Profile: Ewan McGregor
This first appeared in Scottish Field in April 2018
With his jaunty quiff and open-jawed T-Rex grin, Ewan McGregor has always been a charmer. In his new BBC documentary The RAF at 100, you can see that magnetism in action when he and his brother Colin are introduced to two veteran lady air auxiliary pilots.
Mary, a 100 years old of refreshing clarity and directness, tells him that her favourite actor is the star of Judge John Deed. “Martin Shaw wasn’t available today,” sighs Ewan, while his big brother smothers his laughter. Yet by the end of their time together, Mary is not only eating out of 46 year old McGregor’s hand, she’s holding it.
A former icon of Britpop, McGregor was the first Scots actor to feel the heat of the international limelight since Sean Connery, and it’s hard to think of any other movie stars who have had his sort of career — long, prolific, and wide-ranging, and often favouring the indie and the quirky. Even small children must have seen at least one McGregor movie before they are of school age, although hopefully that film is Valiant, where he’s an animated pigeon, or Beauty and the Beast where he plays Lumiere the singing candlestick, and not Shallow Grave, where he gets beaten and stabbed.
However, when he comes to Scotland, for work, or to visit his brother Colin and their parents Carol and Jim, he leaves behind Ewan McGregor, star of The Phantom Menace, Moulin Rouge, and Fargo.
“In Scotland, it is “RENTS” everywhere I go,” says McGregor, referring to his 1996 breakout film, Trainspotting. “Everywhere else in the world, people want to talk about Star Wars, or sometimes I get stopped to talk about motorbikes after The Long Way Round. Because there was a point when I was getting more compliments for my bike riding more than my film work, which I’m not sure is a good thing.”
Also, Scots want to take me for a pint. Conversations in the street end with me saying, “Well you know I can’t — I stopped drinking.” And they go, “What? Come on Rents. Take a f******g drink!””
McGregor may be one of Scotland’s best-kent faces but he’s dodged some bullets along the way; in 2010, he had a meeting with Madonna to discuss playing Edward VIII in her ill-fated biopic WE. “We never got any further than talking about it. But it was nice to meet her,” he says diplomatically.
He does regret messing up an audition to play Emma Thompson’ love interest in the Oscar-winning film, Sense And Sensibility. “It would have been a wonderful opportunity to work with Ang Lee, who is a terrific director, but I thoroughly mucked it up. I was so unprepared that I was garbage. At one point I almost said: ‘Please, for God’s sake, don’t ask me to do this scene again let’s just make everyone’s lives easier and send me home.’ Hugh Grant got the part instead.
Approaches from the James Bond producers when they were casting for a new 007 around the time of Casino Royale also came to nothing, but when another famous franchise offered him the chance to journey to a galaxy far, far away, he found the chance to wield a light sabre impossible to refuse.
McGregor’s first links to Star Wars were familial. His uncle Denis Lawson had been in all three Star Wars movies, as Wedge, the only X-Wing fighter pilot other than Luke to survive the trilogy, and the original 1977 blockbuster was one of the first films McGregor saw in a cinema; “My brother Colin and I were picked up from school and taken to see it. We’d never seen my uncle on a big screen before, so it was pretty full on.”
Starfighters and aerial battles inspired both boys that day. Ewan’s brother Colin became a fighter pilot with the RAF in Lossiemouth, while his younger sibling credits Uncle Dennis, Star Wars pilot, Holby City doctor, and Local Hero landlord, with getting McGregor fired up about performing onscreen. Aged ten, he confided to his uncle, ‘I want to be an actor too.’
Both boys attended Morrison’s Academy where their father, Jim, was a PE teacher. Colin had been a model pupil, sportsman and head boy. But Ewan refused to be overshadowed, and formed a pop group called Scarlet Pride, and took to the stage in skin-tight jeans with his hair dyed red with poster paint. Aside from music, drama and art, however, school held little of interest to the teenager so he struck a deal with his parents: after passing four O Grades, they allowed him to leave school at 16 to work at Perth Rep. The company, near his home, was planning a production of A Passage to India and needed a lot of Indian extras; “I was taken in and blackened up and turbaned up, and after that they kept me on,” he recalls. After an acting course in Kirkcaldy, he won a place at the Guildhall School and Music and Drama, and for the end of year show, wrote a monologue for himself about a legless oil rigger.
