“I Have the Career I Started Out Wanting”: Ewan McGregor on Reviving Obi-Wan and “Going to the Extremes” to Play Halston

Obi-Wan Kenobi was huddled, shivering, soaked in sweat. He was crying — literally crying — in agony. But he wasn’t mortally wounded by Darth Vader. He was just dealing with his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. “It really kicked my ass,” says Ewan McGregor. “It really did.” The effects of the actor’s second jab of Moderna were bad enough that McGregor — who dons the Jedi Master’s cloak once more for a Disney+ series due in 2022 — had to cancel lightsaber training and postpone this interview.

“For months, we’ve been doing these monster, two-and-a-half-hour sessions of sword fights and hand-to-hand stuff,” says McGregor, bearded for the part, in a Zoom conversation that spans several hours. A poodle-Chihuahua mix naps peacefully in his lap. “But there was no way it was happening this week,” he adds. “Not with a 100.7 fever.” (The disturbance in the Force did not last long: McGregor was back to normal in 48 hours.)

For McGregor, a return to the Star Wars universe — the show picks up a decade after the events of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith — is the most tantalizing proposition to come his way in ages. When he beat out Kenneth Branagh, Tim Roth and Joseph Fiennes to play the character in 1999’s The Phantom Menace, the edgy indie star who’d become famous portraying a toilet-diving heroin addict assumed he was about to ascend to the same rung of cinematic immortality as Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia.

It didn’t quite play out that way. Star Wars fans’ initial reception to that film, and the two that followed, ranged from muted appreciation to utter indifference to — the most vocal faction — outright hostility. Looking back, McGregor, whose subtle Obi-Wan was seen as a bright spot in the troubled series, acknowledges that it “was hard they didn’t get well received. That was quite difficult. They were universally not very much liked.”

The enthusiastic reception for The Mandalorian, however, among the first of 10 Star Wars spinoffs coming to Disney+, proved there are still compelling new stories to tell in that universe and that audiences are very eager to see them. That series, which cost about $100 million to produce, was a big lure for the streaming service’s 100 million subscribers, and its season two finale, featuring a de-aged Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, was the first non-Netflix series to top Nielsen’s streaming charts. Obi-Wan Kenobi is thus perfectly primed to push McGregor’s long and varied career into midlife hyperdrive.

“I’m really excited about it,” he says with glee. “Maybe more so than the first ones, because I’m older — I just turned 50 — and I’m just in a much better place.”

Before returning to Tatooine, however, McGregor will take on a very different kind of master on a competing streaming giant.

The actor plays the lead in Halston, a five-part Netflix series about the 1970s fashion star that’s set for a May 14 global premiere. The story of a Studio 54 regular and Liza Minnelli confidant who streamlined American style but ultimately sold his name away (to JCPenney, no less) before dying of AIDS in 1990, Halston is yet another surprising turn for the actor in a career filled with them. “It’s about a man, a creative person, who believes absolutely in what they are and who they are,” McGregor says of the designer — but he could just as easily be talking about himself. (See exclusive images here.)

It feels like as good a moment as any to stop and take in the majestic view, as he does on those epic motorbike treks he chronicles on his travelogue adventure shows, among them Long Way Round and Long Way Up. He likes what he sees.

“I would say I managed to have the career I started out wanting in the first place. I’ve been involved in some big, silly stuff; but also lots of important stuff; and some little, silly stuff; and big, important stuff. I’ve been very lucky,” he says.

There is a neat symmetry to this particular moment in McGregor’s journey, as he teeters between a portrait-of-an-artist drama like Halston and blockbuster sci-fi like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

He faced a similar crossroads in 1998. McGregor, then 27, starred in Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ glam-rock musical, in which he played an Iggy Pop-inspired rocker (Jonathan Rhys Meyers played the David Bowie stand-in) who has a love scene with Christian Bale’s music journalist. “I found out on the set of Velvet Goldmine that I got the part [of Obi-Wan],” McGregor remembers. “I was getting craft services with Christian when I got the call.”

Goldmine was produced by Christine Vachon, the indie pioneer behind Killer Films, who also produced Halston. And like Goldmine, Halston is set in the 1970s and depicts a hedonistic world filled with dance floors (disco, not Bowie-esque rock ‘n’ roll), drugs (cocaine, not LSD) and gay sex (this time with Halston’s lover, played by Venezuelan actor Gian Franco Rodriguez).

A quarter-century later, McGregor is still game for all of it — perhaps even more so now that the industry has evolved. “This was the first thing I’ve ever done where we had an intimacy coordinator,” says the actor, who has simulated the act with everyone from Michelle Williams (in 2008’s Deception) to Jim Carrey (in 2009’s I Love You Phillip Morris). “It was such a relief. It’s about fucking time. The temptation in my experience is just for the director to go, ‘Just do whatever.’ It’s embarrassing. That’s not fair on either actor to do that.”

