By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with the screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel “American Pastoral.” McGregor also stars in the heart-wrenching family drama as a father during the turbulent ‘60s, dealing with a rebellious daughter (Dakota Fanning) who may have committed a heinous act. When the girl disappears, the Swede (as he is known because of his Nordic looks) does whatever he can to find her. Meanwhile, the tragedy rocks his once loving marriage to his former beauty queen wife (played by Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly).
McGregor, best known for his role as young Obi Wan Kenobi in the second (prequel) “Star Wars” trilogy, has had a long and diverse acting career since he burst onto the scene in Danny Boyle’s 1994 horror flick “Shallow Grave,” which was followed in quick succession with Boyle’s inspired gritty U.K. drama “Trainspotting.” Over the years, the Scottish actor has appeared in a wide range of films including the musical “Moulin Rouge,” historical dramas like Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” as well as lighter fare including “Down with Love” and “Little Voice.”
The actor received critical praise for his third collaboration with Boyle for his lead performance in the romantic comedy “A Life Less Ordinary.” McGregor, who feels equally comfortable on stage and screen as he does on the road—he and friend Charley Boorman appeared in two miniseries in which their rode their motorcycles across the planet—recently reunited with Boyle for the long-awaited sequel to “Trainspotting,” in which he reprised his role of “Rent Boy” Renton. “T2: Trainspotting” is due out next year.
Married for more than two decades to a Greek-French production designer, with whom he has four daughters, McGregor knows first-hand the joys—and challenges—having children can present. He stepped in to helm “American Pastoral,” an epic family drama that spans several decades, after previously announced director Phillip Noyce dropped out.
McGregor said his wife, Eve, urged him to direct the film, an idea he had pondered for years but had never quite come across the right project. He explained how after sitting down and reading John Romano’s carefully crafted adaptation of Roth’s celebrated book, he was eager to take the reins.
Q: Why this as your feature directorial debut?
McGregor: I was doing press in London recently and somebody showed a clip of me on the “TFI Friday” from 20 years ago, just after “Trainspotting” came out. In this interview, (host) Chris Evans asked me, “Where will you be in 20 years’ time?” And arrogantly I said, “I’ll be directing and acting.” And I thought, “Oh God, I was right.” For 20 years I’ve been trying to find a story. I haven’t had many gaps where I’m just looking for stuff, but I’ve always had in the back of my mind I would like to direct. I’ve always felt like a filmmaker. I’m interested in what the director’s doing with the camera, what the cinematographer’s doing with the camera. I’m interested in having a sort of wider eye at work than just my own character.
I had some discussions with my agent. So one day I made big pot of coffee and I sat with the script and I spent all day really just reading these scenes and trying to be honest with myself. Can I see it? Can I imagine me playing the Swede and directing the movie? Do I have the bigger picture in my mind? And by the end of the day I was just so excited about it that I phoned up (“American “Pastoral” producer) Tom Rosenberg, who’s the head of Lakeshore and suggested myself as the director. Very soon after that I signed on as the director.
Q: Directors have to deal with so many logistics. Was there any kind of technical aspect that was unexpected challenge for you once you dived into this?
McGregor: The only sort of unexpected the bit that I was less equipped for was the very first month. My first job was to go and speak to Jennifer Connelly who was already attached and Dakota Fanning who was already cast and I was going to be playing her dad. We’d met up in New York and had coffee before, but I never met Jennifer. My first job as director was to go and meet them and ask them to stay with the project now that I was directing. They had no reason to do so. I was an unproven director, so they would have been quite within their right to not do that, but thank goodness they remained with it because I couldn’t imagine anyone else in those parts. They both give the most extraordinary performances. After that, I was just sort of like limbo. I finished my play and went back to L.A. I would go into Lakeshore’s office just around the corner from here and in Beverly Hills and I’d sit in an office they’d given me. I wasn’t at all quite sure what I should be doing. I had the script and every now and again a producer would wander in and I’d chat with them. They’d wander out and I’d be left on my own again. I didn’t know what I was meant to be doing.
Eventually you start having meetings with casting directors and you start meeting the crew, and that was thrilling. I enjoyed all of that process, but that very first month, I was sitting there not quite sure what I should be doing. It was living sort of daily with Philip Roth’s novel, both reading it every day but also listening to it. There’s a brilliant (audiobook) recording by Ron Silver that I had on if I was driving in the car or if I was running. For nine months I sort of imbibed Philip Roth’s novel in order to feel like I was not just using his story but presenting his novel in a way on the big screen.
Q: Adapting a book for the screen can be tricky. Was there anything you left out due to time or because it was tangential to the story?
