Ewan McGregor: A Retrospective
With the release of Christopher Robin, it appears that Ewan McGregor is embarking on a different phase of his career. If you look back over the past 25 years (and you will if you keep reading) it is hard to imagine him playing the working-class family man. But his career, so far, certainly has been nothing if not varied. As a matter of fact, we asked folks on Twitter about the quintessential Ewan McGregor roles, and the reaction was a bit surprising. Sure, there were the expected favorites, such as Moulin Rouge, Trainspotting, and the Star Wars prequels. But films like Shallow Grave, Salmon Fishing in Yemen, and Stay also made appearances. McGregor is one of those screen presences that can makes an impact regardless of the size of his role or even the success of the film. Hopefully, by looking back, we can learn about McGregor and how he arrived here, at the Hundred Acre Wood.
His career started off like a shot, thanks to his work with director Danny Boyle. In both Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, McGregor showed off a truly unique skill. He has the ability, through charm and charisma, to make us truly care about a character who commits some truly heinous actions. Shallow Grave is not a movie with any honest or kind characters, and yet, we are drawn to him. He is cruel to strangers in the first moments of the film, but that twinkle in his eye won’t quite allow us to hate him. This carries the audience through to Shallow Grave’s bloody end. Trainspotting features one of his most memorable roles, that of Mark Renton, who is a heroin addict, surrounded mostly by other heroin addicts. Renton lies, cheats, steals, and generally creates chaos wherever he goes, regardless of his intentions. Some of his actions even lead to the death of other main characters. But again, we can’t help but be in his corner. That charm oozes through, even in circumstances of despair. However, we can’t explain McGregor’s success simply by his charm. His performance as Renton going through heroin withdrawal is truly harrowing, both because of Boyle’s direction and McGregor’s portrayal of pain, both emotional and physical. Boyle and McGregor also worked together on the less-than-stellar A Life Less Ordinary. But again, McGregor is enjoyable enough next to Cameron Diaz, who would go on to be a bit stereotyped in this kind of role years to follow. Boyle and McGregor are clearly having a great time, even if it never quite translated into a great film.
And this is where McGregor’s career, and his relationship with Boyle, takes a turn. Although they have since buried the hatchet, Boyle’s decision to reportedly secure more funding for The Beach essentially forced McGregor out in favor of uberstar Leonardo DiCaprio. And frankly, that decision hurts the film in the end. If The Beach didn’t need to cater to the studio’s decisions, it probably would have been a much darker, and better film. And honestly, it makes you wonder what his and Boyle’s careers would have been like if they had stuck together like Scorsese and De Niro.
But also, around this time, McGregor put in one of his most powerful performances, that of Curt Wild, in Velvet Goldmine. Curt Wild is clearly a combination of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and McGregor creates this connection without those famous names being mentioned even once. His Curt Wild is pure energy and sex, which creates a wonderful dichotomy paired with the controlled performance from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as an obvious Bowie stand in, Brian Slade. Although the rest of the film is the definition of beautiful, McGregor is the engine of Velvet Goldmine. Slade‘s immediate desire for Wild leads him to America, and their dramatic relationship leads the film in directions it could not go otherwise. If Wild doesn’t work, the film falls apart. But of course, McGregor makes it work, and his performance of Iggy Pop’s “Gimme Danger” is one for the ages.
And now we come to it, easily the biggest films of his career, the Star Wars prequels. These films, despite a recent reappraisal, are easy to mock. They certainly have their share of problems, but Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi is not among them. And in some ways, McGregor has the most difficult job in the prequels, because Obi-Wan is already a fully formed character that is beloved from the original trilogy. If you watch his physical performance and compare it to Alec Guinness, you can absolutely see that he has done his homework. McGregor is really the only actor who manages to lift some truly dreadful dialogue and make it palatable. Even when paired with, let’s say, less-than-stellar scene partners, he manages to capture the emotion that the script sorely needs. Obi-Wan’s emotional beats all absolutely work, and this is thanks to McGregor’s skill and dedication. Beyond that, he truly seems to enjoy the Star Wars universe. While other actors have quickly distanced themselves from the prequels, he is always willing to talk about them. Not only that, he has actively campaigned to return to the Obi-Wan role as an older actor, and who among us doesn’t want that!?
