Every Ewan McGregor Movie Role, Ranked Worst to Best – Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie Lists

Every Ewan McGregor Movie Role, Ranked Worst to Best

From psycho cowboys to Iggy Pop-ish glam rockers, Jedi masters to Jesus — we rate the Scottish movie star’s performances from cringeworthy to classic

Ewan McGregor Lead

Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock, Gilles Mingasson/©Broad Green Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection, Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

For a quarter of a century, Ewan McGregor has managed to become a bona fide movie star while also proving himself to be one of the most understated actors of his — or any other — generation. The Scottish performer’s range is broad, but his art consistently lies in restraint. McGregor is not a shape-shifter or a scenery-chewer; he simply uses his inquisitive glance, a gentle manner of speaking, and his slight frame in all sorts of remarkable ways. He’s always, on some basic level, himself — the sign of a true movie star. And yet, over the years, McGregor has played everything from a messed-up heroin addict to a muckraking journalist, a psycho cowboy to Iggy Pop (basically), a Jedi master to Jesus. It’s a hell of a resume.

In honor of his latest release — the Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, in which our man Ewan plays a grown-up version of Danny Torrance — here are all of McGregor’s film performances to date, ranked from worst to best. (And, as always, this is a ranking of the performances, not the movies themselves … so don’t yell at us about how high Mortdecai is on the list.)

Eye Of The Beholder - 2000

Behaviour/Village Roadshow/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

56

‘Eye of the Beholder’ (1999)

Behold, the bottom of the barrel. McGregor plays a surveillance expert who becomes obsessed with beautiful serial killer (and amateur astrologer!) Ashley Judd, following her around the country as she beds and kills a series of men; hilariously, he seems genuinely flabbergasted whenever she claims another victim. Meanwhile, he’s also haunted by the figure of his seven-year-old daughter, who went missing many years ago. The silly, twisty-turny, pseudo-Hitchcockian plot might have worked if the cast were in on the goofiness, but tragically, they play it straight. And McGregor is the weakest link of all, as he does a variation on his mopey nice-guy shtick in a part that really demands something a lot more extreme. He seems completely lost here.

"Zoe" Film - 2018

Sebastien Raymon/Im Global/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

55

‘Zoe’ (2018)

In this tired, repetitive drone of a sci-fi movie, McGregor is a brilliant scientist who has designed synthetic humans capable of feeling real emotions. The object: mass-produced romantic companionship. His beautiful coworker (Lea Seydoux) holds a torch for him; too bad that she, too, is a replicant. Both actors are onscreen for almost the entire movie, yet are given shockingly little to do — and without anything specific to latch onto, or anything interesting or relatable to say, McGregor specifically winds up flailing. This is a textbook example of how you misuse a great performer in the worst possible way.

DECEPTION, (aka MANIPULATION), Ewan McGregor, 2008. TM and ©Copyright Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved/Courtesy Everett Collection.

©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

54

‘Deception’ (2008)

Another day, another silly pseudo-erotic thriller in which nice-guy Ewan gets taken in by shady characters. (With what sounds like some sort of New Jersey accent, no less.) He’s a corporate accountant who meets up with slick lawyer Hugh Jackman, who introduces him to a secret network of corporate bigwigs who get together for anonymous sexual rendezvous. So of course our boy falls in love with one of his mystery dates (Michelle Williams) and of course the girl goes missing and of course Jackman wasn’t exactly who he said he was, etc. It’s like Fight Club meets Eyes Wide Shut, but stupid — and with the usually restrained actor overdoing the nebbishness to the Nth degree.

Blue Juice

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

53

‘Blue Juice’ (1995)

A Cornish surfer (Sean Pertwee) who’s struggling with the onset of adulthood — namely, whether to commit to his doting, free-spirited girlfriend Catherine Zeta-Jones (duh) or spend more time trying to catch “the big wave.” As one of our hero’s more troublesome deadbeat pals, McGregor brings a lot of energy but little else to the role. He’s a wild man who mostly sows chaos, though the supporting character does get one moment to wail about how terrible his life really is. It’s a clunky, simplistic part in a clunky, simplistic film, and makes for a telling contrast with McGregor’s turn in another ensemble comedy-drama about drug-addled layabouts made around this time — a little film called Trainspotting. (See higher on this list.)

52

‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ (2014)

Thankfully for McGregor, his appearance in this painfully tin-eared Western comedy from Family Guy‘s Seth McFarlane consists of one line and about two seconds of screen time — he plays a random cowboy in a crowd, one of numerous big-star cameos that appear throughout the film. You may recognize the Scottish brogue, though McGregor somehow manages to be barely recognizable with that facial hair and that cowboy get-up, thus somehow undercutting the whole point of a celebrity cameo. (His actual line reading of “I dunno…he was laughing,” by the way, is fine.) Go directly to the 1:24 mark here, and marvel at how he was able to escape this with his dignity intact.

