Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Reprising Characters and Parenthood

For the last seven years, Ewan McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead have been searching for a project to work on together. At one point, they were certain they had found the perfect match.

“We thought we had something, but someone else made it in the meantime,” McGregor says with a laugh. “We didn’t know! It was like, ‘How’s it going with that?’ And we Googled and someone fucking made it!”

It’s now been eight years since they met on the set of “Fargo” in 2016, and two years since they tied the knot. But they’re still in the honeymoon stage. During our photoshoot, they effortlessly pose together, spending much of their time looking into each other’s eyes with little direction whatsoever.

This loving interaction was on also on display during our subsequent interview, with the pair holding hands, touching each other’s faces lovingly after sharing a compliment and listening intently as the other speaks. When Winstead gets a little cold, McGregor smoothly shakes off his leather jacket and wraps it around her shoulders.

So, it’s no surprise that when he was brought “A Gentleman in Moscow,” the Paramount+ on Showtime series based on Amor Towles’ 2016 novel, he thought of Winstead for the role of Anna Urbanova, a struggling actress who is sometimes in a romantic relationship with his Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. In his mind, she was the perfect match for his aristocrat, who had been sentenced to house arrest in a luxury hotel after the Russian Revolution.

“Ewan was reading the novel and he started slyly mentioning to me, in very subtle ways, that there was a great female character in the book,” she says. “He was definitely hinting to me that it could be a good opportunity for us to work together.”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

At this point, McGregor was already attached to the project as an executive producer, but he wasn’t sure the role would be big enough for Winstead. Plus, she wanted to make sure that they were actually interested in it for her — not just because he was suggesting it. Once discussions began and they found a way to elevate the character, she was in.

“I’ve been dying to do something properly together since we did ‘Fargo,’” she says. “I really didn’t expect it to be as great of a role as it ended up being. I just felt so lucky.”

For McGregor, it was something new and exciting, especially because he was involved from the start. “I’ve been a producer on things before, and it hasn’t meant a great deal. And I’m learning what it does mean,” he says. “You’re not going to be in the office signing checks for people, but it was really nice to be in the conversations, finding a director and casting.”

While successful in films — ie., “Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge” and the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, to name a few — McGregor has really thrived in television during the last seven years with “Fargo,” “Halston” (which won him an Emmy Award) and “Obi-Wan Kenobi.” It’s not that he has a preference of one over the other, but the industry has changed, as has his life.

“I love making movies. I always dreamed of being a movie star. Then I was in movies. Every time I would sit there at the premiere, I couldn’t believe I was up there [on screen]. I still have that, I guess, but I don’t know what it means exactly,” he says.

While TV shows allow actors more time to develop a character and tell a story, they’re also a longer commitment. “They’re enormously taxing. A movie, you can shoot in a couple of months, and you can throw yourself heart and soul into that. You know the light is down at the tunnel. When you’re doing something that’s six months long, at the end of your first month, you’re exhausted!”

“A Gentleman in Moscow” was shot continuously each day for 10 hours, which was a gift. “We’ve all been used to working 14, 15, 16-hour days, and that’s insanity. Nobody’s doing their best work in their 16th hour,” says McGregor. “That was the beautiful thing about this — we were home every night. We got to put our son to bed every day, and got the evening to prepare for the next day.”

The preparation for the role was quite a mental process, as they all are for McGregor.

“I’m always a wreck before a job, [worrying] that I won’t be able to do it. That’s the first couple of days or even the first week sometimes,” he says. But once filming started, he got into the groove — and was able to leave it on set at the end of the day.

For Winstead, the same is the case. 

“We’re very similar. I’m always really nervous in the beginning, like leading up to it and then having that impostor syndrome moment where you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I thought I was gonna be great in this role and now I’m regretting taking it because I don’t know what I’m doing!’ And then you get swept away and it becomes enjoyable,” she says.  

By the time the day is over, “everything’s so frantic having a baby at home,” that that’s completely where her focus goes. “When you’re off set, you’re just a parent. You don’t really have time to think about how you feel about the character right now. You’re just thrown into bath [time] and dinner,” she says. “I don’t analyze things nearly as much as I did. You don’t have the time to sit and overanalyze and stew and worry and all of those things. You just have to show up and kick yourself into gear.”

Married couple Ewan McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead star opposite each other in “A Gentleman in Moscow.”
Ben Blackall/Paramount+ with SHOWTIME

The theme of everything changing once parenthood began is echoed in the Count; halfway through the series, he becomes the caretaker for a young girl whose mother leaves town to follow her husband. It was a story McGregor could seamlessly tap into.

“I have five children and one of my daughters is adopted. I realized while we were shooting, like, ‘Oh, this is an adoption story.’ I like that part of it because I love that part of my life,” he says. “I think it’s true that we are two different people before we have children and after we have children — you don’t have this responsibility to another human life, you don’t ever experience it until somebody calls you Dad.”

It’s all about finding a balance between work and home life for McGregor and Winstead — and it’s not easy with both of their careers blossoming. In fact, this year alone, Winstead has three different projects that are eligible for Emmys: “A Gentleman in Moscow;” UCP’s animated series “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” streaming on Netflix; and the “Star Wars” series “Ahsoka” on Disney+.

“It’s so unexpected and so great to know that the only three things I’ve done in the last couple of years are things that are in the conversation in that way. It’s a really lovely surprise,” she says. “And it’s funny because I was doing the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ anime series at the same time that I was doing this. I was doing a lot of weekends and stuff, to just kind of bang that out — it was very, very different!” 

“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” reunited the entire main cast from the 2010 film, this time for an animated series featuring Winstead’s Ramona Flowers as the main character after Scott Pilgrim’s disappearance.

“It was really interestingly cathartic,” she says of diving back in. Since she was already so invested in “Gentleman in Moscow” when she took it on, Winstead had no idea how unique it would feel to step back into the universe in a whole new way.

“As we started getting more and more into the episodes, it was just such a joy. They did such an amazing job — so beautiful and profound, what they were talking about and where they were taking the characters. So, to be doing that with a role that’s formative for me was unexpectedly emotional. It meant so much,” she says. “I tried to reach back into my brain and go back to my 24-year-old self and find that voice again.” 

Now, both McGregor and Winstead have been lucky enough to step back into characters from their pasts with “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” respectively. That may be the last time they do that in their careers — maybe.

“The only part I’d like to play again is, I played Iago in ‘Othello’ in London with Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I felt like I scratched the surface of that role. So I’ve often felt [that] one day, I’d like to do that again,” he says. “That was a real mountain in terms of feeling worthy to do that one. It’s also just the pressure of, ‘Am I doing it right?’ To do it again without all that shit and just try and really dig into what’s there on the page would be amazing. I will try and do that again at some point.” 

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