Q&A: “Christopher Robin” stars Ewan McGregor and Hayley Atwell discuss their lifelong love of Winnie the Pooh

in Disney, Movies, Movies & TV

Disney‘s highly anticipated new adventure/dramedy film “Christopher Robin” is set to open this week, featuring popular actors Ewan McGregor (“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”) and Hayley Atwell (“Captain America: The First Avenger”) as the grown-up version of the titular character as his oft-neglected wife Evelyn.

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a roundtable interview with McGregor and Atwell at the movie’s press junket in Los Angeles, California. Together the pair discussed their relationships with the “Winnie the Pooh” legacy, their individual approaches to their respective roles, and even their admiration for horror-style fan edits of the “Christopher Robin” trailer.

Ewan McGregor:  [looking at ‘Christopher Robin’ poster] They make me look very tall in a way that I’m not, but that’s good. Always work with small actors.

Q:  What is it about the magic of Winnie the Pooh that attracted both of you to this project?

Hayley Atwell:  My grandparents’ generation, my mother’s generation, my aunts still has a Kanga on her bookshelf. It’s all was very quintessentially English. There’s an idealism of this kind of quaint world of the Hundred Acre Wood and these little animals. There’s an innocence, I think, that we all relate to. It’s this childhood innocence of spending long summer days with your best friends just hanging out, not doing anything.

I think the appeal is always just that sense of a gentleness and a safety in that world of friendship when you’re a child, when you don’t have any of the burdens of responsibility. Before big things happen to you, where you can create your reality very much within your own imagination in your back garden. And that’s a universal appeal, I think.

Christopher Robin world premiere
Hayley Atwell Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

McGregor:  I couldn’t put it any better than that. That was great! In terms of what appealed to me, [director Marc Forster] approached me first. I’d worked with Marc in 2003, we made a film called ‘Stay’ in New York, which was a weird and wonderful movie with Ryan Gosling and Naomi Watts and I. And I’ve always sort of bumped into Marc and stayed somewhat in touch with him over the years. We’d spoken about some other projects in the meantime, that hadn’t worked out for one reason or another.

When he spoke to me about this, I loved the way he talked about it. I loved the way he described it as. It didn’t sound to me like a Disney remake, in a way. It just sounded like what you see in the movie, there’s a sort of artfulness to it. There’s almost a darkness to it, which is surprising.

Atwell:  Which you see in some of Marc’s other work. That was an appeal to me as well. When I [received] the call to have a chat with him about it, it felt that it was a very individual filmmaker coming in here and taking a story that is obviously under the umbrella of this huge institution of Disney, that absolutely has been telling Pooh’s story from that perspective all these years. But having someone like Marc come in, who’s a very individual filmmaker himself, and has a very distinct look, and has lots of different kinds of movies, I thought, ‘Well, that’s really interesting to me.’ He’s very creative, and that was an appeal.

Tigger in Disney’s CHRISTOPHER ROBIN.

Q:  What’s it like acting opposite these characters who aren’t really there in that space? I feel like you both have experience with that kind of thing.

McGregor:  Yes, I have lots of experience with that in the old Galaxy Far, Far Away days. What Marc did beautifully was cast each character. There was a real actor for every character. He cast young actors mainly, who’d just come out of drama school. They were so enthusiastic and talented and good.

Atwell:  Years of training, real character actors.

McGregor:  Yeah, and so they would play the first takes with us, many times actually in the shot, just holding the teddy bears. There was a, there was a real version of each of these [points to poster]. I’ve got a Pooh. I got a bootleg Pooh out the back door.

Atwell:  Bronte [Carmichael], who plays Madeline, got Piglet. I got a gramophone!

McGregor:  Did you? Marc got all of [the characters], but Disney charged him for them. [laughs] Anyway, I got mine secretly, my Pooh. So there was a real version of each one, and we got to play the first takes with [them]. There was an actor called David who played Pooh, and he would hold the bear and move him, and if we were walking he had him on this little harness with a pole, and he would be able to sort of walk him along with me.

Atwell:  Pooh in a harness, that’s cute!

Christopher Robin

McGregor:  But [he was walking] so slowly! I was saying to David, ‘Can we just get him moving?’ And he said ‘No.’ He had been taught exactly how long it would take Pooh to make a step. It was so slow, but it became real. We’d do the first takes with the real bear, or Tigger or Eeyore or whatever, and then they would step the actors out, sometimes leaving the teddy bear there if it was just static in the scene, and if not, you just had to sort of pretend you’re looking at him.

There [were] various other ones: a gray one, one with no head. There was one that was just a body. There was one with Pooh’s torso, with no head, legs, or arms, which was sort of like the horror version. Did you see the horror trailer? Somebody made a horror trailer. It’s so good, really funny. They just re-edited the trailer, and they put it all in different order, and they’ve put scary music on. It’s just terrifying.

Atwell:  Shows you how much can be done in an edit.

McGregor:  With music, yeah.

Q:  Speaking of music, were you at all disappointed you didn’t get to have a musical moment with the characters. And if you had, which song would you have wanted to share with them?

McGregor:  We got to have a little dance, which was nice.

Atwell:  We sung a lot in the car, and just waiting around on the street corners. Do you remember?

McGregor:  We were not un-musical, in our way.

Atwell:  We were not un-musical, just not on screen, thankfully.

McGregor: What song would you have sang with Pooh, though?

Atwell:  There’s a song that’s not in this one, but that’s in other cassette tape versions I listened to as a kid, where [Pooh is] trying to get honey from a nest, you know the one [‘Little Black Rain Cloud’]. He’s like, ‘If I sing a song pretending to be a cloud, then they won’t think that I’m a bear looking for honey.’ It was a cute little ditty.

Q:  People seem to be responding to the movie’s message of spending more time with family outside of work. Can you talk a little about that?

