The first time someone brought up his nude scene in The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor didn't know it existed. "I said there isn't a naked scene," he recalled during a roundtable interview in New York earlier this week. He eventually remembered the scene, and was astonished that anyone even noticed it. "I take my dressing gown off and get into bed, and it's considered to be a nude scene. I find it incredible."
In an industry where nudity clauses are part of actors' contracts, Halle Berry gets paid extra for flashing her breasts and Jason Segel builds an an entire publicity campaign around going full-frontal, Ewan McGregor is probably the only person who doesn't notice onscreen nudity at this point. And the fact that McGregor manages to get naked in a film about a political scandal is just another tribute to the guy's nude tenacity. Over the last 15 years the actor has become famous for letting it all hang out over and over again, from serving as a naked human manuscript in The Pillow Book to sharing love scenes with everyone from Tilda Swinton to Jim Carrey. He's maybe the only mainstream actor who you can envision naked even when playing a priest (Angels & Demons) or Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Even as a 39-year-old family man, McGregor still proudly raises eyebrows. Interviewed this week in Out Magazine and photographed in full beefcake mode, McGregor gladly recounts the first time he got naked during a performance: “I remember getting a kind of rush out of that first time, a slight feeling of power about it, you know?" And talking about I Love You Phillip Morris, which comes to American screens in April, McGregor describes a similar kind of rush in kissing men onscreen: "As a straight guy, it’s quite an interesting proposition. Anything on a film set that takes you by surprise like that, that gets your blood up, is good.”
It's easy to become famous by showing skin and talking about sexually provocative stuff-- Megan Fox is just the latest starlet to pull it off, and surely won't be the last. But what McGregor has done that's so unique, what's made him so worth watching through even the worst movies, is that he's managed to make nudity-- the state we're all born in-- feel revolutionary. Presenting himself in the nude, having sex and getting into bed and in the depths of drug addiction, without artifice or pretense or shyness, McGregor is both as natural and as daring as an actor can be on the screen.
During our interview earlier this week, McGregor said "[movies] reflect life and in life people are naked." But really, he knows as well as anyone that's not true-- in 2009 alone he played a villainous Vatican priest, a journalist investigating soldiers trained with ESP, and the playboy lover of Amelia Earhart. Even his brief nude scene in The Ghost Writer feels a little arch-- he's not only playing a character who wears nothing under his bathrobe, but who gets in bed naked with a woman he knows better than to be seduced by. There were ways to play this scene with clothes on, let's put it that way.
I don't think McGregor is being disingenuous when he says he's surprised that his nudity is such a big deal; he just knows a little better than he's letting on By being Our Nakedest Actor, by dropping trou without modesty or hesitation, McGregor establishes himself not just as that crazy actor who will do anything onscreen, but the one who insists we could probably all do the same. His nudity isn't a big deal, and why should yours be either? By doing this, he makes us love him, and by loving him, we forgive him for starring in an awful Michael Bay movie and an awful Rock Hudson tribute movie and a series of awful sex thrillers. He's our favorite naked Scotsman; how could we turn our backs on him?
By showing us his naked body, McGregor isn't trying to make us laugh like Jason Segel was, or to seduce us like 90% of female onscreen nudity. He's just being, right there in front of us. It's vulnerable and intriguing, as old as time and brand new. Even in a film as taut and high-minded as The Ghost Writer, it brings us back down for a minute, reminds us of the hairless animals we really are-- and so long as Ewan McGregor is counted among our species, we're not doing so bad for ourselves, are we?