Scenes Of A Sexual Nature - 2006

Tin Pan/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

51

‘Scenes of a Sexual Nature’ (2006)

This vignette-based ensemble comedy is set among a series of couples spending an afternoon at London’s Hampstead Heath, having a variety of exchanges that are, well, somewhat sexual in nature. McGregor plays a gay financial adviser who likes to lounge in the men-only part of the park with his restaurant-critic partner Douglas Hodge, partaking of the many opportunities for anonymous sex in the woods nearby. It should make for a compelling contrast — the good-natured party-boy and the serious-minded intellectual. But McGregor seems to be indicating more than acting here. It’s not like he’s been given much to work with.

Being Human - 1994

Bountiful Company/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

50

‘Being Human’ (1994)

McGregor had a tiny part in this episodic comedy-drama in which Robin Williams played five men in five different eras of human history falling prey to cowardice and indecision. The movie was a bust, but it’s better than its reputation: Enough remains of director Bill Forsyth’s ambitions attemmpt to mount an intimate, humanistic epic traversing centuries, and it contains some genuinely moving sequences. None of them, sadly, involve Ewan McGregor, though the actor is appropriately gaunt, and somewhat unrecognizable. (Check out his scene here.)

Nightwatch - 1998

Darren Michaels/Michael Obel Prod/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

49

‘Nightwatch’ (1997)

McGregor overdoes his part as a fresh-faced and out-of-his-element law student who takes a job as a night watchman in a morgue where a psycho appears to be trying to have sex with the corpses. The whole thing alternates between campy grotesque and chilly humorlessness, and while McGregor brings conviction to his part, he’s seems to exist only in relation to the other characters in the film — notably, Josh Brolin as his wise-cracking, bellicose best friend and Nick Nolte as a creepy detective investigating the mystery of the morgue pervert. Don’t watch.

August - Osage County - 2013

Jean Doumanian Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

48

‘August, Osage County’ (2013)

Quick — did you even remember Ewan McGregor in this movie? John Wells’ adaptation of Tracy Letts’ acclaimed, powerful play is filled with stars, but pretty much everybody gets lost amid the two competing high-pressure zones of Meryl Streep as a deranged, pill-popping family matriarch and Julia Roberts as the headstrong older daughter who refuses to bow down to her mom’s cruel ways. McGregor, as Roberts’ flustered and estranged poet husband, mostly blends into the background. His typical, welcome tendency to do the work that allows his co-stars to shine becomes, for once, a liability here.

Miles Ahead - 2015

Dave Dougan/Bilfrost/Crescendo Prods/Naked City/Sobini/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

47

‘Miles Ahead’ (2015)

Don Cheadle famously noted that he needed to cast a white co-star in order to get his ambitious Miles Davis movie financed. So in comes Ewan McGregor playing [ahem] a Rolling Stone journalist eager to interview Cheadle’s Davis — at which point you realize this isn’t exactly a biopic so much as a genre-bending, fantasy-inflected essay film about Miles as myth, man, and musician. That actually requires a phenomenal degree of range, which McGregor certainly possesses. And his scenes with Cheadle have a buddy-comedy charge that makes you wish, at times, that they would make an actual buddy-cop comedy together. But it’s hard not to watch this fascinating, discombobulated film and keep wondering what exactly McGregor is doing there. The fact that Cheadle is blowing away everybody else onscreen doesn’t make it any easier.

The Island - 2005

Dreamworks/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

46

‘The Island’ (2005)

How do you make a Logan’s Run-style dystopian sci-fi action movie starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson and screw it up? Unsurprisingly, director Michael Bay found a way; surprisingly,  it was because he temporarily tamped down his usual flair for bombast so he could deliver a straight, turgid snoozer. To be fair, as the not-too-bright resident of an antiseptic, isolated colony who develops curiosity and then flees — only to discover that he’s been a clone all along — McGregor is appropriately blank-faced and dim-witted. (It’s why film’s early scenes work reasonably well).

Salmon Fishing In The Yemen - 2011

Lionsgate/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

45

‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ (2011)

A vaguely romantic, escapist drama about a fishing expert (McGregor) and a government consultant (Emily Blunt) trying to help a wealthy sheik make salmon fishing a reality in the desert— it should be a fine fit for McGregor’s naturally subdued nice-guy charisma, yeah? Especially when he’s paired opposite a highly flustered, amorously conflicted Blunt, right? The only problem is that McGregor’s part calls for his character to be a bit of a cynic — a stroppy, wise-cracking naysayer whose eyes and heart are opened through his journey to another land. And we never really buy him as a peevish skeptic; he’s a bit too soft-spoken and gentle for that, which may be why his transformation feels both foregone and unconvincing.

