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Ewan McGregor and Hayley Atwell

Christopher Robin’s Ewan McGregor and Hayley Atwell talk jet ski auditions and pilfered Poohs

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Aug 1, 2018

It’s been 92 years since English author A.A. Milne first captivated readers with tales of a silly old stuffed bear named Winnie-the-Pooh. Now Christopher Robin director Marc Forster is bringing Pooh and his fellow fuzzy Hundred Acre Wood pals into the real world for the first time — in midcentury London, to be exact. That’s where a now-grown Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is a stressed-out post-war soldier, husband, and father who’s utterly lost touch with his inner child.

It takes Pooh, his ever-patient childhood friend, to wake Christopher up to the love he’s been neglecting from his wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and their daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).

While the Robins spend much of the film estranged, there was none of that as SYFY WIRE sat down with McGregor and Atwell to talk about the wonderfully authentic old-school feel that Christopher Robin manages to convey in our rather cynical times.

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First off, was Winnie-the-Pooh a part of your childhoods?

Hayley Atwell: I had the books, and my aunt had Kanga. She still has Kanga on her bookshelf at home. Pooh seems to be very much in our world, kind of a cross-generational thing. So, yeah, it was part of growing up, really. Did you?

Ewan McGregor: Yes. I knew him from the books and then the cartoons.

So, was Pooh the hook for you to take on this movie, or was it something else?

McGregor: Well, it was Marc Forster first. I worked with him a long time ago. I made a film with him called Stay, and I like working with Marc very much. We kept bumping into each other. And then he approached me, about this film that he wanted to do. And when he talked about it, I loved the way he envisaged it, and it’s the movie that you see. There's something really beautiful and artful about it. And then the script really moved me. I found it really lovely.

Atwell: My first meeting with Marc was on the back of a jet ski in the middle of the Aegean [Sea]. I was on holiday and I got a call from my agent, going, "Marc Forster would like to Skype with you to discuss this film." I read the script and knew Marc's work, things like Monster's Ball and very different types of genres. And I thought, "That's really interesting, that he would take on something that is more associated with that Disney look and childhood stories." So, I said, "Look, I would absolutely love to Skype him, but I'm in a bit of a dead spot in terms of WiFi." So the captain of the boat that I was on went, "You see that rock? Go 10 minutes past that rock in that general direction and basically, once you've lost all visuals of civilization, you might be able to get a spot where you can speak to him." So I put a life jacket on, got on a jet ski, went past the rock, out into the ocean. I turned off the engine, bobbing up and down, and then was able to get [a signal]. Marc was like, "Hello." I was like, "Welcome to my office. This is how I do business, Marc. Let's talk about the film."

We broke the ice from that, really.

Then he said he was wanting to make sure that this film didn't feel too sentimental and just going that the wisdom of Pooh is something that's very gentle and very tender, and it's about the gentleness of friendships, especially ones that we had when we were younger. Those innocent friendships. And that Pooh, in his innocence, he is so wise. I felt that Marc was wanting to bring both elements to it, to make it have that universal impact on both children and adults. So I said yes, put the phone down, and jetted back off to the boat.

McGregor: That's a great story. That's fantastic!

Let’s talk about how Marc shot the film so you could actually interact with the stuffed animals and craft credible performances.

McGregor: Marc did a lovely thing where he cast a group of young actors, mostly just out of drama school, to play each of the creatures. There was a Pooh, there was an Eeyore, there was an actor for each of the characters. They were great actors, enthusiastic and keen. He cast them really well. As we went on, say if it was just me and Pooh, we would do a take where he would have a complete Pooh, like you see him in the movie. But then David, who was his actor, would just move him a little bit and I would get to play the scene with him. And then they'd take him out, and sometimes they would leave Pooh just static and without David. And then we would do passes sometimes with a gray Winnie-the-Pooh...

Atwell: The gray, headless version. They didn't have any heads and they didn't have any hair. It was like the Guillermo del Toro version. A really creepy horror film. (Laughs) But then also what was difficult, you'd be looking at the stuffy, but the actors would be off screen, so you'd have to remind yourself not to react to that voice, which, of course, you wanna look at, but you're reacting to what's there in front of you. That was a bit odd. And then wasn't there a third version of the scene, where we had just rods with a light on top of it? It was like the deconstructed Pooh and friends.

McGregor: What I think Marc did brilliantly was because you had that experience of playing the scene with them almost for real, it felt -- because the actors would move the teddy bears round, and the teddy bears themselves were so beautifully made and characterful -- you really had a sense of what the scene was by the time they started removing him, so it was very effective. And I've still got my Winnie-the-Pooh at home, because I spent four months looking in his little eyes, and I really like having him around.

Was there a scene where you felt yourself really in the moment acting against these iconic characters?

McGregor: There's a really nice scene where I re-find Pooh again after I've lost my temper with him and he disappears. It’s so funny because there's like a pet relationship, like the way you can get cross with your dog. It reminded me of that. Something about Pooh reminds me of my little dog, Sid, a bit. But that scene, I felt when I played it, I thought it was a beautiful scene of saying sorry to somebody that loves you unconditionally, and you can see that you've hurt them, but they still love you. There was something very sweet about that scene. I remember it like Pooh was there, and he wasn't there at all.

Now seeing the film completed, why does this near-century-old bear still resonate with audiences, old and young?

Atwell: It feels so authentic because Pooh speaks with this kindness and this warmth with complete innocence about what he's saying. Everything is said without agenda. There's no judgment in Pooh's voice. He's kind of a Zen master, almost, like he's a Yoda or a Buddha. He's just a beacon of unconditional love.

And what's his favorite day? It's today. He’s the beacon for mindfulness. The antidote, really, to a society that we really seem to promote speeding up and being productive and perfectionism and working really hard and never turning off our phones. And Pooh is just going, "Why? Let's do something else instead." It's a nice antidote to that, I think.

Christopher Robin opens on August 3.