This article was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


Some fancied Richard E Grant for it. A colleague insisted on Benedict Cumberbatch, and I’ve heard convincing arguments for Kenneth Branagh. There was even wild talk of Robert Downey Jr.

But of the millions who fell for A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles’s internationally successful 2016 novel setting Bolshevism against breeding in the moustachioed, perfectly tailored form of Russian aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, how many had Obi-Wan Kenobi down for the lead role?

"It’s true that we feel a personal connection when we fall in love with a piece of writing," says Ewan McGregor of readers’ possessiveness of the part. "But I felt like it was mine, because I had that connection with the writing. I thought, 'I know how to play him.'"

He was right. The 52-year-old actor, in black T-shirt and heavy-rimmed spectacles, sipping his morning coffee in a New York hotel room, has pulled it off, big time.

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McGregor gives a nuanced and occasionally rip-roaring performance as Rostov, the aristocrat hauled before a Communist tribunal in 1922. Thousands of class enemies are being killed, but the count is spared the firing squad on condition he never leaves the grand Metropole Hotel he’s staying in.

In that sense, the eight-part Paramount Plus series is about confinement and how we survive it, resonant themes since lockdown.

But as it charts the Red Terror, Stalin’s 1930s purges and the gulags in Siberia, the series is also, inescapably, about Russia’s periodical descent into bloody discord.

Tellingly, it arrives just weeks after the death of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in a Siberian penal colony. "It’s diabolical, dreadful," says McGregor. "He tried to stand up against Putin and ended up dead."

He is similarly torn by the war in Ukraine, a country he crossed from west to east with Charley Boorman for the BBC’s 2004 travelogue Long Way Round.

"We had this extraordinary love for Ukraine and the people we met. This invasion is so old-fashioned and stupid. The Russia of today was born in the [Bolshevik] revolution – there’s a direct link to Putin. I’m happy we’re telling a story that’s relevant."

Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow. There are two gentleman stood to either side with uniform on
Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow. Ben Blackall/Paramount+ With Showtime

He’s been telling on-screen stories since appearing in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar in 1993. His career took off with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting in 1996 and went interstellar when he signed up to the Star Wars franchise.

(And, if George Lucas is reading, "I’d love to do another Star Wars movie.")

Born in Perth, McGregor long ago slipped the bonds of his upbringing – stardom is now his nationality. "I left Scotland at 17 to go to drama school in London. I haven’t lived in Britain since 2008, I’ve been living in the States." When he first moved south, he sewed strips of McGregor tartan onto his denim jacket. Does he mourn his exile?

"It was hard to leave Scotland. There’s a sense you’re turning your back. People in Scotland to this day tell me to remember where I come from. I know where I come from! I don’t need anybody to remind me.

"It’s this feeling of you’re not Scottish enough. I’m Scottish wherever I am in the world. I’m always Scottish!"

A Gentleman in Moscow is concerned with a similar exile, but also parental responsibility, as Rostov finds himself obliged to look after two young girls.

"I’m so thick," says McGregor. "I was halfway through the shooting and was like, 'Ah, this is a story about adoption.' I have an adopted daughter. I know all about adoption."

McGregor initially met his now 22-year-old daughter Jamyan in Mongolia in 2004, on that momentous Long Way Round trip. McGregor and his first wife, French-Greek production designer Eve Mavrakis, have three more daughters, Clara, 28, Esther, 22, and Anouk, 12.

"I know a lot about being a dad to girls," he says. "I’ve played dads a lot, and the film I directed [2016’s American Pastoral] is absolutely about a relationship between a father and his daughter. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but not a coincidence, I’m sure. I also have a little son, Laurie, who’s two and a half. Maybe in 15 years, I’ll start playing dads of sons."

Laurie’s mother is the American actor Mary Elizabeth Winstead, McGregor’s second wife and his co-star in A Gentleman in Moscow. She plays Soviet film siren Anna Urbanova, with whom the count gets romantically entangled.

