VMAN 46 Cover Star: Ewan McGregor
From indie-favorite to intergalactic Jedi Master to Hollywood leading man, the multifaceted Scottish actor has dominated every screen he has appeared on.
What do we talk about when we talk about Halston? We talk about fashion and fame, art, culture, politics and high society, high in the Park Avenue sense and alas the cocaine-vodka addled sense.
The glamour. Studio 54. Black cashmere turtlenecks and cigarettes. Sweeping gestures and air-kisses. Andy and Liza and Elsa and his beloved Victor Hugo’s festive penis. We opine about the rise and fall of Halston, like Icarus, he floated too close to the sun. Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, Liza Minnelli’s costumes, Elsa Peretti’s sable in the fireplace, the Olympic Tower pleasuredom, and always the crash and burn: Man takes a drink, drink takes a drink, drink takes the man.
Courtesy of filmmaker extraordinaire Ryan Murphy and a creative team of executive producers including the writers Ian Brennan and Sharr White; Alexis Martin Woodall, Daniel Minahan, Eric Kovhun, and Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffer of Killer Films, the five episode, limited series Halston comes to Netflix this spring. In addition to serving as an executive producer, actor and philanthropist Ewan McGregor stars as Halston. Minahan is the series director.
Halston’s fall happened when a hostile takeover forced him to battle for his most precious asset: the Halston name itself.
Before the fall, the designer personified American fashion during American fashion’s greatest expansion on the world stage, when he and his compatriots including Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, and Bill Blass rattled the Paris and Milan fashion establishments by making chic wearable luxurious clothing American women wanted to wear to work and for gracious living at home. Halston banished the gypsy-hippie bohemian looks of the ’60s and early ’70s and introduced strong solid colors, the powerful draping of fabric to create a singular dress, and introduced the world to Ultrasuede, luxurious, chic and sturdy luxury.
Andy Warhol one of H’s closest friends, described Halston’s fashion shows “the art form of the ’70s.”
Halston died of complications of AIDS in late March 1990, age 57, in San Francisco. He had moved there only a few months before.
Ewan McGregor is not only one of our finest actors, but also one of life’s great enhancers. Kind, generous, self-effacing, and funny. Via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles he talked about his complex and sensitive portray of Halston.
William Norwich: Hollywood is quite something, isn’t it? You’re on your beloved motorcycle one day, and the next day you’re on some set version of Studio 54 channeling Halston. How did this role happen?
Ewan McGregor: I don’t chase after things. About two years ago, I went to my agent’s office to meet about a few potential projects. They sat me in a room, two or three meetings about different scripts, one after the other. Dan Minahan, who’s our director for all five of the episodes, came in and we met. I just liked him straight away. I liked the way he talked about this man who I didn’t really know much about. Dan had some really beautiful photographs of Halston, and Halston’s world, and he was so prepared and just very calm. Sometimes people are nervous, or I’m nervous. It was just very easy. I was as taken with Dan as I was with Halston at that moment, and these photographs kept coming over the desk and I’m like, “wow, this is a time. I was excited about that.”
WN: Did you know much about Halston before your meeting with Dan?
EM: No. I started reading about him. He sent me some articles and more photographs. I read everything. I started falling for Halston’s pictures, and I was like “who is this guy? Surrounded by all these Halstonettes. So grand.” I learned more about Halston’s quick temper, about how loyal everybody was to him, how they loved him, and how not many people have got a nasty thing to say about him. Even though he was a very difficult man, there was so much love for this guy. All of that started titillating me and my sort of creative imagination, thinking how interesting it would be to play him. To be able to flash from anger to the way he looked, the way he drew everyone in. I loved the pictures of him looking at women wearing his clothes.
WN: He loved women, didn’t he?
EM: I loved how he saw beauty, and I thought, I want to play him. We had this sort of little merry band, and it wasn’t Ryan Murphy at that point. We went right to pitching the project. I hadn’t really done much or any of that before. It included Christine Vachon, whom I love.
WN: Had you known her before?
