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It Had to Be Ewan: EW chats with the new Obi-Wan Kenobi

Find out why British actor Ewan McGregor is so excited about starring in the three ‘Star Wars’ prequels

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”What I’ve been told to say,” Ewan McGregor announces after chugging down his third beer, ”is that we’re in negotiations. But the truth is, I want to do it, they want me to do it, so I’m doing it.”

The ”it” in question, of course, is only the role of a lifetime, playing the most beloved Jedi master ever to tangle with the Dark Side. As the whole world is about to learn, McGregor, 26, has been signed to star as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the new Star Wars prequels, a bit of casting news that instantly makes him the biggest thing out of Scotland since argyle socks, or at least since Sean Connery.

”Actually,” says the scruffily charming actor in his bristly Highland burr, ”I really want to play Princess Leia. Stick some big pastries on my head. Now, that would be interesting.”

Last year, McGregor created a huge splash — literally — by chasing an opium suppository down a toilet bowl in the indie hit Trainspotting. That harrowing performance won him an Actor of the Year award from the London Film Critics Circle and made him one of the hottest young thespians in the realm. Next to those battling brothers from Oasis, he’s become the biggest pop god in England, a national antihero for the post-punk-but-still-pissed-off generation. And yet, despite Trainspotting‘s respectable run in the U.S. (it earned $16 million) and his role opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the even more respectable Emma ($22 million), most Americans haven’t a clue who he is — even if they did happen to catch his special guest spot on ER last February, in which he held Julianna Margulies hostage in a convenience store for the show’s entire hour.

So who is this man who would be Kenobi? For starters, he’s the type of guy who isn’t afraid to drop trou in public, as American moviegoers are about to discover. In Peter Greenaway’s new arthouse mind-bender The Pillow Book, which opened June 6, McGregor plays a bisexual Englishman who lets his Hong Kong girlfriend draw calligraphy all over his bare body — including his unsheathed, um, lightsaber. ”Being naked was far more worrisome for everyone else on the set than it was for me,” he reports. ”I actually enjoyed it, the truth be told. There was something incredibly powerful about it. Usually you’d get arrested for that sort of thing, but I got paid.”

This month, American audiences can also see McGregor — fully clothed — in Brassed Off, a small-but-scrappy English film about a doomed mining town. In the fall, he’ll be costarring with Nick Nolte and Patricia Arquette in Nightwatch, his first American thriller, in which he’ll play a morgue attendant who gets mixed up in a murder. He’ll also turn up as a hapless janitor who kidnaps Cameron Diaz in A Life Less Ordinary, a romantic comedy by the same writer-director-producer team that made Trainspotting. And he’s just finished shooting Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, a David Bowie-Iggy Pop-inspired love story set in the glam-rock ’70s, due out next year.

It’s an eclectic slate of projects, with the emphasis on smart, offbeat independent films — in other words, the sort of movies that don’t spin off many toy tie-ins. “When I met with agents in L.A., they would tell me you had to do two movies for yourself and then two for the business,” he says. “And I thought, ‘F— off. No, you don’t. You do every film because you want to do good work. Because you’re interested in making good movies and working with good people.’ To do a crappy event movie for a lot of money, like Independence Day — I would never taint my soul with that crap.”

Of course, there’s a truckload of irony pulling up here: The untainted maverick is about to start shooting what could easily become the most commercially successful event movies ever made. If dusted-off, 20-year-old releases can rake in a half billion bucks worldwide, imagine what sort of cash flow a fresh batch of Star Wars flicks will generate. Still, McGregor sees a difference. “I don’t think of them as event movies,” he says. “It’s not like being in Robocop 5 or something. The Star Wars movies are way beyond studio pictures. They’re enormous. I can’t say no.”

There are certainly plenty of reasons to say yes — like his 16-month-old daughter, Clara (by wife Eve Maurakis, a French costume designer he met while filming an English TV production of Charlotte’s Web two years ago). “I was 6 years old when Star Wars came out,” he explains. “I remember standing outside school waiting to be picked up, so excited. And my daughter’s going to be 6 when the new Star Wars movies are out. That’s f—ing lovely in a way, you know?”

There’s another family connection to the series as well: McGregor says his uncle, actor Denis Lawson (Local Hero), was “the only X-wing pilot to survive all three” of the original Star Wars movies. Lawson, not surprisingly, was also the inspiration for McGregor’s own early acting ambitions. “I was brought up in a small conservative town [Crieff] in Scotland,” he says. “And my uncle used to come up from London in the ’70s wearing sheepskin waistcoats and beads, with no shoes and long hair, giving people flowers and stuff. I just went, wow. Right then I decided to become an actor — even though I had no idea what that meant.”

What it meant initially was leaving school at 16, a brief stint at a Scottish repertory theater, then three years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. What it means now is that McGregor can barely stroll the streets of London without triggering a reenactment of the train station mob scenes in A Hard Day’s Night. “It’s not that bad, but it is on the cusp of becoming a problem,” says Trainspotting director Danny Boyle. “All that constant recognition gets tiresome after a while. He can’t even pick his nose in public.”

Visiting New York, downing brews in a Chelsea restaurant, McGregor couldn’t seem less concerned with the perils of fame — or maybe he’s simply relishing his last taste of American anonymity. Unassuming, unpretentious, and on the way to becoming utterly sloshed, he comes across as the ultimate anti-celebrity, a bloke for all seasons. In any case, if anybody in the room is staring at him, it’s only because he’s been partying all night and sort of looks it (he’s still got a big ink-stamp mark from a nightclub smudged on his wrist). “I love New York,” he murmurs happily into his beer.

Of course, now that he’s signed for Star Wars, these sorts of quiet public moments are history. As the new Kenobi, he’ll be swarmed by fans in every restaurant and nightclub in every city on the planet. It’s a huge change in his life, an instant thrust into global superstardom. “Ewan’s got the world at his feet,” as Brassed Off director Mark Herman puts it, “and that makes this a dangerous time for him.” To deal with the intense pressure, McGregor is using that old Jedi mind trick of trying not to think about it. Instead, he’s concentrating on his killer Alec Guinness impersonation.

“I have to get his accent,” he says. “He’s got this very specific older man’s voice. It’d be great if I could trace it back to his youth and get it right.” He takes a swig of beer, clears his throat, and gives it a whirl. “‘Yoooz the Force, Luke. Stretch out your feeeelings.'”

Now, if only he could nail that Carrie Fisher impersonation.