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McGregor, Ewan (1971-)

Actor, Producer

Main image of McGregor, Ewan (1971-)

Brash, personable and charming, Ewan McGregor enjoyed a smooth and swift rise to stardom, quickly becoming an iconic actor of the 'Cool Britannia' generation, with the charisma and range to carry both gritty independent films and Hollywood event movies. As that era's confidence evaporated, McGregor's career faltered too, although his subtle performance as a naive writer-for-hire in Roman Polanski's The Ghost (France/Germany/UK, 2010) hints at a revival.

Born on 31 March 1971 in Perthshire, Scotland, where he also grew up, McGregor left school at 16. He studied drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but left six months before graduating for a major role in Dennis Potter's six-part serial, Lipstick on Your Collar (Channel 4, 1993) as a rock'n'roll-loving serviceman at the War Office during the Suez crisis. He then starred in an adaptation of Stendhal's The Scarlet and the Black (BBC2, 1993).

McGregor's film debut, in Bill Forsyth's Being Human (1993), was brief, and it was two contrasting roles for Danny Boyle that made his name: a smug yuppie involved in murder in Shallow Grave (1994), and a heroin addict struggling to kick drugs in the multiple award-winning Trainspotting (1996). He married Eve Mavrakis, a French production designer, in 1995; they have two daughters together and adopted a third in 2006.

The actor's open-faced good looks equipped him well for romantic leads: in Brassed Off (d. Mark Herman, 1996), as an amorous miner; in his third and least successful film with Boyle, the celestial fantasy A Life Less Ordinary (1997); in Little Voice (UK/US, d. Herman, 1998); in Moulin Rouge! (US, Australia, d. Baz Luhrmann, 2001), as the naive writer who falls for Nicole Kidman's ailing courtesan; and opposite Renée Zellweger in a homage to early 1960s rom-coms, Down With Love (Germany/US, d. Peyton Reed, 2003).

He has been equally at home with villains: a robber in an episode of the hospital drama ER (NBC, 1994-2009), for which he was Emmy-nominated in 1997; Frank Churchill in an adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma (d. Douglas McGrath, 1996); the loose-cannon City banker Nick Leeson in Rogue Trader (UK/US, d. James Dearden, 1999); a violent drifter in David Mackenzie's fine psychothriller Young Adam (UK/France, 2003); a duplicitous Vatican insider in Angels and Demons (US, d. Ron Howard, 2009).

Famed (or infamous) for a willingness to do full-frontal nude scenes, McGregor also took on sexually unconventional characters in Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book (Netherlands/France/UK, 1997), Todd Haynes's glam-rock Velvet Goldmine (UK/US, 1998) and I Love You Phillip Morris (France/US, d. Glenn Ficara/John Requa, 2009), as Jim Carrey's gentle gay lover.

In 1997 he formed a production company, Natural Nylon, with co-actors Jonny Lee Miller, Jude Law, Sean Pertwee and Sadie Frost. It made a handful of films, including the little-seen Nora (UK/Eire, d. Pat Murphy, 2000), about the love affair between James James and Nora Barnacle, in which McGregor also starred. The company folded shortly after he left in 2002.

He was strong in Ridley Scott's war drama Black Hawk Down (US/UK, 2001), co-starred with Albert Finney in Tim Burton's fantasy Big Fish (US, 2003) and re-teamed with Zellweger in Miss Potter (UK/US, d. Chris Noonan, 2006). But playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas's three poorly received Star Wars prequels (US, 1999-2005) and starring in the sci-fi action movie The Island (US, d. Michael Bay, 2005) - an expensive flop - seemed like a waste of his talent.

His later work has been similarly underwhelming, barring The Ghost: Cassandra's Dream (US, d. Woody Allen, 2007), Incendiary (UK/US, d. Sharon Maguire, 2008), The Men Who Stare at Goats (US/UK, d. Grant Heslov, 2009), Amelia (US/Canada, d. Mira Nair, 2009) and Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (US/UK, d. Susanna White, 2010).

As if in reaction, McGregor has moved into other areas: theatre (Guys and Dolls, 2005; Othello, 2007-08) and travel. In 2004 he journeyed by motorcycle with his friend and fellow-actor Charley Boorman from London to New York via Central Europe and Asia, resulting in a television series, Long Way Round (BBC, 2004-05), and a bestselling book. In 2007 they took a second trip from Scotland to South Africa, Long Way Down (BBC, 2007), and McGregor has spoken of hopes for a third, South American odyssey.

Brian Pendreigh, Ewan McGregor (1998, Sarah Street)

Sheila Johnston

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Brassed Off (1996)Brassed Off (1996)

Mournful drama about the fortunes of a colliery brass band

Thumbnail image of Trainspotting (1996)Trainspotting (1996)

Film about Edinburgh junkies that became a cultural phenomenon

Thumbnail image of Jane Austen's Emma (1996)Jane Austen's Emma (1996)

Lavish version of Austen's keenest novel

Thumbnail image of Lipstick On Your Collar (1993)Lipstick On Your Collar (1993)

Dennis Potter's third and final 'serial with music', set during the Suez crisis

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Trainspotting: RentonTrainspotting: Renton

The film's irresponsible, sarcastic junkie narrator

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