This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Emmy-nominated actor Ewan McGregor, who’s up for best actor in a limited series for his role as fashion icon Roy Halston in the Netflix miniseries “Halston.” McGregor’s other roles include those in “Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge,” the TV series “Fargo” and playing a young Obi Wan Kenobi in the “Star Wars” films and an upcoming miniseries. McGregor talks about the importance of finding a character’s voice as a way of finding his way into the character. He says he doesn’t believe Halston’s stylized way of speaking and holding himself was him playing a character, but actually becoming the person he was meant to be. And he says Halston’s close relationship with Liza Minelli was the real backbone of the series.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guest, in addition to being nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor for the miniseries "Halston" on Netflix, I think of as being someone who, in his most well known roles, embodies swagger from Curt Wild to maybe Obi Wan Kenobi to Mark in "Trainspotting," even Alex in “Shallow Grave” and maybe half of “Fargo.” Of course, I'm talking to Ewan McGregor. I wonder if that's something you find yourself gravitating towards.
Ewan McGregor: Yeah, I don't know. I don't see any sort of throughline in the parts I play, and I'm sure there must be, but it's probably not helpful for me to look for it. My gut instinct is all I'm led by. If I read something, and I'm like, Yeah, got to be in there.
KCRW: So many of these characters -- in “Moulin Rouge,” or certainly “Velvet Goldmine”-- have a presentational side and then another side that they don't show to a whole lot of people. And trying to play off that dichotomy, that schism these people have and how much anxiety that can provoke for them: it's something I think of you doing as well.
McGregor: Oh, that's interesting. Well, I think it's true of our lives, isn't it? We have public lives and private lives, and they can be two very different things. In terms of Halston, there's a character who very much had a huge sort of public life. He was always photographed, always on the red carpet, Studio 54 and fashion events and curated a very public persona, had an incredible accent, which was somewhat worked on I suppose, and a look. He would turn up with his Halstonettes, turning up to events with five or six supermodels with him, always. He lived his public life to the max.
But then there was a very private side to him, as well. And when you're exploring a character like him in a film or a TV series, what's interesting is seeing both sides of that person's life. In a way I felt his private life was very private, and so I wondered if I was doing him an injustice by showing it to the world, but I guess if you're playing somebody, and you decide that you're going to celebrate someone's life by telling their story, then you have to show both sides of that.
KCRW: In the cases where you played characters based on real life, people like Halston, or James Joyce, I find myself thinking about the way you use your voice in those characters and the Halston voice in this series. We get to see that persona you're talking about evolve, which must have been the joy of getting to play it where there's a brashness that's just performance that becomes the real person during the Studio 54 days. But the literal and figurative voice of these real life characters is something I find really interesting.
McGregor: It's something you can grab hold of. I can go out and I can find at the click of a button on my laptop, hours of footage of Halston talking on chat shows and interviews. And so I can really get my teeth into that. There were some recordings of James Joyce when I played Joyce. I played another real life character called Nick Gleeson in a film called “Rogue Trader” years ago. He was the British trader who brought down Barings bank, which is the Queen's bank in Britain.
The other one that springs to mind is what I'm doing at the moment. I'm shooting the “Star Wars” series at the moment, and whenever we shot the first one, I had to be playing Alec Guinness as a young man. So I was watching a lot of Alec Guinness movies and found some amazing pieces of work. He was really one of Britain's finest and most prolific actors, and now I was lucky enough to be playing the young version of him. So I've been doing that again lately and partly the way of doing that is not trying to do an impersonation of his voice, but just trying to do my version. You know, what Alec Guiness might have been like, as a young Obi Wan Kenobi, as opposed to the one that we know when he was an older man.
KCRW: As you were mentioning doing Alec, I was thinking about how there's a kind of almost musical meter to it. You slow it down; we can get the sense of the breathing and that there's nothing rushed. But with Halston, it's like the more ruthless he got, the faster the voice got. It's almost machine gun fire, but really precise machine gunfire.
