Ewan McGregor Couldn't Let Go

Adaptation Isn't Easy

The actor took the reins to direct American Pastoral

Photo: Frederic Auerbach

Ewan McGregor and Dakota Fanning star alongside Jennifer Connelly in American Pastoral, the film adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Simultaneously making his directorial debut, McGregor appears as Seymour “Swede” Levov, husband of Miss New Jersey pageant winner Dawn Dwyer (Connelly) and father of Meredith “Merry” Levov (Fanning). The film, set in 1960s America, chronicles the family’s demise after Merry bombs their small town’s only general store and post office, killing one bystander, in an act of antiwar protest. Fueled by tumultuous events, Fanning and McGregor’s performances cut deep, their father-daughter relationship captivating the audience through unyielding raw emotions. 

Shortly before the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, McGregor chatted with us in Los Angeles, where he, now 45, lives with his wife and daughters. McGregor will also be reprising his role as the formerly strung-out heroin addict Mark Renton in the sequel to Trainspotting, working agin with director Danny Boyle. His stated aversion her to watching his earlier work suggests this will be the first time he’s revisited Renton in quite some time.  –Emily McDermott

American Pastoral has gone through many different iterations of production companies, directors and even cast members. How did it feel coming in as an actor and ending up directing it? 
I’d been attached to it for four years. We couldn’t get directors. They settled on Phillip Noyce, then a year and a half went by, the dates were set for March 2015, and he suddenly was unwell and unable to do it. I’ve been attached to other films, and it seems like they’re not going to happen, so you just let them go and walk away or they disappear. This one, I couldn’t let it go. There was something about the story and the relationship between the Swede and Merry. It might be that my eldest kid was, at that point, about to leave home, and at this point has left home. In the four years that I’ve been attached to this film, that was on my mind, and the film is about, in a very extreme way, losing a daughter. The point where it wasn’t going to happen spurred me to think, “Maybe I can do it,” and that’s how it went down. 

When did you first read the novel?
As an actor I was waiting to read it before we started shooting, but that was never coming, so when they said I could direct it, I read it.

What is something that you are as passionate about as the character Merry in her anti-way beliefs? 
I got very upset with what happened in Britain recently. Brexit was very much about looking inward and putting up barriers. The people who led the “Leave” campaign justified the latent racism that probably exists everywhere but certainly in Britain and America. It gave it a justification in the way that Trump is doing with his vitriol and bullshit—“If he thinks that way, it’s all right for me to think that way.” Brexit gave people a justification to feel angry and a justification for their racism, which is horrible. It revealed the nastiness in the world, and I worry about that. I don’t know what to do about it other than to argue against it. The ’60s were so particular—the possibility for revolution was real—but I don’t know what that is today, I don’t know where youthful public belief and being part of that is. I don’t know if it’s possible anymore or if the ’60s damaged it in a way. 

What did you learn about yourself through the process of bringing this to the screen?
I learned an awful lot about how to direct a movie. I found the creative side of the endeavor completely as I expected—working with the actors, the [director of photography], the costume designer. Those creative conversations were so fulfilling and satisfying. The lessons I learned were about the other side of the business, the money and how much things cost. Being in the middle of those discussions was an eye opener. Some of the discussions where you’re dealing with people’s worries and going home at the end of the night alone—I had to man up and deal with those. The pre-shoot period is so nerve-wracking. For the first month, you’re alone and not sure what to focus on. The next time [I direct a film], I would not worry about that as much. That time is to just live in the story until you completely know what it is that you want to tell and how you want it to feel. 

Whenever I’ve caught myself flipping channels, and there’s a scene I was in years ago, it’s a bit uncomfortable. You’re like, ‘What the fuck are you doing!’

What was it like watching yourself in playbacks so many more times than usual?
The fact that it was me was neither here nor there. The choices I made about my takes were the same as everyone else’s, really, but it’s quite difficult after seven weeks of working on it. Sometimes you sit down to watch it, and you’re like, “I can’t believe I’m supposed to watch this again!” It’s painful, almost, because you’ve been living it for so long. You’re grasping for a new story to focus on.

Has watching yourself changed with time?
I wouldn’t be able to watch my earlier work. Whenever I’ve caught myself flipping channels, and there’s a scene I was in years ago, it’s a bit uncomfortable. You’re like, “What the fuck are you doing!” [Laughs.] I’ll see it right before the premiere or the press side of things, then I’ll see it at the premiere, and that’s it. I won’t spend much more time with it. To be an actor in movies is all I’ve ever wanted to do, so most of the time I’m just pleased that I’ve managed to get up there on the big screen. HD is a bit unkind for the aging bit of it all. That little U-turn in our industry, when we started shooting everything with digital, isn’t very kind to us in our mid-40s. [Laughs.]  x


This interview is excerpted from the September/October issue of Malibu Magazine. Buy it here or subscribe now.