After rolling onto the stage in his wheelchair in front of an audience of friends, family and potential agents, McGregor suffered every actor’s worst nightmare: he dried up. During the long silence while he cast around for his opening lines, McGregor thought his chances had drained away. But in the audience, the silence looked like the tactic of a bold new talent. “You could feel everybody’s spines tingling a bit,” recalled Jonathan Altaras, a leading agent. “He was exactly what everybody was looking for in terms of sexiness, in terms of charisma, in terms of everything.”
When he left drama school early for his first job, on Lipstick on Your Collar, Uncle Denis stepped in beforehand and gave him a masterclass in the technicalities of working in front of a camera, but ironically, when the chance to play a younger version of Alec Guinness’ Jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi, his uncle tried to dissuade him: “He said to me, “If you want to have a career after 30, don’t do it. It was a big decision and the worry was that I might not survive a film with that kind of hype, but I did three auditions and the nearer I got to it, the more I wanted to do it.”
McGregor has now heard every possible jokey variation of “May the Force be with you,” but he can still identify with the excitement caused by the elaborate galactic saga.
“Just before I got the job, George Lucas showed me the studios and they were building this huge submarine. I got excited and asked, “Will we be going underwater in that?” He looked at me as if I was nuts and said, “You know, none of it is real.” And sadly that’s part of the experience. You get behind the curtain.”
Around this time, amid suggestions he was struggling to keep it under control, McGregor gave up his drinking. “It took up too much time,” he says. He also gained a reputation for taking his clothes off on screen, although not in Star Wars films, and rather less often since he turned forty. “It’s been in retirement recently, my penis,” he deadpans. “Movie-wise, I hasten to add.”
Since Disney revived the Star Wars franchise in 2015, there’s been persistent talk of McGregor returning to Jedi duty. Certain he remains open to reprising the role. “Playing Obi Wan Kenobi is a great thrill, so if they need me then I’m happy to do it,” he told me in 2017. “Besides, Alec Guinness isn’t available.”
McGregor has a wide range of interests, some picked up on movie sets such as pigeon fancying ( Little Voice) and a fascination with fixed-gear bicycles after working in Glasgow and cycling to the sets for Perfect Sense. Now he builds bicycles from scratch, with frames sourced on eBay, and famously he loves small fast machines, having made several round-the-world trips on his motorbike with longtime pal Charley Boorman.
He doesn’t ride bikes when shooting a film — most film production insurance won’t allow it — but he owns dozens stashed around Scotland and Los Angeles, including a 1956 Sunbeam S7, an Indian Larry chopper, and “one of the most beautiful bikes ever built”: a 1972 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport.
Occasionally he has a spill, breaking his leg during a forced slide in London traffic several years ago. “There’s no time to think when you come off a bike, if you’re lucky. The scary ones are when you do have time to realise what’s going to happen. I had moments on the TV show when I knew I was going to come off, which meant a horrible moment of thinking, “oh sh*t — here we go””.
Aside from cycle crashes, McGregor rarely admits to vulnerability, but his confidence is more fragile than one might think. He takes criticism to heart, and avoids reading about himself. Fellow actor Tom Hiddleston recalls that in 2008 when McGregor played Iago in a big west end production of Othello, he was so nervous that the younger actor had to steer the Trainspotting actor out of the theatre for a dinner in order to distract and calm him down.
McGregor was also deeply hurt when Danny Boyle cast Leonardo DiCaprio in his big-budget 2000 film The Beach. After appearing in Boyle’s films Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and a Life Less Ordinary, McGregor assumed the role was his. The switch came at the eleventh hour. DiCaprio was a bigger star and that meant he guaranteed a bigger budget.
McGregor admits there were hard feelings. Boyle had been his first film director, and his favourite director. The two men didn’t speak for more than a decade, even when they found themselves on a long-haul flight, sitting opposite each other.
The mending of the friendship began when McGregor presented an award and gave a moving speech about his work with Boyle at 2009’s BAFTA Britannia Awards. When the subject of Trainspotting came up again, McGregor admitted he hoped to work with Boyle again.
