Ewan McGregor and Hayley Atwell: Bringing Christopher Robin into the 21st Century

August 22, 2018
We regret to inform you that this piece contains no Pooh jokes.

In this modern reimagining of the childhood classic, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is a disillusioned, working-class family man stuck in a dull routine. That is, until he receives a surprise visit from his old childhood friend, Winnie the Pooh. With Christopher’s help, Pooh embarks on a journey to find his friends Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, Piglet, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo – and along the way, Christopher rediscovers his sense of joy and imagination.

Hayley Atwell plays Christopher’s wife Evelyn, and Pooh is voiced by veteran voice actor Jim Cummings (who has voiced Pooh and Tigger since 1988). You can read our interview with Christopher Robin director Marc Forster here.

Did you two grow up reading Winnie-the-Pooh?

EWAN: I was brought up reading the books and having them read to me. My knowledge of Pooh starts there, long before the cartoons.

HAYLEY: There were cassette tapes too! I used to listen to them before bedtime.

In this version of the story, Christopher Robin is a workaholic who has lost his way. Was it a challenge to reimagine classic characters?

EWAN: Well, I approached my role like I would any other. It was interesting to reimagine a classic character as an adult – I’ve done this a few times, both ways. In the Star Wars films, I took someone we know and reimagined him younger. In this film, I took someone we know as a child and reimagined him older. The writing of the script was great, so I saw the character very clearly when I read it, and Marc [Forster] was really helpful too.

Hayley Atwell and Ewan McGregor at the European premiere of Christopher Robin

It seems like there’s a lesson in the film of the loss of imagination. Was that on your mind when you were making it? How do we stop children from being raised on iPads?

EWAN: Just don’t give them iPads [laughs].

HAYLEY: The themes of this film are quite timely. Society is speeding up, and as we become more and more engaged with technology I think imagination does suffer. Pooh isn’t judgmental of this at all though, it’s just a non-thing for him. Pooh is a bit of a Zen master. When I read the script, it just reminded me of how it felt to be a child and just having everything within you, in terms of being able to connect with other human beings and cherishing those friendships you had. And also, just being able to do nothing, and in the doing of the nothing, you had a lot of freedom.

EWAN: ‘Doing of the nothing’, that was nice [laughs]. I like that.

HAYLEY: That’s always what Pooh’s stories have been about. That innocence, and within that, children having an amazing ability to see the truth really easily and really gently – which is an ability that Pooh has.

What sort of games did you play when you were kids?

HAYLEY: Well, a friend of mine reminded me that when we were about 7 or 8, I used to say ‘right, come over to mine, we’re going to play a new game. We are the founders of the Freddie Mercury fan club’ [laughs]. We’d all write fan letters to Freddie, and then we’d spend the afternoon replying to the letters we wrote. We’d be like ‘Freddie’s on tour at the moment, but he really appreciates that you’ve supported him since the beginning, through all his incarnations’. I didn’t remember this at all. It was a pretty left-field game – who knows what I had going on at the time [laughs]. I think it’s beautiful though, when you’re a child and you have this great imagination and you’re not self-conscious about it. There’s no ego involved or thoughts of ‘am I convincing as this monster? Is it convincing that I believe in this monster?’ – you just believe in the monster.

EWAN: I had a little dog called Sid from quite an early age. Playing some of the scenes with Pooh – and watching the scenes back – reminded me of my relationship with my dog. I’m not really sure why [laughs], just something about Pooh’s face and the lovely relationship between him and Christopher. Also, like Christopher, I spent a lot of my childhood in the woods with my mates. The town I come from in Scotland, Crieff, is surrounded by woodland. We’d leave in the morning and come back at night, we’d spend literally all day in there. I don’t remember what we did, but it was fantastic fun.

HAYLEY: Bronte [Carmichael], who plays our daughter Madeline in this film, reminded me of myself when I was younger. In the film, she wears these socks, from Hill House School, which I used to wear. I was an only child, like her, but I had lots of friends in my neighbourhood. I also relate to what Ewan said about the connection with a pet – I had a cat called Chicken, who I definitely projected human characteristics onto. So, although I didn’t have an imaginary friend like Christopher, I thought that Chicken knew exactly what was going on in my head and thought it was her responsibility to be my best friend and confidant. Pets – and Pooh in this film – are so innocent, their love is so pure. To unintentionally upset them, as Christopher does to Pooh in the film, is so heartbreaking. Christopher can be quite emotionally inarticulate, and when he upsets Pooh, Pooh just absorbs it – he doesn’t give any of it back, and he continues to love unconditionally. That’s what our pets do too.

Was it a challenge to act with stuffed animals?

EWAN: Well, Marc [Forster, Director] did a brilliant thing by casting a band of young actors to play each stuffed character. Most of them were straight out of drama school, and they would improvise with us and it was just fantastic. So, say I was shooting a scene with Pooh – Pooh would be attached to a harness and a pole, and the actor would be there manipulating him and moving his head, either with a stick or with his hands. That gave us a chance to play the scenes for real and made it so much easier. There were all these weird Pooh bodies as well… There was a grey one with no fur, one with no head, and one that was just a body with no arms or legs – that one was really gruesome [laughs].

Winnie the Pooh is such a well-loved story and the character resonates with so many people… Did you feel much pressure playing your roles?

HAYLEY: When you’re doing a film like this, the atmosphere on set is so warm and friendly and lovely and you can’t really have a bad day on set. I think the content of the film you’re working on can leak into the atmosphere of the set sometimes, and this film was such a joy. My dog was allowed on set – at one point he was in rehearsal with us. For me, I didn’t really feel pressure or that I had to live up to something, I felt a sense of trust that I was part of an already established world.

Pooh is great at doing nothing, which is something we do very little of these days. Do you think there is value in learning to do nothing?

EWAN: There’s a lot of philosophy in Pooh, isn’t there? He’s a very wise old bear. These days, it’s very rare that we spend a day actually doing nothing, because we have our phones and all this technology around us. When I was a child, we’d just knock about doing absolutely nothing, but we found it so exciting all the time. Now I think doing nothing is more about sitting on the couch and watching TV. Kids are so drawn to technology and it seems to switch off the other part of the brain – the part that wants to go, play with a doll in the bushes. Oh god, that sounds bad doesn’t it [laughs]. Play with a doll in the garden, I mean.

One of the themes of the movie is finding balance between work and other aspects of life, especially family. As successful actors, do you find it difficult to keep this balance?

HAYLEY: Well, my business tends to come in waves. I think, from an outsider’s perspective, acting involves constantly working and going to all these press junkets, but I get plenty of time on the couch. I think maintaining balance is all about not buying into the assumption that you need to have this constant momentum. I must say though, as I get older I’m finding it harder to switch my brain off when I’m trying to relax – even when I’m doing nothing, my mind is quite restless. My challenge these days is about quieting my mind and engaging in the world that’s physically around me. It’s a very modern conundrum, really.

EWAN: I think I’ve gotten much better at doing nothing. This year, I haven’t really worked at all, and it’s the first time that I’ve taken such a long break. I like it. Sometimes it’s hard to take or enjoy a break when you’re used to a relentless work schedule, because when you stop, you feel sort of rudderless. I really enjoy time off now, but it’s taken me 47 years to get there. Also, my break was by choice – maybe it would be a very different story if it wasn’t. I think when you’re chasing something, a dream, you’re scared to step off the treadmill, so to speak. In reality, it doesn’t really matter if you haven’t worked for 8 months or a year or whatever, as long as when you do start working, you give it your all and try your best to do a great job.

Christopher Robin is in cinemas from September 13, 2018

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