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Toward a Unified Theory of Ewan McGregor

What does it take to make an audience forget three ‘Star Wars’ prequels and some ‘Moulin Rouge!’ karaoke? A way of making Difficult Movies look easy — and an immense amount of Scottish charm.

(Jaya Nicely)
(Jaya Nicely)

“You’re looking well, though,” someone tells Ewan McGregor early on in T2 Trainspotting, a 20-years-later sequel to the 1996 cult classic that launched his career. “Aye,” he replies. “Everybody says that.” He looks fantastic, it’s true, as handsome and wiry and alluringly volatile as ever. But what really matters there is the though.

As Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, the world’s (or at least Scotland’s) most charismatic heroin addict, the young McGregor made terrible and heartless decisions seem like acts of enormous generosity and grace. After the original Trainspotting, he spent the next two decades as a movie star, in films great and small, revered and reviled. Garish blockbusters and quirky indies, heartwarmers and dirges. A few smash hits. Quite a few bombs. He’s played steely action heroes and rom-com sweethearts, softies and knuckleheads, singular weirdos and relatable everymen, redeemed sinners and luckless tragedies. He has never been nominated for an Oscar, but no misstep has threatened to kill his career, either. Also, he is the A-list actor community’s foremost flaunter of copious nudity.

T2 intends to wrap that body of work in a funeral shroud. Directed once again by Danny Boyle, it is visually inventive and sentimentally black-comedic, but equally unsentimental in its depiction of the ravages of age and disappointment and betrayal and failure. “What am I supposed to do, buy a time machine?” “I’m 46, and I’m fucked.” “You’re a tourist in your own youth.” Rough thesis: If you can’t figure out how to age gracefully, or at least purposefully, your life will be over long before your life actually ends.

McGregor is as active as ever in 2017, playing Lumière the singing candelabra in Beauty and the Beast, and warring twin brothers in the third season of Noah Hawley’s prestige-TV noir, Fargo. He’s in talks to star as a grown-up Christopher Robin in a live-action reboot of the Winnie the Pooh universe, as insane as that sounds. He’s also, just for the record, willing to reprise his most famous (and, arguably, reviled) role, as Obi-Wan Kenobi, in a stand-alone film or two, should the reenergized Star Wars universe demand it.

McGregor is not quite in his prime, maybe, but definitely nowhere near Mark Renton’s implied, irreversible decline. He’s done a lot and been through a lot. The bad news is that some of it sucked. The good news is that he’s so likable, both for his charisma and his wanton fearlessness, that he gets away with it. No matter how big the bomb, he always pulls himself out of the crater and saunters away, and that’s the part of the performance we tend to remember. He’s looking well, though. Here’s a tour through the best of the best and also the best of the worst.

“We, on the Other Hand, Are Colonized by Wankers”

It all starts with the accent, erudite and bratty and irresistible. There is something exquisitely pornographic about the way Ewan McGregor pronounces the word pornography. The gregarious native of Perth, Scotland, broke out with 1994’s Shallow Grave, his first collaboration with Boyle, a spare and mean little thriller in the Tarantino/Coen brothers tradition just then starting to flourish. McGregor plays one of three rudderless, heartless flatmates who progress quickly from theft to murder, accompanied by the strains of ominous piano and way too much villainous laughter. He wears a lot of flannel, acts like a sociopath in a hardware store, munches Sour Cream & Onion Pringles, dances to polka music, heckles a charity fundraiser, and gets variously battered and punctured. It’s not the film’s flashiest role, but he’s the dazzling breakout candidate nonetheless.

Trainspotting came two years later and made both him and Boyle rightly famous. McGregor looks soaked and shivery and painfully vulnerable even when he’s theoretically warm and dry, a rabid animal you can’t help but want to cuddle and protect anyway. His “Choose Life” speech is the movie’s big iconic moment, the generation-defining diatribe that gets a lengthy and just as mouthy T2 update. But what made me fall in love with him was his “It’s shite being Scottish” rant, ironically marking him as his country’s biggest cinematic export since Sean Connery. “We’re ruled by effete assholes!” sounded exquisitely pornographic, too.

The actor-director pair teamed up once more for 1997’s loopy and violent romance A Life Less Ordinary, with Cameron Diaz pulling faces but no punches. Then came a huge rift: McGregor was set to star in Boyle’s 2000 dark-utopia drama The Beach, but got dumped for none other than Leonardo DiCaprio. The old friends’ reconciliation really came only with T2.

The Beach itself was a bust and no great loss from McGregor’s perspective, but it’s tempting to view this as a twisted, sliding-doors sort of moment. Maybe he and Boyle would’ve never parted, and he’d have found his way into all of Boyle’s movies, hacking zombies in 28 Days Later … and hacking off his own arm in 127 Hours and doing whatever he would’ve somehow done in Slumdog Millionaire. But instead, the budding superstar actor had to craft his own bold, weird, unpredictable orbit. He likes psychodramas, and sprawling musicals, and highly eccentric romances, and visually bonkers adventures, and other hard-nosed oddities disinclined to pander to either multiplex throngs or stuck-up critics. The only real through line is willful disorientation. It has taken him to some very strange places, singing some very strange songs, wearing some very strange clothes, when he wears clothes at all.

