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Ewan McGregor maintains his famously independent streak in Potter's tale

PUBLISHED: 11:03 03 January 2007 | UPDATED: 10:30 07 September 2010

He is one of the country s biggest drawcards – but Ewan McGregor usually turns up in independent movies, writes Michael Joyce With more than 30 films released since his breakthrough in 1994 s Shallow Grave – and another seven in various stages of prod

He is one of the country's biggest drawcards - but Ewan McGregor usually turns up in independent movies, writes Michael Joyce

With more than 30 films released since his breakthrough in 1994's Shallow Grave - and another seven in various stages of production - it's hard to argue with the notion that Ewan McGregor is Britain's most in-demand movie star.

Outside of the Star Wars movies, he rarely seems to appear in commercial movies, mostly using his clout to get smaller, less commercial projects off the ground. Just this year he worked at Equity minimum on Scenes Of A Sexual Nature. In his latest, Miss Potter, a film about the author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, he is a quiet but ambitious publisher, Norman Warne, the youngest of three brothers and the first to really back her work.

The film, released on January 5, follows Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger) from the publication of her first book through to her move to Lake District and the beginnings of her interest in land conservation. At the turn of the century she is a spinster, living at home with her wealthy parents, played by Bill Paterson and Barbara Flynn, and entertaining herself by painting animals and making up stories about them.

When her books become a great success and the relationship with Warne develops into a proposal of marriage you'd expect the parents to be delighted. But her mother is horrified at the idea of her marrying a tradesman.

McGregor gives a lovely, understated performance as Warne and today he is equally adept, performing the task of entertaining a group of journalists who are becoming a bit antsy because the press conference to promote the film is running an hour late and many of them are worried about making planes and trains home.

It's noticeable that in a panel that contains most of the cast, including star Renee Zellweger, he is asked the most questions. A lot of this is down to the presence of a large Scottish contingent, eager to claim McGregor as one of their own. But it is also due to the fact that, apart from the odd bit of standard publicity flim-flam (Renee is a "beautiful and brilliant actress", with whom he has a "wonderful" working relationship), you are guaranteed to get an interesting, honest answer out of him.

To research the role, he went to the Warne Publishing House, now subsumed into the Penguin empire where he met a pair of ladies who remembered the Warne Brothers who ran the company at the beginning of the 20th century. Mostly, though, he says he concentrated on studying some pictures he was sent by the director. "There's a lot you can sense from photographs," he says before conceding: "Perhaps it is because I am a lazy reader."

This is his second movie with Zellweger and he spoke about the working relationship that was forged when they starred in 2003's Down With Love - a highly stylised attempt to do a modern equivalent of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson sex comedy. Though it flopped, McGregor sounds enthusiastic about it before admitting it had been "very hard work."

Sometimes if the timing wasn't exactly right on the dialogue then the scenes would fall flat on their face," he says.

The appeal of doing Miss Potter was that it provided an opportunity for the two to work together on "something straightforward".

He says that it was "hugely flattering" to be sent the script by Zellweger, an executive producer on the movie. She has put a lot of effort into the movie, with another English accent to master (or perhaps the Bridget Jones one to adapt) and some conspicuous dressing down to do. Going unscrubbed for her art, Zellweger wanted to make sure she had a co-star who was her equal but could be trusted not to try to upstage her.

McGregor is a family man and admitted that he reads Beatrix Potter stories to his four children at home. "Since I've done the film I've now got the deluxe box set." But the book that had the biggest effect on him as a child was Peter Pan. "I remember very clearly being read Peter Pan. I remember what the book looked like - it had a grey cover and beautiful pictures in it."

But most of all he enthused about an album by Harry Nilsson called The Point, a present from his uncle, actor Dennis Lawson. It's a soundtrack from a 1971 children's animation film about Oblio, the only person with a round head in a land where everybody has pointy heads. McGregor is so enthusiastic about it he admits that that he now forces his own children to listen to it.

When he's not making movies his great passion is riding motorbikes. So having much of the production based in the Isle of Man, home of the TT races, was a bonus for him as well as an opportunity to add to his collection.

On a day off, he visited the Isle of Man TT Museum and, discovering it was closing and everything was to be sold, bought himself a 1929 Rex Acme TT racer, which he describes as "a beautiful piece of kit". This acquisition takes the collection to 11.

The movie also offered him another chance to sing on film, a rendition of Let Me Teach You How To Dance. After his singing and dancing turns on the West End stage in Guys and Dolls and in the movie Moulin Rouge, he was asked if it is now written into his contract that he gets to sing in every role. "Yes, along with showing my penis but I didn't get that out in this film. In my next film my penis is going to sing a song.

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