In those early days of fame, McGregor had a veneer of confidence that frequently tipped over into cockiness. “I was just always so arrogantly self-assured — from the beginning, really,” he admits. Case in point: A Vanity Fair profile at the time (he’s on the cover holding a rooster, his legs splayed in a kilt), features McGregor defending his choice to move away from indies and make a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie like Phantom Menace by saying, “A film like Independence Day, that’s what I hate — those are the people who don’t deserve to be making movies. Star Wars is a completely different ball game.”

McGregor winces at his youthful brashness — “I don’t even want to think about it, never mind read it,” he says when reminded of the interview — while acknowledging that his rocket ride to stardom wasn’t always the smoothest one. In that same interview, McGregor offered a brazen assessment of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career.

“[His CAA agents] want to be able to say, ‘He is now the most expensive actor in Hollywood’ — until the next one comes along,” he told the reporter. DiCaprio’s shadow always loomed large, never more than when he replaced McGregor in The Beach, director Danny Boyle’s 2000 big-studio follow-up to Trainspotting. Boyle defended the move as a budgetary necessity; with the Titanic star, he could secure the $50 million he needed to make it. But McGregor — who had been plucked by Boyle out of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama to star in 1994’s Shallow Grave before exploding two years later in Trainspotting — didn’t appreciate the slight.

The two didn’t speak for “a long time,” McGregor says, even once sharing a first-class cabin flying across the Atlantic without exchanging a single word. They’ve since patched things up and collaborated on the 2017 sequel T2 Trainspotting. “It wasn’t handled very well,” he says of the rift. “There was probably both sides to it. I was upset. But at the same time, it’s part of life, it’s just part of growing up.”

As he settles gracefully into middle age, it’s easy to forget that when he broke through in the mid-1990s, he was much more than just another pretty-faced actor. He was the poster boy for a generation. His image on the Trainspotting one-sheet — drenched, gaunt, hands tucked into armpits — became as defining a representation of that heroin-chic period as Kate Moss’ billboards for Calvin Klein.

“I was lucky because Trainspotting became the movie of an era,” he says. “And while I always wanted to be a worthy actor, at the same time, there was a part of me that wanted to be a rock star. And I think the lines got slightly blurred. The Oasis brothers [Liam and Noel Gallagher] had that sort of swagger I loved: ‘Fuck it and fuck everyone.’ I sort of got swept up in that, I suppose.”

What balanced the “fuck it and fuck everyone” ethos was McGregor’s decision to marry young and start a family. In 1995, McGregor wed Eve Mavrakis, a French-Greek production designer he met working on a legal drama on British TV. The couple raised four daughters together; the eldest, Clara, was born in February 1996, just five months before Trainspotting premiered.

“I had Clara in my lap as a baby doing press at Cannes for Trainspotting,” McGregor recalls. “Ultimately, through all of that craziness and that time, I had that sort of safety line through my life, which was my work and family, that I could latch onto.”

The safety line held tight until domestic drama unfolded and spilled into the gossip pages, a first for McGregor, who’d managed to sidestep scandal his entire career.

McGregor and Mavrakis, 54, separated in 2017. Five months later came the paparazzi photos of McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 36, kissing after having starred together in season three of FX’s Fargo. Fargo creator Noah Hawley recalls an intense working relationship between them on the set. “I think that character, Ray [one of two twins McGregor played on the series], would become emotionally important to him — especially in his bond with Mary Winstead and their relationship in the show.”

After the photos were released to the public, Clara commented disparagingly of Winstead on Instagram. McGregor filed for divorce the following year, citing “irreconcilable differences.”

When McGregor won the 2018 Golden Globe for Fargo, he thanked “Eve, who always stood by me for 22 years,” then added, “there would be no Ray without Mary Elizabeth Winstead.”

McGregor — who refers now to Winstead as his “partner” — remains fiercely protective of his family. “They’re my everything,” he says of his daughters, who range in age from 10 to 25. (McGregor and Mavrakis share custody of the youngest; the rest are over 18.) “It’s an impossible thing to sum up and I wouldn’t even want to try,” he says in response to a question about raising girls. “It’s too huge. I’m private because I believe in privacy. I give so much of my life onscreen. And that’s my great privilege. But the rest of my life — I just don’t care that people know about it.”

