IN A GOOD GUY CHARACTER PIVOT IF THERE EVER WAS ONE, FEBRUARY SEES THE 48 YEAR OLD VETERAN PERFORMER INHABITING THE ROLE OF A GLEEFUL PSYCHOPATH IN THE LATEST DC EXTENDED UNIVERSE FILM
BY EVAN MONROE
Ever a nearly 30 year stage, screen, and film career Ewan McGregor, even as the chemically lost Renton in Trainspotting or deep in trouble academic, Perry, in Our Kind of Traitor and certainly as Obi Wan Kenobi and tsunami tossed dad, Henry Bennett, in The Impossible has tended to convey, as Our Kind of Traitor screenwriter, Hossein Amini, observed, “something incredibly vulnerable and innocent… he feels morally so solid, [but with] a toughness and edge that allows him also to be an action hero.”
Which is in part what makes McGregor’s role in the February released Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn such a revelation, in which he gleefully inhabits the persona of a parent murdering and women hating gangster. The film was described by its director, Cathy Yan, in an IndieWire interview, “as a bit like Pulp Fiction meets Rashomon,” with an additional tip of the hat to The Professional and A Clockwork Orange.
But first, some history: Born in Perth, Scotland in 1971 and raised in nearby Crieff, McGregor is the son of Carol Diane (née Lawson) and James McGregor, both retired teachers, and attended Morrisons Academy in Crieff, where his father taught. His older brother (by two years), Colin, is a former Royal Air Force fighter jet pilot. A pathway to the stage was at least partially inspired by his uncle, Dennis Lawson (who played John Jarndyce in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House and Gordon Urquhart in the 1983 cult comedy film, Local Hero), and his late aunt, Sheila Gish, who won an Olivier Award for her performance in the 1995 London revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Company.
McGregor left high school at the age of 16 and worked as a stagehand at Scotland’s Perth Theatre before moving to London at 18 to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Six months before graduating, he landed a remarkably plum role for an actor of his experience, a lead in the 1993 six part British Channel 4 series, Lipstick on Your Collar, and in that same year starred alongside Rachel Weisz (just one year older than he at the time) in the BBC adaptation of Scarlet and Black. His big screen roles began in 1994 with director Bill Forsyth’s comedy drama, Being Human, followed by the film noir Shallow Grave just a few months later. The latter role was pivotal in a few respects; it earned him an Empire Award, and also marked his first collaboration with director Danny Boyle, who went on to cast McGregor in the 1996 black comedy/drama, Trainspotting, which received an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay and is ranked tenth by the British Film Institute in its list of the Top 100 British films of the 20th century.
It hardly seems possible that it was 21 years ago when McGregor nabbed the role of a lifetime, that of young Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. Though that film and its two sequels received decidedly mixed reviews from fans and critics, one point of agreement was the actor’s treatment of Kenobi earnest and formidable without drifting into the woodenness that so often characterized Natalie Portman’s and Hayden Christensen’s Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker. (Fun fact: uncle Denis Lawson played Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars trilogy.)
There have been no fewer than 80 completed roles since, from Moulin Rouge (2001) to The Island (2004), Angels & Demons (2009) to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). Inarguably the most blisteringly active 12 months of his career, 2017 saw him take nine feature film, TV series, and short film roles, including two parts in the multiple award wining FX series, Fargo, and a reprise of his Mark Renton character in T2 Trainspotting. Just last year, he inhabited another legendary fictional character, Dan Torrance, in Doctor Sleep, a sequel to the 1980 horror classic, The Shining.
February 7 brings a first for the 48 year old, a foray into the graphic novel cinematization realm. In Warner Bros. Birds of Prey, he plays Gotham City crime lord, Black Mask, who battles with Quinn (Margot Robbie), Black Canary ( Jurnee Smollett Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) the last four characters part of the all-female DC Comics superhero team, Birds of Prey. Also in the cast is 13 year old Ella Jay Basco, who plays future Batgirl Cassandra Cain. This is the eighth DC Extended Universe film, and Yan’s direction is complemented by a script written by Christina Hodson (screenwriter for 2018’s, Bumblebee).
His name Roman Sionis in the graphic novels, McGregor’s character is the scion of a wealthy family who winds up murdering his parents and taking control of the clan business. Psychologically fracturing in his unwillingness to accept responsibility for the crimes, he breaks off a piece of his father’s grave and fashions a mask with it before leading the False Face Society of Gotham gang.
“[He is] an absolute narcissist, spoiled in his upbringing to the point of having no contact with what life or people are about,” explained McGregor in an interview with Men’s Journal, “…who has a skin this thin and wants nothing more than to be the center of attention.”
To add to these charms, Black Mask is also an inveterate hater of women, and the articulation of that pathology was described by the actor in an interview with the French language version of Premiere.
“There is in the script a real look on misogyny,” he said, “and I think we need that. We need to be more aware of how we behave with the opposite sex. We need to be taught to change. Misogynists in movies are often extreme: they rape, they beat women…and it is legitimate to represent people like that because they exist and they are obviously the worst. But in the Birds of Prey dialogue, there is always a hint of everyday misogyny [too], of those things you say as a man you do not even realize, mansplaining…and it’s in the script in a very subtle way. I found that brilliant.”
Next up in the professional roster will be McGregor’s return as Obi Wan Kenobi for Disney+’s new Star Wars series, of which The Mandalorian and Rogue One are the first and second installments. Release date and other details were sparse at press time, but a best guess for rollout is mid-2021.
“It wasn’t always going to be a series, not initially,” he revealed in October to comingsoon.net. When we first started talking… that wasn’t really in the cards, but everything’s changed so much so quickly [Lucas lm was purchased by Disney in 2012]. I’m really into the idea to be able to tell the story over several hours instead of just one hit. I think it’s going to be quite cool.”
Also a longtime philanthropist, McGregor has served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) since 2004, in an effort to boost its 73 year old mission of providing humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries. Site trips in that capacity included a 2016 visit to northern Iraq, where he witnessed how conflicts sweeping across that nation and Syria were (and are) devastating children’s lives. His 2013 appointment as an Offier of the Order of the British Empire was in part a recognition of these efforts, as was his 2016 BAFTA Britannia Humanitarian Award presentation. He’s also a supporter of Make Poverty History and 21st Century Leaders.
McGregor married production designer, Eve Mavrakis, in 1995, though led for divorce in 2018, and the couple have four daughters together. Most recently he has been dating Fargo and Birds of Prey co-star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.