.
I got to catch up with McGregor at the Los Angeles press day for “The Impossible” which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. While there, he said what made him want to do the movie was the script by Sergio G. Sánchez which he described as “an amazing read.”
“I didn’t know that it was a true story when I read it but I was grabbed by how there was something very honest and true about it,” McGregor said. “So, when I found out that it was a true story, it wasn’t a surprise. Some of the lines of dialogue were very extraordinarily accurate and powerful.”
Now whereas Watts got to meet Maria Belon, the tsunami survivor her character was based on, McGregor admitted he did not get to meet his real-life counterpart before shooting began. While this might have put the actor at a disadvantage, he was still able to use his imagination for the role and did get the opportunity to talk to other survivors as well.
McGregor in real life is the father of four girls, and we could not help but wonder if he thought about what he would do if they were caught up in the tsunami. Acting sometimes has you asking questions you may not want to know the answers to, but those questions are still hard to ignore. McGregor’s performance feels so emotionally honest to where it seems like he did ask himself that question, but when we asked him if being a father affected his work here in any way, he made it clear to us what his acting process is.
“Well I suppose you’re always acting from two things: your imagination and your experience in life. But it’s not very nice to think about those things and I tried not to make myself think about my kids because I wouldn’t do that,” McGregor said. “But I had these great little boys, these three fantastic kids that Naomi and I were lucky to work with. I was able to think about them and we created this family that I believed in, and it felt that there was a reality to what we created that I was able to use. I just thought about them really and how desperate it would be to be in that situation.”
Speaking of which, McGregor considers his role in “The Impossible” to be the first film where he explores what it is to be a parent. Now while he may have played a dad in other movies, none of them spring to mind as quickly or are anywhere as memorable as this one. McGregor talked about this in more detail with Damon Wise of The Guardian and told him the only other film he could think of where he played a dad was “Nanny McPhee Returns.”
“I’ve certainly never made a film that felt to me like an exploration of that, of what it means to be a parent and that love you have for your kids,” McGregor told Wise. “This is something I’ve been experiencing for 16 years of my life, and it’s not in my work really anywhere. I thought – albeit a really extreme version of that – it was a nice way to look at that specific and unique love you have for your kids.”
“The Impossible” has been criticized in recent months for focusing more on an English family when the real-life family which inspired this movie was Spanish, and for also leaving the Thai people on the sidelines. Those who have seen the movie, however, can verify this criticism is not true and is deeply unfair to the filmmakers who have made a movie which is actually about many families and not just one. McGregor, in his conversation with Wise, was not the least bit surprised by this criticism and went on to describe it as being “not very clever.”
“The truth is it’s a story about this family, this western family, who are on holiday there. And that story is many, many people’s story,” McGregor explained. “But to say that it doesn’t tell the Thai people’s stories … Naomi’s character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her. It’s one of the most moving scenes in the film, really. In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping. Most of the survivors we spoke to had nothing but amazing things to say about the Thai response to the tsunami, in that they mobilized themselves very quickly.”
Ewan McGregor’s defense of “The Impossible” speaks volume of how emotionally involved he became with the film’s story, and it resulted in one of the very best performances he has given to date. Whether or not he gets serious Oscar consideration for his work, you will never be able to forget the impact he has on you here. And once again, the scene where he’s on the cell phone will break your heart.
Ben Kenber, “Interview With Ewan McGregor On The Impossible,” We Got This Covered, December 19, 2012.
Damon Wise, “Ewan McGregor: ‘The Impossible is my first film about being a parent,'” The Guardian, December 27, 2012.