‘It’s been a life-changing experience for me’, says actor Ewan McGregor about directing American Pastoral

Even before all this on-set anxiety while making American Pastoral, the Scottish star had spent 15 years fretting about the prospect of directing.

Ewan McGregor, left, on the set of American Pastoral. Photo by Richard Foreman
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“It’s costly to your soul,” says actor Ewan McGregor, talking about the experience of directing a movie for the first time. “It’s a bit like carrying a baby around that other people are trying to get at, or change the clothes of, or give it the wrong food, or call it the wrong name. You’re like this all the time, worried about that.”

Even before all this on-set anxiety while making American Pastoral, the Scottish star had spent 15 years fretting about the prospect of directing. He initially wanted to adapt Alessandro Baricco's novel Silk but backed out.

“I always regretted it, thinking: ‘I should’ve done it, struck while the iron was hot’. And I didn’t, I bottled it.”

Later, he wanted to take on the story of doomed round-the-world sailor Donald Crowhurst, after seeing the documentary Deep Water, only to find a film was already in production.

When he first signed up for an adaptation of Philip Roth's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral, it was just to play the lead. But after several directors departed the project, he started to think that Roth's novel was the perfect project with which to make his debut behind the camera.

He spent months soaking up Roth's book, even listening to a Ron Silver audio reading of it. At 44, the actor, famed for Trainspotting and the Star Wars prequels, seems delighted.

“It’s been a life-changing experience for me,” he says.

Set in the 1960s, against the backdrop of political unrest, with Vietnam War protests and the Newark race riots dominating the news, American Pastoral portrays idyllic lives gone sour. McGregor's character, Seymour "Swede" Levov, and his wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), a former beauty queen face a nightmare scenario, when their radicalised daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) disappears after the bombing of a post office.

A father of four daughters, McGregor notes that when he first read the book, his eldest, Clara, was preparing to leave home for college.

“I must’ve been slightly girding myself for losing [my daughter] – albeit in a much more ordinary fashion, to college as opposed to radicalism,” he says. “But nonetheless, a loss. I was getting ready for her to not be in the house when I woke up in the morning. So maybe that’s what hooked me so hard about it.”

Dawn has a different reaction to the turmoil, as Connelly explains.

“Unlike Swede, she actually is so devastated by it, and after a number of years, she finds she can’t really survive,” says 45-year-old Connelly.

“She can’t live and be that same person anymore. She gives up on herself and tears herself apart. She destroys everything, destroys their marriage and builds herself back up – creates a new fiction for herself and a new identity.”

Connelly was attached to the project several years ago, when her husband, Paul Bettany, was set to play Swede.

“Of course it would’ve been different with [Paul],” she says, but adds that she cannot help but admire the way McGregor has tackled the story.

Given the ambitious nature of such a multifaceted period-set production, McGregor almost feels he has made his second movie.

“My feeling is I should go and make my first movie now,” he says with a laugh.“The next thing I should do is smaller, five or six weeks with young people or kids, maybe not be in it and have very little money. Have it be contemporary and feel entirely different to this one.”

• Check out our review of American Pastoral in tomorrow’s Arts & Life