'Doctor Sleep' Star Ewan McGregor On Channeling Jack Nicholson (But Not Too Much) [Set Visit Interview]

It's one of the most famous images in horror. A young child, maneuvering his big wheel through the long, quiet corridors of an empty hotel, turns a corner and sees something awful. Something terrible. Something impossible. Little Danny Torrance's face contorts in horror. And while he makes it out of the Overlook Hotel alive before the credits roll, nothing will ever be the same.

And now, Doctor Sleep asks: what if Dan Torrance from The Shining grew up and had a whole bunch of new problems? And what if he was played by Ewan McGregor? Director Mike Flanagan's new film, based on Stephen King's novel of the same name, follows the kid from The Shining decades later, as he battles his own addictions, his own traumas, and yes, a new supernatural threat.

I visited the set of Doctor Sleep late last year and the assembled journalists were able to sit down with McGregor to talk about Dan Torrance and how you prepare to play the son of a character played by Jack Nicholson.

Like many, McGregor's first exposure to The Shining came from the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. And also like many, it left a massive impact on him. Decades later, it provided key backstory that helped him understand what Dan Torrance had survived as a kid and how it lingered:

I watched the movie when I was 16 or 17, or something like that. I didn't watch it when I was younger because I was born in '71 and it was late '80s. I remember it being talked about as the scariest film there's ever been, so I didn't watch it for years and years after it was made. Only into my late teens, or even maybe when I went to drama school in my twenties, I finally watched it. And I did find it really scary, because it's a scary movie. It's interesting watching it now and seeing how the music is almost — if you took the music away it wouldn't be such a terrifying movie. It's a very skilled piece of filmmaking. And then watching it now versus then with a completely different mindset, thinking about doing the sequel and thinking about how [it affects] our story and watching it for that. Because you know, it's completely backstory, isn't it, for my character. A good backstory. So it was quite interesting watching it for that reason.

As for Stephen King's novel...well, McGregor is getting around to it:

And the book — I read, funnily enough, Doctor Sleep first and then have gone back to The Shining since then. I haven't completed The Shining, I'm still dipping into it as we go along.

When asked if he studied the mannerisms of child actor Danny Lloyd, McGregor said no. Instead, he studied Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance, astutely noting that children grow up to be more like their parents, shedding their childhood tics as they age:

No, I'm not really watching little Danny, I'm watching Jack, really. Because he's my dad. I'm trying to get a sense of my father so much in the book. Doctor Sleep is obviously about my character's history with my dad and the effect that it has on Danny, the effect of the Overlook Hotel on Danny. So I'm trying to figure out the world of the hotel, I suppose. And there's not very much I can pick up from the kid in The Shining. I don't know how much we resemble our 5-year-old selves when we're adults, but we are similar to our fathers in many ways. So it was more interesting for me to look at Jack in that perspective.

But don't expect a Jack Nicholson imitation from McGregor. Playing Jack Nicholson and playing Jack Nicholson's son are two very different things:

No, I'm not trying to copy Jack Nicholson, no. I'm trying to sound like his son, that's all. I'm trying to sound vocally like his son, but that's it really.

In any case, adult Dan Torrance is a mess when we first meet him. Like his father, he's an alcoholic. Unlike his father, he also has psychic abilities and the trauma of having survived a hostile winter in a very haunted hotel. McGregor told us about the character's journey:

For me, there are some very key things about Dan. One is he's an alcoholic. When we find him at the beginning of the story, there's a drinking problem. We see his rock bottom and we flash some time forward and he's now sober. So that's running through everything for me, it's that. And the sort of exploration and thinking about that. And then he's a son of his mother, his father, and he has a relationship to his past with them that's very traumatic. He went through this huge traumatic experience where his father tried to hurt him...So there's that experience with his parents. And thirdly, his Shining, his psychic abilities that have shown themselves in sort of the worst way in his past, and which he's trying to forget. And indeed in our first scenes [with Kyleigh Curran] where we first meet, after having this psychic relationship, my advice to Abra is to ignore your Shine. Don't do it, don't go there. And she brings him out of himself and they go on this journey together. Those are the three things that I think about. [...] There are very evocative moments. I had to wake up under an overpass after having been [in] some scenes in a bar where, in the book, he [hits] rock bottom in a situation with a character called Deeny. And that's what Dan's rock bottom is, his shame, the thing he can't approach. And towards the end of the novel, he's able to own up to it in front of a bunch of alcoholics at an AA meeting. After that event, he wakes up under an overpass, there's a scene in a bus. It all sort of lends itself to that moment, it filled up that moment for me. I found that fun to play. Then the AA meeting, him getting sober, that's a nice journey for a character in the space of a movie to not only go from here to here in a character arc. He sort goes to this and he jumps to this. His arcs are quite interesting to play, I like it.

When asked if his experience playing a drug addict in Trainspotting helped him play the damaged Dan Torrance, McGregor shrugged it off:

No, I don't think so. I mean, they're both addiction, but they're...I don't know, I didn't think about that, not really. I think it's clear on the page, it's clear in the script, it's clear in the book that it's Stephen King's experience with that subject matter dripping out the novel. And I don't know, I don't drink, I haven't drunk for 17 years so I have some experience with this. But it was very clear. I don't think very much about how I go about it, I don't really like to think about how you do something. There is obviously sort of physical preparation in terms of make-up and hair and costume, and then you just put yourself in that place.

Although he hasn't starred in many horror movies, McGregor noted that he treated this like he would any other job. After all, it's Mike Flanagan's job to make it scary – he just has to bring his character to life in a way that resonates with audiences:

As an actor, it doesn't really matter what genre you're in, your job is the same. You've got to be a believable character, and in this case, I had a little boy to look at and go, "That's who I used to be." But no, it's the same as anything. I suppose that would be a question for Mike [Flanagan] really, how to shoot. Because for the actors, it's the same job. I think it's the same as acting in anything. It's not my job to make it scary, it's my job to be Danny, and to be in the moment thinking and feeling Danny's thoughts in those situations. It's Mike's job to make that scary. The director's job to manipulate that and cause the effect in you, the audience. I'm not thinking about the audience much, or at all.

Doctor Sleep hits theaters on November 8, 2019.