NEW YORK - It would be easy for Ewan McGregor to settle into romantic leading man roles.
After all, his magnetic blue eyes, winning smile, and easy manner kind of scream “love interest.’’ But the 40-year-old Scottish actor is not looking to be typecast. Instead, he says, he loves challenging his acting skills with diverse and surprising work.
“I would never want to find a niche where I would just repeat myself,’’ says McGregor on a recent morning at a midtown hotel. “The joy of acting is that you get to play other people - I don’t just want to play a version of myself.
“There are bits of myself in all my roles,’’ he adds. “But each portrayal is quite different.’’
McGregor’s roles include a self-destructive heroin addict in “Trainspotting’’ (1996), Obi-Wan Kenobi in the “Star Wars’’ prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005) and a gay convict opposite Jim Carrey in “I Love You Phillip Morris’’ (2009). And last year he starred with Oscar-winning Christopher Plummer in “Beginners,’’ where he played a young man whose world is shaken as he copes with the news of his father’s homosexuality and cancer.
Perhaps his penchant for transformation drew McGregor to “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,’’ which opens Friday. In the film, directed by Lasse Hallström, he stars as Fred, a dull fisheries expert stuck in a loveless marriage and dead-end job. His world gradually shifts when a consultant (Emily Blunt) asks him to devise a plan to bring salmon to the Yemeni desert at the bequest of her wealthy sheik client (Amr Waked). Although Fred is initially outraged by the seemingly impossible request, he ultimately sets aside his scientific sensibilities and opens himself up to faith and passion.
“This is a man who’s locked up, angry and emotionally stuck,’’ McGregor says of his character. “The project, in his mind, is almost an insult to his scientific belief system and he feels he’s being used in some kind of political game playing. Once he realizes it could be a possibility, it leads him to a place where he starts to have belief and once he does, love is allowed to come into his life in a way it hadn’t before.’’
Simon Beaufoy, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by Paul Torday, says he expected an older actor to play Fred. He was somewhat dubious when he learned McGregor had been cast in the role, but ultimately, he says, “Ewan offered a beautiful performance,’’ despite the challenges.
“It’s always difficult for an actor to play a dislikable character and to make himself dislikable to an audience,’’ Beaufoy says during a telephone conversation from London. “And it was especially hard for Ewan to make himself dislikeable because he is distinctly likable.’’
McGregor, who lives in London with his wife and four daughters, says he knew early on that he wanted act.
“It was all I ever wanted to do,’’ he says, taking a hefty bite of a bagel with cream cheese. “In school I was interested in music and in art, but they wouldn’t let me take both together because they were interested in turning out people who would work in commerce, so doing music and art meant you were copping out. I wasn’t happy, so I started to get into trouble.’’
When he was 16, his parents told him he could leave school. Although he had no sense of how he would launch his acting career, he did not hesitate to drop out.
“I left school with nothing to do - no job - it was a bit of a risk my parents took,’’ he says, looking thoughtful. “I never really spoke to them about it properly, but I will do it.’’
Timing, of course, is everything, and McGregor’s was perfect. A week after he left school, the Perth Repertory Theatre, where he’d applied months before, called him in. The company, which was near his home, was planning a production of “A Passage to India’’ and needed a lot of Indian extras.
“So I was taken in and blackened up and turbaned up and after that they kept me on,’’ he says.
He has worked steadily since then and says he never second-guesses his decision to end his formal education. In fact, he says, he would support any of his children who decided to pursue an acting career.
He recently finished filming a pilot for an HBO series, “The Corrections,’’ adapted from the best-selling novel by Jonathan Franzen, and will return to New York this summer to film the rest of the series. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dianne Wiest, and Chris Cooper will also star in the series, which will be directed by Noah Baumbach.
McGregor says he is looking forward to the time he will spend in New York because he feels the fans here are more respectful of his privacy than they are in England or Scotland.
“Glasgow is especially tough because ‘Trainspotting’ made such a mark there,’’ he says. “For years, when I walked around there, people would just yell ‘Rent-boy’ [his nickname in the film], and then they’d try to get me to come for a pint with them. They all thought I was their mate.’’