No matter what roles he takes in his career, Ewan McGregor will most likely be forever most well known for his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequel trilogy from 1999-2005. It’s an association that he seems more than happy with, having talked fondly about the character for years, and even excitedly returned to the role in the Obi-Wan Kenobi streaming series earlier this year. In many ways it’s impressive that McGregor has become so identified with the character, given that legendary actor Alec Guinness played the role in the first three Star Wars movies. While following the performance of Guinness had to no doubt be a challenging task, it’s clear that McGregor more than succeeded with his portrayal of the famous Jedi Knight. But that was no means a guarantee, when it came time to cast the role back in the mid 1990s. While many of the characters appearing in the prequel trilogy would be new to Star Wars fans, Obi-Wan would be one of the most well known characters, and he would be a main character in all three movies. Choosing the right person to play Obi-Wan Kenobi was no doubt one of the most important jobs of casting The Phantom Menace. And while looking back on it, we can say that McGregor was no doubt the right choice. It’s fascinating to see the names that were considered for the role leading up to the production of The Phantom Menace.
One of the biggest names rumored for the young version of the Jedi Knight was British actor Kenneth Branagh. If you scour the internet, you can find rumors of Branagh being considered for the part as early as 1994. Branagh at the time was best known for directing and starring in several adaptations of Shakespeare’s work including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Othello (1995). The actor’s public association with Shakespeare was probably one of the biggest reasons he was being considered for the role given that Alec Guinness was a well known Shakespearian actor, and his performance style would have likely complimented the Obi-Wan that we were already familiar with from the original trilogy. Ultimately Branagh was never offered the part, but still went on to have an incredibly successful career as both an actor and a director starring in the new series of Hercule Poirot films playing the Belgian detective, appearing in the Harry Potter franchise as Guildory Lockheart, as well as plenty more Shakespeare adaptations, directing three more Shakespeare movies, appearing in Shakespeare plays multiple times on the stage and eventually playing The Bard himself in 2018 in the film All is True.
Continuing the Shakespeare connection, actor Joseph Fiennes who portrayed The Bard himself in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love was also a contender for the role of young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Fiennes was apparently one of the final two actors on the list for casting with the other one obviously being McGregor. It seems what really kept him from getting the role wasn’t the decision of George Lucas however, but rather the decision of the director’s daughter. According to an interview with THe Wrap, Fienness recalled meeting her at one of the last auditions for the role, and being introduced to her as possibly the new Obi-Wan Kenobi, only to have the young girl reply, “I don’t like this guy. He’s weird. I don’t like him.” While Fiennes was never officially told that this was the reason he didn’t get the part, he did say that his Star Wars dreams crashed in that moment. Fiennes seems to have done well for himself though, going on to star in the very successful series The Handmaid’s Tale.
British actor Tim Roth was another person on the list of actors being considered for the role, and, to a certain group of people, was probably one of the more famous faces being considered to play the part of Obi-Wan. Audiences at the time probably best knew him for his performances in Tarintino’s films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, although, like the other’s Roth had a connection to Shakespeare as well in his filmography, playing the character of Guildenstern in the film adaptation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play that focuses on two minor characters in Hamlet. It’s unclear how far along in the audition process Roth got, or if he was ever as seriously considered as some of the other actors mentioned, but he was at one point on the list of possibilities to take over the role of the young Jedi, even if it was still early on.
Of course, it wasn’t just the casting of the prequel version of Obi-Wan that considered other actors. Back in the mid 1970s Sir Alec Guinness wasn’t the only choice for the original version of Obi-Wan Kenobi either. While the actor was critical to the success of the original Star Wars, lending the project an air of legitimacy as the most famous face on the screen at the time, he wasn’t the first choice of director George Lucas. Lucas wanted to cast Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in the role. The actor appeared in more than a hundred and fifty films throughout his career, but he was best known for the films that he made with director Akira Kurosawa, including Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and perhaps most importantly, The Hidden Fortress, the film on which Star Wars was loosely based. Lucas wanted the actor to play the part of Obi-Wan to give a nod to the connection between his movie and the movie that had inspired it so much, but Toshiro Mifune turned the part down. According to his daughter who spoke about the incident years later, the actor was worried that taking the part would cheapen the image of the samurai.
Today it’s impossible to think of Obi-Wan Kenobi without picturing the men who were able to bring the character to life, and we’re lucky that we ended up with the actors who were chosen in the end. Both Ewan McGregor and Sir Alec Guinness were instrumental in making Star Wars the phenomenon that it is today, and we can easily say that they were both the right choice for the role.