Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt
Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) and Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

From the director of Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, Lasse Hallstrom, and the Oscar winning screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy, comes a quirky and inspirational comedy called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, based on the popular book of the same name.

When fisheries expert, Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), is approached by a visionary sheik through his representative, Harriet (Emily Blunt), about bringing his favorite pastime, salmon fishing, to the desert, Jones believes it’s a ridiculous and impossible scenario and rejects the idea.  But when the Prime Minister’s overbearing press secretary, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) becomes involved, the project gets a green light, leaving Alfred and Harriet in the position of trying to find a way to do the unachievable.

I spoke with Ewan and Emily at the press day for the movie.

What attracted you to this unique film?

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Emily Blunt, Premiere
Emily Blunt for the US Premiere in West Hollywood, CA on March 5, 2012 © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

Ewan: I think the script was an amazing read, it had lots of different elements in it. The political satire is very strong, accurate and worthy, and the love story is really complicated and true to life. And the premise of the film is a very unusual and rather wonderful story.

Emily: It was just really unconventional and rare. The title in itself is a very fresh idea. I think that’s something you look for because you read so many scripts, all of the same ilk, so it’s really refreshing to read one which has a beautifully, note-perfect, story.

Ewan:The whole film, from my character’s perspective, is the idea of not being able to believe, and being locked up so that you can only see the world through this myopic lens of your fish science and your unhappy marriage. And through working with the Sheik and meeting Harriet, Alfred becomes somebody who is able to believe.

It’s obvious that you two got on great making the movie.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Ewan McGregor, Premiere
Ewan McGregor arrives in a Chevy Volt for the US Premiere © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

Emily: Not at all.

Ewan:Sometimes you just have to act it. (Emily laughs) We had a lovely time.

Emily: We had the best time, honestly. I’ve had wonderful experiences with actors where it’s simply about this shared experience of working on a movie, and then when you actually can have a friendship that extends beyond that it’s just lovely.

In this business, you never ran into each other before?

Ewan:We’d seen each other on a plane going to Sundance a couple of years ago. Emily got on with John (Krasinski, The Office) up the front, and I nudged my wife and said, ‘Look, there’s Emily Blunt.’ And Emily said that she was nudging John, going, ‘There’s Ewan McGregor.’

Emily: But what was quite nice was that it was when John and I were first dating, so we tried to keep it quiet and not have the paparazzi. So we let Ewan get off the plane first, and the paparazzi went nuts for you, and John and I were like, ‘Poor Ewan McGregor,’ and then we just dashed out the back and they didn’t see us.

Can you talk a little about working with Lasse, is he an actor’s director?

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor, Premiere
Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor for the US Premiere in West Hollywood © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

Emily: Very much so. He loves actors and really lets you play. He creates a very atmospheric set so that you have room to just stretch these scenes around and find all kinds of little avenues that you wouldn’t have thought were there on the page.

He really understands the magic of the moment, and luckily Ewan and I really enjoy working like that too, quite spontaneously, not too pre-planned. We were a good team together.

Ewan:I couldn’t agree more. There are some directors who are more controlling of the text or limit you, in terms of things can be set up before you arrive on the set. And he’s one who just likes you to play. He’s very loose. He almost adopts the persona of the buffoon, he makes himself trip up all the time and sometimes pretends he doesn’t know what’s going on.

Emily: I think he downplays his position on set, because I think he wants to be included in all the fun and wants to be a part of all the fun. He’s a wonderfully odd guy.

Ewan:He’s bonkers.

He has a wonderful understanding of relationships in his movies.

Ewan:He makes films about people in real situations, with the desire to explore human nature and why we do what we do.

Working with him on this was also interesting because the tone of the film kind of evolved as we went along, as it does in the film itself. It’s funnier at the beginning and it morphs into something slightly deeper as we go along, something more heartfelt. That came out of the actual experience of making the film.

You both have played roles that are larger-than-life, Ewan in Star Wars and Emily in The Devil Wear Prada, is it harder to play someone who is an ordinary every day person?

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - Ewan McGregor
Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) © 2011 Yemen Distributions Ltd

Ewan:They’re all real people, whether that person is larger-than-life or not, you’re still having to play a person, otherwise you just look ridiculous. So I don’t think there is any difference. Films can be stylized, heightened, but you still always have to make it real.

What I mean about Lasse is he doesn’t make films about superheroes, or fairytale characters, he makes films about us and what we’re about.

Emily: I agree, [I think you need to] approach characters in a real sense and have some kind of understanding of them, and why they do what they do. Even with The Devil Wears Prada character, she was out there and imperious, and appalling, but I approached her as a poor girl who is desperate, she has no life, and I think you approach it from that starting point.

I think it’s more about the tone of the film that you have to judge rather than whether this person seems real to you or not.

Note: I asked Ewan if he’d seen the re-release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menacein 3D – click below to hear his reply.

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Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.

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