Clara, 25, signed to Wilhelmina Models in 2017 and, like her dad, lives in Los Angeles, where she’s pursuing acting and producing. “I’m hugely fond of Mary,” Clara says now of Winstead. “She’s family. Everything on my end with all of that was handled very poorly. But I have new family now and I’m grateful for all of them.” Clara shares regular updates on her life and work with her 50,000 Instagram followers. In one harrowing post from 2019, she revealed having gone through a number of personal traumas. She said crippling anxiety led to a Xanax addiction, which she overcame after a stay at the Cirque Lodge treatment facility in Utah.

The divulgence “is Clara’s business,” McGregor says. “I totally support her in every way about it. That is absolutely an individual, personal thing. And Clara’s great. I don’t know what she wants to do with that, ultimately — but I support her 100 percent.” Inspired by her struggles, she wrote a screenplay about a father and daughter who bond on a road trip to check the girl into a rehab facility. The project has been set up at Killer Films, and the elder McGregor is executive producing.

McGregor’s transformation into Halston began as a chance meeting at his agent’s office with writer-director Dan Minahan. Minahan, who’s directed episodes of Game of Thrones, and Vachon had been trying to make a feature film about Halston’s life for almost 20 years, with no success. In 2019, they reconfigured their pitch — based on the 1991 book Simply Halston by Steven Gaines — as a limited series.

“I didn’t know Dan Minahan and I didn’t know Halston,” McGregor says. “I was just really taken with the presentation. He showed me all these photographs of Halston and the people in his circle — Liza Minnelli, [jewelry designer] Elsa Peretti, [his lover] Victor Hugo. And I could tell instantly from the photographs: I wanted to play him. Just something about the way he holds himself, something in his eyes.”

McGregor was concerned that taking on a gay icon like Halston might result in a backlash. While he’s played many queer roles throughout his career, in films like The Pillow Book and I Love You Phillip Morris, he identifies as straight; Halston, meanwhile, was always unabashedly out of the closet — back in an era when doing so could have spelled career ruin. The problem, as Billy Porter put it in a 2019 Hollywood Reporter Actor Roundtable, comes when the sexuality-blind casting works in only one direction. “If ‘flamboyantly’ wasn’t in the description of the character, no one would see me ever for anything,” Porter said. “Straight men playing gay — everyone wants to give them an award.”

McGregor responds, “I hear the discussion and I respect both sides of it, I really do. I haven’t walked in Billy Porter’s shoes. I don’t know what it’s like to lose out parts when you might feel it’s to do with your sexuality. So I can only respect his point of view.”

Ultimately he decided that “if it had been a story about Halston’s sexuality more, then maybe it’s right that gay actors should play that role. But in this case — and I don’t want to sound like I’m worming out of this, because it’s something I did think a lot about — I suppose ultimately I felt like it was just one part of who he was.”

Once he committed, McGregor was all in, even agreeing to join in on the pitch meetings. He had a meeting with Minnelli (“I wanted her to know it wasn’t going to be some hatchet job”) and studied the copious video footage Halston commissioned of himself (Minahan calls the designer “the original influencer”).

“We had a little bit of a dog-and-pony show,” Minahan continues. “We went around to major streamers and I’d describe the vision of it and Ewan would talk about why he really wanted to play the role.” The answer was invariably a no. “There’s no murder, there’s no violence,” concedes McGregor. “It was a hard sell.”

But the no’s became a yes when Ryan Murphy — whose deal with Netflix gives him green-light carte blanche — caught wind of the project. According to McGregor, upon hearing the pitch, Hollywood’s foremost chronicler of gay cultural history pronounced: “We have to do it. It has to be done!” Confirms Minahan: “Ryan jumped right in and said, ‘Don’t give it to anyone else.’ Suddenly we got fast-tracked into production.”

Beyond his executive producing duties, Murphy also co-penned multiple episodes. McGregor rolled up his sleeves for the project as well, even teaching himself how to sew. “He worked with our costume designer to learn how to drape and cut and pin,” says Minahan, 58. “When you see him make the dresses in the show, he’s literally cutting the fabric, pinning it and making it.”

The production started filming on location in New York City in February 2020, shut down for seven months amid the pandemic, then started back up in September. “These fucking paparazzi people just come on your set. I hate them,” McGregor fumes about shooting in some of Halston’s old haunts, including Bergdorf Goodman, where “closed sets” are never truly closed. “New York really protects their paparazzi. They’ve got all the rights. I feel indignant that my work is suffering because they’re just wandering, literally, amongst the crew without masks on.” Perhaps there’s something in that outrage — a renowned creative perfectionist thrown off his game by gossip-mongers and public opinion — that explains what drew McGregor to Halston in the first place.

