LOS ANGELES — Based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “American Pastoral” (opening Friday) is focused on the life of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a champion high school athlete who marries a gorgeous Miss New Jersey and ends up running his father’s successful glove manufacturing business in Newark.
Set in the 1960s, the film reveals how the Levovs’ seemingly perfect family life is shattered when their only child, a daughter named Merry, becomes extremely radicalized inthe anti-Vietnam War movement — leading her to workwith domestic terrorists who commit acts of brutal, deadly violence.
Along with portraying the Swede, Ewan McGregor also makes his feature film directorial debut in “American Pastoral,” joined by Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly playing his wife, Dawn, and Dakota Fanning as Merry.
Long attached first for the acting job on the movie, McGregor explained his reasons for jumping behind the camera as well.
“I wanted to direct for so long, and the planets sort of lined up to give me this opportunity. What grabbed me about the story initially was the relationship between the father and his daughter. I’m a dad of four girls, so I know very much about that relationship and how powerful it is and special and unique it is.
“I was heartbroken when I read the script about this poor man and his poor daughter, but I also felt so much for all the characters in the piece. I could really see it in my head.
“When the film wasn’t being made, I saw it was suddenly my opportunity. [Chicago native] Tom Rosenberg at Lakeshore Entertainment put his trust in me. It was very much his baby. He had secured the rights to Philip Roth’s novel very early on, and he’s been trying to make it for 15 years.”
As for Roth himself, McGregor admitted he would really like to meet him — even if the experience might intimidate him a bit. While the author already has sent word through his agent that he’s pleased with the way his novel was interpreted on the big screen, McGregor still has a bit of trepidation.
“I’m glad he liked it, but I still would be a little uncomfortable discussing it with him. … I would have felt a great sense of failure if he had not like it.
“Of course in the final analysis it was myinterpretation of his novel. Yet at the same time, I wanted it to reflect his novel, and have a certain Roth-iness to it.”
As McGregor considered the radical politics aspect of the story, he learned a lot of things about America in the 1960s he previously hadn’t known.
“It was such a tough time. … There was such an incredible amount of bombings that went on at that time. I had no idea. I knew about Vietnam and the politics affected by Vietnam in the U.S. I also had a strong sense of America in the ’50s — the post-war America when America had won the war and anything was possible.
“But the bombings in the U.S. took me by surprise. … We found this incredible piece of of footage where the newscaster is going, ‘Between May of last year and June of this year, there have been over 4,000 bombings in the United States of America.’
“I was gobsmacked! Over 4,000 bombings! I have always assumed that 9/11 was the first attack on American soil. But here we have so many bombings going off. Of course individually, not to the same scale of 9/11 — but still quite the revelation for me.”
Fanning, who had the very intense role of Merry Levov, said she didn’t want the fact her character stutters for much ofthe early stages of the movie become too big a deal.
“I watched a lot of videos [of people with stutters], and Ewan and I talked about it. But I kind of let it happen. I didn’t want to overthink it. I didn’t want it to become about the stutter — it’s much more about what Merry is saying in those scenes. I didn’t want to make it too technical.”
The actress also agreed with McGregor that his personal family situation was a big plus to him understanding the nature of the relationship between “Swede” and his daughter.
“As the father to four daughters, I think that gives him a level of understanding of young women that somebody who is not the father of four daughters might not have.”
As for Philip Roth, Fanning laughed when asked what she would have liked to ask Roth about “American Pastoral.” Noting that she has yet to meet the author, the actress said, “I probably would talk to him about something other than the book, just to throw him off. People probably always ask him about his books, and he’s probably silently begging for people to ask him about something else.
“That’s the thing when you’re so talented, as is Philip Roth. It’s the things that reveal your talents that are all people want to discuss!”