Inside the 17-year journey to reunite Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen for Obi-Wan Kenobi
It did not take Ewan McGregor long to realize there was a disturbance in the force. The actor noticed something was askew as soon as he stepped onto the Obi-Wan Kenobi soundstage. "I came round the set, and it was just this ring of people standing around."
Not quite sure what all the commotion was about, a confused McGregor took his position in the frame — a look of puzzlement on his face not seen since the nefarious Count Dooku dropped a Sith Lord truth bomb on the Jedi Master back on Geonosis. "I had the cameras behind me looking down this street, and behind the cameras were 100 people standing there," recalls McGregor. "They're usually in places doing work, not just standing. I couldn't quite work out what was happening."
It wasn't Obi-Wan they were there to see. "And then Vader comes around the corner, into the street, and I was like, 'Ah, f---. Of course!'"
Honestly, can you blame them? Seventeen years (in Earth time) since they last crossed lightsabers in the fiery depths of Mustafar, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader are set to face off on screen once again, in the new Disney+ series debuting May 25. And with Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen reprising their roles as the dynamic — and doomed — duo, anticipation is as high as the Dark Lord's famed midi-chlorian count.
It is a reunion that once seemed impossible, and to fully grasp the enormity of the moment, one has to go back to the very beginning.
Christensen still remembers the first time he met McGregor. The Canadian actor had just been plucked from relative obscurity by Star Wars creator George Lucas to play a teenage Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones when he arrived on a soundstage in Sydney. The nervous newcomer, who had been appearing in high school plays less than a year prior, walked into the hair-and-makeup room to see the man who would be portraying his friend-turned-foe.
"I remember as soon as you saw me," he smiles to McGregor over a Zoom chat. "You said, 'Hayden!' We'd never met before, but you said my name like we were lifelong friends and gave me a big hug and welcomed me into the family. The warmth of your greeting left such a lasting impression and meant a lot."
Perhaps the warm welcome was because McGregor could draw upon the apprehension he felt when joining the franchise a few years prior for The Phantom Menace. Established as a hot up-and-comer thanks to acclaimed roles in films including Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, McGregor admits that "Star Wars didn't really feel right to me" when he began the casting process. "Initially I was quite skeptical about doing it. I just thought, ''Well, I'm this independent, urban-y, grungy actor over here. I'm not this kind of guy.'"
That big-budget anxiety eventually turned to excitement, however, and by Attack of the Clones, it was McGregor's turn to help ease Christensen's transition into the huge droid-factory-like machinery of the Star Wars universe, even as their two characters clashed onscreen over the apprentice's restlessness, lack of humility, and eventual turn to the dark side.
"I remember all that prep period," McGregor says to his costar, "and your passion as an actor, and how deeply you were throwing yourself into it and breaking down scenes." That extended into the pair's epic lightsaber rehearsals. "It was just going and playing with your friend every day," recalls Christensen. "Certainly, doing all the prep for the lightsaber fights was some of the most fun for me." Alas, not everything was fun.
It is not hyperbole to proclaim The Phantom Menace as Hollywood's most anticipated film in history upon its release on May 19, 1999. Amazingly, franchise interest had only grown in the 16 years since Return of the Jedi, as older fans salivated for fresh content and a new generation of Jedi-wannabes was indoctrinated into the order thanks to the 1997 Special Edition releases of the original trilogy. And then the movie debuted.
Critics and fans alike pounced on everything from the comic relief of Jar Jar Binks to clunky dialogue like "No need to report that to him until we have something to report." Reaction to the follow-up prequels was not much kinder. And with the internet fully booted up — something Wicket W. Warrick and his Ewok bros never had to deal with while out Yub Nubbing on the forest moon of Endor — everybody had an opinion, and not all of them were positive.
For the young stars, there was nowhere to hide. "I found it quite hard," McGregor, now 50, admits of the reaction to the prequels. "For it to come out and get knocked so hard was personally quite difficult to deal with. And also, it was quite early in my career. I didn't really know how to deal with that. I'd been involved with things that just didn't make much of a ripple, but that's different from making something that makes a negative ripple."
