Paul McGann’s Serendipitous Journey to “Withnail and I”: A Role That Transcended Expectations

In the realm of cinematic history, certain casting choices become iconic, forever intertwining the actor with the character they portray. One such instance is Paul McGann’s unexpected journey to the role of Marwood in the cult classic “Withnail and I.” In this article, we explore the serendipitous circumstances that led to McGann landing the role, his memorable performance, and the lasting impact the film had on his career.

The Search for Marwood:

Released in 1987, “Withnail and I,” directed by Bruce Robinson, is a dark comedy that has garnered a devoted following over the years. The film follows the misadventures of two struggling actors, Withnail and Marwood, as they embark on a disastrous holiday to the English countryside. The chemistry between the two leads, played by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, is central to the film’s success.

When it came time to cast the role of Marwood, the production team faced the challenge of finding an actor who could convincingly portray the more reserved and introspective counterpart to the flamboyant and eccentric Withnail.

Paul McGann’s Unexpected Audition:

Paul McGann, relatively unknown at the time, was not the first choice for the role of Marwood. The production team initially offered the part to Daniel Day-Lewis, who, for reasons of his own, turned it down. The fortuitous turn of events opened the door for McGann to step into the role that would become a defining moment in his career.

McGann’s audition and subsequent selection for the role were marked by an intriguing blend of fate and talent. His ability to convey the vulnerability and sensitivity essential to Marwood’s character, coupled with an on-screen chemistry with Richard E. Grant during the audition, convinced the filmmakers that they had found the perfect duo to bring Withnail and Marwood to life.

The Chemistry with Richard E. Grant:

The dynamic between Withnail and Marwood, played by Grant and McGann respectively, is the beating heart of “Withnail and I.” McGann’s portrayal of Marwood as the more reserved, sensible, and often exasperated foil to Grant’s flamboyant and unpredictable Withnail created a cinematic partnership that resonated with audiences.

The chemistry between the two actors was not only evident on screen but also extended to their off-screen friendship. The genuine camaraderie between Grant and McGann contributed significantly to the authenticity of their characters’ relationship, making “Withnail and I” a classic exploration of friendship, identity, and the challenges of adulthood.

The Impact on Paul McGann’s Career:

“For I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth,” laments Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. Similarly, the character of Marwood, as brought to life by Paul McGann, carries a depth of emotion and existential angst that resonates with audiences. The success of “Withnail and I” catapulted McGann into the spotlight, marking a significant turning point in his career.

While McGann had already established himself in the acting world, “Withnail and I” showcased his ability to navigate complex characters with nuance and authenticity. The film’s enduring popularity and cult status solidified McGann as a respected actor, leading to diverse roles in film, television, and stage productions.

Legacy and Cult Status:

“Withnail and I” has endured as a cultural touchstone, praised for its dark humor, memorable dialogue, and the indelible performances of its leads. The film’s cult status has only grown over the years, with a dedicated fan base and frequent references in popular culture.

For Paul McGann, his portrayal of Marwood remains a testament to his talent and versatility as an actor. The film not only showcased his ability to inhabit complex characters but also opened doors to a range of opportunities in the entertainment industry.


Paul McGann’s journey to the role of Marwood in “Withnail and I” is a tale of fortuitous circumstances aligning with talent. His performance in the film not only contributed to its enduring legacy but also marked a significant chapter in his own career. The unexpected turn of events that led to McGann stepping into the role serves as a reminder of the serendipitous nature of the film industry, where the right actor at the right time can elevate a character to iconic status. “Withnail and I” stands as a cinematic gem, and Paul McGann’s portrayal of Marwood remains an integral part of its timeless appeal.

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