“It didn’t turn out to becomplicated at all,” Ewan McGregor says of his directorial debut.
We’re sitting in a private dining room in Parallel 37, the restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel atop the Stockton Tunnel. The eternally boyish, 45-year-old McGregor is wearing a white T-shirt and his bedhead looks effortlessly stylized. He’s in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival and to promote American Pastoral, the adaptation of a Philip Roth novel of the same name that McGregor starred in as well as directed. Viewed from 30,000 feet, the making of this film was not a smooth process. Having been a finalist three times in less than 20 years, Roth finally won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1998 for American Pastoral, which might be considered the “Great New Jersey Novel.” It uses Roth’s frequent alter ego Nathan Zuckerman to frame the story of Seymour “The Swede” Levov, a blond high-school football star who inherits his acerbic father’s glove factory and moves from Newark to rural Old Rimrock, N.J., where his troubled daughter gets swept up in the tumult of the 1960s underground left.
But if it took Roth a while to nab his Pulitzer, it took nearly as long for the film version to come to fruition. Having bounced around various stages of development since 2002, things picked up in earnest with the casting of McGregor as the Swede in 2014. (Jennifer Connelly plays his wife, Elizabeth, and Dakota Fanning plays Merry, their stuttering, radical teenage offspring.) Phillip Noyce, the Australian who directed two of the Jack Ryan films adapted from Tom Clancy novels — Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger — as well as Rabbit-Proof Fence, was initially slated to direct American Pastoral as well, but later dropped out.
It didn’t take the producers long to hand McGregor the keys, making it the Scottish actor’s directorial debut.
“I suggested it, and they immediately thought it was a good idea,” McGregor says. “They looked into the nuts and bolts and very quickly got back to me, two days later or something.”
Having acted in some 60 movies, he’d long since caught the bug, pining for an opportunity to direct. While producer Gary Lucchesi says that he and fellow producer Tom Rosenberg worked to “surround Ewan with very strong technicians,” they weren’t worried, as “actors can make very fine directors because they make other actors feel quite comfortable.”
“We believed that if Jennifer and Dakota were comfortable with him being the director, then at the very least we’d have a fine performance movie,” he adds.
Apart from Connelly and Fanning, the film’s secondary cast is impressive. As a domestic drama that takes place during a stormy phase of U.S. history, it may be Oscar-bait, but American Pastoral is an actor’s film: David Strathairn narrates as Zuckerman, Uzo Idiba (Crazy Eyes on Orange Is the New Black) is a senior worker in the glove factory, and Molly Parker (Congresswoman Jackie Sharp on House of Cards) plays Merry’s therapist.
That roster of names didn’t faze McGregor. But one challenge of sitting in the director’s chair, he says, was not sitting in the chair.
“I was in front of the camera or running around behind,” he says. “If I was in my trailer, it would be to just change my clothes. It was just nonstop. I loved it, the creative buzz of the whole thing.”
“The only difficult side — which wasn’t difficult, it was just new — was sort of being behind the curtain the actors aren’t usually behind,” he adds. “We’re protected somewhat from the political status, the egos behind the project, the financial side of things, all of that sort of grown-up stuff we’re sort of shielded from as actors — and rightly so, because we should be left to concentrate on our job — but as director, of course you’re in the middle of both of those camps. I feel more grown up for having done it, in that respect.”
By homing in on the turbulence of the late ’60s, American Pastoral embodies what Roth refers to as the “indigenous American berserk,” a phrase that speaks to the country’s self-conception as a unique entity but also to the dark side of suburban life that here culminates in an act of left-wing terrorism. The depiction of race relations is meant to comfort the White bourgeois conscience — during riots in Newark, the Swede tries to protect his factory by hanging a banner reading “Negroes Work Here” out the window — and McGregor sees some resonance between that era and today.
“In terms of social politics, in our film we see the African-American community struggle against being beaten by White policemen on the streets to protest bad treatment, lack of equality in the workforce, nonrepresentation in local councils. We still have a long way to go in America. When you’re used to being in L.A. — or New York, because L.A. is not really mixed properly, it’s hideously segregated — places I’ve worked in the middle of America are frightening. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, to an extent, feel like that.”
Having scouted locations in and around Pittsburgh with his cinematographer for 12 weeks prior to the shoot, McGregor was unusually involved in the nitty-gritty of pre-production. (He has not met Philip Roth, who had no involvement beyond signing off on the script before McGregor even joined the project.) And on the acting side of the equation, he worked with an accent coach, too. Although you’d be hard pressed to say that he sounds definitively like a Jewish man born in 1930s New Jersey, breaking away from his own cadence is intrinsic to his process. Even in Trainspotting, the film that launched his career — and the sequel of which is slated for a February 2017 release — McGregor’s character Mark Renton speaks very differently from his natural voice.
“Anything I’ve done in my own accent, which is very few things, feels like a sort of exposing or something,” he says.
Since Nicole Kidman was also in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival — she and McGregor each won an award — it seems natural that the two stars of Moulin Rouge! might reunite and belt out a rendition of their duet, “Come What May.”
“I was hoping to see Mike Mills, who’s bringing his film [20th Century Women] here,” McGregor says. “And Nicole — I think both our films were playing at similar times. I bumped into her in Toronto, which was nice after all these years, but no, I didn’t see her last night, sadly.”
American Pastoral opens in San Francisco Thursday, Oct. 20.