Stay - 2005

Eli Reed/New Regency/20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

44

‘Stay’ (2005)

Marc Forster’s puzzling wannabe-mindfuck thriller has McGregor as a psychiatrist trying to stop troubled patient Ryan Gosling from killing himself — or is he?! A lot of chilly compositions and moody atmosphere gussy up what turns out to be yet another riff on An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, but it presents its actors with an interesting challenge: How to convey the surface emotions of the ostensible story while hinting at the fact that there is another, buried narrative going on, without giving away the big twist? This requires performances that can hold the characters at something of a remove. McGregor and his co-stars Gosling and Naomi Watts give it a shot, but the script and story are ultimately too stilted and phony to work.

EMMA 1996

Mary Evans/MIRAMAX FILMS/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

43

‘Emma’ (1996)

“I was terrible in it,” McGregor told the New York Times about his appearance in this Gwyneth Paltrow-starring adaptation of the Jane Austen classic. “I didn’t believe a word I said.” Terrible might be too strong a word for it, but he makes relatively little impression as one of the more dashing suitors of Paltrow’s headstrong but sensitive matchmaker. McGregor is handsome and pleasant, though he manages little chemistry with his costar. Of course, that’s kind of the point: They’re not destined for each other. He just seems like he’s wandering around on set — which, given how many films McGregor was doing at the time, may not be too far from the truth.

The Impossible - 2012

Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

42

‘The Impossible’ (2012)

Spanish filmmaker Juan-Antonio Bayona’s technically effective thriller about a tourist family that survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — an event that killed 230,000 people, the vast majority of them non-tourists — is mostly a showcase for Naomi Watts’ remarkable ability to suffer onscreen. As her husband, McGregor is a little awkward, especially since the couple seems surprisingly uncomfortable around each other. Nor does he ever reach the levels of desperation that his better half seems capable of, whether he needs to or not. (It’s not a tragic acting competition.) McGregor doesn’t give a bad performance, but you do get the sense that he could easily be replaced with any other actor and the film would not be that different.

Amelia - 2009

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

41

‘Amelia’ (2009)

As pilot Gene Vidal, i.e. the man that Hillary Swank’s very married Amelia Earhart fell madly in love with, McGregor cuts an appropriately gallant figure in Mira Nair’s biopic about the famous, doomed aviatrix. Of course, he has to; the gentleman is competing against Richard Gere, who plays Earhart’s husband. But nobody can really overcome a script that never gets off the ground, nor the impeccably stiff presentation of the material. That’s particularly deadly for the actor playing the forbidden love interest.

Miss Potter - 2006

Alex Bailey/Weinstein Co/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

40

‘Miss Potter’ (2006)

This fanciful portrait of Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter wants to present her as both submerged romantic and visionary genius while making a family-friendly entertainment. A rather twee Renée Zellwegger is the writer-illustrator; McGregor plays her publisher and paramour. He’s the younger, disrespected member of a publishing family, who’s been given a seemingly inconsequential book. Predictably, his character sees the true potential in it — and in Potter. There’s a lot of pathos in his performance: He’s as much of an underdog as she is. And while the film itself isn’t that memorable, it does play to McGregor’s strengths as a star in neutral mode (all gentleness and decency).

Alex Rider - Operation Stormbreaker - 2006

Weinstein Co/Kobal/Shutterstock

39

‘Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker’ (2006)

McGregor’s role amounts to little more than a cameo in this blandly pleasant spy adventure — the start of a series that never happened — about a teenager who’s recruited into MI6 after his secret agent uncle (guess who) winds up dead. He’s his typically appealing self, of course, and briefly makes a decent, albeit belated, case for those of us who briefly imagined that he might have made a good James Bond.

Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace - 1999

Lucasfilm/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

38

‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’ (1999)

Here’s the thing: Ewan McGregor made for a terrific Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, even nailing the late, great Alec Guinness’ regal vocal inflections as the Jedi master. But even he had a tough time getting acclimated in this, the first entry in George Lucas’ much-maligned, extremely personal, occasionally infuriating, often wonderful Episodes 1-3 trilogy. Watch how often he’s left to stand around looking bemused, and the awkward special effects don’t help either; during one conversation with Jar-Jar Binks, he doesn’t even seem to be looking at the right place. Still, it’s clear that McGregor is a fine actor, albeit one who’s struggling to bring nuance and dimension to an underwritten part. He’d fare much better in later entries

Incendiary - 2008

Aramid Fund/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

37

‘Incendiary’ (2008)

Michelle Williams is a young mother whose husband and son are killed by a terrorist bomb at an Arsenal soccer game. McGregor is the wealthy journalist (sorry: a wealthy…journalist?) across the street who woos Williams, then strives to help the grieving widow get justice. The actor demonstrates a compellingly oily dynamism: He’s a womanizer, but he falls hard for this particular woman. Unfortunately, after stringing us along both narratively and emotionally, the film doesn’t exactly go anywhere. That’s not the actors’ fault, really, but there’s something uniquely frustrating about being presented with interesting characters who are then left hanging.

