WHEN Ewan McGregor crawled headfirst into "the worst toilet in Scotland" during a seminal scene in Trainspotting back in 1996, the last thing it felt like was a comment on the way his film career might pan out.
But with the news last week that American business magazine Forbes has placed him at No 2 in its annual list of Hollywood's most overpaid movie stars (Will Ferrell took top honours), a more potent symbol would be difficult to imagine. His recent filmography already reads like a list of cinematic number twos, with the star-studded likes of The Men Who Stare At Goats, Amelia and the supposedly critic-proof Angels & Demons all underperforming at the box-office, and movies such as Deception, Incendiary, Cassandra's Dream, Miss Potter, Scenes Of A Sexual Nature, Stormbreaker and Stay vanishing without trace. Critical and commercial stinkers all (and all released within in the past four years), it's a depressing trajectory for someone who started out so full of promise.
Born in Crieff, Perthshire, McGregor knew from an early age that he wanted to be in films. "I've felt like I was a movie actor since I was five," he once said, "it just took me a long time to get there." Not that long, really. With his uncle, Local Hero star Denis Lawson, proving a big source of inspiration, he already had a direct link to that world and soon developed the confidence to pursue it as a career, even convincing his teacher parents to let him leave school at 16 to work as a stage hand for the Perth Repertory Theatre. He spent a year studying drama at Kirkcaldy College before being accepted into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, winning his first major role at the age of 22 in Denis Potter's Lipstick On Your Collar, six months shy of graduating.
Within a year he landed the lead in Danny Boyle's debut film, Shallow Grave, the success of which immediately put both director and star on the map. However, it was their next collaboration that sent McGregor stratospheric. As the heroin-addicted Mark Renton in Boyle's exuberant adaptation of Irvine Welsh's cult novel Trainspotting, McGregor was brilliantly funny and cool and the poster shot of him –whip thin, grinning, arms crossed, wet and shivering (a reference to the aforementioned toilet scene) – was instantly iconic. Here was someone brimming with the confidence, charisma and sex appeal of a proper, fully-fledged movie star.
It didn't go unnoticed. George Lucas tapped him to play the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (a role made famous by Alec Guinness) in the long-gestating, hugely anticipated Star Wars prequels, though before that McGregor was already capitalising on Trainspotting by casting the net wide and starring in as many films as possible. It's here that his addiction to bad material started to rear its head. Though some of his early choices reflected the adventurous spirit of a hungry young actor determined to explore his craft and challenge himself with difficult or leftfield material (Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book, Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine), others just seemed careless, the sort of films struggling actors make before their breakthrough hit, not after it (remember Serpent's Kiss? Nightwatch? Eye Of The Beholder? No? Neither does anybody else).
In 1997 he also co-founded Natural Nylon with his Primrose Hill neighbours of the period: Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Johnny Lee Miller and Sean Pertwee. Something of a vanity project production company, McGregor withdrew his involvement after starring as James Joyce in Natural Nylon's first flop, Nora. Having also starred in Danny Boyle's first commercial failure, A Life Less Ordinary, he subsequently lost the lead in The Beach to Leonardo DiCaprio, a situation McGregor has said was "muddy and confused and not handled very well".
Still, the Star Wars prequels did give him serious clout. The movies themselves turned out to be dreadful – especially the first instalment, The Phantom Menace – but that was hardly McGregor's fault and he's always been candid about their lack of critical merit. What's more, their huge box-office success gave him a guaranteed six-year window at the top of the Hollywood food chain. He initially put this to good use by snagging a role in the ensemble cast for Ridley Scott's war movie hit Black Hawk Down and he helped propel Baz Luhrmann's risky musical Moulin Rouge! to worldwide box office success. Alas, his presence in Tim Burton's Big Fish didn't help it make big money and, while he got good notices for playing an amoral drifter in Young Adam, critical acclaim hasn't been forthcoming on the other projects to which he has lent his name.
At least not on screen.
On stage it has been a different matter with his name attracting capacity crowds and strong notices to productions of Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs (directed by his uncle) and the Donmar Warehouse productions of Guys And Dolls and Othello. His fame and well-remunerated film work has also given him the chance to enjoy his life. In 2004, he got to indulge his love of motorbikes by making the television series Long Way Round, in which he travelled with his best friend Charley Boorman 19,000 miles from London to New York via Europe and Asia. In 2007 they travelled 5,000 miles from John O'Groats to South Africa for the series Long Way Down. Despite the time away from his young family that all this involved, he insists his wife was happy for him to do it. McGregor married French set designer Eve Mavrakis 14 years ago and they have three daughters together, one of whom they adopted from Mongolia following McGregor's motorcycle trip there.
McGregor recently moved them permanently from London to Los Angeles, but whether this re-location will help him focus on making better films that might rescue his once promising career is anyone's guess. A darling of the chat show, he's always been good for a Hollywood-bashing quote but hasn't proved very adept at picking out the decent projects Tinseltown has to offer. He once said: "I'd rather shoot myself in the head before I made a film like Independence Day". Unfortunately he then went on make a film very like Independence Day: Michael Bay's The Island, which had the added indignity of being the Transformers director's first and only flop. Guess who got the blame?
Prospects don't look any better for the recent work that he obviously hopes will be more prestigious. Currently in post-production is The Ghost, the release of which may well depend on the release of its director… from prison. Yes, it's the new movie from director Roman Polanski.
Still, having recently returned to Scotland to make David Mackenzie's low-budget Glasgow set sci-fi drama The Last Word, perhaps this is a sign McGregor is finally starting to exert a little quality control over his career. At the very least it would be good to see him in something that isn't whiffy.
McGregor's uncle Denis Lawson had a recurring role in the original Star Wars trilogy as X-Wing pilot Wedge Antilles.
• He's one of the few male actors who is prepared to do full frontal nudity; little Ewan has made five screen appearances to date.
• In Japan, McGregor used to do adverts for Bobson Jeans and a soft drink called Beatnick. He now promotes the "scent of adventure" for Davidoff. Everywhere.
• In his latest film The Men Who Stare At Goats, there is a movie in-joke in which McGregor's character gets trained by George Clooney's character in the ways of being a Jedi. Clooney, left, claims he only got the joke when at the premiere, when the audience laughed.