Throughout the long period of time that the Star Wars films were released, McGregor was cast in several films, with varying degrees of success. Although it is in a supporting role, he is quite impressive in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Though to be fair, it is easy to get lost in that film, due to its star-studded cast. He also starred in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, which is likely the film that jumps to people’s minds when his name is mentioned. He is perfectly cast as the pure romantic, opposite Nicole Kidman. But, here is a film that could have gone horrifically wrong. Musicals, especially in 2001, are an iffy choice. This is doubly true when your two leads are not necessarily musically trained. But the passion in this film is so evident, that you can’t help but be swept up by it. This helped earn the film many Oscar nominations, though none for McGregor or the director. McGregor faces a distinct challenge that many musical actors have failed to elude. That is, the pure romantic lead’s emotions can border on the melodramatic. But that charm surfaces again and we not only feel what he feels for Kidman’s Satine, but we understand why she would fall for the destitute poet against all better judgment.
Unfortunately, this is where his career takes another turn. Despite not-so-great reviews, the Star Wars prequels likely made it possible for McGregor to make interesting acting choices. Plus, most felt those films hit a high note with his performance in The Revenge of the Sith. Moulin Rouge was a critical and a box office darling in 2001. McGregor had two movies come out in 2003, one that was well thought of and the other not so much. He played the lead in Big Fish, as a younger version of Albert Finney, in essentially a story about storytelling. It was seen as a return to form from Tim Burton after the horrendous The Planet of the Apes remake. McGregor’s talent is on full display, complete with an American southern accent to match Finney. It may not be McGregor’s most subtle performance, but it fits the material perfectly. That same year, Down With Love, an endearing tribute to Doris Day and Rock Hudson films, was also released. The high-profile casting of McGregor and Renee Zellweger, as well as a $40-million-budget, didn’t save Down With Love from failure. It managed to make its money back, but just barely. But this film, with its recreation of a very particular time and place, was never likely to be a mega hit. Both stars are absolutely wonderful in their roles and many of the staff here at TFS highly recommend you give it a watch. It is light, fun, and just lovely overall.
McGregor’s role as a box office draw took another hit when he was cast in Michael Bay’s The Island. This was immediately following Bay’s Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys II, both of which made plenty of money, but the critical reception was finally catching up to him. The Island is actually remarkably restrained, especially for Michael Bay, saving much of the action for the last third of the film, and both McGregor and his co-star Scarlett Johansson are extremely capable and enjoyable in their roles. Both of them, in some ways, must portray wide-eyed youths in adult bodies, and McGregor’s ever present boyish glint in his eyes helps this along greatly. This is one of the few Bay films that is probably due for a reexamination after getting the bad taste of some of his lesser films out of our mouths.
At this point, McGregor’s career took a serious dip. He was still working, of course, but not too many people were watching. He appeared in a little-known film called Stay, which co-starred Naomi Watts and a young Ryan Gosling. The film itself is a solid thriller, but was a massive bomb at the box office. Its, quite frankly, ridiculous $50 million budget hamstrung the movie, the mixed reception critically certainly did not help, either. These failures may have led McGregor to take his second cross country motorcycle trip in 2007, following his first in 2004, both of which turned into best-selling books and documentaries, Long Way Round and Long Way Down. So, sometimes failure can lead to other successes.
