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McGregor sees parallels in Polanski's life and his new movie

Charles Ealy

He's sitting alone in an expansive room with huge windows. It's cold and gloomy outside, the clouds hovering as if ready to unleash a torrent at any moment. And he's not free to come and go as he wishes. Guards roam the gated estate.

It might sound like Roman Polanski, the famous movie director who has been under house arrest since late last year in Gstaad after being seized by Swiss authorities, acting on an extradition request from the United States involving the sexual assault of a 13-year-old-girl in 1977.

But instead, it's Ewan McGregor, the Scottish star of Polanski's latest movie, "The Ghost Writer," based on the novel by Robert Harris. And McGregor's character, who has no name but merely is known as the ghost in the movie, is nothing like the larger-than-life Polanski, whose personal triumphs and tragedies have played out in the public eye ever since the murder of wife Sharon Tate by the Manson family in 1969.

"He's a failed man somewhat," McGregor says of his character, who has been hired to ghost-write the memoirs of a former British prime minister who has an eerie similarity to Tony Blair. "He's a failure in that he doesn't even put his name to his own work. And he's not at all impressed with politicians or important people. Nor is he bothered by them. I'm not sure how to say it except that he has a (so-what) quality that I liked playing."

Speaking via phone from Los Angeles, where he spends most of his time these days, McGregor says that Polanski didn't give him much direction on how to develop the character. "He's particular about how scenes are played, and he's really thorough, a direct director who doesn't sugarcoat his notes. But he doesn't spend a lot of time talking about the characters. He just said that the ghost writer needs to feel like a ghost. My character doesn't even have a name, and everyone is too busy with their own lives to bother with his name. Adam Lang (the former prime minister played by Pierce Brosnan) just calls him 'man' all the time."

Despite the low-key personality, the writer has "a sort of Everyman quality to him," McGregor says. And that helps the audience root for him as he begins to uncover a series of events that led to the death of a previous ghost writer who was working with Lang.

This ominous sense, in fact, has a striking resemblance to one of Polanski's earlier movies, 1968's "Rosemary's Baby," as the main character played by Mia Farrow begins to realize that her situation is perilous.

Polanski also uses the setting — the very cold and wet weather — as an ominous character, McGregor says. "The weather keeps people trapped inside. And the people are isolated, in this case on an island."

In the movie, the ex-prime minister has retreated to an island off Massachusetts to work on his memoirs. But in reality, the movie was shot on the northern German coast, because Polanski couldn't return to the United States without facing the prospect of arrest.

Polanski, in fact, had to finish editing the project while awaiting legal proceedings in Switzerland. "He was arrested during post-production," McGregor says. "I've talked to him a few times since then. But he hasn't been able to go with us when we've taken the movie to Paris and Berlin." (Polanski recently won the Silver Bear, the best director prize, in absentia at the Berlin Film Festival, where "The Ghost Writer" played in competition.)

McGregor says it's not at all unusual to see the movie in the context of Polanski's life. But he doesn't compare it to the current situation of Polanski's house arrest. "Instead," McGregor says, "Polanski often deals with the themes of characters who are isolated, somewhat claustrophobically trapped. I think such themes come from his experiences as a child in the Polish ghetto of World War II." (Polanski escaped from the Krakow ghetto in 1943, and his mother died at Auschwitz.)

It's also easy to note that "The Ghost Writer" is one in a long line of movies based on a central character who's a writer. And it's the second recent movie in which McGregor plays a writer, having starred as a reporter in 2009's "The Men Who Stare at Goats."

"It's quite a clever method of finding out about a story, if you have someone who's trying to find out the truth when others are misrepresenting it," McGregor says.

Then again, writers often don't fare well in the movies, McGregor is reminded. Just think of William Holden's body, lying face down in a pool at the start of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard."

"Writers are very happy to write about themselves," McGregor says with a laugh. "They want to let the world know how difficult it is to be them."

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931