"It’s lovely to sit in the back of the car holding hands on the way to work. It was a great experience," he says. Much of the filming required parts of West Yorkshire and the North West to fill in for 1930s Moscow. So the family took a house at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, "where all the footballers used to live".

Famously, the couple first met when making FX’s Fargo in 2017. "We walked on set, we didn’t know each other very well, and we just did the scene. It was like, instinctive. And five minutes later, everyone was looking at each other going, 'Oh, there it is. That’s the scene.'"

With his face hidden by Rostov’s vast moustache, McGregor looks very Russian, but doesn’t sound it, opting instead for a pleasingly posh Scottish.

"We weren’t ever going to set out to do a Russian accent – it doesn’t make any sense if we’re all speaking English. Why are we speaking English to each other? So I just adopted that accent, which made him feel to me like somebody in the aristocracy. Without sounding like the queen."

L-R Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov and Fehinti Balogun as Mishka in A Gentleman in Moscow. They are both looking at each other while having a tense discussion.
L-R Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov and Fehinti Balogun as Mishka in A Gentleman in Moscow. Ben Blackall/Paramount+ With Showtime

In A Gentleman he moves from his 30s to his 60s. As he ages his posture changes, and breeding and bearing give way to something more fluid.

This lends a vaguely comic aspect to his performance, especially so in the bedroom scenes with Winstead. Still, no need for an intimacy co-ordinator if it’s your real-life wife on the bed?

"But we did have an intimacy co-ordinator!" McGregor exclaims. "It’s still necessary, because it’s also about the crew, and it’s odd to be naked in front of people, it’s odd to be intimate in front of the camera. If you were doing a dance scene, you’d have a choreographer. It’s an important part of the work now, because it’s somebody that the director and actors meet in the middle."

This means, for one thing, he doesn’t have to worry about Clara and Esther, both actors. "My daughter [Esther] is 22. If an older, famous director goes to a 22-year-old and says, 'I want you to be naked in this scene,' that actress might feel, 'Oh, my God, I’ve got to do it, my career might depend on it.' And then five years after that, she could look back and go, 'I wish I hadn’t. Why am I naked in that scene? It’s unnecessary.'

"Now there’s somebody she talks to whose career doesn’t rest on the shoulders of this person."

He resists the suggestion that he’s a brave actor. Wasn’t playing gay sex scenes in the 2021 Netflix series Halston (for which he won an Emmy) brave?

"That didn’t seem risky, I just had to feel like Halston." He’s long been a punchy contributor to public debate. In 2016 he tweeted that Boris Johnson was a "spineless ****". In the same year he supported Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when others were calling for him to go. Is he a Bolshevik? "I just think actors have a right, like anyone else in society, to make a comment."

In October 2023 McGregor put his name to an appeal to stop Israel’s war in Gaza. "I’m very confused, it’s a very confusing situation there," he says. "I feel terrible about what happened; what started it [the 7 October Hamas attack] was absolutely barbaric and awful.

"But also, the response by Netanyahu… the horrific casualties." Perhaps affected by the fact that he and Mavrakis raised their daughters in the Jewish faith, he balances his sympathies.

"I don’t claim to have a solution to the situation in Israel. I think the Jews need somewhere to call their own. So it’s a hugely complicated situation, obviously. But the killing of civilians is completely out of hand. That’s not right."

His distress at such injustices is palpable, but so is his pleasure in an industry that is safe for his daughters to work in. "There are many things that are inclusive and right, the whole boys’ club aspect of it is gone. I’m very relieved."

Before we spoke, Paramount Plus sent a list of spoilers to avoid, but the big reveal, as obvious as the moustache on the cover of this RT, might be McGregor’s hard-earned maturity as a man and actor of real gravitas. Of course he knew how to play Rostov.

Ewan McGregor on the Radio Times cover
Ewan McGregor.

A Gentleman in Moscow will debut on Friday 29th March on Paramount Plus. Visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide or take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage.


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