“There are people I met who do not have nice things to say about him,” he says of Halston, who — very much unlike the affable McGregor — was widely known to be notoriously self-absorbed, controlling and prone to tantrums. “And there are people who love him and are unbelievably loyal to this day. I was excited to play that. To go to the extremes of his temper. But behind it all — this drive, this creative drive. And this desire to be grand. Everything had to be the best.” He pauses for a few seconds — something he frequently does to gather his thoughts — then pulls a potted orchid into view. The flower was Halston’s favorite; at his peak, the designer spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on them to fill his studios.

“I got my own little orchid,” McGregor says with a laugh. “It’s my tribute to him.”

McGregor’s first taste of Star Wars was a very personal one. His uncle is Denis Lawson, a Scottish actor who played Wedge Antilles — the only X-wing fighter besides Luke Skywalker to survive the original trilogy. He still remembers being a young boy and seeing his uncle firing away at the Death Star on the big screen.

Years later, Lawson advised McGregor against taking the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi — he resented that his own part in Star Wars ended up overshadowing the rest of his career — but “the closer I got to it,” McGregor explains, “the more I wanted to do it.”

But what began as a star fantasy evolved over a number of years into an actor’s nightmare. With each successive and underwhelming prequel release, director George Lucas employed more and more CGI, “because George loves technology and loves pushing into that realm,” McGregor explains. “He wanted more and more control over what we see in the background.” By Revenge of the Sith, physical sets and backdrops had almost entirely been replaced by bluescreens. “After three or four months of that, it just gets really tedious — especially when the scenes are … I don’t want to be rude, but it’s not Shakespeare,” he continues. “There’s not something to dig into in the dialogue that can satisfy you when there’s no environment there. It was quite hard to do.”

That won’t be a problem on the set of Obi-Wan Kenobi, where, as pioneered by creator Jon Favreau on The Mandalorian in a process called StageCraft, “they project [the virtual backgrounds] onto this massive LED screen. So if you’re in a desert, you’re standing in the middle of a desert. If you’re in the snow, you’re surrounded by snow. And if you’re in a cockpit of a starfighter, you’re in space. It’s going to feel so much more real.”

McGregor had been in talks to reprise the character in some form for the past seven years. It was originally going to be a feature film, until 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story underperformed and Disney and Lucasfilm pivoted to streaming. But until the project was announced in August 2019, McGregor was sworn to secrecy. “I’d see stuff on social media like, ‘They better cast Ewan as Obi-Wan,’ and I wasn’t able to say anything,” he says. “But it was pretty humiliating to think that [Disney] might be thinking about casting someone else.”

They weren’t, of course, as McGregor is now almost as much associated with Obi-Wan as the late Alec Guinness, who played him in the original trilogy. (The prequels have grown in admiration in the intervening years, particularly among the millennials who grew up with them.) All six episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi will be penned by Joby Harold (2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) and helmed by Deborah Chow, a Canadian who directed two episodes of Mandalorian. And it has already been announced — to much fan delirium — that the first season will feature the return of Hayden Christensen as young Darth Vader.

While principal photography has not yet commenced, McGregor says he “has done some screen tests with Deborah and other people, and I can see that she is a really, really good director.” Might some of those screen tests be with a young Luke Skywalker? He flashes that famous Ewan McGregor grin. “That’s very possible,” he says. “I don’t know.”

In 2012, McGregor appeared in a BBC documentary series called Ewan McGregor: Cold Chain Mission. The project came out of his philanthropic work as Britain’s ambassador to UNICEF and followed McGregor alongside a team of highly trained medics as they carried life-saving vaccines against diseases like polio to children living in hard-to-reach places.

“We did three different trips where we followed a vaccine from the main center to the most remote regions on earth. Places in India and the Congo,” McGregor says. Like some COVID-19 vaccines, the ones he carried needed to be maintained at temperatures below freezing — a tall order when you’re scaling a South Asian mountainside. “It literally ends up with somebody with an Esky Cooler on their back walking up a mountain in Nepal to get to this village. Fucking crazy but beautiful to see.”

Almost a decade later, along with nearly everyone else on the planet, McGregor found himself in need of a life-saving vaccine. Despite the misery it caused him, the Moderna shot has made McGregor more hopeful than he’s been in a while. He’s hopeful he’ll see his parents in Perthshire, Scotland, whom he hasn’t laid eyes on in more than two years. He’s hopeful production will return to normal and fans will embrace his return to Star Wars. He’s hopeful for his daughters, growing up so quickly in an increasingly complicated world. And he’s hopeful he’ll be back on one of his cherished motorbikes soon, dust and wind blowing in his face, discovering “some of the most extraordinary places in the world, but in a very small, personal way.”

Call it a new hope.

Related Stories

This story first appeared in the April 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.