Actor friends go Long Way

By Shelley Emling
LONDON — As the new face of trendy U.K. knitwear brand Pringle, Ewan McGregor has been sporting a clean-shaven look — and a lot of luxury scarves — in recent weeks.

Indeed, his appearance during a recent interview was a far cry from the bushy beard and unkempt persona he finessed during a 20,000-mile motorcycle trip with best friend and fellow actor Charley Boorman. The pair set out from London on April 14, and with some help from trains and planes they trekked through 13 countries, ending up in New York City July 29.

Their journey circumnavigated hostile terrain through the Ukraine, Siberia, Alaska and Canada.

"Riding into New York was just amazing," McGregor says. "We couldn't believe we had done it, and we just started blubbering as we looked at the skyline."

A six-episode Bravo series chronicling the journey, Long Way Round, premieres Thursday (10 p.m. ET/PT). A book published by Atria/Simon & Schuster is due Nov. 2.

Traveling without stunt people and personal assistants, McGregor, the star of such movies as Big Fish, Moulin Rouge and Star Wars, was accompanied only by Boorman, a cameraman and two producers who drove far behind in a 4-by-4.

It was simply a quest for adventure and the chance to meet "real people" that drove the pair to embark on the journey of a lifetime — and on a true test of their stamina.

"We missed our families horribly at first, and we fell off our bikes a number of times, and the potholes were awful, and the rivers could be so swollen that we'd have to find trucks to put our bikes on," says McGregor, 34. "Need I go on?"

Although McGregor often has had to be away from his wife, Eve, and their two daughters, Clara, 8, and Esther, 2, the longest he had ever been separated from them before was six weeks, when he filmed Moulin Rouge in Australia. He and Boorman talked to their wives "every day," he says, "and so they always had a clear picture of what we were doing and where we'd been that particular day."

The toughest leg was Mongolia, where the roads were so bad it took them 14 hours to ride just 30 miles. The trip's highlight? Mongolia again.

"It was the farthest away from our own culture, and I don't think the place has changed much since the days of Genghis Khan," McGregor says.

Both agree the journey was successful on many levels. It allowed McGregor to escape the rigors of fame and travel unnoticed, though he was recognized by British tourists in Prague. And while trekking across the Ukraine, the pair was detained by armed guards who demanded documentation. McGregor was recognized by a local businessman who secured their release and put them up for the night.

The journey also allowed them to see the work of children's charity UNICEF. In Kiev, they met children of victims of the Chernobyl disaster. In Mongolia they learned of "rat children" who live in sewers. McGregor says he was so moved that he has signed on as a UNICEF ambassador.

And finally, the journey allowed the two to celebrate a remarkable friendship that began in 1997 on the set of The Serpent's Kiss. "Making a movie can be an intense two or three months, and generally you'll only make a friend once out of every 10 times you meet someone on a set," Boorman says. "It's even more rare that you might meet someone that turns into a real friend for life."

Indeed, their fondness is apparent as they banter about their trip in the tidy West London garage that houses their BMW bikes as well as a wall of world maps.

Certainly, they have a lot in common. Both are married with two children; they are godfathers for each other's kids. Both are actors. Boorman is the son of John Boorman, director of Deliverance, the first movie in which Charley appeared. And both are passionate about motorcycles, which spurred them to hatch their plan over a late-night dinner at McGregor's house more than two years ago.

So did they ever grow tired of each other's company? "Things are different when you are on a bike because you've got helmets on, and you can't talk to one another, so it's sort of like we were alone a good part of the time," Boorman says