In Depth

People In Film | Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor | From Start to Beginners

In Mike Mills Beginners, Ewan McGregor plays Oliver Fields, a young graphic artist confronted with a barrage of confusing changes: his 75-year-old dad Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet, then develops cancer; a charming and unpredictable actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent) comes into his life and heart. It’s a multifaceted role of ups and downs, confusion and enlightenment, and, of course, beginnings as well as endings. In addition, the character of Oliver is in many ways a stand in for writer/director Mike Mills, who drew upon his own life experience for the screenplay of Beginners. For Ewan McGregor, “There is a convergence that makes Beginners very rich and complex. It’s a film about losing, about accepting – in this case, accepting your father for who he really is, accepting the fact that someone who is living life to the fullest is going to die, and then coming to terms with such a loss while falling in love.” Of course, McGregor has negotiated emotional complexity in his films for nearly two decades. And he has done so, as he does in Beginners, with a astonishing charm and humor.

Ewan McGregor | Blessed By Being Different

Ewan McGregor was born on March 21, 1971 in a small town in Scotland to a mother and father who were teachers at the local academy. There was nothing theatrical in his childhood, except that is for his uncle, Denis Lawson. As McGregor later told Time magazine, “I was brought up in Crieff, a small, conservative town...and [Dennis Lawson] had long hair, beads and a furry waistcoat. I aspired to be as different as he seemed to me." (Lawson had appeared in three of the Star Wars film, a resume that perhaps foreshadowed his nephew’s career). By 16, McGregor left home to study drama at Perth’s Repertory Theater, and then to London to attend Guildhall School of Music and Drama. By 22, he landed several major parts on TV shows, first on Dennis Potter’s “Lipstick on your Collar” and then as Julien Sorrel in the BBC’s adaptation of Stendhal’s “Scarlet and Black” About the same time, he’d met up with Danny Boyle, who not only cast the young actor for his Hitchcock-influenced thriller Shallow Grave, but picked him for the role that would define his career.

Ewan McGregor | Audience’s Drug of Choice

In 1995, McGregor was tapped by Boyle to play the lead in his new low-budget film based on a novel by Irvine Welch about a group of heroin addicts scrapping by in financially depressed Edinburgh. For McGregor, the film rocketed him to worldwide fame. As he told the music site Clash in 2011, “I thought everything I was involved in was going to be some huge hit back then, but truthfully, I don’t think that anyone could have predicted just how successful Trainspotting would be today. I mean, it’s still the main thing people ask me about when they come up to me in the street.”  No doubt much of the film’s success came from the unique way that both Boyle and McGregor brought a sense of lightness and charm to otherwise depressing material without losing any of the subject matter’s original grit. Indeed it was this unique attribute that attracted Boyle to McGregor in the first place; he revealed to Entertainment Weekly in 1996: “We wanted somebody who had the quality Michael Caine's got in Alfie and Malcolm McDowell's got in A Clockwork Orange… have a character who is actually repulsive, and yet there's a charm there that makes you feel deeply ambiguous about what he's doing. You're drawn to him.'' Critics and audience were indeed drawn to the young Scottish actor. BBC Films’ Almar Haflidason later wrote, “Central to this supremely confident film is Ewan McGregor. His performance as the heroin-enslaved Mark Renton still ranks as his best.” 

Ewan McGregor | An Independent Star

True to his independent spirit, McGregor continued to take roles that pushed boundaries and expectations. In Peter Greenways’ 1997 intricate puzzle drama of desire, McGregor plays an English man erotically entangled with a Japanese woman, a role that Time’s Richard Corliss expressed “shows again that he is one of the boldest, most charming young actors.” And in Todd Haynes ode to glam rock Velvet Goldmine McGregor so embodied the crazed rock Curt Wild that the Austin Chronicle’s Russell Smith described him as “doing an Iggy Pop/Lou Reed amalgam to scary perfection” and Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek commends how he “nails Wild's willfulness but also his vulnerability.”

Ewan McGregor | Charmed, I’m Sure

McGregor told Total Film that in the midst of making Velvet Goldmine he got a phone call: “I was dressed in the Iggy Pop wig and leather jeans and spoke to my agent and she just screamed down the phone, “Waaaahhh! They want you to be Obi-Wan Kenobi!” With his Uncle Denis history with George Lucas, getting the role of a Jedi Warrior must have seen like destiny. And McGregor took on the legendary role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1999 Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,  the 2002 Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, and the 2005 Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. But in reality the move from glam rock to intergalactic rockets changed very little for McGregor, except the size of films he took on. McGregor moved back and forth between big budget fare like Star Wars and Angels & Demons to more intimate dramas like Stay and Young Adam. McGregor also signed up for a range of genres and styles, always bringing with him his inimitable charm. Stephanie Zacharek said of his character in Baz Luhrmann’s madcap musical Moulin Rouge, ”his charm enfolds everything from the way he stammers … to the suffering he holds like a noble vessel.” Indeed the San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Guthmann credits that film’s ebullient spirit to McGregor, “who has the talent to make us believe the operatic emotions that pour out of him.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman explains that in Peyton Reed’s 2003 Down With Love McGregor “is wonderfully charming as this toxic bachelor with no idea that his ways are on the way out.”

Ewan McGregor | A New Type of Charming Man

Perhaps no actor redefines masculinity identity as expansively as Ewan McGregor. To be sure, he can be as butch as they come. In 2004, McGregor paused from making films to take a globe-trotting motorcycle trip chronicled in his TV documentary and book Long Way Round. He and his pal Charley Boorman rode over 20,000 though 12 countries, going all the way from England to New York city via Europe, Russia, Alaska, and Canada. But McGregor has also openly taken on a number of gay or bi-sexual roles, reveling in the chance to experience new identities, especially in love.  As he told Out magazine, “I'm always interested in playing different people, in different situations. It doesn't matter to me whether someone is in love with a man or a woman. I find the idea of love and romance interesting. I'm a sucker for it. I like playing someone who's falling in love because I like the sensation of it. People do extraordinary things when they're falling in love.”


Display this slideshow on your own site:

Share This: