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Casting aside some of the loftier descriptive flourishes that often surround the art, acting is essentially the job of pretending to be someone else. Taken a step further by Ewan McGregor, a reigning overachiever in that arena, “I should pretend to be different people all the time. They must never fall into the same category. If I was worried about my image, or if I was always playing somebody who saves hostages from airplanes, I wouldn’t be in this business at all.”
Maybe that 1998 comment to Interview magazine offered some reassurance (or at least a response) to industry watchers like fan and film critic Barry Norman, who did worry a bit about McGregor’s image, or at least his tendency to hop between roles large and small, plucking characters from a jumbo sized variety pack of humanity—heroes, anti-heroes, song-and-dance men, scoundrels, reprobates and dandies—too many of which Norman feared were underwritten for his talents: “If he wants to be a star he hasn’t quite gone about it the right way.” But maybe McGregor didn’t want to be a star as much as he just wanted to be an actor.
Under the spell of the classic films he absorbed as a weekend matinée regular while growing up in Crieff, Scotland, and inspired by an uncle who appeared in the first three Star Wars films, McGregor petitioned his local rep theater for work (he eventually got it, as a stagehand/extra) and later joined the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and secured his first starring TV role on the UK series Lipstick On Your Collar within a year. Within a couple more came Trainspotting, a perfect example of the perfect storm that occurs when the right project and the right role find exactly the right actor. The film soars, and in the process reveals an actor at his best. Harry Ford summed it up nicely for Ford On Film: “Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton takes a fairly unpleasant, often backstabbing and conniving man and turns him into your lovable, witty best friend. His dialogue is sharp; he’s believable, with the right edge of unpleasantness to make him feel like an average human.” McGregor’s work in Danny Boyle’s huge small film launched a career that’s averaged three to four films every year since.
Looking at even a small sampling of them (Velvet Goldmine, Star Wars, Moulin Rouge!, Big Fish, I Love You, Phillip Morris, The Ghostwriter, Young Adam, The Impossible, and Miles Ahead, for instance) you find leads and supporting roles of all ilks. What you won’t find is sameness, unless you look at the acting itself. All McGregor’s performances are among the most unlabored and unguarded you’ll find. He plays straight and gay, outcasts, open-hearted romantics and con men with no more effort than is needed. In fact, you sometimes sense a barely perceptible conspiratorial wink to the audience—aren’t we having great fun in this tale?
Another consistency: Colleagues from projects across the board cite him as an upbeat, generous and supportive collaborator. That praise comes from people like Danny Boyle, renowned theater director Michael Grandage and Nicole Kidman, and not McGregor himself. We clarify because he did just star opposite himself in Last Days in the Desert (as Jesus and Satan) and is set to do so again next year in FX’s Fargo (as Minnesota Parking Lot King Emmit Stussy and his less successful brother Ray).
If he ever slacks off to the tune of, say, two projects a year, it’s usually to risk a bracing shot of live theater, singing in a Disney musical, or a body- and soul-jarring motorbike circumnavigation of the globe, visiting UNICEF programs along the way. He also seems undaunted by the tricky business of sequels, soon revisiting his breakout role with T2, the long-awaited follow up to Trainspotting. So what does scare him? Philip Roth. Despite being completely intimidated by the feat, he chose the author’s Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral as his directorial debut, and also stars in it for good measure.
None of which really answers the question of which box to check for McGregor—leading man or character actor? As long as we get to keep watching, we don’t really care. In fact, we hope we never find out.