McGregor: Yeah, I think he was very connected to his words. And when he was angry, I think he was super focused. He was able to be very precise about tearing somebody down or finding a cruel thing to say. When he was artistically threatened or creatively threatened, that area where commerce meets art, which is certainly murky waters in the business I'm in, in moviemaking, and when the money and the art collide, it's always a tricky place to be. And I think that he had the same experience.
He liked very much being successful, and he liked very much the fame that brought him and the money that it brought him. But at the same time he didn't like and wouldn't let somebody who was a non-creative person tell him how to design or wouldn't stand for somebody putting their input in about his clothing. And in those moments, he was able to be incredibly cutting and express his anger in a very cold, nasty way.
KCRW: Do you think about that, when you're taking on roles about what the character should sound like?
McGregor: It's all pretty instinctive. I've always liked and always had to do accents. I played only a handful of Scottish characters in my career, and so I'm often doing an accent, and I like it. Building a character for me is what they sound like. And a lot of that work is done before you start filming.
With Halston, there were a bunch of different interviews that I liked to listen to and then I just got them to remove all of the interviewers’ voices. So I had a file on my phone, just of Halston answering questions, so it's sort of nonsensical. I could just tap into it if I needed to. Sometimes I wouldn't for days or weeks, and then I would feel like: oh my God, am I still close? And I would tap back into that file on my phone.
I sort of do the same thing with Alec Guinness at work on the “Star Wars” film. I need to touch base with him every week or so just to make sure I'm not getting too far. But I would say, by the time you're on set, shooting, you're not really thinking too much about it. It's just coming out of your mouth; it should be quite like lines. You shouldn't be trying to remember your lines; you should be saying your lines because you know them.
(L to R) Rebecca Dayan as Elsa Peretti and Ewan McGregor as Halston in episode 104 of Halston. Photo by Atsushi Njishima/Netflix© 2021.
KCRW: Many of us assume that Halston's public life and private life had to be the same, but he's sort of playing this character.
McGregor: The idea of him creating his persona is an interesting one for me playing him because I feel like the idea of creating a persona implies that it's not true, somehow that it’s not real, that this is not really who you are. You're pretending; you're faking it. I always really feel like that is who he is. His accent: he wouldn't have spoken like that when he was a wee boy at home, so there is a creation of it, a self awareness of it. But at the same time, I do believe that that's who he really was. It's just that he became it over the years. And what was fun for me was to try and keep it real as he went forward, so that the accent became more grand the older he got, and then what did he sound like when the cameras weren't there? What was he like, in those scenes with Liza Minnelli, where it’s just him and Liza having dinner together? That was fun to try and find him in those moments.
I found this great footage of him in Detroit at a museum in the late 70s or 80s, I think. He went to the opening of this museum, and he presented them with four or five of his original works, his original gowns, and he gave a little speech on stage and they did a fashion show, and he had somebody film it. My favorite bit was backstage during the fashion show, and I always imagined he might be quite tense or nervous or uptight while the fashion show was going on. But he was totally relaxed, and very funny. And he was behind this curtain there, cigarette in hand, drink in hand, chatting away with all the models, making them laugh, definitely flirting with the cameraman who was shooting it. And though there was a camera present, it did feel very like the private Halston. It felt like the real him.
KCRW: Talking about that footage of him being backstage for the show, so often when he was talking to people, he's almost talking as if he were speaking to an audience. With Liza, he's not quite looking at her, but kind of presenting himself to be listened to.
McGregor: Yeah, it's interesting, his friendship with Liza was really one of the great best friend stories of all time. They were such brilliant friends and brought out the best of each other, I think. And I was lucky to play those scenes with Krysta Rodriguez. She doesn't do an impersonation of Liza, but she really just becomes her and she was so brilliant.
Our first scene that she shot on “Halston” was the performance of "Liza with a Z" which is the first time Halston meets her. I met Krysta obviously in rehearsals, and we'd done some read throughs, but really, I hadn't acted with her until me and David Pittu sat down in the audience and Krysta came out and did that whole number, and she brought the house down. She was so brilliant. And I was thinking, Oh, my God, this is her. This is great. Throughout the series is this backbone of their friendship. It's not like that with any of the other characters.