Trainspotting seemed an unlikely cultural touchstone when it was released in 1996, but what might have been a depressing story about addiction turned out to be a scabrous, spirited portrait of a bleary band of wasters. McGregor and the film set out their stall at the start, with a hell-for-leather dash across Edinburgh alongside Ewen Bremner, pursued by cops. The sardonic monologue “Choose life” became an instant classic
According to director Danny Boyle, he’d always wanted to do a sequel, but McGregor was more reluctant because he had not liked Porno, Irvine Welsh’s next book, as much as he had liked Trainspotting. He said: “I wasn’t touched by it in the same way, and I didn’t want anything to tarnish the film. No one wants to make a sh*te sequel.”
He was also apprehensive about whether he could rediscover his Scottishness: “I go home every year, because my parents are there, and my brother and his family, and I love it, but I haven’t lived there,” he said. “I did think — what if I’m not Scottish enough anymore?’”
The followup that finally brought Boyle, McGregor and his co-stars Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Johnny Lee Miller and even Kelly Macdonald back together contained nods to modern Scotland (rather than selling drugs, the gang now apply for endangered EU grants), comic beats (a sequence where McGregor’s Renton improvises a loyalist song in an Orange club is extremely funny), and contemplate the disappointments of middle age (although everyone seems to have remembered to moisturise).
T2: Trainspotting’s themes of reunion, passing youth, rebellious middle years, and reinvention seemed to chime with McGregor’s own experiences. When he made the first film, he was 24, had just married Eve and was awaiting the birth of their first daughter, Clara. He had starved himself to lose two stone and achieve Renton’s junkie weight, and was hungry for success. “Ewan was in the year above me at drama school,” recalls his contemporary Damian Lewis. “He always said, “I don’t want to be a theatre actor, I want to be a film star.” He was really clear about it.”
When he began work on T2, McGregor was become a father of four girls, with more than fifty movies under his belt, and hadn’t seen many of his co-stars for years, especially Carlyle, who he had not seen since the premiere of Trainspotting in 1996. He had also started to take stock, noting ruefully “It’s very rare now for me to be in big hit movies.”
Since then McGregor’s domestic life has been through a seismic shift. In January of this year, he filed for divorce from his wife Eve, 51, citing ‘irreconcilable differences’, six months after being spotted kissing Mary Elizabeth Winstead, his co-star in the cult TV series Fargo.
Eve was reportedly ‘furious’ when her husband won the Best Actor In A Limited Series award at this year’s Golden Globes and thanked both women. “‘I want to take a moment to just say thank you to Eve who always stood by me for 22 years and our four children Clara, Esther, Jamyan and Anouk,’ he said in Los Angeles. ‘And there wouldn’t have been any Ray [his Fargo character] without Mary Elizabeth Winstead.’
When asked about his words, Eve said: ‘No, I did not like his speech.’”
The breakup took many by surprise: for years McGregor’s off-screen reputation was as a steady family man. However, in the 2016 film, Our Kind of Traitor, he was thoughtful about his character, also long-married, and who also undergoes marital upheaval. “He’s maybe not the man he thought he was going to become, or not living the life he imagined he was going to live. There’s definitely a 40-something internal crisis going on,” he told the Press Association.
Does he relate on any level? “I’ve got a great life, I’m a very happy man, but I think all of us look at our lives in a different way as you get into your 40s.”
McGregor has always denied suggestions that he is ambitious. “I don’t have a career plan,” he says. “I read big films that might be hits, but I’ll pass. I can choose films to my taste and I’m lucky in that”.
Clearly, however, McGregor can be restive, and as he approaches fifty, he is not afraid to shake things up.
Last year he made his debut as a feature film director with American Pastoral, based on the 1997 novel by Philip Roth. He found himself enjoying the responsibility of creative decisions, and although the film was not commercially well-received, he is already looking forward to stepping behind the camera again.
“Maybe in Scotland,” he told me at Pastoral’s Scottish premiere. “Next time I’d like to do something smaller, and faster. Maybe with young people — and maybe without me in it. Start sending me your scripts now.”