The father and actor debuts as director in the haunting film adaptation of American Pastoral.
BY ANNA CIPOLLONE / PHOTOGRAPHY BY CLARA MCGREGOR
Ewan McGregor could afford to sit still for a while.
With an illustrious career spanning two decades, he’s already proven himself a distinguished actor. He’s starred in several Hollywood heavy-hitters from Moulin Rouge, Big Fish, and the Star Wars prequel trilogy, to narrating the critically-acclaimed documentary Humpback Whales. And now, the celebrated Scot is stepping into the role of director for the first time, adding to his varied accomplishments.
“What I’ve been looking forward to all these years is being at the helm of a story from its very beginning to its very end,” says McGregor. Making its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, American Pastoral, McGregor’s directorial debut, is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in the 1960s amid racial tensions and anti-war protests.
“I was drawn to the father/daughter nature of the story,” says McGregor, himself a father of four girls. “I told Clara [my eldest] that she’d taught me everything I needed to know about making this movie.”
When the script first landed in his lap, McGregor was preparing for a change in his own household. “We were all guarding ourselves for when Clara left home,” he says. Finding a strange symbol in reading a story about a father in search of his daughter, while anticipating a smaller loss of his own, McGregor was moved by the script. So, it’s fitting that his first inclination toward the film was inspired by Clara, a promising photographer in her own right who captured the images of her father for this very story. “Since she was a kid, she’s always had a great eye,” says McGregor. “It was lovely to have the opportunity to do this with her.”
And while McGregor’s first-born is following in his artistic footsteps, like a typical twenty-year-old, Clara has kept her cards close to her chest, going about her work quietly. “I didn’t even know she was interested in acting, to be honest,” says McGregor. Unbeknownst to him, Clara landed a role in Groove, an independent film shot in New York City this past spring in between studying photography at New York University. “She’s done it all on her own, and she’s making it happen for herself.”
As per the moody hints in our first glimpse at American Pastoral, all is not well beneath the shiny veneer of the suburban dream. McGregor plays Seymour “Swede” Levov alongside Jennifer Connelly as his wife Dawn, a former beauty queen, and Dakota Fanning as Merry, their angst-ridden daughter on the verge of a major rebellion. The story ignites when Merry commits a violent act of terrorism in protest of the Vietnam war, leaving her father desperate to reunite his family. “At its very heart, it’s a family story,” says McGregor, “and it’s also a story, in a broader sense, about post-war American hope and aspirations being decimated by 1960s far-left radicalism.”
As for taking on the slashie title of lead actor/director for the film, McGregor has no qualms. “I think being in the middle of a scene is as good a place to direct from as anywhere else,” he says. McGregor attached himself to the film years ago as its lead, but it was only recently he was given the go-ahead as director as well. “It was just incredible to get the chance to work with Jennifer and Dakota, who are both such brilliant and very different actors,” he says. “I had to ask them if they would trust me in the role of the director, and luckily they did.”
The last few years have been particularly proliferative for McGregor: there was his part opposite Don Cheadle in the 2015 Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, 2016’s British spy thriller Our Kind of Traitor, and a dual-role as Christ and Satan in Last Days in the Desert. Having just wrapped shooting on Danny Boyles’ T2: Trainspotting, the highly anticipated sequel to the cult film that launched his career back in 1996, the ambitious actor shows no signs of slowing down. He’s also landed his first regular role on the Emmy-award winning television show Fargo, and will play Lumiere in next year’s star-studded musical adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
(And he does, undeniably, have a thing for musicals. “We don’t often get a chance to express ourselves through song,” he says. “There’s something really emotionally empowering about using music to express yourself as opposed to using words.”)
Returning to the role that started it all, McGregor says re-acquainting himself with the vivid Trainspotting universe came easier than anticipated. “It felt very natural to step back in the shoes of Renton,” he says. “The second I got back on set, it was like he never went away.” And while it’s been years since McGregor has worked with director Danny Boyle, the fans certainly haven’t forgotten, and neither has he. “I always feel like some of my most important movies are the ones that I made with Danny.”
As for directing again in his future, that’s up to the story, really. “I would love to do it again,” he says. “But I would have to find a story that I really want to tell.”
A surreal moment that will leave a firm maker’s mark on Ewan McGregor’s eclectic career, American Pastoral’s Toronto premiere will be his first time introducing a cast into the spotlight. After 24 years of walking on stage from the wings, it represents a role reversal for the actor, who still seems in slight disbelief. “This film needs an enthusiastic start point,” he says, “and I think TIFF is definitely going to give us that.”
Maybe next year he’ll take a break for a while. Maybe…but probably not.