Simultaneously dealing with sudden fame and criticism, the now-40-year-old Christensen also couldn't help but experience a measure of emotional whiplash over the prequels. "When the films came out and the critics were very critical, of course that was a difficult thing — because you care so much about this thing that you've invested so much of yourself into. So, for sure, that's challenging."
After the 2005 release of Revenge of the Sith, there was little (new) hope that we would ever see McGregor and Christensen fire up their lightsabers again. Motivated by the "sense of peace and escape" he felt during visits to Skywalker Ranch, Christensen took a break not just from Star Wars, but from Hollywood in general — buying a farm in the Canadian countryside. "I really took a liking to that whole environment and lifestyle and got a bunch of animals and was looking after sheep and pigs and chickens for a little while," he says. "I go through periods of being very focused on my work as an actor, and then just wanting to do other things that aren't necessarily for public consumption."
When the franchise had a chance to bring Christensen back for Darth Vader's return in yet another prequel film (2016's Rogue One), they instead had former professional boxer Spencer Wilding and stunt actor Daniel Naprous don the black armor. Lucas film president Kathleen Kennedy says Christensen was not considered for the Rogue role at the time because "that was just such a specific action sequence."
"I wasn't a part of any of those conversations about Rogue One," says Christensen. "But I loved what they did with it. The character predates me, and it's always been a collective effort in a lot of ways. I thought it was brilliant."
Meanwhile, McGregor continued his film career full throttle after hiding Luke on Tatooine (still seems like an odd choice), but whenever the actor was asked about a possible return to the galaxy far, far away — meaning pretty much every interview — he often sounded less than inclined to put the robes back on. "I don't have a burning need to do it again or, indeed, any sort of fascination for the movies that everyone else seems to have," he told Magic Radio in 2016. "I don't really have that. Maybe because I've been in them. I've seen behind the curtain, you know what I mean? It doesn't have the same type of wonderment to me."
They say time heals all wounds. Whether that extends to the wounds you inflict on your former Padawan by chopping off three of his limbs and leaving him to burn to death on a mound of volcanic ash remains open to debate. As the years moved on from the prequels, though, McGregor noticed a sense of balance coming to the Force. And the balance was coming from younglings… at least the ones Darth Vader didn't slaughter in the Jedi temple.
"Now I meet the people who we made those films for, who were the kids of the time," says McGregor. "And our Star Wars films are their Star Wars films. In the way that Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford's films were ours, we're theirs. And that's beautiful that they were important to the kids who we made them for. It's just so nice to finally get that wave of positivity about them."
That positivity sparked something in McGregor. For all the difficulty the prequels presented in "walking around with the big alien people that aren't really there and spending a lot of time on a blue set just speaking into the air," there were also aspects about making the movies the actor describes as "mind-blowing."
He fondly recalls working with Lucas (who originally hired McGregor's uncle, Denis Lawson, to play pilot Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy), the time spent with fellow actors Natalie Portman and Liam Neeson, and especially all the lightsaber training with Christensen and stunt coordinator Nick Gillard. ("If you watch those fights, they're f---ing amazing! We're really cooking.")
In interviews, McGregor started expressing an openness toward returning. Sometimes too much openness, he worried. "It started looking like I was touting for work at Disney's door, because I would say, 'If Lucasfilm wanted to do it, I'd be so happy to do it.' And it kept appearing everywhere: 'McGregor happy to do Obi-Wan!'"
Eventually, a meeting was arranged to see how serious the actor actually was about possibly appearing in an Obi-Wan Kenobi film as part of a series of stand-alone movies outside of the nine-installment Skywalker saga. "They just said, 'Look, we've read that you said you'd be happy to do it. We just want to know if you mean it or if you're being polite, because we're thinking that it could be an option. But we want to know if you're in or not.' I said, 'It's absolutely true!'"
With McGregor ready to ignite his trusty saber, Lucas film actively began development on an Obi-Wan Kenobi film to be directed by Stephen Daldry. The Jedi's return to the silver screen was no longer a matter of if, but rather when.
And then Solo happened. Released in May 2018, the somewhat awkwardly titled Solo: A Star Wars Story garnered a worldwide box office haul of $393 million — a far cry from the $1.33 billion brought in by 2017's The Last Jedi, and over 60 percent less than the first stand-alone Star Wars film, Rogue One, which tallied more than $1 billion.
