Prior its debut at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, American Pastoral had seen a long road to production. Adapted from Phillip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the film saw different helmers come and go until its star—Ewan McGregor—saw an opportunity and embraced the complex property as his directorial debut.
The story captures the life of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a former all-American high school athlete whose world comes crashing down in the tumult of the revolutionary 1960s and ’70s. The film follows the seemingly idyllic existence of The Swede (McGregor), who marries a popular beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly), starts a family and runs his father’s New Jersey-based glove business with WASP-ish aplomb. As time passes and the United States struggles with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, those events’ chaotic reverberations find their way home. The Swede’s now politically radicalized daughter (Dakota Fanning) disappears after becoming the prime suspect in a fatal protest bombing, and the once optimistic father is forced to seek out his daughter amongst the dark realities of the American Dream.
Moviemaker caught up with Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly at the 2016 Zurich Film Festival to discuss the film, McGregor’s experiences as a first-time director and the different ways that the story connects to them. The interviews were conducted separately with members of the international press and have been edited for content.
Greg Hamilton, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why did you choose a Phillip Roth novel for your directorial debut?
Ewan McGregor (EM): It chose me, in a way. I was attached to play the Swede for maybe three or four years before I got the chance to direct it. We kept starting and stopping, but we never got to the point where we were going to shoot it. We were supposed to start shooting in March 2015, and I was doing a play on Broadway in NYC from September through Christmas of 2014. During that time, we lost the director that was attached to it for one reason or another, and it felt like we were scrambling to find a director. I could just feel that it wasn’t going to happen. It was like sand running through your fingers. It’s a film that—since I read the book—have always wanted to play this guy. Talk about scripts that only come thorough your letter box only every once in a while, and this was one of them. I wanted to direct for a long, long time—for 15-18 years maybe.
I never wanted to direct just for the sake of it, but because I had a story that I thought I should tell. When I was told in 2014 that American Pastoral wasn’t going to happen, my wife said, “You should do it.” We had long discussions about the fact that this was an opportunity—that this story you’ve been waiting for for 15-18 years was right under your nose. I was intimidated by the idea and nervous. I spoke to my agent, and then spent one day off from the play. I made a big pot of coffee and put my script on the table, and just went really slowly—scene by scene—trying to imagine playing the Swede, trying to imagine, “Do I have it in my mind? Do I see the scene? Can I do it?” By the end of the day, I was so jazzed about it that I phoned up Tom Rosenberg at Lakeshore and said that I’d like to be considered to be the director, and thank goodness they gave me the opportunity.
MM: Do you think that the film resonates with today’s headlines of political terrorism and social unrest?
Jennifer Connelly (JC): I don’t think the movie was setting out to comment directly on those things. I didn’t have an agenda while making the movie, I was just telling the story. But I certainly feel that it’s very relevant, and unfortunately some of the echoes in the footage—of the riots—are things we are seeing on the streets.
EM: We couldn’t help but be aware. When we were shooting the New York riot scenes—there were race riots in Newark in 1967—I did quite a lot of research on that because I had a much broader knowledge of Vietnam and the politics of Vietnam than I did of race riots. So that was something I was learning about. I never thought we should make this film now because of the terrorism or the race riots. It just happens to be something that we are still experiencing. The fact that we have an African-American man on the street being beaten by a white policeman was something that wasn’t by accident. It’s a statement. It was a scene that we shot that was quite difficult for Uzo [Aduba] to watch. I remember when we were shooting it, she said, “This isn’t easy for me to see this.” It seems like a very crass sales pitch to be in any way suggesting that this film is relevant now because we still have people setting off bombs in shops and things, and I would never want to do that.
MM: Have you ever felt you didn’t have control over your kids and that they were going in a different direction? How did you deal with that?
EM: I can’t imagine a situation like my character is going through in this film. I think there are always moments with your children where when they are growing up when you have learn to let them go. My eldest daughter is 20 and at university. Since we’ve been doing publicity for this movie, one of the questions I’m asked is “What hooked you into this story?” I can only assume it’s that when I first read it, my daughter must have been 15 or 16, and there was something subconsciously about me preparing to let her go. She was going to college and I wasn’t going to wake up with her in the house on a regular basis anymore. The story is about a man losing his daughter in a very extreme way, but I was preparing to do it in a very mundane way with her going to college. You’re not sitting up when she comes home at two in the morning and you’re not worrying where she is because she’s now an adult.
JC: Certainly not like this. I have a five-year-old who is very much by my side much of the time and a thirteen year old at home, and my son Kai is at university. I never experienced anything like Dawn and Merry experienced. As a parent, I try to be open to being wrong, which I think a lot of this movie is about, the ways in which we get each other wrong. I guess I try to be open-minded that my point of view isn’t the only point of view, and to understand that the way I think I’m behaving isn’t necessarily the way it’s being received, and to try and take responsibility for that and see things from the other person’s point of view.
MM: Did you rebel against your parents?
EM: No, not at all. I didn’t rebel against anybody. I was unhappy at school when I was 15 or 16 because I was being forced to do subjects I had no interest in. In Scotland at the time, I wasn’t allowed to do music and drama and those were the only two things that I liked. I had to do physics or something instead, so I was unhappy and I didn’t like it and I became quite difficult. My parents… instead of me rebelling against them, they said I could leave school. I was only just sixteen, and I left school and I was working in a theatre a week later. So, I didn’t rebel against them, and in actual fact they had given me everything that I needed.
JC: I don’t think I ever had one period that was so extreme. I think that rebellion is subtle and takes different shapes. It depends on what you’re rebelling against. I guess it’s about defining yourself in opposition, so sometimes that meant something very different for me.