Why Hasn’t Ewan McGregor Conquered Hollywood? A Look at His Career

Ewan McGregor

Ewan McGregor turned 40 this year, which provides as good an excuse as any to take stock of the Scottish-born actor’s career so far. Oddly enough, for all his talent and good looks, with the notable exception of three Star Wars movies, he has never starred in a huge Hollywood blockbuster.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s Hollywood’s loss.

That’s evident in his latest movie, Beginners, which opens next Friday (June 3). In this engaging romantic drama, McGregor movingly plays a 38-year-old illustrator whose  recently deceased father (played by Christopher Plummer) had waited until age 75 to come out of the closet. It’s only by looking back at how his father was then able to embrace life in his final years that McGregor’s character manages to open himself to a meaningful relationship with a French actress (Mélanie Laurent).

The movie, made on a modest budget and too quirky to appeal to the average moviegoer seeking 3-D, action-fueled, comic book escapism, is typical of the fare McGregor has been choosing to appear in recently. Of the 13 films he has made in the last five years, only one raked in the big bucks at the box office. That was Angels & Demons, the 2009 sequel to The Da Vinci Code. McGregor played a supporting role in the Tom Hanks thriller, which grossed nearly half a billion worldwide.

Of the rest of the 13, the majority, including The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Ghost Writer and I Love You Phillip Morris, were similar to Beginners — indies that placed more emphasis on story and character than on fanciful gizmos, automatic weapons or special effects. That McGregor favors the challenges offered by roles in such movies should come as no surprise given that the film he first won notice in was 1996’s Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle’s grungy breakout hit about disaffected, drug-taking Scottish youths.

It’s not as if McGregor hasn’t, along the way, tried to appear in blockbusters. It’s just that he has an uncanny knack for picking the wrong ones. In addition to swinging a light saber as Obi-Wan Kenobi through three dispiriting Star Wars films (in 1999, 2002 and 2005), he also signed on for The Island, a silly 2005 thriller that is the only movie ever directed by blockbuster behemoth Michael Bay (Transformers) to lose money.

And what of Moulin Rouge!, the swoony period musical by director Baz Luhrmann in which McGregor warbled alongside co-star Nicole Kidman? While the 2001 film may have its fervent fans, it managed to gross only $57 million in the U.S., about as much as it cost to make. (It proved more popular overseas, where it pulled in $122 million.)

It seems clear, based on his recent work and the movies he has upcoming (Perfect Sense, Haywire, The Impossible and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which costars Emily Blunt), where McGregor’s career is headed. He will concentrate most of his efforts on smaller, smarter films, in roles that stretch him and that he clearly finds rewarding. But there still will be the occasional foray — good for the wallet of a married actor with three children to support — as a supporting player in big budget Hollywood extravaganzas such as Jack and the Giant Killer, a modern day fairytale, which he’s currently filming for director Bryan Singer (Superman Returns).

The takeaway: there’ll still be plenty of McGregor films to see. You will just have to search a little harder to find them, as they will more likely be playing at art houses than at megaplexes.

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What’s your favorite McGregor movie or performance?

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Trailer for Angels & Demons:

With Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!:

Trailer for The Island:

Scene from Trainspotting (warning: mature language and drug use):