“Thank You for Curing Me of My Ridiculous Obsession With Love”

McGregor’s penchant for nudity — as indulged in films as varied as 1996’s Hong Kong body-painting drama The Pillow Book, 2003’s Scottish crime thriller Young Adam, and 2010’s Roman Polanski mystery The Ghost Writer — is a long-running joke, and a bit reductive and dated. “I’m getting older, and the actresses stay younger,” he noted in 2011, suggesting that those days were behind him. (A few moments in T2 somewhat demurely suggest otherwise.) Either way, we’ll always have Todd Haynes’s 1998 glam-rock fever dream Velvet Goldmine.

There he is, and, uh, there it is. Velvet Goldmine is a gorgeous, prurient, corny, intermittently enrapturing mess. Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars as the lightly fictionalized David Bowie analogue Brian Slade; McGregor is in the Iggy Pop role as Curt Wild, who looks and sounds an awful lot like Kurt Cobain. The music is killer, the pageantry is stunning, the drama is ludicrous. Half the time Christian Bale is supposed to be playing a teenager. But McGregor commits to all of it, howling through “Gimme Danger,” and, at the dramatic conclusion, delivering this profoundly stupid line …

(Miramax Films)
(Miramax Films)
(Miramax Films)
(Miramax Films)

… without bursting into flames. Good job.

“Surviving wayward movie musicals” turned out to be a lucrative little mini-career for him. There is the not-at-all-small matter of Baz Luhrmann’s bonkers 2001 mega-melodrama Moulin Rouge!, which, if nothing else, earns its exclamation point. It’s another manic, garish picture frame for McGregor to gamely smash his way out of, howling Elton John’s “Your Song” at Nicole Kidman as though both their lives depend on it. The cheese factor is off the charts (McGregor gets a recurring starry-eyed riff about love that sounds like the “Choose Life” speech gone straight); the screwball-comedy sections are unwatchable (poor John Leguizamo), and the lip-syncing gets intense (McGregor and Kidman basically spend two hours dramatically opening their mouths at one another). But resisting the sight, and even the sound, of our star-crossed lovers bellowing through a mashup of “Silly Love Songs,” “Up Where We Belong,” “Heroes,” and “I Will Always Love You” is pointless. These are very pretty people trying very hard and singing very loud, and the result is like 50 Say Anything boomboxes blasting 50 different power ballads simultaneously.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

Moulin Rouge! got a whole bunch of Oscar nominations (including one for Kidman), but has aged poorly, but then again it hardly mattered if you hated it at the time. This McGregor kid seemed to be bulletproof, capable of surviving anything, no matter how clunky or corny or catastrophic. Even, yes, the Star Wars prequels.

“How Do You Think This Trade Viceroy Will Deal With the Chancellor’s Demands?”

Seek out your hot-take revisionism elsewhere: The Star Wars prequels are still terrible. But it’s also a fact that McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is the best thing about them, or at least the least-worst. (He’s the only element the Disney braintrust could even conceivably be threatening to put back onscreen in 2020, anyway). McGregor’s first line of dialogue in 1999’s The Phantom Menace: “I have a bad feeling about this.” Likewise! But it might be his best movie of the three, in that he gets to spend most of his time chopping it up with Liam Neeson. Obi-Wan’s braid-and-ponytail situation is plainly ridiculous, but McGregor’s familiar brogue softens the blow of all that boneheaded dialogue: “Jar Jar is on his way to the Gungan City, master.” “You and the Naboo form a symbiont circle.” “Over 20,000! Even Master Yoda doesn’t have a midichlorian count that high.”

Attack of the Clones, from 2002, is rougher, in that Hayden “I Don’t Like Sand” Christensen takes the fore as Anakin Skywalker, and we all collectively take the aft. Newly shorn, McGregor now looks like a member of the Eagles testifying in family court, and is stuck making tough-guy small talk with Jango Fett and getting his ass kicked by Count Dooku. As a brief, cheerful moment of respite, though, there is “You don’t want to sell me death sticks.”

Revenge of the Sith, which wrapped up the trilogy in 2005, is enough to make anyone consider death sticks, whether Obi-Wan is greeting General Grievous with “Hello there!” or sending off Anakin with an anguished “You were the chosen one!” Don’t watch the Star Wars prequels again. Not on a dare, not for work. That said, far less worthy people would’ve fared far worse in the role, and if nothing else McGregor swung a lightsaber with aplomb. As an audience surrogate, take comfort in the fact that he lives through it all.

