Let’s face it. If a romantic comedy film doesn’t have two incredibly magnetic leads anchoring its love story, it may spell disaster for the film. Luckily for acclaimed director Lasse Hallström – since he cast two spectacular leads – there’s no dangers of this in SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN. Emily Blunt (THE DEVIL WEAR PRADA) plays Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, a representative for a wealthy sheik who’d like to introduce the sport of fly-fishing to the Yemeni People. Ewan McGregor (HAYWIRE) plays Dr. Alfred Jones, a straight-laced British Fisheries expert whose been loaned out to help on the project. In the process of making the impossible possible, the two discover a little more than they bargained for.
During the roundtable interviews at the press day for the film, we caught up with the two genuinely funny and easygoing stars of the film to talk about playing against type, surmounting their own crazy ambitions, and what it was like working with the famously laid-back Hallström.
VeryAware: What was it like to play a rather buttoned up, practical chap when you, yourself, are so adventurous, traveling the world by motorbike?
Ewan McGregor: It was like any other part. None of the parts I’ve played are like me. You look for things you haven’t played before. Playing him was a great joy. First of all because I was doing it with her (motions to Blunt), which is lovely. Secondly, he’s a very interesting character to play. He’s a very different man at the end of the film from the beginning. And that’s something you are always looking for – a journey – in a film.
Emily Blunt: You do look for parts that aren’t like you. That’s kind of the joy of it. Like you can go motorbiking around the world and then play someone as repressed as Fred. That’s the great thing about this job. You’ve got to keep discovering things in your bag of tricks. That’s what I really like about what you’ve done. You’ve really mixed it up and it’s been great.
Do you have another trip planned? Do you think you’ll ever do it again?
EM: I don’t know that I would do it like that. They’re just huge commitments of time. They are 4-5 months of planning and then 4-5 months riding. I would do big trips again. I want to do South America. But I might do it on my own. The people who I met on both of my trips who I’ve envied the most, were the people who were traveling alone. I think it’s frustrating to stop and shoot stuff we may not have otherwise have done. We were always under the pressure of time. You’d have to decide if someone wants to go here, or if you wanted to go there. If you’re on your own, you could just do what you like. The thing I love about the trips is the timeless feel to it – that you’re just wandering the world. It’s lovely. I remember in the middle of the desert, in the Sudan, standing up on the rock just looking at LAWRENCE OF ARABIA land all around me.
Did you meet before you started shooting and just click right away?
EB: We did actually click very immediately. It was lovely. I walked into the rehearsal room. I always get quite nervous meeting people.
EM: It’s nerve wracking meeting people.
EB: It’s like awful blind date.
EM: I know. Especially if you play a romance with somebody you’ve never met.
EB: With a story like this which is just so delicate and it is so chemistry placed, it really is the space between them is just so lovely and so sparkly. It is quite nerve wracking and we got along really well.
EM: I was in there for an hour. Lasse is difficult to pin down. I remember getting him on the phone, I was thinking about why is he [his character] so unpleasant and Lasse saying, “Oh we’ll work it out on set. Don’t worry!” He’s so hands off. I had spent an hour with him and I was working out with Simon [Beaufoy], he was the one that suggested I use this “Morningside” Scottish accent – this kind of uptight. I wasn’t sure about it. I was playing a guy whose the romantic – in a romance. So I was humming and ha-ing about it. Emily arrived and we had a chat about it and then two minutes later we’re reading the scene. She said let’s read it with the accent. Before I even read it with the accent she said, “You’ve got to do it!”
EB: It’s so funny. It adds such and imperious quality to the character. It’s such an uptight accent.
EM: I was in very safe hands and felt we were off to a cracking start.
EB: It’s nice when you work with someone who encourages you to make choices and take chances. That’s what I felt every day. I felt in safe hands that we could just try anything in these scenes. I think the way Lasse approached the scenes, he preferred to keep it quite bubbly and spontaneous. So we made quite a good team.
In the film, it’s this act of faith to go do this impossible thing which seems very similar to the creative process what you actors have to do – have faith in the director, have faith in the writer, have faith in your co-star. Do you ever think about what you do in terms of faith?
EM:…You have to have faith your assistant is going to find Starbucks. There’s a lot of faith going on.
EB: I feel like every movie is a leap of faith going on. You can absolutely love the script and you have to go on gut really. Some times it works out and some times it doesn’t. It might work out for other reasons. It might not be revered, but you had an incredible experience on it. At the end of the day, I don’t think you can strategize too much. You never know what’s going to hit and what’s not. Once you’re in it, it’s a wonderful Neverland-like experience. It’s very insular and hard for people to understand the experience of working on a movie. You’re like an accelerated movie for that 8-10 weeks. That initial step into it is quite scary and I’ve done it for awhile.
What types of stories inspire you? And what inspiration did you see in SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN?