Ewan McGregor in 'The Men Who Stare At Goats', 2009.

Bbc Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

36

‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ (2009)

How many times has Ewan McGregor played a journalist now? Tagging along with former Special Forces hotshot George Clooney in Iraq, McGregor basically serves that role for this bizarro comedy about a decades-long military experiment involving the American military’s ongoing attempts to harness telepathic power. Yes, it’s kind of a thankless part on the page. But McGregor does more with it than most audience surrogate journalist types, and he and Clooney occasionally have a pleasant, Hope-and-Crosby–style chemistry.

Ewan McGregor in 'Angels & Demons', 2009.

Columbia/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

35

‘Angels & Demons’ (2009)

McGregor was actually an inspired choice for the role of the “Camerlengo,” the Vatican official who assumes control of the Papacy upon the sudden death of the Pontiff, in this sequel to the hit Dan Brown adaptation The Da Vinci Code. The character is a helpful inside man — young, polite, rational. He later turns out to have been the fire-breathing, absolutist mastermind behind the Pope’s murder and the kidnapping of his likely successors. McGregor took on several parts like these in the wake of his Star Wars success, several of which played off his innate trustworthiness then gave him a chance to snarl and scheme. The movie is mostly trash, but man, does he seem to be having fun.

Ewan McGregor in 'Little Voice', 1998.

©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

34

‘Little Voice’ (1998)

Jane Horrocks’ powerful singing voice and supernatural talent for mimicry are the true stars of this offbeat little movie about a mousy, quiet young Yorkshire woman with a truly astonishing set of pipes. McGregor plays the eccentric phone-line repairman who falls for her, another in his long line of charming but underwritten romantic foils. His star was just beginning to shine at this point, so it’s understandable that the film doesn’t utilize him (or his range) as much as it could. His presence is what matters here, however, and he and Horrocks have excellent chemistry as two oddballs who find each other.

Ewan McGregor in 'Jack The Giant Slayer', 2014.

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

33

‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ (2013)

McGregor pokes fun at his matinee-idol image in enjoyable fashion as a handsome but somewhat useless knight in this occasionally irreverent, CGI-loaded mix-and-match adaptation of several classic fairy tales. By this point, the actor had starred in one of the biggest movie franchises of all time and had become a household name. So it was refreshing to see him take on parts that played with his persona rather than just doubling down on the blockbuster heroics.

Ewan McGregor in 'Big Fish', 2003.

Zade Rosenthal/Columbia/Tri-Star/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

32

‘Big Fish’ (2003)

In Tim Burton’s sentimental fable, McGregor got to play the younger version of an actor with whom he was often compared: Albert Finney. The Tom Jones star’s aging, bed-ridden patriarch may not seem to have much in common with the handsome hipster from Trainspotting, but the resemblance is there in both manner and looks. It’s an intriguing bifurcation: McGregor plays a man with an impeccable style and amazing confidence, who goes on a series of unlikely, often supernatural adventures; for him, vulnerability is just a sly grace note. Finney plays the older, more fragile version — and is all vulnerability. The latter gets the big emotional scenes, but the young actor manages to smuggle in some humanity to his part as well — a certain restlessness and ambition, and even tenderness. It’s hard to think of one performance without the other.

The Serpent's Kiss - 1997

Canal/Nef/Trinity/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

31

‘The Serpent’s Kiss’ (1997)

In 1799, a man posing as a famous Dutch landscape designer arrives at an elegant British country home to put together a massive garden. He then winds up tangled in the emotional dynamics of the troubled family he’s working for. The sole foray into feature directing of the legendary cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Dangerous Liaisons, A River Runs Through It, Interview With a Vampire) is predictably gorgeous, and ss the handsome young con artist/garden savant at the heart of this tale, McGregor brings just the right amount of guilelessness and passion. (He’s also doted on by both the mistress of the house Greta Scacchi and her romantic daughter Carmen Chaplin — can you blame them?) His character is faking his expertise, but he’s doing it for noble reasons … at least in his mind. And since McGregor is playing an impostor, we can forgive him his dodgy Dutch accent.

NANNY MCPHEE AND THE BIG BANG BR / FR / US 2010 aka NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS US Title EMMA THOMPSON as Nanny McPhee. Photo by: Mary Evans/UNIVERSAL PICTURES / Ronald Grant/Everett Collection(10486036)

Mary Evans/UNIVERSAL PICTURES / Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

30

‘Nanny McPhee Returns’ (2010)

Emma Thompson is the main attraction, playing an off-kilter Mary Poppins type magic babysitter; McGregor gets just a couple of scenes. It’s barely enough to qualify as a cameo — but boy, does he make the most of them. He an absent dad who’s off fighting in a faraway war, then goes missing in action and is presumed dead. Early on, however, we see him in a quick flashback to better, more romantic times with wife Maggie Gyllenhaal; he simply flashes the biggest smile you’ve ever seen, and in that instant we understand how happy they once were. When he finally returns Home (just as Nanny McPhee is leaving, sniff sniff), he makes his happiness and enthusiasm palpable with one beautiful, profoundly touching scream. He is perhaps the most minor character in this shrill, sentimental movie, and yet he somehow owns both of its emotional high-points.

Jane Got A Gun - 2015

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

29

‘Jane Got a Gun’ (2015)

McGregor rarely gets to play genuine villains — even when the actor is the resident bad guy, he’s usually a complicated one. But in this Natalie Portman Western, he got his chance to play an honest-to-god, sneering, sadistic, psychopathic monster. McGregor is the cowboy ringleader who tried to turn Portman’s character into a prostitute. Now, he’s eager for revenge upon her wounded husband and his former compadre Noah Emmerich, who shot up their gang in an effort to rescue her. He’s got the jet-black hair and the evil goatee, but his voice is still distinctly Ewan: He’s a fairly soft-spoken baddie, which makes his presence even more chilling.

Christopher Robin

Laurie Sparham /© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

28

‘Christopher Robin’ (2018)

Disney’s recent live-action version of the Winnie the Pooh tales casts McGregor as the adorably hapless bear’s now-fully grown human friend. Only this Christopher Robin is a workaholic whose stressful job as the efficiency manager of a high-end luggage company is interfering with his home life, leaving his young daughter and long-suffering wife to fend for themselves. He sorta-kinda-maybe reconnects with his inner child after rediscovering his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood, but this is less nostalgia-pandering than a somber, gentle take on the all-smothering power of adulthood. The human protagonist isn’t so much a stuffed shirt as a simple, good man who has merely lost his sense of equilibrium. And MacGregor lends him a quiet, dignified angst — not too grim (it’s a kids’ movie after all) and not too frivolous.

'Mortdecai' - Film - 2015

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

27

‘Mortdecai’ (2015)

Look [weary sigh], this calamitous Johnny Depp vehicle about a mustachioed art dealer who attempts to solve the mystery of a stolen painting is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. But, and this is a big but: Ewan McGregor is fantastic in it. He plays a police inspector and Depp’s former college chum who still holds a desperate candle for his old friend’s wife (played by McGregor’s Emma co-star Gwyneth Paltrow). And as a  hilariously stone-faced cop who melts at the sight of his unobtainable paramour — and who even schemes to have Depp dispatched to far corners of the world so he can be alone with her — he is the only character in this movie who seems to have a heart (and elicit genuine laughs). It’s enough to make you wish for a Depp-less sequel.

BRASSED OFF, Ewan McGregor, 1996, (c) Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

26

‘Brassed Off’ (1996)

A coal miners’ brass band in a Northern English town tries to figure out how to proceed when their pit is threatened with closure. McGregor plays the handsome young tenor horn player whose childhood romance with flugelhorn genius Tara Fitzgerald is rekindled when she comes back into town. Unfortunately, she’s working for the very people who want to close down the mine. It’s part romantic comedy, part underdog tale; the brass band is, of course, performing in a competition. But more than anything, this is a politically pointed look at workers who’ve given their lives to a dying industry. There’s always been a certain refinement to the actor’s features that’s kept him from getting cast in rougher, blue collar roles. Here, he plays with that notion a bit: McGregor comes across as a gentle soul at first, but his attitude turns on a dime when he realizes that he’s fallen in love with someone who might be working for the other side.

"Beauty And The Beast" Film - 2017

Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock

25

‘Beauty and the Beast’ (2017)

We don’t usually include vocal performances in lists like this — but since McGregor actually does get to inhabit his own body briefly at the end of this film (spoiler alert), we’ll allow it. And a good thing, too, because he’s one of the standouts of this Disney live-action remake of their animated classic. As Lumiere, the wisecracking but sympathetic French candelabra in love with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s feather duster Plumette — these two have great screen chemistry together — McGregor gives a lively performance that captures just the right tone of play this movie needs. He has an absurd Fwanch accent, and there’s a wonderful tongue-in-cheek quality to much of his delivery. It is in no way realistic, but he’s clearly having so much fun that we don’t care.

Haywire - 2011

Moviestore/Shutterstock

24

‘Haywire’ (2011)

Steven Soderbergh’s entertainingly streamlined action flick — following a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails female black-ops agent as she kicks the shit out of several men who betrayed her — was meant mainly to be a coming-out star vehicle for MMA fighter Gina Carano. Most of the other actors in this curiously star-studded film are disposable. But McGregor gets to play the protagonist’s former lover and double-crossing boss, and as such, he winds up being one of the chief villains in the film. It’s always refreshing to see McGregor playing a heavy, and in this case it’s especially sweet, since he clearly relishes toying with his handsome, trustworthy nice-guy image.

Nora - 2000

Gam/Natural Nylon/Road Movies/Volta/Kobal/Shutterstock

23

‘Nora’ (2000)

Ewan McGregor as … James Joyce? Don’t laugh (or at least not too much). This drama about the Finnegans Wake author’s tormented love affair with his spirited, working class wife Nora Barnacle is a heated melodrama that purports to show the author’s transformation from struggling romantic to stuffy, bitter genius. Along the way, their marriage changes considerably, as he’s consumed with shame and anger at what he thinks are her loose morals. It’s a tough part: McGregor has to make Joyce’s perceived humiliation palpable, while also conveying the writer’s growing toxicity. Like most movies about literary geniuses, it struggles to make the protagonist’s achievements cinematically compelling – but the actor gives it his all, which makes all the difference.

Cassandra's Dream - 2007

Perdido Prods/Wild Bunch/Kobal/Shutterstock

22

‘Cassandra’s Dream’ (2007)

In Woody Allen’s twisty comedy-thriller of guilt and ambition, McGregor and Colin Farrell play two brothers — one a slick social-climber, the other a well-meaning dimwit — who are roped into a murderous arrangement with their gangster uncle Tom Wilkinson. It’s a better movie than it gets credit for being, in part because McGregor and Farrell contrast so well with one another: The former is dashing and smart but ultimately rotten to the core, while the latter is anxious, not very bright, and ultimately consumed with guilt. Their performances, on their own, are way too broad; taken together, as two sides of the same coin, they say something terrifying about the human condition.

Black Hawk Down - 2001

Columbia/Revolution Studios/Kobal/Shutterstock

21

‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001)

Ridley Scott’s intense, relentless film about the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu is filled with stars, many of whom are mostly unrecognizable amid the film’s fast-paced and chaotic depiction of the fog of war. As a soldier consigned to desk duty who suddenly gets to go into real combat, McGregor manages to comparatively stick out; we actually get to see his face for a part of the film. He is eventually swallowed up into the insanity of the battle, however, and the actor gets himself admirably down in the muck, while also conveying his character’s sense of fear, bewilderment, and heroism.

Star Wars Episode II - Attack Of The Clones - 2002

Lucasfilm/Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

20

‘Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones’ (2002)

Not unlike the eternal battle between Jedi and Sith, the second installment of George Lucas’ much-maligned prequel trilogy struggles between darkness and light — between a poorly-acted, clunky romance and a fairly exciting, inventive space mystery. It’s in this film that McGregor’s Kenobi finally comes into his own as a protagonist, and Lucas makes effective use of the actor’s natural inquisitiveness, with those sharp eyebrows and that half-smile. (It’s almost as if he’s playing a journalist yet again!) There are some clever shadings here as well: This Obi-Wan is all business, and his determined single-mindedness may well be yet another reason why his pissy protege Anakin Skywalker will eventually turn to the Dark Side of the Force.

Moulin Rouge - 2001

20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

19

‘Moulin Rouge!’ (2001)

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who adore Moulin Rouge! and those who, er, do not. Wildly divisive at the time of release, Baz Luhrmann’s fevered, ornate musical — by turns operatic and modern, swoony and terrifying — has firmly entered the canon, in part thanks to Nicole Kidman’s Oscar-nominated turn as the doomed Parisian dancer at the heart of this mad romance. But what to make of the film’s male romantic lead? As the impoverished, love-sick writer Christian, McGregor has to do a lot of pining and singing; oddly enough, he’s very good at both things. She may be dying, but he’s the shrinking flower. And even the fact that there’s almost no chemistry between him and his costar doesn’t seem like a problem. Mon dieu!

Rouge Trader

ITV/Shutterstock

18

‘Rogue Trader’ (1999)

Through a variety of complicated shenanigans in the 1990s, broker Nick Leeson made a number of hugely fraudulent trades on Singapore’s SIMEX trade. He ultimately landed in prison and brought down one of Britain’s oldest financial institutions. McGregor plays Leeson as a kind of brilliant go-getter whose chief sins are loyalty and pride. His initial duplicity comes as a result of covering up a co-worker’s mistakes; his later cock-ups come from overconfidence and a desire to master the markets. Even as a stomach-gnawing anxiety takes over the film, McGregor does an excellent job of keeping us on this crook’s side. It’s hard not to root for this guy, despite the fact a.), yes, we see that what he’s doing is patently illegal and b.) will have absolutely catastrophic consequences.

