With Disney+ series Obi–Wan Kenobi available to watch now starring Ewan McGregor back in the titular role after nearly 20 years, it’s the perfect time to revisit McGregor’s most iconic performances outside the galaxy far, far away. So many of us are wildly well versued in Obi-Wan Kenobi facts, but what do we know about the other movies McGregor has starred in over the years? After watching Episode 1 and Episode 2 of Obi-Wan Kenobi, now is a great time for an Ewan McGregor movie marathon!
Sure, there may also be many of you who are familiar with most titles on this list, but it’s not a stretch to assume that there’s a sizable amount of newer Star Wars fans who would be interested in checking out McGregor’s catalog; either to prepare for the Kenobi show, or to explore afterwards. The following titles are not necessarily picked on the basis of what his “best” roles are, but rather the list is curated with an intent to display the absolutely bonkers range that this man possesses as an actor. If you mainly know McGregor from his Star Wars stint, prepare to be blown away. And while we’re all catching up on his other movies, it looks like McGregor’s catching up on his original Star Wars films…
The Ghost Writer (2010)
In Roman Polanski’s 2010 neo-noir political thriller, McGregor plays an unnamed ghostwriter hired to write the autobiography of a former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Throughout the research and writing process, McGregor’s ghostwriter unravels dark secrets and potential war crimes inextricably linked to the political figure ranging from war crimes to murder. As the ghostwriter’s own life becomes endangered by his discoveries, McGregor delivers a subtle but strong performance as a wallflower-type everyman suddenly swept into a world of conspiracy. He has to muddy his hands in order to dig out the truth, and he learns to play the same game the powerful forces around him are playing, and McGregor brings a grounded performance to this high-tension conflict.
Many of McGregor’s roles are overt in one way or another, but his performance in The Ghost Writer shows his ability to bring substance to a character without any visible gimmick. Like a real life ghostwriter, McGregor is able to blend his character into the background while simultaneously serving as the driving force for the story. This leveled performance earned McGregor several Best Actor awards and is perhaps one of his most well hidden gems.
Big Fish (2003)
In an uncharacteristically bright venture from director Tim Burton, McGregor stars in 2003’s Big Fish. It tells the story of Will Bloom reckoning with his father, Edward (Albert Finney) and the tall tales he’s woven about his own past throughout Will’s childhood. Convinced they’re fabrications, Will listens once more to his father’s stories and tries to suss out the truth as McGregor plays Edward as a young man in hyperbolized flashbacks. Burton likened McGregor’s performance to his longtime collaborator Johnny Depp, known for his ability to disappear into a variety of roles.
Edward Bloom in his older years is characterized as a man who hides behind his own charm, and McGregor has that charm in spades. He exudes a sensitive kind of bravado as he encounters mythical creatures and woos beautiful women. McGregor perfectly captures the kind of man Edward wants to be remembered as, and it’s quite unlike any of his other performances. There is throughout a lingering doubt that this young version of Edward Bloom is anything more than an artifice, and McGregor dangles this question with extraordinary lightness.
Young Adam (2003)
Another 2003 feature, Young Adam from director David Mackenzie showcases how McGregor can swing from one extreme to another, seemingly overnight. His charm in Big Fish is now turned dark, dangerous, and immoral – in other words, he’s a real piece of work. He is listless, violent, and has not a shred of selfless empathy in his core. Any amount of appeal McGregor gives Joe is just used as a weapon against the women he pursues and subsequently harms in the film.
By the end, we see how far this gets Joe, guilty of murder and too cowardly to save the innocent man charged with the crime in his stead. McGregor has done the hard work of giving us ample reason to hate Joe, and even as we yearn to see him reap what he’s sown, he is still imbued with a humanity that makes him pitiful.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Lurhmann’s 2001 fever dream pop musical has McGregor singing seriously in a role for the first time. Ewan had auditioned for Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet previously, and he was asked by the director to audition for the role of bleeding heart Bohemian writer, Christian. McGregor’s trademark charm ensures Christian is a sap you can root for, balancing his love struck idealism with a gravitas that lends to a touch of darkness. This moodier side is needed in order to sell the tragedy looming on the horizon with the film’s ticking time clock of Satine’s (Nicole Kidman) foreshadowed demise.
Though plainly stated and somewhat myopic, McGregor holds Christian’s motivation together with an earnestness just shy of painful, and a brooding that only dips its toes into the shallow end of melodrama. McGregor’s grief in the end is raw and wrenching, howling like a hurt animal. The moment delivers the linchpin of the movie — all the glamour, pizazz and flurry of the film’s frenetic energy gives way to a mournful quiet, with McGregor’s agony capping off the otherwise light-hearted romp.
Doctor Sleep (2019)
In Mike Flanagan’s 2019 sequel to The Shining, McGregor plays a grown Danny Torrence. Now a hospice worker, he exudes a warm bedside manner that helps the audience learn and draw close to this version of a classic character who understandably has needed to grow much more complicated than the little boy we last saw. McGregor brings a subtle strength to the tired and traumatized Dan that frames him as a slouching superhero against the threat of The True Knot.
Again, McGregor’s trademark vulnerability shines as an adult Dan reckons with his extraordinary abilities after encountering a young girl who also has “the shining,” he helps her evade the forces that hunt her. Another one of McGregor’s understated roles, his turn as Torrence excels precisely because there is so much baggage that comes along with the character, and McGregor deftly shoulders that invisible burden at all times in his expressions and physicality.
I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)
The 2009 book adaptation shows McGregor providing a grounding human element as the titular character, opposite Jim Carrey’s intense flair as Steven Jay Russell, the man in love with Phillip Morris. As a con man hellbent on freeing Morris from prison, Carrey fills the screen with his larger than life performance. McGregor plays the down-to-earth man worthy of the outrageous love that drives Carrey’s character to the loony lengths he goes to break him out.
Soft-spoken, gentle, and genuine, McGregor’s humanity is what shines in this role. The man has an undeniable knack for emotional scenes, reacting to devastating news with a realistic rawness. McGregor savors the pain and draws it out with a physicality that can range from confusion to resignation or denial, or everything all at once. As a man who is forced to question the authenticity of the person he loves, this is an important element for Morris.
Velvet Goldmine (1998)
In Todd Hayne’s Velvet Goldmine, a 1998 unabashed ode to London’s glam scene, McGregor plays Curt Wild, a wild and flamboyant musician who is a direct lift of Iggy Pop with his trailer park background and his raucous embrace of sex and drugs. The film follows journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) as he tries to uncover a beguiling mystery surrounding fellow performer Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).
McGregor is a thrill to watch as the wild, glitter-infused rocker. He radiates a primal, volatile, and destructive energy as his character amasses more fame and influence, eventually reaching his breaking point. At its heart, it’s a film about identity and the personas we create for ourselves in response to the world around us. Best stated by McGregor himself in a cool, chilling tone, “we set out to change the world, but we just ended up changing ourselves.” Velvet Goldmine capitalizes on McGregor’s pristine talent for dual-natured roles, and watching McGregor shift seamlessly between contradicting sensibilities never gets old.
Down With Love (2003)
Peyton Reed’s 2003 romantic comedy plays with all the classic tropes of its 1950s/1960s predecessors, using the pre-sexual revolution period as a playground deconstruct the so-called “battle of the sexes.” Renée Zellweger plays a rising author, Barbara Novak, who inspires a wave of feminism that champions a sex life free of love, and McGregor plays an editor Catcher Block whose womanizing ways are threatened by her movement. He is smooth, hip, and impossible to refuse, clearly channeling the likes of Crosby, Sinatra, and Dean. He hatches a plan to make Novak fall in love with him, meeting her for the first time as Major Zip Martin.
Evoking Clark Kent, McGregor dons a pair of glasses and assumes a meek and mild persona with southern drawl, a sweet man unaware of Novak’s fame. Inevitably, Block’s plot turns against him as he himself begins to fall for Novak. McGregor plays these dual roles with the youthful energy that make his lighter fare so engrossing, and he gets to flex his singing chops again in the musical number at the very end.
It would be sacrilege not to talk about the film that arguably started it all for McGregor, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Long hailed as one of the most realistic and honest depiction of addiction and the sense of community that’s forged between addicts, Trainspotting stars McGregor in the role of Renton, a heroin addict struggling to navigate his changing relationships as he tries and fails and tries again to get clean.
It’s this film in which McGregor’s magnetism is first widely acknowledged. His take on Renton cynically eschews the sober world, yet he is fated to embrace it – all for the better. It’s nearly as if this film typecast McGregor as the dubious but charming scoundrel, but perhaps this is simply the kind of character to which the actor is drawn. Any film in which he can flash his smile and twinkle his eyes can work, but McGregor brings a multidimensional twist on every character he plays, deepening them beyond his easygoing charm. As the first display of this trick, Trainspotting is not one to miss.
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