McGregor: There are countless things that happen in the novel that can’t happen in the movie. Some of them are plot points like the Swede remarries and he has two sons And yet he never really survives Merry, in a way. It wasn’t in the script and I still feel that it’s correct that it’s not. We tell the story up until we get the sense that he and Dawn’s relationship is damaged beyond repair. And then we leave the story there in a way and then we flash forward again to the ‘90s where David Strathairn, our narrator, goes to the Swede’s funeral. I’ve just spoiled the end of the film, but there we are.
I feel that John Romano, who adapted this novel into the screenplay that we shot, did a beautiful job. I did lose some scenes that we shot, not because of any other reason than the story demanded that they weren’t there. It just felt right without them. I feel that John sucked the right story out of the novel, which is the family story. A mother and a father who have a beautiful daughter, and they live in a beautiful pastoral America, and something happens to their daughter when she’s a teenager that takes her away from them. And then we explore how they deal with that.
I felt it was my job then to really kind of get my own understanding of what Philip Roth was exploring and see how I could layer that into the movie, because he’s writing about this family, but he’s also writing about America. He’s using the family as a sort of lens. They represent things about parents that very much represent that post-war America, the birth of the American Dream or that hope and expectation that anything’s possible. Merry (Fanning’s character) represents their children’s generation of the ‘60s who live through Vietnam and go on a very different track than their parents’ generation. It’s the conflict of those two generations and the collision of those generations that I think Roth was exploring amongst lots of other things including religion, assimilation, politics and history. Other than that it was quite easy, really.
Q: What is the struggle of being a director and an actor at the same time and how did you find the right balance?
McGregor: It’s not intentional. It’s just that I am an actor and I love acting and I love the kind of acting that I was able to enjoy with this cast. I would always rehearse with the actors alone, which was amusing at first because I’d say, “Okay, clear the sets just time for the actor and the director to rehearse,” and then I would shut the door on the set and it would be just me and Jennifer on our own. We’d sort of giggle like we were getting away with something. I would always be honest. I’d say, “This is how I imagined the scene.” I knew how things were going to work out and I would show that to the actors and then if they felt like it worked that way then we would shoot it like that and if not, we would explore and we would discover the scene together.
Q: At the Toronto International Film Festival, you said you wouldn’t direct again. Is that true?
McGregor: I will. But I don’t think it could immediately because it took me 20 years to find this story. I really do want to do it again, absolutely, because I loved it so much and I’m so proud of it. I look at the film and I think that’s the film that I wanted to make, so I’m really proud of it, but I just feel like I’ve got to wait for the next story and I’ve got to think about. My feeling about doing another film now is that it should be very different. The directors I love the most turn their hand to different genres of moviemaking. Danny Boyle, for instance, would was my first director, and it sort of defined me as an actor in my early years. He is somebody whom I hugely admire and respect, and he’s made all sorts of different kinds of movies: zombie movies, love stories and films about Scottish heroine addicts.
I feel like this is almost like a second movie, with a budget and the actors and the backing from Lakeshore. I feel like I should go back and make my first. My feeling is it should be set in Scotland and it might be with young people—teenagers or 20-somethings. I don’t know if I’d be in it. I loved being in this one, but I’d like to see what it’s like not to be in it. I’m not really sure of anything more than that at the moment. I just feel like it should be quicker, and then the style should be completely different—maybe handheld or maybe shoot it in five weeks.
Q: It’s been 20 years since “Trainspotting.” What’s it like getting back together with everyone again for the sequel?
McGregor: It was amazing to go back. It was just brilliant to be back in Scotland with Ewen Bremner, Bobby Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller. And being those characters again was just quite daunting. The idea of playing a part you last played 20 years ago—I felt really worried. What if I can’t find him? What if I put on the Adidas tracksuit and he’s not there anymore? What if I can’t get in touch with him? But we all felt a bit like that. I met Ewen Bremner when I arrived and I told him that, and he said, “Don’t worry, I felt the same way. Once you get the first scene (completed), it’s like coming home,” and it was. It was brilliant to be with those people again maybe the best thing of all was to be back on Danny Boyle’s set because I haven’t worked with him in many years. I regret that we didn’t work together all this time. It wasn’t because I wished I’d been in a particular movie he made, but just that I loved working with him and I felt like his actor in the early days. So it was just brilliant to be back on his set again.
Q: What’s the secret to having a happy marriage and also being good father?
McGregor: I don’t have any secrets. I don’t think there can be one. The answer really is you should marry my wife and then you’d want to stay with her for the rest of your life because then you’d be happy. That’s all I can say really.
Q: What challenges have you encountered as a father?
McGregor: Being a father is the best thing in the world. The most important things in your life are your children, if you have them; I don’t think that children are the most important things in life if you don’t have children. I don’t see that one path is better than the other at all, but I think that when you have children, they’re your everything. There’s nothing hard about that, of course, because it’s the most fulfilling thing in the world really to see them grow up and become adults. My eldest is 20. I’ve seen her become an adult now and she’s a nice person. I like her.