EM: We did Velvet Goldmine years ago, and I love her and love working with her. There’s something about having a producer who isn’t afraid of the actor, for starters. They have a habit of speaking to an actor like you’re a child or something. You watch them sort of change, when they approach you to speak with you, the actor. They sort of go: “Oh, um”, speaking to you like you’re this little thing—“is everything okay? Thanks so much for everything you’re doing!” And Christine’s not like that. She’s absolutely—she tells you the truth. And I never hesitate to pick up the phone to her on set and go, “I don’t know about this,” if there’s something not right. She’s amazing. She and I, and Dan, and Sharr White—who was one of the writers early on—we went round and we pitched everywhere. We pitched it to fucking everyone. We went to HBO, we went to SHOWTIME, all of them.
WN: What kind of feedback did you get? I don’t want to be reductive, but I think there’s a whole generation who wouldn’t know about Halston. Recovering disco baby boomers, like me, know and the real, 20-year-old, fashion-insanely-devoted know Halston, but as nostalgia for the Studio 54 days, not so much his clothing.
EM: It is interesting, isn’t it, he was so huge. Wasn’t he the first of his kind in terms of branding his name on airplanes, carpets, slippers, towels, sheets. He did everything. And it was probably
part of his downfall, in a way. But he was so famous, and I think he liked that. He loved going to clubs, to the front of the queue, being with famous people, and being a famous person.
WN: What were you told at those meetings?
EM: The feedback from those early meetings was that they loved—everybody loved the world of Halston, they loved the idea of Liza Minnelli, Joe Eula, Elsa Peretti and Victor Hugo—everybody loved the idea of this man and his passions, that creative sort of genius passion which is dark and light, all at the same time. Studio 54 and New York and Montauk. Everybody liked the world of Halston. The glamour. But ultimately, nobody took it. And I think it’s because nobody gets murdered; there’s no blood. But the storyline is what I love about it. There’s something poetic about his story, what happened to him. And it’s so fascinating. I don’t need to see somebody murdered in a piece of drama to be engaged in it. But for TV, those sorts of sensational aspects were maybe what was missing. We did meeting after meeting after meeting, it was quite nerve- racking. I did pitch meetings a long time ago for my motorcycle films, about 20 years for the first one, Long Way Round, and they were tough. You think it’s a great idea, but the execs are all skeptical, and it sort of hurts your ego. You’re like, “Why don’t you think it is as good of an idea as I do?” Here we were putting ourselves out there for Halston, and not getting the kind of “Oh my God, where do I sign up?” response that I expected.
WN: The worst feeling…
EM: It just goes quiet. You know, the phone doesn’t ring. Nobody calls you to say it’s not being picked up, because I guess they just have to wait in case somebody changes their mind—so it’s not like you’re told it’s not going to happen. It just goes very quiet. And I just thought, “Oh, okay, that’s a shame. I don’t think it’s going to happen; it’s not going to work.” Life went on. I started to plan the third part of our motorcycle journeys, me and my friend Charley Boorman, our Long Way Up trip starting at the tip of Argentina to L.A., on electric Harley-Davidsons. [Editors’ note: all McGregor’s remarkable motorcycle trips, three compelling documentary films, are available on Apple TV]. But then, weeks later, the phone rang. Christine told me she’d just been somewhere with Ryan Murphy, and she told him she’d been pitching the Halston story and nobody was going to do it, and Ryan was like, “Well, we’ve got to fucking do it. Of course, we’ve got to.” It was really Ryan who took it and made it happen. The scripts shifted into more of his style. They became snappier.
WN: How do you prepare for a role? I had the pleasure of having dinner with Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson in New York a while ago. They were both about to do very different roles, and here were two very different people, great actors, talking about two very different ways of creating a character. I was mesmerized.
EM: I think it’s quite mysterious. And I don’t really understand it myself, other than I totally trust that it’s happening. They send you your script and you sit down and read it. You see the movie in your head. That’s the first time you imagine it. And it’s not a movie yet because it’s only in your imagination, so it’s larger than a movie. The only reality of it is your imagination. From the moment you say to your agent, “I’d like to do this,” there’s part of your brain that’s now thinking about that character. What do you need? What things can you go out and learn. For the Halston series, I learned how to drape. I had to look like I knew what I was doing with draping, you know?