EM: I don’t know what they are until I read them. There’s no checklist. It’s very instinctive choosing a piece of work. Most actors will put their heart and soul into a piece of work, so they represent you. Playing characters is how an artist paints a picture, or a sculptor makes a statue. We don’t pick something for the sake of it. There’s no through line for me. It’s just what grabs you. It’s like reading a novel and you don’t want the novel to end. If you start to see yourself as the character, then I’m in. Ultimately, I like real people in real situations. Why we act the way that we act? I have done fantastical things too, you know.
EB: But you prefer to play human. It’s nice to play more human stories.
I was curious about the little nuances each of your characters has. Fred does that diagram in his office so well. Is that rehearsal or do you really have mad Pictionary skills?
EM: No that was a great deal from the art department. It was! There was some of the bits I drew, because you see me drawing them. But the difficult bit with the sheik, I only had to do his fishing rod.
EB: Did you do the tap?
EM: I did the tap.
EB: Oh, good for you!
EM: With the art department, they would come up with some ideas and I’d change them a bit to suit me. It would have to be timed with the dialogue.
EB: That scene was tricky for you. I just watched.
EM: I loved that bit! It makes me laugh.
And Emily, when your character is narrating, and you’re typing out your email, is there a secret to that?
EB: I’m a really bad typist. Really, really bad. Like I can’t type. What they do – this is how great the art department is. I’m giving you all the tricks. They have a special keyboard that no matter what key you hit, it will still type up the perfect sentence. It was perfectly laid out. It was amazing! I thought, ‘Oh my God! I’m brilliant!’
Did you find when you read this script that it transcended the genre?
EM: I think genre is much more something that you guys [the press] talks about than anyone who makes films. We don’t approach a film to make a romantic comedy or a thriller. You approach a film to tell that story. Maybe it’s more in the producer’s vocabulary or marketing or something, but it’s certainly not something we approached. I didn’t approach this to play a character in a British romantic comedy – I just wanted to play Fred.
How do you approach the director? How was it working with a visionary like Lasse vs. working on a blockbuster with a green screen?
EM: Every film is different. I’m sorry I’m talking. I think I’ve had too much coffee
EB: No, no, no. You’re fine. Are you chatting too much? It’s pretty even keel.
EM: Go ahead. You answer that one.
EB: I don’t know. I feel …
EM: …The thing is!…… (everyone laughs)
EB: (laughing) Um, what was the question? It is very different doing the smaller films, I find. There’s usually less producers on set, which is nice. I feel like, some of the bigger movies I’ve done, I feel like that it can be a little more aesthetic based and the actors input goes down the list a little bit. That’s just been my experience so far. On the smaller stories, I think everyone gets heard because everyone’s working on something just a little more human. So my experience, I usually prefer working on the smaller movies, mainly for the collaboration.
EM: It’s creative in a more satisfying way. Because you have to be creative on the big ones as well because you still have to do the best job,
EB: You have to fight against all of that crap behind you. You’ve got to fight against the green screen and the thousands of faces on set. Ludicrous thing you have to act out, looking at the wolfman or something like that. Acting against all of that stuff like a fucking guy in a wolf suit. That’s creative in a different way.
The title of the film begs the question, have you two gone salmon fishing in the Yemen?
EM: We learned how to salmon fish as it’s a very particular style of fishing and it’s quite complicated to move the line through the air. Amr [Waked], who plays the sheik, and I had to learn. Because we are playing passionate fly fisherman. At the back of my mind – as is mentioned in the film – the British fisher folk are quite a passionate bunch. I can imagine all of them being horrified by my fly fishing. Did the best I could.
Emily, you speak Mandarin in the film. How did you manage to do that and sound so authentic?
EB: There was this lovely Chinese lady that came round to my house and she is a teacher, so that was helpful. In the script it was written in English and it just said, ‘She speaks in Mandarin.’ And I was like, ‘At some point, I probably should learn Mandarin.’ I got there on the first day and Lasse, he’s so laid back – he’s practically laying down he’s so laidback. He was like [perfect imitation of Hallstrom], ‘Ah yes. We must find a way to do this. This Chinese moment.’ I was like, ‘Yeah… I have to learn Mandarin. So we need to do this now because we’re doing it in two weeks.’ So she came around and she just translated it and recorded it rapidly, medium rapidly, and then very slow. I had a Dictaphone and just did it over and over and over again.
EM: You nailed! My wife speaks Chinese and said she was completely on the nail.
The idea of salmon fishing in the Yemen is kind of far-fetched. Has there ever been anything in your own lives that has been so crazy that you’ve gone after it anyway?
EB: We were saying this job is quite a far-fetched dream. Because it is so competitive and luck based. Thank God that I’m able to do this job because that’s not the case for so many people.
EM: My bike trips would be the answer to that. That had long been a dream of mine. The first bike trip to ride from London to New York.
Do you think it would be difficult to pair the two of you again on another project?
EB: We’d love to work together again. It was easy and wonderful. As soon as the film wrapped we said, ‘We have to do this again!’ Because it is lovely when you find someone – it’s like jazz it’s so wonderful for getting to work like that. We’re on the prowl for another.
EM: I don’t think there’s any problem with it. It used to happen a lot in the 40’s and 50’s it was very common.
SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN opens in limited release on March 9.