Ewan McGregor steps behind the camera on ‘American Pastoral’
In his directorial debut, the prolific actor adapts Philip Roth
A couple of years ago, after Ewan McGregor sent his eldest daughter Clara off to college, the screenplay for “American Pastoral” landed on his desk.
The script, an adaption of Philip Roth’s best-seller, juggles a handful of themes, but at the heart of the story is the relationship between a father and his prodigal daughter.
Not surprisingly, McGregor connected immediately with the characters, and set about bringing them to the screen, which required him not only to star in the movie but also to make his debut as a director.
“When I read the script for the first time, it broke my heart because I know how you feel about your girls as a dad,” says McGregor, 45, who has four daughters with his long-time wife, Eve Makrakis.
“Clara’s 20 now, and she’s not in the house when I wake up in the morning any more. It’s strange, and it’s this little loss. It’s perfectly mundane and ordinary, and she’s still very, very much part of our lives, but she’s not in the house in the morning at breakfast.
“So that was happening, and I was thinking about it when I first read the script, which is why it drew me so hard, and why I was so attached to it.”
McGregor stars in the movie as the Swede, a former Golden Boy living in Old Rimrock, N.J., in the early 1960s. He and his wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), along with their daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning), seem to be the picture-perfect family.
But, in many ways, the Swede’s life is just an illusion. As social unrest rocks America, thanks in part to the Vietnam War, a local gas station is blown up. Merry, who disappears in the aftermath, is accused of lighting the fuse.
Now that “American Pastoral” is hitting screens, McGregor admits that he’s happy with how the film turned out.
“I’m very proud of this movie,” he says. “I’ve wanted to do this for so long and I got this incredible opportunity to [direct] not only just any film but this one, and I’m proud of it and I think we did a really very good job of it.
“I think it represents Philip Roth’s novel in a good way and I think the acting’s amazing across the board in the film.
“I think it’s a great film for women. There’s so many great female performances in this film ... so I’m really happy about that.”
McGregor teases that, as the filmmaker, he never considered anyone for the central role besides himself.
“I didn’t think to not be in it when I became the director,” he says with a laugh. “No one can play this part like me! The casting couch was very interesting. Somewhat of a solo affair, but anyway.”
All kidding aside, McGregor says he found John Romano’s adaptation the perfect distillation of a novel which many considered unfilmable.
“I thought John Romano beautifully pulled out the central story of Roth’s [look] at American history through this family,” says McGregor. “The mother and the father, who are the product of the post-war generation of the ‘50s, sort of embody the American dream.
“And then their daughter embodies the ‘60s, or this period of American history when the ‘50s generation and their children’s generation collide in a spectacular way, with Vietnam and all that was happening in America.”
While shooting a movie on a tight budget over the course of a month might have challenged some fledgling filmmakers, McGregor found the process surprisingly easy. For the actorturned-director, it all came down to being prepared.
“I spent so much time in the book from late 2014 when I was doing ‘The Real Thing’ on Broadway to when I became the director to September (2015) when we started shooting,” says McGregor
“I just really lived in this book. I tried to soak up as much of what I felt Roth was exploring ... and I directed it in such a way that it reflected how I felt about the book.
“So all of the [hard] work was done before we hit the set. When we did hit the set, it was very easy for me somehow because I’d spent so much time thinking about the Swede. He’s in the middle of all my imaginings of the film; I felt like I had never been better prepared to play a part in my life.”
A native of Scotland, McGregor has, for the last two decades, been one of Hollywood’s busiest actors, appearing in everything from George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels to romantic comedies like “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” and “Beginners” to big-budget action extravaganzas like “The Island.”
In many ways, McGregor is still best known for playing a heroin addict in Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” the movie which helped launch his Hollywood career.
When the film came out, he and Boyle were best mates but they had a falling out more than a decade ago. Recently, the pair reconciled and joined forces for “T2: Trainspotting 2,” which is due in theaters in 2017.
“We’ve shot it already and it was amazing,” says McGregor of the movie which reunites nearly all of the original characters. “I finished my last day on ‘American Pastoral’ on a soundstage at Warner Bros. up in Burbank. I finished on a Friday, and I just literally got in the car and I felt lighter.
“I felt like I’d been carrying this weight or responsibility for 16 months. Then I walked to my car, got in my car and I thought, ‘Oh no, I don’t have it anymore. I’m done. It’s too late to do anything to ‘American Pastoral.’
“So I was happy that on Monday I flew to Scotland and started shooting ‘Trainspotting 2.’
“After having been the director for 16 months, I wondered what it would feel like to only be acting. I just sat in my trailer. I read the newspaper. I chatted with the other actors. It was great.”
Merry Levov (Hannah Nordberg) and Swede Levov (Ewan McGregor) in “American Pastoral.”
Ewan McGregor on the set of “American Pastoral.”