WN: Draping fabric well is not easy.
EM: No, it’s not easy. I spent time in the wardrobe workrooms with different tailors and different people. And I was shown how Halston made a dress from a piece of fabric. He was a genius. Late at night, often alone, smoking a cigarette, he would cut these shapes that would suddenly fall into the most beautiful shape on a woman’s body. I got a tailor’s dummy. A male one and a female one. I had a sewing machine. I went to Mood Fabrics on 37th Street in New York and bought all these threads and fabrics and materials. I made a pair of trousers for myself; I’m very proud of them. And next, I am going to make something for my partner Mary [Elizabeth Winstead] and for my little girl.
WN: You really would like to make clothes?
EM: I love clothes, and I’m sort of particular about what I like to put on my body, but I’m not really a fashionista. I’m not really involved in the fashion scene, as it were. However, because of the series, I started looking at clothes wherever I went, thinking, “how did that get made?” And then I would find myself, you wouldn’t do this anymore because of COVID, even touching people’s clothing.
WN: Oh dear, best beware. “Who is this man, why is he touching me?”
EM: Yes, exactly. Of course, I read Simply Halston, the Halston biography and many interviews, but what I really did was ask myself “How did he perceive things?” Dan and I came up with some beautiful moments where he’s just looking at a tree, or a statue. But I found I was doing that in my everyday life as well, just sort of soaking the beauty of everything in, more than I would maybe notice in my own life. And then there was his physicality, his accent, and his voice. All of which were sort of far away from me. And I loved that about it, as an actor, I thought that was a great challenge.
WN: What about portraying his sexuality?
EM: Many sensitivities about being a straight man playing a gay man, and is this an issue for some people? And, if it is, how do we feel about it? I spoke to Dan about it, I spoke to Christine about it. I wanted to know that there was no doubt in their minds that it was not going to be upsetting for anybody because I don’t want that.
WN: But you yourself had no qualms about it, portraying a gay man?
EM: No. My feeling is, I respect all the opinions about a straight man playing a gay man. I haven’t had to come out; I’ve been in the straight lane. So, I appreciate that our experiences in life are different. My feeling about it is also that I’m not playing “gay.” I’m not just playing his sexuality. I’m playing him. And Halston’s sexual preference is men. He likes to sleep with men; that’s part of who he is. There’s also the creative part, the genius part, the terrible temper part of him. There are so many sides to somebody, aren’t there? I felt like I just had to embody him, feel like him, like Halston. This is a really interesting, important subject. I talk about it a lot. People have different opinions about it, and I respect them all.
WN: And there was also a very sad victim side that you had to play, is that right? He had a terrible disease.
EM: Yes. So all of those things added up to a most incredible challenge, and, but I loved all of that. And so, watching his physicality was very important. He was so into shooting himself. There’s so much footage of him in Olympic Tower. By the time he was in Olympic Tower, his whole life was like a show. It was probably the first reality TV show.
WN: He basically invented the selfie.
EM: I loved the photographs. There’s an amazing photograph of him standing outside the windows, Victor’s window—obviously not in Olympic Tower, in the workroom before that—and he’s just looking in the window, and he’s in this masculine, manly pose, and he just looks amazing in it.
WN: What’s the time frame of the character, do you start early on with the hats? Or is it really right around that time when he’s trying to keep his name?
EM: We start with the hats, we start right when he’s a millionaire. There are some earlier scenes, flashback scenes, but mainly we start with Jackie Kennedy and the hats, and that’s sort of where the story starts. There’s a guy in the documentary who talks about when he lived by him in those early days, and they would walk to work together, and they would be chatting and smoking cigarettes. Then they would walk into Bergdorf’s and suddenly Halston became Halston, you know?
WN: I remember, yeah.