How does a guy make three Star Wars prequels (plus Moulin Rouge!) and emerge mid-aughts as a Serious Actor? By not stopping long enough to let you question the notion, and slipping lots of better movies in the cracks, from Black Hawk Down to the Tim Burton fantasia Big Fish to maybe even the zany throwback Renée Zellweger rom-com Down With Love. And by 2005, he was a free man, indulging his taste in yet more poorly reviewed psychosexual thrillers (see the Ryan Gosling turkey Stay) or, why not, starring in a Michael Bay would-be blockbuster about oblivious clones.

The Island is loud and goopy and quite absurd, pitched exactly halfway between Never Let Me Go and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. McGregor starts out playing a hatched adult clone trapped in a weirdo techno-utopia, educated to the level of a 15-year-old, and denied a sex drive, which he interprets, intriguingly, as “act like Matt Damon.” Eventually he escapes with Scarlett Johansson, and a whole lot of shit blows up, and his dialogue is mostly reduced to “Go!” and “Hold on!” and whatnot. It will neither surprise nor displease you to learn that he and Johansson discover their sex drives.

This movie is notable in 2017 as foreshadowing for Fargo, in that it’s the first time McGregor appears onscreen opposite himself, in a few scenes where the Noble Clone confronts the Flawed Original. (And bites him.) Crucially, though, the Flawed Original gets the Scottish accent.

“Here’s Simple and Happy. That’s What I Meant to Give You.”

Post–Star Wars, McGregor’s career has been governed by the same delirious randomness, which means that a few would-be popcorn blockbusters organically sneak into the mix, including the overstuffed 2009 Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons and 2013’s woebegone Jack and the Giant Slayer. But he’s far more comfortable in weirder and more discomfiting places, smooching Jim Carrey in I Love You Phillip Morris or doing Dark Woody Allen in Cassandra’s Dream or staring at goats in The Men Who Stare at Goats. None of those are great, but they’re all impressively hard-headed and odd, more trophies for a guy who seems happiest when he’s making Difficult Movies look easy, or at least seem more enjoyable than they ought to be.

There’s something beguilingly off even about his taste in uplifting romantic comedies. In 2012’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, he and Emily Blunt try to find love while bringing peace to the Middle East via salmon importation, a bad dramatic idea made worse by his suspiciously paralyzing shyness and poor sense of decorum. (Important internet argument regarding his character: “Is Dr. Alfred Jones autistic, or just ‘English’?”) How is this movie still actually charming? Ewan McGregor is how: the casual seriousness, the precise affability, the way even his least relatable characters seem relatable. And the occasional pratfall.

His best film of this century, at least, has that same victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat feel, of perilous whimsy expertly redeemed. Mike Mills’s 2010 dramedy Beginners is a gentle festival of low-stakes quirk: McGregor plays a muted Los Angeles artist mourning his late-blooming out-and-proud father’s death and timidly romancing a muted pixie dream girl played by Mélanie Laurent. There’s a ton of straight-faced whimsy — the subtitled dog, the roller skates, the extensive quote from The Velveteen Rabbit — and you sense intellectually that cuteness this overpowering can’t be credible, or good for you. But it gets to you, or at least it got to me, the winsome sadness, the melancholy tilt toward happiness. It’s a silly little thing, and I love it.

The ideal McGregor vehicle allows for at least a little silliness. He made his directorial debut in 2016 with American Pastoral, starring as well in the long-threatened adaptation of Philip Roth’s grandiose, shattered-family tragedy, and the result is workmanlike and certainly tragic — it’s not supposed to be fun, and it sure isn’t. His respect for the material is obvious, but respect is all he brings to it. He leaves almost all his other gifts — for surprise, for audacity, for flirting with disaster but never quite succumbing to it — on the table. If an actor this squirmy and brazen was gonna tackle one of the squirmiest and most brazen Lions of American Literature, he really should’ve tried to adapt Portnoys Complaint instead.

Four months into 2017, this is already a much better year for him. Even his transition to TV has been smooth and dignified, while still allowing for the possibility of his trademark feral dissonance once he gets comfortable enough to start making you uncomfortable. A few episodes into this season of Fargo, there’s a touch of restraint to both of McGregor’s roles, even when his characters are arguing with each other. For now he’s content to let his costars have all the fun and quietly skilled enough to make sure they do. As Emmit Stussy, the well-heeled “Parking Lot King of Minnesota,” he cedes the floor to Michael Stuhlbarg, as the twee and volcanic lawyer Sy Feltz; as Ray Stussy, the burnout parole officer, he lets Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as his girlfriend Nikki Swango, slap him around and seduce everybody else. It’s enough for now to know what he’s capable of. Give him time. It hasn’t been easy and definitely hasn’t always been pretty, but he’s rewarded the time he’s been given thus far. “The world changes, even if we don’t,” somebody says near the end of T2. But it’s better if you change with it. And it’s a much better line regardless.