Whether the shockingly light turnout was due to the tepid reviews, a sudden saturation of Star Wars theatrical offerings, or fans not wanting to see someone other than Harrison Ford playing the scruffy nerf herder, the futures of all franchise films outside of the trilogy-concluding The Rise of Skywalker were immediately sent into limbo. But while those movies may have been put on Hoth-level ice, Kennedy says interest for the Kenobi project in some form remained. But if not a movie, then what?
That's when Disney's then CEO Bob Iger decided to take on Netflix. "When Bob Iger very specifically said, 'We are going to start to shift our priority to making series for Disney+, and we're launching the streaming service,' that really was what shifted our strategy," says Kennedy. "We started to look at the opportunity in the streaming space where we could do long-form storytelling, and we realized there was an opportunity to experiment in that space without the level of scrutiny that happens when you release a feature."
That meant creating The Mandalorian. It meant bringing Boba Fett back from the dead. It meant spinning off from animated offerings like The Clone Wars and staging another prequel, this time for Rogue One intelligence officer Cassian Andor. And it meant Ewan McGregor stepping on stage to raucous applause at August 2019's D23 convention to officially announce his triumphant return. Excitement was further fueled when it was revealed a month later that Deborah Chow, who had worked on The Mandalorian, would direct the Obi-Wan series, becoming the first woman to helm an entire live-action Star Wars project from start to finish.
However, as the crew came together to work toward a summer 2020 production start date, Kennedy became concerned with the direction of the scripts. "We're looking, ultimately, to make a hopeful, uplifting story," says the studio head. "And it's tricky when you're starting with a character in the state that Obi-Wan would be in coming off of Revenge of the Sith. That's a pretty bleak period of time. You can't just wave the magic wand with any writer and arrive at a story that necessarily reflects what you want to feel."
Believing an overhaul was in order, Kennedy temporarily shut down production in January 2020, pushed back the filming start date from August 2020 to January 2021, and hired a new writer, Joby Harold, to take over from Hossein Amini (who'd been hired when Kenobi was headed to the big screen). "This was a character that's always been a minor obsession of mine," says Harold. "And when I heard it was a character they were exploring, I very aggressively told them all the things I thought they should do."
The new story crafted by Harold and Chow takes place 10 years after Obi-Wan went into hiding on Tatooine — at pretty much the exact midway point between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. "Obi-Wan is lost," says McGregor. "He's a broken man after what happened with the Jedi order at the end of Episode III, but also what happened with Anakin; that he lost him to the dark side. He feels an enormous amount of responsibility for that, and guilt."
The six-episode series focuses on that journey from pain to at least a modicum of peace. "When we last saw Obi-Wan in the prequels, he's very emotional," says Harold. "There's a passion to him. And when we get to see him again in A New Hope, he is the Zen master. That was the story that I wanted to understand — what had happened to Obi-Wan between the guy that Ewan had brought to life and the guy that Sir Alec Guinness brought to life."
As for how much of the original plot made it into Obi-Wan Kenobi 2.0, Chow notes that "we inherited some of it, but we did really make some significant changes and add a few different elements." Meanwhile, an internal debate was raging over whether to dare bring yet another larger-than-life character out of retirement.
To Vader or not to Vader? That was the question. As the creative team began remapping Obi-Wan's story, aggressive negotiations — this time without a lightsaber — commenced as to whether that story should also include the fallen Jedi.
"The debate around whether we should do that or not carried on for quite some time," Kennedy reveals." Everybody within our creative team has strong opinions, and all of our fans have strong opinions. So when you realize that you're under that level of scrutiny, certainly a story point like that is going to be scrutinized at a very high level. We talked about it constantly."
In this case, the dark side won. And with McGregor back, there was only one choice to fill out the big black suit this time around. Chow went to Vader's mediation chamber (okay, Christensen's farm, but close enough) to make her pitch in person. "Deborah came up and we spent the day chatting," Christensen says. "She told me a little bit about the project and her vision for it, and I just thought that it sounded wonderful. I was very excited to come back."
