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Best of British Biographies – Ewan McGregor

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Well, a bit over fifty years ago on the banks of the River Tay in Scotland, Ewan Gordon McGregor OBE was born. His parents were both teachers so we are very lucky that he didn’t decide to follow in their footsteps. If he had, we would have been denied one of the most talented and versatile actors working today. 

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Ewan McGregor – Early Days

Perhaps surprisingly for a son of teachers, Ewan left school at sixteen. He got a job as a stagehand at Perth Theatre and also studied a foundation course in Drama at Kirkcaldy College of Technology. At the only slightly less tender age of eighteen he moved down to London where he trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His older brother, Colin, had already decided on a career with the RAF eventually flying Tornado GR4s. Incidentally, the “fact” that Colin had the call sign “Obi-Two” is probably apocryphal!  

1993 Lipstick On Your Collar with Louise Germaine

I fear I’m making this sound like the teenage Ewan said “Farewell mater and pater, I’m off to join a band of roving players”, gathered all his belongings into a spotty hankie that he had tied to the end of a stick, and strode off into the sunset. Wanting to make it in the world of acting can’t have been totally unexpected. He was in awe of his uncle Denis. Whether the six year old McGregor got to see his uncle playing Wedge Antilles in Star Wars, I don’t know…yes, it’s uncle Denis Lawson!

Keeping It In The Family

Still, the McGregor household were no strangers to the philosophies of Thespis. So another one treading the boards is would be no big deal or surprise. Having said that, they may have expected young Ewan to see his course through to the end. However, as we’ve seen so many times before, Ewan landed a part prior to the end of his course. In this case it was six months before he graduated but the part he landed was as Private Hopper in the C4 adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar.

1994 Shallow Grave with Kerry Fox and Christopher Eccleston

Virtually minutes later he landed another starring role as Julien Sorel in Scarlet And Black. His feature film debut was opposite none other than Robin Williams in Being Human. Director Bill Forsyth’s previous film was the very wonderful Local Hero,1983, which featured Ewan McGregor’s uncle, yes,  Denis Lawson. Ewan’s next film was, in my opinion, the one that launched him…Shallow Grave.

Ewan McGregor – Breakthrough

I’ve talked at excessive length about Shallow Grave in my piece about the director Danny Boyle so I’ll say nothing more than I remember watching the fresh faced unknown and thinking he was amazing. So believable and convincing that I knew I had to keep an eye out for him in the future. Fortunately that wasn’t too long a wait as, apart from a bit of TV and another film, his big break was just around the corner…

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1996 Trainspotting

Remember that opening monologue ? Of course you do! It probably sounds familiar even if you haven’t seen the actual film! It’s part of the opening sequence of Trainspotting. Less than two minutes long and it introduces you to Renton (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Tommy (Kevin McKidd). It also shows that our protagonists are utter scallies on the run, on the nick, and on heroin. Hardly your typical heroes but you end up growing to love them all!

The One Everyone Thinks Was The Breakthrough!

I know that I always think that Trainspotting is when I first saw Ewan McGregor even though I still fondly remember Shallow Grave. The thing is that when I saw him in Shallow Grave he was a new face, an unknown. For me, Keith Allen was the big star! Trainspotting, though, opened on Ewan. Just as Shallow Grave had had a high paced, kinetic opening thanks to a camera on the front bumper of a car, Trainspotting had a high paced, kinetic opening thanks to a camera following Renton fleeing from shop security guards.

1996 The Pillow Book

But Trainspotting wasn’t the only film that Mr McGregor appeared in in 1996. He also managed to get his kit off in Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book. Mind you, if I was built like him I’d be naked at every opportunity. There was also an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma and the delightful Brassed Off. This was the story of a colliery brass band fighting to win a national music competition as well as fighting to keep the colliery open. Coming from a mining family that did hit home.

Off To Hollywood

The following year saw Ewan heading off to Tinsel Town to make his third film with Danny Boyle; these guys are totally inseparable! Well, they would have been were it not for a bit of a misunderstanding around replacing Ewan with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach. Still…all that’s a way off in the future, at the moment our Mr McGregor finds himself surrounded by a wealth of cinematic talent in A Life Less Ordinary.

1997 A Life Less Ordinary with Cameron Diaz

In case that “wealth of cinematic talent” remark is taken with a pinch of salt as just so much hyperbole, let me just say that Ewan was starring with Cameron Diaz. In support there was Holly Hunter, Delroy Lindo, Dan Hedaya, Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub, and Ian Holm. I think that’s a reasonable starry cast in anyone’s books.

Definitely Not Typecast

Ewan wasn’t exactly sitting around twiddling his thumbs while he waited for the call to come and shoot The Beach, quite the opposite. Next up was Velvet Goldmine with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, Toni Collette (who I’ve loved since Muriel’s Wedding), and Eddie Izzard. This is a musical drama set in the madness that was the glam rock era; he plays American glam rocker Curt Wild. I might have been more involved in glam rock if I was better at applying eye liner…

1998 Velvet Goldmine

Next up comes something of a hidden treasure, Little Voice. There’s every likelihood that you’ll never have heard of this one, let alone seen it but, if you get the chance, invest an hour and a half of your time and give it a watch. Ewan doesn’t have a huge role in Little Voice but it is pivotal. It is the story of Laura Hoff (Jane Horrocks) who is known as LV, (Little Voice), because she is so quiet and withdrawn. She spends most of her time in her bedroom singing along to her records. 

No Such Thing As Small Parts

Given that she lives with her loud, brassy, mother Mari (Brenda Blethyn) and the string of men that she brings home following the death of LV’s father it’s hardly surprising she’s so quiet. One of the men that turns up is Ray Say (Michael Caine) who is the manager of some third rate acts. While he is there he hears LV sing and realises just how talented she is and sees a bright future filled with money and sparkly things.

1998 Little Voice with Philip Jackson

What makes Little Voice work is, quite simply, Jane Horrocks’ amazing vocal talents. The original play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was written especially for her and she gets to show off her ability to sing like Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, Gracie Fields, and Judy Garland. If you only know Jane Horrocks as Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous or Babs in Chicken Run then treat yourself and get hold of this film.

May The Franchise Be With You

Then came the big one. Ewan starred as a young man who takes on a massive organisation. Almost single handedly he manages to bring it to the ground and wipes it out…yes, I’m talking about Rogue Trader. In this our Mr McGregor plays the part of Nick Leeson, the eponymous Rogue Trader who bankrupted Barings Bank. This is one of those films like Apollo 13 or Rush. A film which, providing you were sentient during the relevant time frame, you know the ending. But you are still on the edge of your seat as it plays out. 

1999 Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace with Liam Neeson

Oh yes, this is 1999 so there was another adventure for Ewan. This time it was, indeed, taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. He got to play the youthful Obi-Wan Kenobi while he was a padawan to Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Now we all know that that film got a lot of stick but I had a recent rewatch. In my opinion it’s not that bad! OK, Jar-Jar Binks was awful and there wasn’t enough of Darth Maul; it could have been easily fixed.

Légion étrangère

The new millennium saw Ewan working with a couple of high profile film directors. He made Black Hawk Down under Ridley Scott. I remember going to see Black Hawk Down in the cinema and don’t remember Ewan being in it. I’m putting that down to him blending into the 78th Ranger Regiment both in terms of look and accent. Mind you, he wasn’t the only one doing that trick; Ewen Bremner, Hugh Dancy, Ioan Gruffudd, Jason Isaac, and Orlando Bloom had all been born this side of the pond but ended up in the McGregor regiment.

2001 Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman

The real eye opener for me was his appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! It was a film which I felt I was going to like before I walked in through the door. I’ve said elsewhere that I’ve loved Baz Luhrmann since his first film but what really entranced me was his singing. Ewan McGregor has some pipes on him! It was a marvellous finale to the Red Curtain Trilogy and Ewan acquitted himself marvellously.

Song And Dance Man Too

This century has seen Ewan McGregor in over fifty films and I can’t possibly comment on all of them as well as the TV programmes he’s been in. I shall have to pick and choose. Obviously he has gone on to make the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi his own. That’s in the rest of the prequel trilogy, voice cameos in the sequel trilogy,  and the Disney+ mini series which fits somewhere in between. I’ve seen them all and thoroughly enjoyed the saga…apart from Jar-Jar, obviously.

2003 Big Fish

A couple of years later, in between the 2nd and 3rd Star Wars Prequels, Ewan appeared in one of my favourite, go to films…Big Fish. This film ticks my boxes in so many ways: it is a Tim Burton film, it has a cast of actors who I love, it’s a comedy/fantasy/drama which is always entertaining, and, some may feel this is heretical, it does all the things that I think Forrest Gump was trying to do. It is one of my “can’t be bothered thinking, just stick this one on” films.

Now A Bit Of Comedy

The next film I saw of his was I Love You Phillip Morris. This is one of those films where you see the “Based on a true story” thing and reach for the larger of your salt pinches. However, it turns out that it is actually a true story and is also very funny. Ewan holding his own in a comedy role is no big surprise but when he is co-starring with Jim Carrey it is a bit more of an achievement!

2009 I Love You Phillip Morris with Jim Carrey

Next up was the adaptation of one of Dan Brown’s stories, Angels And Demons.  By this time Dan Brown’s books had managed the neat trick of becoming simultaneously repetitive and ludicrous so no-one was holding out any great hopes for the second outing on film. Thanks to the talents of Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Stellan Skarsgård, and, Ewan McGregor, it wasn’t too bad.

Man Of Many Parts

Next up was an oddball war comedy…The Men Who Stare At Goats. Like a fair few of Ewan’s films, this one is, surprisingly, based on true events. It is the story of a branch of the US Army Special Forces who specialise in training psychic spies how to develop parapsychological skills including invisibility, remote viewing, and phasing. The humour comes, mainly, from the ludicrous experiments and how they go wrong.

2009 The Men Who Stare At Goats

The next film of Ewan’s that I saw was The Impossible, another film based on actual events. Back on Boxing Day 2004 the news came in of a tidal wave in the Indian Ocean. This lead to a massive tsunami which devastated the coastline, along with all the tourist resorts that proliferate there. María Belón was there and wrote an account of her experience on which this film is based. In this film Ewan plays the husband of Maria Bennett, who is based on María Belón.

True Stories And Sequels

The last five years have seen Ewan all over screens both large and small. Following the reconciliation between Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor came the long speculated about Trainspotting sequel, T2 Trainspotting. This was a perfect example of how to make a sequel. Get the whole team back together, use another of the authors books as the source, and don’t let standards slip!

2017 T2 Trainspotting with Jonny Lee Miller and Ewen Bremner

Talking of sequels, two years later saw Ewan in another high profile sequel. This, though, was the antithesis of everything I said T2 Trainspotting did. This time it was Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. Ewan plays Danny Torrance who was the kid who spent most of The Shining cycling round the hotel. When not being chased through the maze by Jack Nicholson. This time around Danny is all grown up and comes back to take on whatever it was that took hold of his father.

Return Of The Jedi

On he small screen, we see Ewan in a couple of TV spin offs of a favourite film and franchise. These were Fargo and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Obi-Wan one I’ve already mentioned so I’ll leave that one alone. Fargo, though, saw Ewan in the third season playing two brothers; Emmit and Ray Stussy. Actually, he also voiced the Captain, the android MNSKY’s scientist companion, so that’s three parts.

2017 Fargo

But that’s not the end. A cameo on the marvellous Staged alongside David Tennant and Michael Sheen was delightful. His three motorbike documentaries, Long Way Round, Long Way Down, and Long Way Up, with Charlie Boorman were really quite gripping. Throw in a turn as a bad guy in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and it is just another example of the versatility and talent that Ewan McGregor has at his disposal. 

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One response to “Best of British Biographies – Ewan McGregor”

  1. I hate to break it to you, but he’s not British. He’s Stewjonish.

    “When asked by Celebration V stage host Jon Stewart in 2010, George Lucas said Obi-Wan Kenobi was born on the planet Stewjon.”

    Ohhhh, wait. I think Lucas was joking. I get it now. 🙂

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