Atwell:  Yeah, there seems to be a lot of that at the moment. I still have to stop myself when I get into bed, not checking my emails again. There’s not really the nine-to-five mentality anymore, especially the world that I work in. If I’m living in London, I know that by the time the office is closed at my agency, L.A. is just waking up. So it always feels like we can be on. Our office is wherever our phone is.

And there seems to be not that much of the structure that maybe there used to be, before that time, where you had to physically get to an office to do business. So it seems everything’s kind of running into itself, really. It’s kind of on a bit of a hamster wheel I think, which is very much what this film talks about. I think it’s a lovely antidote to the very fast-pace ways that we do business, or conduct our lives, or designating time for fun.

These films remind us of long summers, being a child with no concept of time. I remember when we’d break out of school in July and I’d have six weeks [off], and the idea of having six weeks was just heaven. That to me was eternity, which is also kind of good and bad, if you’re waiting for the end of that last week to go on holiday or something, and you’ve know you’ve got forever to wait. The concept of time as a child is very different to now [as an adult]. Everything speeds up.

Christopher Robin world premiere
Director Marc Forster, Ewan McGregor, Brad Garrett, Bronte Carmichael and Hayley Atwell (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

McGregor:  Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it could be about anything, coming back to anything, prioritizing your life. But I also think there’s an interesting thing as a dad about Christopher Robin being a man at that time, and that it would be unusual for him, or any father, to sense that he wasn’t close enough to his children. But he’s not close enough to his daughter, and he feels that, which is what’s beautiful about the film, really. By the end of the film, he’s done something about it and he’s closer to her. But I think for men then, there was no expectation to be close to your kids.

Atwell:  There was no vocabulary for, it in a way. When I saw the film and I was watching those scenes, what I found very truthful and heartbreaking to watch is two people that clearly loved each other, that live at the same house, but ultimately spoke different languages, and so they’re constantly missing each other. So this hurt that was being caused and confusion that was being caused, not of a lack of intent to love each other, but just having just very different lives that they were coexisting with.

That feels very real, and something that every family and friendships [have contended] with, especially if there’s a parent who has these overwhelming responsibilities to provide, and the pressures to make sure that that the child’s needs are met. But all the child can see is, ‘That person isn’t spending time with me.’ That seems to be something that a lot of people can identify with.

Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) with his longtime friend Winnie the Pooh in Disney’s CHRISTOPHER ROBIN.

Q:  Ewan, how did you get into Christopher Robin as an adult, but also in child mode once he reconnects with his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood?

McGregor:  It was very much in the writing, you know, there was a very clear story. Pooh helps him to find the child in him again, who he was when we first see him at the beginning of the movie, and then life happens to him and he’s lost that. Pooh helps him back to that. I suppose it was quite hard in some of the earlier scenes with Hayley, and also with Bronte. There’s the scene where I’m reading her a story, or when you send me out to tell her that I can’t come to the countryside. It was hard to hold back and to make Christopher not engaged in her, and not to notice that he is [being distant].

Atwell:  Especially because you seem to be the opposite of that. You’d pick up nuances of that. I find that as an actor quite hard, if you have to play not aware of the situation where you would be very aware of it or you would be sensitive enough to know. I would want to kind of step in, and you have to kind of hold back. You have to pretend that you don’t know.

McGregor:  He doesn’t know. At that point, he doesn’t know that. So those scenes were sort of the hardest ones to play, but they’re of course very important to tell the story.

Atwell:  But also not coming across as mean-spirited, just kind of not understanding.

Madeline Robin (Bronte Carmichael) and her father Christopher’s longtime friends Tigger, Piglet and Winnie the Pooh go on an adventure in Disney’s CHRISTOPHER ROBIN.

McGregor:  But I love that, because the scenes with us in the house at the beginning set that up beautifully, I think. When he comes back home, and he’s going to do this thing at work, and you can see your frustration. But you can see that they love each other, and it’s very important that we understand that, otherwise we don’t root for them.

Atwell:  Exactly. We want them to come back. If you see them at the beginning dancing and having this love together, this beautiful kind of connection, then you know what is at stake for him if he loses it or can’t find his way back to that. And you think, what a missed opportunity to have this wonderful life with this woman who loves him and this beautiful daughter that wants to just be with him, and that’s all that they want, you know?

That’s kind of the misunderstanding of a man trying to provide. And the woman’s just going, ‘What are you trying to aspire to get? Your life is here, now. You’re missing what your life actually is by trying to attain something. You’ve already got it.’ So that was a very sweet part of the film.

Christopher Robin world premiere
Ewan McGregor, Mickey Mouse, Richard M. Sherman, Minnie Mouse and Marc Forster

Q:  Did you have any trepidation coming into the role of such a well-established character in such a beloved universe?

McGregor:  None at all. No, because nobody knows what Christopher Robin’s like as a 47-year-old man. Except me. [laughs] I have done that before and in plays and stuff, playing a character who has been played many times before. It’s quite scary. We know Christopher Robin as a small boy, as a seven-year-old, from A.A. Milne’s books and from Disney’s animations, but we don’t know who he is as an adult. Did you see the other Christopher Robin film [‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’]? I like that film, it’s really nice, because that’s [based on] the real Christopher Robin.

Atwell:  I think I felt the opposite of trepidation. I felt trusting because I was going, ‘Oh, I get to be part of a world that is already known and loved.’ Kind of preaching to the choir, in a way. You just go in and understand the tone of it, and do what is required in that world. So I felt in very safe hands. Jim Cummings is doing the voice, so you know the characterization of Pooh is absolutely there. They’re not gonna do anything bizarre with it. It is what it is. So I felt a lot more relaxed, really.

Disney’s “Christopher Robin” opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, August 3.

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