Not as excited as all those starstruck crew members. "It was so important to have Hayden be a part of this project because he is such a massive part of that character," says Harold. "It was a priority to all of us that we did it with as much care as possible, so as to honor one of the greatest villains and antagonists in the history of entertainment." (As to whether 91-year-old James Earl Jones will once again be voicing the character, no one will say.)
"When he first came on set for us, it definitely had a very special feeling. The first time I saw him in costume, he was towering over me. He was literally almost twice my size!" Chow says of Christensen. "It's really intense to have such an iconic character, and then to be directing him and doing new scenes with him…. I do remember poor Ewan on that day being like, 'What am I, chopped liver?'"
"The whole experience was very surreal," Christensen adds of putting the suit back on. But while everyone on set was marveling in his direction, the man behind the mask was moved by what he saw through his tinted helmet lenses: "The first time that I saw Ewan as Obi-Wan again, that was a very special moment for me, and one that I'll remember for a very, very long time." The battle had officially been joined.
While the Obi-Wan and Darth Vader reunion is the big headline, the story that will unfold on Disney+ screens is much more than just a decade-later face-off between former master and apprentice. And it will do more than just fill the gaps in their personal history. It will also fill the gaps in the ultimate clash between good and evil.
"The Empire is in the ascendancy," explains Harold. "All the horrors that come with the Empire are being made manifest throughout the galaxy, so everything that was in the prequels has crumbled. The Jedi order are being all but wiped out, and those Jedi that have survived are on the run and they're in hiding."
And they're not just hiding from Vader. The Dark Lord has tasked the Grand Inquisitor and his group of Inquisitors to hunt down and eliminate any and all stray Jedi who managed to escape the great purge of Order 66. First introduced on screen in the animated series Star Wars Rebels, Inquisitors are fearsome, Force-sensitive beings on a singular mission for the Empire: "They're trying to eradicate the Jedi order altogether," explains McGregor.
Not only will we see the relentless Inquisitors for the first time in a live-action Star Wars project, but Obi-Wan will also introduce a new Inquisitor named Reva (played by The Queen's Gambit's Moses Ingram), who Harold promises will "contribute to the legacy of Star Wars villains in a really interesting way."
Harold and Chow use the words ruthless and ambitious to describetheir new Jedi-hunter, but the woman playing her prefers another description. "Reva is a boss," Ingram says emphatically, speaking to EW just a few days after finishing a series of physically demanding reshoots. "I mean, really like a full-on athlete. She is on a mission and will conquer that at all costs when given the opportunity. She is pretty badass." (And with a badass outfit: "Putting on a cape was a dream I didn't know I had. I felt like I was 10 again! It was super dope.")
The director is just as pumped for viewers to be introduced to the new antagonist. "It's really exciting for me to bring a female villain, and to have a dark-side woman in a very significant role." Hopefully Reva's significance will extend beyond the screen. Adds Ingram: "We had a lot of conversations about hair and what the right hair might be. Deborah was really great about moving from the initial vision to what we arrived at for Reva's hair. I wanted kids to have their own hair at Halloween. And that's huge If you look at all the Black kids with kinky hair. When they want to be Elsa, they got to put on a blond wig. [Now] there are so many kids that'll be able to wear their hair at Halloween. That's going to be really exciting."
When asked about other announced newcomers like O'Shea Jackson Jr., Kumail Nanjiani, Indira Varma, Rupert Friend, and Maya Erskine, the creative team essentially resorts to Jedi mind tricks (These aren't the actors you're looking for). Nor do they succumb to Imperial interrogationtactics when questioned as to whether Obi-Wan Kenobi will continue the recent Disney+ practice of crossing over characters from one show to another. After all, Anakin's former Jedi pupil Ahsoka Tano from The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian is out there somewhere in this time frame, as is a younger Boba Fett.
While the powers that be will not completely rule out any of that, they are also quick to make a distinction between their world and the one seen on the other live-action series so far. "All of that falls within the Mandalorian timeline," Kennedy says of potential crossover characters, while Chow adds that "the strongest connective tissue for us is to the prequels, because that's where our characters are coming from and that's where their stories started. So, really, the prequels are the most connected to our series."
