At first glance, Ewan McGregor seems like an unlikely actor and director to have become obsessed with the Jewish character of Seymour “The Swede” Levov, the tragic hero of his new film, “American Pastoral,” based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
The movie follows the Swede from his 1940s childhood as the star athlete of his predominantly Jewish high school to his successful assimilation into the upper crust WASP melting pot, to his unraveling when his teenage daughter is accused of a deadly bombing in protest of the Vietnam War.
McGregor himself grew up in a secular Protestant family in Crieff, Scotland, where there was not a single synagogue and he knew no Jews. But during an interview at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills, the boyish, 45-year-old Scotsman — wearing hipster black and speaking in a lilting brogue — revealed that taking on “American Pastoral” hit quite close to home.
McGregor said his connection with the Tribe began in his early 20s, when he met his wife-to-be, Eve Mavrakis, a production designer and French-Greek Jew, on the set of a British television show. Mavrakis mostly had been raised in Beijing by her French-Jewish mother, an ardent Communist, and was not an observant Jew. She and McGregor married in 1995 in a secular ceremony led by the mayor of a small town in France.
But as the couple contemplated starting a family, “I saw her religion become more vital in her life,” said McGregor, who is best known for his iconic role as the Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi in three “Star Wars” films, and has also stood out in movies such as Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting.”
The couple’s four daughters attended religious school and became bat mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in London.
“Their bat mitzvahs were some of the best days of my life,” said McGregor, who now lives with his family in Los Angeles but has not yet joined a synagogue. “I was really moved not only by my children but by the occasion itself.
“From quite early on in my adult life, the religion I was seeing and being amongst the most was Judaism.”
The actor-director added that he admires the religion “because everything seems to be debated so much, as opposed to preached.”
“I’ve always enjoyed that. And the tradition marks things that are very useful to us,” McGregor continued, citing how a friend’s sitting shivah for his father proved healing.
McGregor returned home from his “American Pastoral” press tour in order to celebrate the Yom Kippur break the fast with his family. “But I didn’t fast because I need to gain weight for an upcoming role,” he said with a laugh.
Nor has he converted to Judaism. “I don’t have faith in my heart, so it would have been sort of a falsity, I think,” he said. “And my family has never asked me to do it; that was never an issue.”
But McGregor happily agreed to raise his children Jewish. “I was essentially brought up with no religion, so I had nothing in the [spiritual] realm to offer them,” he explained.
One reason he signed on to direct “American Pastoral” is because “I had never before played a Jewish character, and Judaism had been such an important part of my life for 20 years,” he said. “And the fact that my first movie as a director is to tell the story of this incredible Jewish man makes me very proud.”
The Swede’s life starts out promisingly enough. As Roth’s narrator says in the book, “None possessed anything remotely like the … Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe … a boy as close as a goy as we were going to get.”
In the film, as in the novel, Levov appears to be the poster boy for a stellar Tribal assimilation story in his Jewish immigrant neighborhood in Newark, N.J.
When the Swede (McGregor) weds a non-Jew, a former Miss New Jersey no less, we’re told, “He’d done it. He’d married a shiksa.” Levov goes on to make his home on a bucolic farm in the white, conservative enclave of Old Rimrock, N.J., where his wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), raises cows and he commutes to Newark to run his father’s glove factory. When the couple has a beautiful daughter, Merry, the Swede’s vision of his American dream appears to be complete.
But Merry (played as a teenager by Dakota Fanning) turns out to be a sensitive, troubled girl with a severe stutter. As a teenager, she becomes a radical furious with the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. At 16, she disappears after she is accused of blowing up the town’s grocery and post office, resulting in the death of one person.
After suffering a nervous breakdown and severe depression, Dawn essentially writes Merry out of her thoughts and wants to move on. But the Swede can’t let go.
“Dawn is able to fall apart and then can have a life, so she survives Merry in a way that the Swede can’t,” McGregor said. “Some people think Roth might be saying that his life turned to s— because he turned his back on his Judaism. But I don’t think that’s true. The Swede is a good, morally correct man who tries to do the right thing by everyone to the point where he’s completely got no life left. He can’t let go of his belief that he’s responsible for everyone and anyone.”
McGregor also relates to the Swede’s story as a father; his oldest daughter, Clara, a 20-year-old college student in New York, is no longer living under his family’s roof. “American Pastoral,” in a way, is an allegory of that kind of parental loss, and a universal tale of the emotional fallout when children leave home, he said.
“What [screenwriter] John Romano did very carefully with his script was to extract the story line about the father and the daughter,” the director said.
While McGregor was attached to the film as an actor for some 15 years, he was only intermittently considered as its director while others, such as Phillip Noyce, dropped in and out of the project. Finally, in 2014, he sold producers on his vision for the drama.
“I believe that Roth’s novel presents us with many points of view,” he said. “He doesn’t tell us how to feel as a reader, so you’re left to consider your own life and your own experience. I tried to do that by not presenting black or white versions of the characters. But I also wanted to understand them. [For example,] I didn’t want to think that Merry blew up the post office because she’s crazy, but because she’s passionate about her beliefs and angry about what was happening in America.”
“American Pastoral” is one of eight Roth novels or short stories to have been made into a film. Poor reviews of efforts like “Goodbye Columbus” (1969) and “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972) have given Roth’s works the reputation for being unadaptable. (One notable exception is James Schamus’ “Indignation,” which hit theaters earlier this year.)
So far, “American Pastoral” has mostly earned negative reviews, with one critic labeling it a CliffsNotes version of the novel. When asked about these reviews, McGregor politely stopped a reporter. “If you don’t mind, I haven’t read them,” he said. “I never read reviews of my work because I’m not interested in what they have to say.”
Roth, however, gave the film a thumb’s up, through a note his agents sent to the producers. “He was very complimentary,” McGregor said. “I was very happy and very relieved that he liked it. If he hadn’t, I would’ve felt a sense of failure in some way.”
“American Pastoral” opens in Los Angeles theaters on Oct. 21.