Shortly after Ewan McGregor finished filming "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," he went round the world on a motorbike. When the three-month trek was over, he had to decide if he wanted to dive into another big summer action movie, "The Island."
Directed by Michael Bay, the sci-fi cloning thriller opens Friday - and McGregor is in it all right, playing not one character, but two.
"I met Bay the day after I arrived in New York from the motorcycle trip," the 34-year-old actor says. "I had a beard down to my chest, I'd been in Siberia three weeks earlier, and my first question was, 'How much [computer graphics] will this have?' Because I just didn't need to do any more after 'Star Wars.'
"But there was hardly any, and the stunt work was, in a way, like doing theater - if the stunt team says, 'Okay, Ewan, this is it, we got one chance for it,' that's incredibly liberating," he adds. "[Filming those scenes] your whole mind is focused on that. Plus, the film had social satire, complex ideas about cloning politics, and the fun of playing two very different sides of the same person."
McGregor's characters are Lincoln Six-Echo, an inquisitive member of a futuristic clone society (with the mind of a 15-year-old) and Tom Lincoln, a smarmy architect in the real world. Six-Echo, naturally enough, is Lincoln's carbon copy.
Inevitably, the two come face-to-face.
"I liked playing against myself," McGregor says. "Tom is rich, spoiled, a bit of an idiot. And as for Six-Echo, I'm not too far away from being 15 years old in my own head anyway. It's not that big of a leap for me. I just think back a second, and say, 'Okay, here you go, 15!'"
At that age, McGregor was already turning his mind to acting. He was influenced by an actor uncle, Denis Lawson ("Local Hero"), whose life in London - and small roles in the original three "Star Wars" films - seemed appealing to McGregor, the working-class son of schoolteachers living in Crieff in central Scotland,
At 16, he began working backstage jobs at local theaters, then attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Director Danny Boyle cast him as the pretty-boy member of a trio of conniving roommates in "Shallow Grave" then gave him the breakout role of Renton, the heroin-addicted antihero in "Trainspotting."
McGregor has consistently delivered layered, mature performances in tough, urban films like "Trainspotting" and "Young Adam," as well as in glitzy pop culture confections like "Velvet Goldmine" and "Moulin Rouge," the high-concept comedy "Down With Love," and, of course, the second "Star Wars" trilogy.
One of Britain's hottest stars, he recently admitted fame has been hard to handle. (Early on it brought him a drinking problem that he overcame.) Though he never sought to become a Hollywood star, he became one anyway, despite his taste for independent films.
"My goals were never to come and get onto the top list in Hollywood," he says. "I wanted my career to be as unlimited as possible. My happiness comes from going from one experience to another new experience."
Driving from London to New York last year on motorcycles with an actor friend, Charley Boorman, was such an adventure. After playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the "Star Wars" prequels and acting in other high-profile films like "Black Hawk Down" and "Big Fish," McGregor needed to recharge his batteries.
He and Boorman chronicled the trip in a book and documentary, "Long Way Round."
"I think it was absolutely necessary for me to get away," he says. "It was the kind of thing you can spend your whole life dreaming about but not ever doing.
"It turned out to be one of the most satisfying things I've ever done. I've never been more happy than waking up in the morning in my tent in the middle of Siberia. Things become very clear: You need fuel for the bike and fuel for you - water and food - and that's it. I loved the freedom of it, and the remoteness."
McGregor - married since 1995, and the father of daughters aged 9 and 3 - has voiced one of the World War II carrier pigeons in the upcoming kids' film "Valiant." (Following "Robots," it's his second animated project this year.) He's currently starring as rascally Jazz Age gambler Sky Masterson in "Guys & Dolls" in London's West End. For the show, which could come to Broadway as early as this fall, he has again swapped his Scottish brogue for an American accent.
"It's the first musical I've done on stage, and the very nature of singing live every night is as challenging as anything I've ever done," he says. "But I think everything gets easier as you get older, if you're open to learn - and maybe make a few mistakes."
Originally published on July 17, 2005