Which explains the return of more familiar faces in the form of Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse as Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. "I was so excited to bring them back," says the director. "Part of what made the series feel very special is that we were bringing back not only Ewan and Hayden, but people like Joel and Bonnie from 20 years ago and gettingt o reunite as the same characters."
But if Obi-Wan, Owen, and Beru are all part of the new series, what about that pesky womp-rat-shooting, Tosche Station-obsessed tyke they are all helping to raise? Will Luke Skywalker himself be making an appearance? While no one will say for sure, Harold coyly points to Kenobi's stated mission of protecting the boy, noting, "That's part of what [Obi-Wan's] been charged to do. And he is waking up every morning and doing his job. That's what he's there for." (Also, the recently released trailer either shows Luke pretty plainly, or that is a mischievous misdirect of Palpatinian proportions.)
Between The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and now Obi-Wan Kenobi, it seems everyone in the Star Wars live-action Disney+ universe has been hanging out on Tatooine lately. And while Chow says "there's obviously a significant chunk on Tatooine because of the nature of where the starting place is for the story," she also promises that "we definitely go to new worlds. Part of what makes Star Wars is getting to visit different places
One of those places is a new planet Kenobi will visit named Daiyu, "which sort of has a Hong Kong feel to it," says Harold. "It's got a graffiti-ridden nightlife, and is kind of edgy. It's just got a different lane and a different feeling."
Ah, but how long will we get to see Obi-Wan Kenobi explore those different lanes and feelings? The show has been billed as one 6-episode season — but with plenty of room to play with before the events of A New Hope, could there be more? "It was definitely conceived as a limited series, and it is one big story with a beginning, middle, and end," says Chow. "The approach has always been that it is one full story."
But leave it to the studio head to keep any and all options on the table. "It's certainly something we talk about," Kennedy says of a possible extension, "mainly because everybody came together and had such an incredible time. Ewan had an incredible time. Hayden had an incredible time. So certainly from that point of view, everybody involved would love to see this not end. But we have to really spend our time asking the question: Why would we do it? If we were to decide to do anything more with the Obi-Wan character, we'd have to really answer the question why?
Moses Ingram clearly thinks the world of Ewan McGregor. The actress gleefully remembers all the finer points of fight training with the star, whom she describes as "a graceful little butterfly." She recalls the encouragement he showed her as she fumbled through predictable rookie mistakes. And she can't stop gushing about how he made "the sweetest video" for her Ewan-obsessed best friend. But none of that will stop the Inquisitor from showing her true dark-side allegiance and ratting out her Jedi costar. The incident in question took place on the oval 75-foot-wide, 23-foot-high virtual LED set known as the Volume. "I forget what scene we were shooting," says Ingram, "but Ewan was doing something, and he dropped his lightsaber in the crevice between the Volume and where the stage ends. And he was so embarrassed. He was like, 'Please don't ever tell anyone I dropped my lightsaber!'"
Considering the notoriously hardtime McGregor used to give Christensen for losing his lightsaber (a dynamic that carried over on screen between Obi Wan and Anakin), this scandalous revelation elicits a huge grin from Christensen. "This is news to me!" he laughs.
"You mustn't listen to it," McGregor shoots back. "It's all hearsay and rumor. She's just trying to one-up Obi-Wan."
"All of those lectures, though, Ewan!"
"Yeah, I don't remember that. I thinks he's making that up," insists McGregor before pausing. "Okay, I might have inadvertently let it slip. Maybe."
Christensen's elation now knows no bounds. "It's shocking news. I don't believe it because I know how much regard Ewan has for his lightsaber, so it's hard to fully believe."
By this point, McGregor knows that regardless of what has and will happen on screen, this is one duel of the fates he cannot win. "I do remember I said, 'Please don't tell Hayden, because I used to give him such s--- every time he dropped his lightsaber.' All I can say is, it's been a while for Obi-Wan. He's not the man that we once remember. And if, indeed, it might have slipped out of his hand and rolled across the stage and into a ditch, it's only because he's not quite where he used to be. But it's coming back."
And just in time.
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