SON OF A GUN, from left: Matt Nable, Ewan McGregor, Eddie Baroo, 2014. ph: David Dare Parker/©A24/courtesy Everett Collection

David Dare Parker/©A24/courtesy Everett Collection

17

‘Son of a Gun’ (2014)

Should you still need a reminder at just how bracing it is to see McGregor play a real honest-to-God prick, might we recommend this emo prison escape-flick-cum twisty heist thriller in which he’s a tough-guy Aussie bank robber doing hard time. Then young inmate Brenton Thwaites arrives at the penitentiary, and our man brings the kid into his prison gang and organizes a daring escape. Soon, they’re embark on a wild gold robbery, with predictably backstabby results. The movie turns on our uncertainty over what exactly to make of McGregor’s character: He can be psychotically violent one minute, then downright avuncular the next. Ultimately, it’s a fine showcase for his range (except when it comes to accents: Instead of doing an Aussie lilt, he just leans further into his Scottish one). Still, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard him pronounce bonobo.

Our Kind of Traitor - 2016

Moviestore/Shutterstock

16

‘Our Kind of Traitor’ (2016)

Yes, McGregor (along with everybody else in this movie) is upstaged by Stellan Skarsgard’s hilarious, chilling, and tender turn as a Russian mobster who cooperates with the Brits to bring down a far more brutal rival. But the Scottish actor’s mopey yet inquisitive straight-man protagonist is crucial to this John le Carre adaptation that is, at heart, a movie about the extremely unlikely friendship between two very different men. McGregor is the academic whose marriage is on the rocks and whose very boringness is, in some ways, the perfect foil for the spy-movie shenanigans that ensue — he’s like an ideal blend of Jimmy Stewart and The 39 Steps‘ Robert Donat. He also effectively conveys his character’s inner conflict: fascinated by the situation he’s found himself in, and also a little bewildered by it.

Pillow Book

Moviestore/Shutterstock

15

‘The Pillow Book’ (1996)

McGregor shows up only about halfway through Peter Greenaway’s dense, difficult movie about (among other things) a Japanese model obsessed with body-writing. He plays a bisexual translator who winds up in a heated love affair with our heroine, then agrees to be her conduit to a powerful publisher — essentially letting her write her work on his naked body. It’s a surprisingly sexy, intimate performance (this was during the period when he became famous for his willingness to do full-frontal nudity … though honestly, it’s easy to see why he, ah, had no problems with it). But he also provides a surprising infusion of warmth into Greenaway’s chilly, arch narrative. When the character kills himself — by swallowing a bottle of ink, naturally — we share the heroine’s sense of grief and betrayal.

American Pastoral - 2016

Richard Foreman/Shutterstock

14

‘American Pastoral’ (2016)

For his feature directing debut, McGregor tackled a real beast: the late novelist Philip Roth’s brilliant epic of post-war disillusionment and ’60s strife. And, um, it didn’t go as well as he would have liked. On the page, Pastoral is a terrifying journey into the American soul in the second half of the 20th century. Yet the lead role of “Swede” Levov is an ideal one for McGregor, mixing two types that he’s played to perfection over the years: the paragon of handsome, manly virtue and the innocent Everyman caught in a deceitful web he doesn’t quite understand. The mediocrity of the movie itself keeps getting in the way. As a performer, however, he seems capable of true greatness here.

A Life Less Ordinary

Moviestore/Shutterstock

13

‘A Life Less Ordinary’ (1997)

McGregor is far and away the best thing about this forced, tiresome kidnapping rom-com from Danny Boyle and his Trainspotting team (their third effort together). He’s an L.A. janitor who loses his job and accidentally takes the boss’ beautiful hellion daughter Cameron Diaz hostage. It wants to be a warped, wacky romance — there are even two gun-toting angel characters, played by Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter — but it winds up being mostly pointless quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake. Nevertheless, McGregor emerges mostly unscathed: It’s another young-man-completely-out-of-his element turn, and he’s still compulsively watchable as hell. The movie gets by almost entirely on his irresistible charms.

"T2 Trainspotting" Film - 2017

Jaap Buitendijk/Tristar/Kobal/Shutterstock

12

‘T2 Trainspotting’ (2017)

No, this movie shouldn’t have worked. Yes, it kind of does. Picking up the characters from the original Trainspotting a little over 20 years later, Danny Boyle fashions a sad, stylized look at friendship, loyalty, regret, and selling out. McGregor’s Renton sets the plot in motion by returning to Edinburgh to reconnect with the addict pals he betrayed decades ago. At first, their dynamic makes for an interesting echo of his own real-life stardom: the hero, like McGregor, seems to be the healthy, happy success story who left everybody else behind. He’s the responsible, reliable one who shed the bad boy image long ago. It’s a touching performance, mixing in both disgust and wistfulness at the man he used to be. When he sits in a fancy restaurant and recalls the “Choose life” monologue, updating it for the social media age, we see a glimpse of the fiery old Renton. But we also the sad new one, a well-to-do, middle-of-the-road nobody broken in all sorts of new ways.