KCRW: One of my favorite scenes in the show is where he invites Liza over for dinner, and it plays almost like screwball comedy in that way. There is something so stylized about the way these two people are in real life. Next to Halston, Liza Minnelli seems like a regular person.
McGregor: That's a funny line. Yeah, he brings her over because he's just finished this amazing townhouse in New York City, a beautiful modern building. He's worried that she doesn't like his style, which is quite modern. And he worries that she thinks it's too cold. He's like, Well, I don't care, I love it. They're just like brother and sister. They're honest with each other, I think: the scenes where Liza goes off to get sober, and she's trying to get Halston to realize that he needs to do the same thing.
KCRW: For me, the best parts of the show are watching when he's working with his hands. We see him get lost in something or at Versailles when he's inventing this thing in real time as it's falling apart in front of them.
McGregor: That was the key thing for me: I couldn't let those scenes be unbelievable. Regardless of whether people I spoke to loved Halston or didn't, they all said that when he worked with fabric, there was no one like that. He could take a piece of material and make a beautiful garment out of it, draping and cutting. And so I had to get that right. I got lots of lessons on how to drape, and I spent a lot of time in the wardrobe department with people, showing me how he might have done it and watching him at fittings. There's lots of footage of him from his workshops, fitting models and looking in the mirror standing behind a model, looking in the mirror, turning around, looking at different angles, but always this intense stare in the mirror. And I just wanted all of it. I wanted to respect the fact that he was really amazing when it came to making clothing. I didn't want Ewan McGregor's hands pinning a garment. I wanted Halston's.
KCRW: That concentration is when, to me, in effect, he becomes Halston. He's basically able to move everything else out of the way. You were talking about Alec Guinness, and we're aware of that sort of concentration he was able to bring to bear especially in playing Obi Wan Kenobi, these moments where we can see that these characters believe what's in front of them. And it makes us believe it, too, even though it hasn't quite been created yet.
McGregor: Yeah, I think when you're playing somebody who's creatively excellent at something, that moment when they're doing that thing is what makes them them. That's what makes them tick. And in a way, that's when he was happiest.
He talked about it in lots of his interviews, creating dresses, at three in the morning with a piece of fabric and a pair of scissors, sitting at home on his carpet, just playing and often alone. I think he did like to work and create alone. He didn't really like all the noise and dizziness of people around him. And I think that's why also he would lose his temper when he was working because he probably wasn't able to achieve that space that you needed to create, with all the the trappings of business and the pressures of creating countless lines of different things, handbags, shoes, socks, underwear, hats, even carpets, and all the different lines of house goods. He was sort of crushed by it in the end, by his own success in a way.
KCRW: We see these points in the show where he just wants to clear his head and have some time to himself, and so few people around him in that circle seemed to understand that.
McGregor: Well I'm sure it was, the more that work piled up, the more I can imagine that was a bit of a downward spiral. He was going out to Studio 54, staying out late, coming to work late. The pressures of everybody going: you haven't done this, you haven't done this, you haven't done this, sort of making him flee back into Studio 54. But you know, there was a lot of money at stake and they were paying him a lot of money, so they wanted their goods.
I think the other thing about him was this perfectionism, the fact that he just wouldn't allow anyone else to design any of it. He could have stayed on top of it by letting other people design different things, but he had to do it all because he had his name on it. I respect that and I totally understand that, but in the end I think it was just too much and he couldn't keep up.
KCRW: Yeah, well, that's the kind of sad part of it. He's got his name on so much stuff, but he is so meticulous and so specific and also I think for him, this exercise of ego. If he says he's going to do it, he should be able to do it. But the fact is also, he's got his name on these things, and his name doesn't belong to him by the end.
McGregor: Yeah, that was the sort of cruel twist at the end, that it was sold away from him. But it's like that in business now. It was just unusual with Halston. There weren't designers like him when he started out. Nowadays, of course, it's much more normal, that kind of idea. But in our series anyway, he trusts the people he's in business with, and they allow him the freedom and the space to be the creative person who he was. So he probably didn't keep his eye on the ball very much in terms of contracts and what he was signing, and I can understand that, too. And then, when it came to it in the end, he's not allowed to use his own name anymore.