EXCLUSIVE | Ewan McGregor talks Disney+'s Obi-Wan Kenobi

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Ewan McGregor in Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Ewan McGregor in Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Photo: Lucasfilm

In a South African exclusive, Thinus Ferreira sits down with Ewan McGregor, who 23 years later plays an Obi-Wan Kenobi who is hiding, not using the Force, being hunted by the Inquisitors and trying to look out for a 10-year old Luke Skywalker.

He's called them uncivilised weapons decades earlier and said that Jedi don't use them. Blasters. So much more uncivilised than lightsabers. But now, Obi-Wan Kenobi is forced to use a blaster as his weapon as he tries to hide his true identity as a Jedi in the desert world of Tatooine. He – and the last remaining Jedi in the galaxy – are now being hunted into extinction. 

Meet an Obi-Wan Kenobi who is now a Jedi, denied his faith, can't use the Force, his friends killed or in hiding, and trying to protect Luke Skywalker.

Ewan McGregor is back for the first time in 23 years since he first donned Jedi robes as Obi-Wan Kenobi for the new 6-episode miniseries from Lucasfilm on Disney+, making its debut with a double episode on 27 May.

The new series brings colour and a fresh perspective around what happened to the Jedi master in the mysterious period after the Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

While Star Wars lore until now has been that Obi-Wan Kenobi had his last fight with Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) on the volcanic world of Mustafar in Episode III – followed by their final duel with Anakin (now turned Darth Vader) in Episode IV in which Obi-Wan dies – there is now the compelling tale and promise that another epic lightsaber duel between the two awaits in this period in-between.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in a scene from Luc
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in a scene from Lucasfilm's Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Being able to return to the iconic character, but within the greater freedom of a TV series now instead of a film, "it just gave us longer time to tell this story", says McGregor. He also has an executive producer credit on Lucasfilm's latest live-action TV drama series for Disney's streaming service.

"The technology is such now that we're able to build these amazing worlds that we would never have been able to build as sets," he says.

"Deborah Chow is also such a great director – and she directed every episode – it's not like we had new directors coming in for each episode, which can happen, so it really felt like one big movie."

"Our story is episodic in terms of there are 6 episodes, but The Mandalorian episodes are more stand-alone than what ours is. I think ours is much more one driving narrative throughout the 6 episodes. It felt to me like we were just shooting one long movie. It felt the same."

Forever growing into Obi-Wan Kenobi

McGregor says he didn't approach playing and portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi – now in a sense a disillusioned, broken, and hermit-like man after suffering intense loss and trauma – differently this time for the Disney+ series, as opposed to the three earlier Star Wars films.

"I didn't approach him any differently than when I played him before in terms of – I work a lot thinking of Sir Alec Guinness, and I work a lot listening to Alec Guinness' interviews. And I have a sound file of just Alec Guinness' dialogue from the films."

"I always have to try and feel more and more like my Obi-Wan Kenobi grows into Alec Guinness," he says.

"That's my challenge, if you like. I did all that work and then thought about him after the end of Episode III and where he is now.

"He's somebody who's had to be solitary, someone who's had to deny their faith; he's had to not use the Force because it would draw attention to him. All of his friends are either killed or in hiding. He's had no communication with them."

McGregor continues: "I think they know that they're being hunted down – the Jedi. I don't think he knows about Darth Vader as such, but he knows that there are people, these Inquisitors, who are trying to hunt down all the last Jedi. So he has to be careful because his one last responsibility to his old life is to look over Luke Skywalker.

"We see Obi-Wan Kenobi deliver Luke to Uncle Owen at the end of Episode III, so there's a sense that that is his last responsibility – to be there. To keep an eye on Luke, in case he might become a Jedi one day, or maybe just because that's the promise he had made to Padme. So that's where we find him.

"At the same time, by using the Force, or by practising his work as a Jedi, it could draw attention to Luke, so he's got to be careful that he doesn't do that."

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in a scene from Luc
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) in a scene from Lucasfilm's Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Blue screens and tennis balls

On how the business of filmmaking has changed since he did the prequels and doing Obi-Wan Kenobi now as a miniseries for Disney+ as a streaming service, McGregor says the advances and changes are incredible.

"The prequels came early in my career – I was in my mid-twenties when I played Obi-Wan the first time. It was the biggest thing I'd ever done, you know? There isn't anything quite like Star Wars in terms of its scale. Maybe that hasn't changed at all."

He adds:

I've done a lot of work since then – different kinds of movies. I'm now closer in age to Sir Alec Guinness. Alec Guinness has always been my goal for Obi-Wan. I've got to end up being him, so it's sort of like a backwards process of creating a character based on somebody who he becomes when he's older – which has been a unique acting challenge.

"The technology is very, very different. That made a world of difference from the blue screen, and green screen experience of Episode II and Episode III. George Lucas was really pushing into and pioneering this new visual effects and digital camerawork, and at that time, that was new.

"He wanted to utilise it all as much as possible, but that meant for us that the more background scenes he was creating with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and post-production, the more we were on blue screen. Or green screens with just nothing there. And that's not ideal for the actor.

"In Star Wars Episode II, I spent a lot of my time off on my own on this journey, and I spent some time with these big tall alien people who are creating the clone armies, and I spent weeks on a blue set looking at a tennis ball on a stick and acting to a tennis ball.

"Hopefully, I could do it well, and I learnt to do it well, and hopefully it's good enough to be believable to the audience, and I think it was, but it's not easy. It's not like acting with another actor in the environment you're supposed to be in."

The 6-episode Obi-Wan Kenobi is available on Disney+ from 27 May.

 -  Thinus Ferreira is an independent TV critic with years of experience reporting on the South African television industry.

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