The Ghost Writer - 2010

Rp/Kobal/Shutterstock

11

‘The Ghost Writer’ (2010)

Playing a writer (see title) who’s been hired to pen the autobiography of a controversial ex British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan), McGregor spends much of Roman Polanski’s gripping political-psychological thriller asking questions and concocting various conspiracy theories about his new boss. (Understandable, since the last ghost writer hired for the job wound up curiously dead.) The film is actually a showcase for Brosnan’s brilliant performance as the bitter, stand-offish, mysterious politico who, like Tony Blair, helped lead the country into a disastrous war. But McGregor, it could be argued, has to do more. Yet again, he’s playing the less showy counterpart. And yet again, he’s the one who provides the connective tissue, whose curiosity and fear drive the atmospheric story along. By the time the film comes to its disturbingly brutal final scene, you may be surprised by how much you’re invested in this character.

Beginners - 2010

Qlympus Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock

10

‘Beginners’ (2010)

Mike Mills’ tender comedy-drama features McGregor as a man who recalls his aging widower father (Christopher Plummer) coming out as gay just a few years before his death. The older actor won an Oscar for the part, and the film does ultimately turn on his sensitive, complex performance as a man trying to fit a lot of life into the few years he has left. But McGregor is in fine form here, too. The film is structured to echo the younger man’s attempt at a new relationship while remembering his dad’s last relationship, and in a more subtle way, McGregor has to do many of the same things Plummer is doing more overtly. It’s a great double act.

Perfect Sense - 2011

Sigma/Kobal/Shutterstock (

9

‘Perfect Sense’ (2011)

Director David MacKenzie has made two films with McGregor so far, and he seems to have a terrific understanding of how best to use him. The world has fallen prey to a global epidemic that’s slowly robbing humans of their senses. The actor plays a womanizing chef who falls in love with a tortured scientist (Eva Green). It’s a romance set against a highly symbolic catastrophe, with each new development in the disease prompting humans to overload on a whole set of emotions (loss of smell is associated with grief, loss of taste with fear, etc). The challenge: How best to convey these explosions of feeling without going so over-the-top that you undo the film’s dreamy pull? Watch the two leads run through the full range of emotions while also allowing the central love story to develop organically, and you’ll see exactly how it can be done. They also have wonderful chemistry, which can’t always be said about McGregor’s other onscreen romantic pairings.

Young Adam - 2003

Recorded Company/Kobal/Shutterstock

8

‘Young Adam’ (2003)

We forget sometimes how expressive Ewan McGregor can be. Director David Mackenzie’s atmospheric 2003 adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s novel is filled with tense, haunting silences that speak volumes. McGregor plays a seductive deckhand/aspiring writer who strikes a heated affair with coal-barge owner Tilda Swinton, right under the nose of her gruff, terse husband Peter Mullan. It’s a twisted love triangle, one that doesn’t quite develop in the ways we might expect. All three leads are perfect, but what really stands out here is the physicality of Swinton and McGregor’s relationship — alternately joyous and desperate, fevered and suspicious. Back then, of course, the actor had become somewhat renowned for his propensity to bare it all onscreen; people joked about how often his penis was onscreen. But in truth, that fearlessness as a performer benefited him tremendously (see: the odd, violent sexual encounter he has with Emily Mortimer here) and it was films like Young Adam that helped McGregor convey a vulnerability and an animal grace that was sorely lacking in other young actors of his time.

I Love You Phillip Morris - 2009

Moviestore/Shutterstock

7

‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ (2009)

It is perhaps ironic that the greatest onscreen romantic chemistry Ewan McGregor has achieved to date has been with…Jim Carrey. Playing the bleached-blond object of attraction to the Ace Ventura: Pet Detective actor’s dedicated con artist in this based-on-fact prison romance comedy-drama, McGregor starts off as a kid who’s wound up in prison — and doesn’t quite understand the depth of this wild man’s amorous obsession with him. But their relationship develops to something profound and sweet. And as he’s done in so many films, McGregor proves himself a generous co-star. This is Carrey’s show; it’s McGregor, however, who does the subtle, important work that establishes the heart of the picture. He’s a center of tender serenity amid his flamboyant co-star’s increasingly outrageous antics. He has to be lover, foil, and, er, straight man all at once.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.