EM: I love the idea of it. Suddenly, he was on. And there’s so many beautiful moments of that. That’s what’s incredible, his absolute confidence in himself, and his conviction—I feel a bit like that myself. I’m lucky to have that absolute conviction with my work. Not with everything else in my life, but with my work I don’t doubt myself. I trust myself and I trust my instincts, and I feel like he was like that a bit. But there’s a great moment when he was doing his Donahue interview, which was much later on, and you see, little chinks in his personal confidence. I feel like he’s going, ‘Are they laughing at me? Am I being laughed at?’ And maybe that’s partly the cocaine, starting to make that sort of paranoia, you see that start to seep in. I think there are a lot of addicts like that. Their lives are in tatters, but still, whatever their profession is, they’ve still got that conviction.
WN: How was the accent for you? Halston’s native Indiana accent becomes Park Avenue. Two accents into one, not easy.
EM: It was quite tricky. I worked with the dialect coach Liz Himelstein, I’ve worked with her for years, since I did I Love You Phillip Morris in 2009. Anything I’ve done with an American accent I’ve worked on with her. We listened to many Halston interviews from television, and, you know, Ryan Murphy sounds a bit like Halston, and we listened for it.
WN: Were you able to talk to any of the people who knew Halston best?
EM: I was very lucky to meet Liza Minnelli before we started. I had tea with Liza, and we had such a fun time, a great chat. I wanted her to know that Halston was in good hands with me, and that I would be respectful of their great friendship. The scenes that Krysta Rodriguez, (who plays Liza in series), and I have together are great, and there’s something deeply moving about this relationship.
WN: Halston had such a distinct style. How did you feel when you got into costume?
EM: I’ve never worn clothes like that. He was so specific. In the ‘60s, he wore suits and ties and colored shirts and stuff, then in the 1970s, he started wearing turtlenecks and bronzer and pulling his hair back. All of that certainly made me feel transformed into him. The series’ costume designer, Jeriana San Juan, got the tailor, Gino Balsamo, who made Halston’s pants to his specifications make my pants for this. That was great.
WN: Where did you film?
EM: We shot a lot of it in Brooklyn. All the stage work was in Brooklyn. And then all over Manhattan. We had the famous Battle of Versailles fashion show between France and America that happened in 1973. We did that in two different theaters. One backstage and one front- of-house, and that was fantastic.
WN: Did you film this during the pandemic or right before?
EM: Well, we started in January of last year, right before, and we shot ‘til March. Then we got shut down and I came back home here in L.A. We literally thought we were coming back on set in two or three weeks. That turned into six months. By the time we got back it was September, from September to Christmas 2020. So, literally all of last year was just Halston for me.
WN: When it’s over, what happens to the character for you? Does he go away? Do you keep anything? Do you learn something?
EM: I was so lucky. I was so sad, it’s so sad, to not get to play him anymore. It was so satisfying to be him. Every scene is about him; I’d go to work in the morning, and I’d leave work late at night, and I had been in everything all day long, every day of the shoot. So It’s like I had complete immersion into it. It wasn’t like I had any days off, I didn’t sit at home waiting to be picked up to come and do my scene. I was always in it, which means that you are so deeply into it. It is an odd feeling to think that you’re not going to get to be him anymore. We shot from September to December, and we finished in New York, at December, and then we had one little scene that we had that me and Dan managed to get our way to get it shot here in Los Angeles. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it’s a very specific moment for him, and it was a very reflective moment for him. I got to hang over Christmas, and I knew I was going to get to play this scene. Then there was this COVID surge in L.A., and I thought maybe we weren’t going to get to do it. Then we did, we managed to shoot it, and Dan and I did it a couple of weeks ago. So I have this one last little moment with him, and it was so beautiful. And then I had to let go. But I felt like, because I had that little time, it was like a little bonus for me to put his clothes on again.
WN: At some point, didn’t you go from Halston to Pinocchio?
EM: Yes, narrating Jiminy Cricket for Guillermo del Toro, an animated musical expected sometime this year. I really liked it. It’s Guillermo Del Toro, what’s not to like about working with him? He’s a director I’ve always loved.
WN: Are you filming a new Star Wars Obi-Wan Kenobi series soon?
EM: We start shooting in the spring, here in Los Angeles, a multi-part television series. I’m thrilled to get to play Kenobi again. It’s a story about him. That’s all I can say.
WN: So this spring, when Halston lands on Netflix, you, meanwhile, will be…
EM: I will be in a galaxy far, far away, somewhere.