Ewan McGregor knows all about revisiting old characters. He did it brilliantly in T2 Trainspotting, the sequel to Danny Boyle’s landmark 1996 junk-rock Britflick. In the carefully delayed 2017 comeback for Irvine Welsh’s iconic band of Edinburgh ne’er-do-wells, he played a grown up – but not necessarily wholly wised up – Mark Renton, returning from years in Amsterdam exile to the mates he’d ripped off in a drug deal all those moons ago.
T2 tanked but McGregor soared, an actor long lost to Hollywood and big-but-bland roles now back in the groove of the character that made him. An over-appreciated actor rocking it in an under-appreciated film? Something like that.
Still, it’s a role he should have nailed, an art/life crossover at its best. After all, the return of Renton was like the return of the Mac.
“I felt like Renton, going back,” McGregor said at the time. “I had these feelings like: ‘Shit! I haven’t lived in Scotland since I was 17!’ Of all the characters I’ve played who’ve been Scots, Renton is the most Scottish of them all. And I suddenly thought: ‘Fuck! What if I can’t do it? What if I’m not Scottish enough any more?’”
But he was, and he could, and it worked.
He’d made a similar journey, albeit in reverse and less successfully, in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. In The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), McGregor played a younger version of Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi. Old Kenobi was stiff and solemn, an ageing knight dispensing wisdom and The Force to a headstrong apprentice Jedi. Young Kenobi was just stiff.
“Less successfully”? Well, those three blockbusters took a combined $2.5 billion at the international box office and made the boy from small-town Perth Repertory Theatre a global superstar. They also caused enough of a disturbance in the cultural force to encourage Disney, 14 years later, to commission a six-part Obi-Wan Kenobi TV series for their upcoming Disney+ streaming service.
“I want to get closer and closer to how Obi-Wan felt while Alec Guinness was playing him,” McGregor recently said of a show he starts filming next year. “I feel like I’m greyer and nearer him in age, so it’ll be easier to do that.”
But before that, this month McGregor takes another run at old characters from a different angle. In Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, he plays the grown-up version of little Danny, the tricycle-pedalling hero of the snowbound Overlook Hotel, the kid who battled his deranged and murderous dad (Jack Nicholson) and saved his petrified and abused mum (Shelley Duvall).
The new film is set four decades on from the events at the heart of The Shining. Middle-aged Danny has to team up with a young girl (incredible newcomer Kyliegh Curran) with her own “shining” powers to hunt down a band of travelling child-killers and soul-eaters, led by a deliciously evil Rebecca Ferguson (the Mission: Impossible franchise). It’s part road movie, part vampire-hunter odyssey, often chilling and only occasionally daft.
“When the film starts, we’re still with the Danny we knew and loved from the first movie,” McGregor explains, acknowledging the long shadow cast by Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, a beloved horror movie classic (albeit not beloved by the author, who famously hated it).
“Then when it goes forward in time and I take over the role, we find him at his lowest ebb, at rock bottom. He’s been using alcohol and drugs to suppress his memories of what happened in The Overlook Hotel.” The adult Danny has been trying to live his life without using his “shine”, the psychic abilities that boy Danny learnt to harness and weaponise to defeat the demons in his alcoholic and possessed dad (Jack Nicholson) and in the haunted hotel on the hillside in the Colorado Rockies.
As to how he imagined that character – and stayed true to the creative legacies of three towering figures in King, Kubrick and Nicholson – McGregor focused on Danny as “the son of an alcoholic”. Indeed, at a Q&A before a London screening of Doctor Sleep in October, writer-director Mike Flanagan revealed that at one of his first meetings with McGregor, he was encouraged and relieved to hear the actor’s take on these stories. Yes, they’re horror stories. Or, at least, psychological thrillers. But at heart, The Shining and Doctor Sleep are, respectively, a story about addiction and a story about recovery.
“I think Stephen King made a decision to take [the narrative] forward,” says McGregor of the Doctor Sleep novel, which was published in 2013, “and take it into a different direction from what The Shining was. It was very claustrophobic. It was three people in a big hotel, so it was quite… small. There are more storylines in our movie that intertwine. So it’s a broader picture in a way.
“It’s like how I felt with T2,” he adds. “We weren’t just trying to remake Trainspotting. And that was the clever thing about it: Danny Boyle and [screenwriter] John Hodge had something new and different to say, 20 years later. This felt the same way to me.”
Of course, at the box office and on TV, these are times of Peak Horror, from It to Us, It Follows to Get Out, Stranger Things to Doctor Sleep – why is that?
“We’ve got Trump and Boris, it’s the biggest fucking horror movie of all time!” exclaims McGregor, who’s lived in Los Angeles for the past 11 years. “We’re fucking living it! So maybe we need this kind of escape.”
He admits that he was never much of a horror geek (“I’m not a big fan of being scared”) but knows enough, and is certainly inundated with enough scripts, to sense that scary stories are “more relevant” than ever. “[Previously] they were scary and messy and violent and made you jump. Now they’ve become more useful in terms of their social comment, with films like Get Out and Us. We’re saying something about society using this genre.
“But CNN and what’s happening in the world are the biggest horror show you’ve ever seen in your life,” he repeats, now with less humour and more bitterness.
So, the horror, violence and allegorical escapism keep coming, from the all-conquering Joker to another DC Universe entry, the upcoming Birds of Prey, in which McGregor plays the baddie opposite Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.
In real life, we might say McGregor’s professional “shine” remains his power to turn his main hobby into well-paid gigs. After several motorcycle travelogue series produced out of the UK, he and bike buddy Charley Boorman have been riding the length of South America on electric Harley-Davidsons for Apple TV+, another of the deep-pocketed streaming services. Now that’s magic.
But if Ewan McGregor could have any actual shine, what would it be? The question throws him – he forgets to ask for the power to magically expel Trump and Boris from Earth. Instead he comes up with demon poker skills.
“You could have a partner and speak to each other without moving your lips, and make lots of money. So, you’d be raking it in!” he hoots.
“Or I’d be an amazing ventriloquist. Wait, would that work?” he puzzles. “I don’t know! But, yeah, to be the world’s greatest ventriloquist – it’s always been my dream!”
Ewan McGregor is… a ventriloquist… with a possessed demon dummy! Warner Bros/Amazon/Apple/Netflix/Disney, you know where to find him.
Doctor Sleep is in UK cinemas from 31st October