Box office success didn’t soon follow, though, as evidenced by his involvement in films like Angels & Demons. Although his performance is nowhere near the worst thing about that film, McGregor probably wouldn’t put it on his highlight reel, either. After this, McGregor returned to his independent film roots. Films like The Men Who Stare at Goats, I Love You Phillip Morris, and Beginners afforded him a return to credibility and distance from financial expectations. These roles enabled McGregor to lean on his general goodwill and charisma and stretch himself as an actor again. This is particularly true in Beginners, in which he portrays Christopher Plummer’s son in a film written and directed by Mike Mills. This heartfelt film lets the audience lean in to an actor who is easy to love, and share his difficulties in adjusting to a new reality and changing relationships. This is another film in which McGregor is overshadowed in awards consideration by a performance in the same movie, which seems to be a pattern for him.
Soon after, there is yet another lull in terms of prestige projects for McGregor, but he continued to work, even in films that were beneath his talent. He was involved in some abject failures, such as Jack the Giant Killer and the universally loathed Mortdecai. But on the bright side, he had supporting roles in critically acclaimed films like August Osage County and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Luckily, he was not asked to carry the failures and continued to perform admirably in smaller films.
In 2016’s American Pastoral, there really is no way around this, Ewan McGregor made a major error in judgment. American Pastoral is one of the great American novels, and does not lend itself easily to film. It takes place over many decades and the characters are difficult to grasp until you reach the end of the massive novel. This is the film that McGregor chose to make his directorial debut. Granted, the original director, Philip Noyce, left the project at the last minute and McGregor did the admirable, if not the smart, thing. To add to this, he is wildly miscast as the lead, Swede Levov. American Pastoral was a failure in just about every way you can imagine. Critics loathed the film, and audiences didn’t bother to see it, though an extremely limited release did not help matters. Fans of the book and the uninitiated had similar reactions to the film, so it will be interesting to see if McGregor gets another shot in the director’s chair. There is some promise there, but he certainly should have started smaller.
Last year was actually quite a good year for McGregor. He and Boyle finally worked together again, as he reprised his role of Mark Renton in T2: Trainspotting. Reaction was relatively split on the film as a whole, but McGregor seemed to slip back into Renton without an ounce of difficulty. One can almost feel the comfortable relationship between Boyle and McGregor and even feel some of the regret from years ago. This actually helps the film, due to its themes of said regret and nostalgia. These two could have made many more great films together, and their careers likely would have been better for it. McGregor was also a voice actor in Disney’s update of Beauty and the Beast. And look, whatever you think of it, that movie was a wonderful financial decision for Disney and everyone involved. McGregor, putting on a ridiculously enjoyable French accent manages to have a good time, even in an obvious money grab.
Were his career to end today (and it won’t, as he has four more projects lined up) after Christopher Robin, you could look at it in two ways; under-appreciated and full of missed opportunities. In some ways, that easy charm and his boyish good looks have held him back as an actor in terms of awards glory. In many films, including Trainspotting, Moulin Rouge, Big Fish, and Beginners, he has been overshadowed by other actors and writers because of this ease of performance. Ewan McGregor is the opposite of showy, and this may lead to this lack of appreciation, thus far. This is not to say that Kidman, Finney, and Plummer did not deserve the recognition. But what about McGregor? He certainly deserves some level of credit for these performances working, as well. The missed opportunities, on the other hand, are both financial and artistic. The big, obvious miss is his split with Danny Boyle. Although Boyle has gone on to Oscar glory, his early work is some of his most highly regarded. Besides 28 Days Later and 127 Hours, Boyle has struggled to reach the heights of Trainspotting. Just imagine a timeline where Boyle and McGregor grow together and push each other to do greater work. From a box office perspective, it seems like his timing was always just a bit off. McGregor has managed some guaranteed money-makers with the Star Wars/Disney machine, but there were also some serious misses in The Island and Down With Love, which are mostly due to timing and poor financial decisions by the studios.
Although it feels like Ewan McGregor has been around forever, he is only in his 40s, and certainly has a lot to give to the world of cinema. We can hope that his talent is recognized by the public and the critical worlds alike, hopefully at the same time! He is truly gifted and has the ability to create characters that we love when we should despise, as well as carry gigantic properties that are beloved by viewers across the globe. Let’s just hope that the timing will finally be right and that he receives the appreciation that he deserves.