The air vibrated with excitement from the packed crowd in the Empire Stage room at New York Comic Con on Thursday afternoon for the Ewan McGregor Spotlight panel. The Scottish actor was arguably the most famous guest of NYCC 2023, perhaps second only to Captain America star Chris Evans.

McGregor, for his part, is almost certainly best known among the NYCC crowd for starring as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1999-2005 Star Wars prequels, a role he reprised for Disney+’s 2022 Kenobi miniseries. Other notable films in which he’s appeared include the drama Trainspotting, the musical Moulin Rouge!, and the superhero film Birds of Prey as the DC Comics supervillain Black Mask.

I’ve been to a lot of panels since my first con at NYCC 2012, few of which matched the palpable hype on display before McGregor hit the stage. Yet by the time he left, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the panel was a bit… boring.

So what went wrong?

It wasn’t ReedPop’s fault. Nor was it the fault of moderator Ashley V. Robinson from Popverse, ReedPop’s own geeky entertainment news site. (Disclosure: I have written several Popverse articles since the site’s inception.) Robinson’s moderation style was conversational yet witty and nimble, moving the conversation from one topic to another with natural ease.

And it certainly wasn’t McGregor’s fault, who was charmingly earnest with a dry sense of humor. At 52, the actor’s good looks and natural charisma still render him a heartthrob. I texted a friend who’s had a crush on him since 1999’s The Phantom Menace that I’d never been to a panel with a hornier audience.

Ewan McGregor as he appears in KENOBI (2022)

Indeed, the audience mostly seemed to have a great time. At times it seemed as if they would cheer at every other sentence McGregor uttered. They cooed affectionately when he talked about his children, including a daughter he adopted in Mongolia during an intercontinental motorcycle journey. He also talked about his musical background; his admiration for his uncle and fellow actor and Star Wars veteran Denis Lawson; his love for New York City (“I buy all my clothes here”); how to make the perfect cup of tea (let it steep for at least 3 minutes); his preference for coffee (“strong and black”); and other relatively mundane things.

But as the panel went on, I got the sense that the audience was restless. Clearly, they were anxious to hear the actor talk about the roles that make him famous. 

Denis Lawson, Ewan McGregor’s uncle, as Wedge Antilles in the original 1977 Star Wars.

But that simply wasn’t in the cards due to his commitment to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) strike. As per the guidelines of the guild, striking actors are not only restricted from performing in AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) projects, but they cannot promote their past AMPTP work or even discuss it publicly until the AMPTP finally agrees to SAG-AFTRA’s demands, which include streaming residuals and AI restrictions.

Towards the end of the panel, McGregor affirmed that he is “100%” in support of the strike, urging the AMPTP to come back to the table. Nonetheless, he apologized for the fact that he couldn’t talk about his “actual work.”

To McGregor and Robinson’s credit, they used the actor’s theater background as a loophole to allow him to at least talk about the craft of acting on broad terms. He’s especially proud of his role of Iago in a 2007-2008 London production of William Shakespeare’s Othello, while also praising co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in the title role. He added that he would happily reprise his role as Iago, but that when it comes to Shakespeare, he’s been especially eager to play “The Scottish King” (MacBeth).

McGregor’s passion for Shakespeare and by extension, his craft, made for one of the more interesting discussions of the panel. Even so, this is New York Comic Con. People come here for superheroes and sci-fi, not Shakespeare.

McGregor and Ejiofor in OTHELLO

Again, there’s no one at fault here but the AMPTP. But it does speak to the challenges of hosting a major entertainment event like NYCC in the midst of a major industry strike. This applies to the WGA strike as well: The strike may be over, but that victory is so recent that very few film and TV writers are appearing at NYCC this year.

Many comic book enthusiasts lament the fact that in recent years, major comic book conventions have become less about actual comics and more about geeky movies, TV, and other forms of relatively mainstream entertainment. But the fact is that if you’re trying to fill a massive event space like the Javits Center, it’s easier to sell tickets with bona fide celebrities like Ewan McGregor and Chris Evans than even the most beloved comic creators. Celebs may have little to nothing to do with comics, but there’s no denying that they help make events like New York Comic Con possible.

And while most fans are aware that there’s an ongoing strike preventing actors from discussing their work publicly, it doesn’t necessarily make it less disappointing to attend a 45+ minute conversation with Obi-Wan Kenobi and not hear the actor so much as utter the phrase “Star Wars.” Sure, it can be fun to hear a celebrity discuss their life, but you can’t shake the sense that something’s missing.

I have no solutions to offer in this predicament. I can only hope the AMPTP gets their heads out of their asses and gives actors a sustainable and equitable new deal. On top of everything else, it’ll at least make conventions a little more exciting.