With a cheeky grin, Ewan McGregor came to fame in Trainspotting - and kept it. His breakout role in Danny Boyle’s instant cult classic showcased many more of his talents, however that mischievous smile has continued to serve the Scottish actor well, right up until his recent casting in the upcoming third season of Fargo.
His smile dazzled, along with his singing skills, in Moulin Rouge! and it charmed an entire film in the tall tale that was Tim Burton’s Big Fish. That beaming countenance took on a yearning melancholy in Beginners, a fear-instilling glee in Jane Got a Gun and the weight of two decades worth of expectations in long-awaited sequel T2: Trainspotting.
In between, McGregor flashed his pearly whites in suave and sinister roles alike, amassing a resume spanning more than two decades, nearly 80 credits and everything from big-budget blockbusters to guest TV drama appearances. His grin has proved versatile - offering hope beyond his desperate dreamer confines in A Life Less Ordinary, oozing much-needed reassurance in the Star Wars prequels, hitting the earnest notes in blackly comedic con artist romance I Love You Phillip Morris and transforming with the jazz beat of Miles Apart - but not more so than the man himself.
From his first major appearance in Lipstick on Your Collar, McGregor demonstrated the two traits that have helped his endearing smirk go far and wide: an everyman nature and chameleonic flair. The six-part television series combined both into one package, with the actor playing a 1950s British military officer much happier drifting off into song-fuelled daydreams than dealing with the Suez Crisis. As McGregor’s career returns him to a prominent TV part in season three of Fargo, consider Lipstick on Your Collar a beacon of things to come.
In Shallow Grave, McGregor’s first collaboration with Boyle, arrogance and vulnerability intertwine in journalist Alex Law. When the Edinburgh resident and his flatmates (played by Kerry Fox and Christopher Eccleston) look to split the rent with a fourth person, they get a dead body and a suitcase filled with cash.
It doesn’t take long for cracks to form within their friendship - and yet, if there’s one thing the McGregor-Boyle pairing has continually served up across their four films together, it’s a spirit of persistence. Here, as in Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary and T2: Trainspotting, McGregor’s character always finds a way to endure and keep smiling.
While romantic comedy Brassed Off might appear to step in a different direction, tenacity simmers within likeable tenor horn player Andy Barrow as he helps battle a mine pit closure. What makes McGregor’s performance stand out is the way he ensures Andy can tackle whatever comes his way - even as the film seesaws between grim and affectionate.
If Brassed Off offers McGregor at his most accessible, then Velvet Goldmine conveys the full extent of his appeal. Todd Haynes’s fictionalised glam rock effort casts him as Iggy Pop-type figure Curt Wild, typically sans shirt and often more, and flouting a rebellious rock ’n’ roll attitude.
It’s a mesmerising display that sees not only Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Bowie-esque music star fall under his spell, but the audience as well. As the former realises he’s witnessing the future of entertainment pulsating through Wild’s raw persona, viewers are treated to an early glimpse of just how McGregor can entrance with his sheer charisma.
As the ever-grinning “ladies man, man’s man, man about town” Catcher Block in Down with Love, McGregor plays in the same concept in the ’50s throwback rom-com - all while trading banter with Renée Zellweger’s anti-romance writer, trying to trick her into falling for him and unexpectedly doing the same. There’s nothing naturalistic about the enjoyably zesty film, soaked as it is in bright colours, heightened performances and witty dialogue. And yet, once more, it’s nigh on impossible for audiences not to succumb to its star’s stellar comic delivery and all-round charm.
Resilient yet complicated, alluring yet approachable, suave yet often unguarded - that’s McGregor’s onscreen work in a nutshell, with his best roles effortlessly blending all of the above into a seemingly new guise. That remains true in his two films with director David Mackenzie, the actor drifting and searching his way through very diverse dramas.
In Young Adam, he plays Joe Taylor, whose tale is split between past and present, and between relationships with two women (Emily Mortimer and Tilda Swinton), as he struggles to break free from his desires. Perfect Sense’s science-fiction scenario slowly robs chef Michael of his senses, while still striving to find love. Both parts rely upon nuance and highlight just how masterfully McGregor can convey internalised turmoil beneath his smile.
With Son of a Gun’s armed robber Brendan Lynch, McGregor also adds a rare antagonist to his repertoire. Conflict clouds many of his characters, including antiheroes such as Transpotting’s Mark Renton, but his villainous roles are few and far between.
Still, as Lynch holds young newcomer JR (Brenton Thwaites) in his thrall in the Australian-made and -set thriller, trading protection in prison for loyalty, obedience and assistance on the outside, it’s easy to understand how the seasoned criminal holds so much power. Murkiness surrounds the formidable figure, yet McGregor’s ability to lure people in, even in his shadiest incarnation, is never in doubt.
Consider Son of a Gun yet another leap towards Fargo in a career that has been leading to this moment - and not just in his most obvious roles. With McGregor playing brothers Emmit and Ray Stussey - one the parking lot king of Minnesota; the other a parole officer - his adaptability gets a series-long, dual-part showcase.
Indeed, Emmit’s ostensible cool, calm and collected demeanour, and Ray’s visibly anxious state should both seem familiar as season three of the anthology series gets underway. The man behind them has spent years perfecting each behind that now famous, always eye-catching smirk and viewers have spent years watching him.
The third installment of Fargo premieres on SBS at 8.30pm on Wednesday 17 May. Double episodes will air for the first three weeks, followed by single episodes from 9.30pm for the remaining weeks.
Watch the first episode of season 3 at SBS On Demand right here: