Ewan McGregor’s Biggest Challenge: Philip Roth
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Ewan McGregor’s Biggest Challenge: Philip Roth

Which is braver: Riding a motorcycle across Africa, or taking on an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel for your first directing gig?

For a second, actor Ewan McGregor is stumped by the question. “I think this [‘American Pastoral,’ which opened last week] was more dangerous,” he told JTA, chuckling.

As part of his role as a UNICEF ambassador, in 2007 the leading man traveled 15,000 miles by motorcycle from Scotland through Europe and across Africa, all the way to Cape Town. There his biggest obstacles were potholes.

As a first-time director, McGregor apparently sought an even bigger challenge with his desire to work behind the camera.

McGregor, of course, has spent the past two decades building a considerable reputation as an actor. Starting with his brilliant portrayal of heroin addict Mark Renton in “Trainspotting,” he has starred in blockbusters like “Moulin Rouge!” and the three “Star Wars” prequels, where he portrayed the young Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But the inaugural directorial project he decided to take on — an adaptation of Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — is one that might foil the most experienced directors.

“American Pastoral” is the eighth movie made of Roth’s work — nearly all of which have been critically panned and commercial failures. “Indignation”, which came out last month received positive notices, but failed to gain traction with audiences.

Moreover, unlike “Goodbye Columbus,” a novella, and “Indignation,” a shorter book, “Pastoral” is longer (423 pages), more nuanced and, therefore, more difficult to adapt to the screen.

And if that wasn’t daunting enough, in addition to directing, McGregor also plays the lead role of Seymour Levov — a handsome, goyish-looking Jewish athlete turned successful businessman known as the Swede.

Yet none of this deterred the 45-year-old Scottish-born actor.

“I didn’t think it was dangerous at the time,” McGregor said. “I thought John Romano’s script was beautifully written and got right to the heart of the story. … And if you’re going to start your directing career based on a novel, why not make it an amazing novel?”

“American Pastoral,” like some other novels by Roth, is narrated by his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, and is centered on American and Jewish identity. Here, Zuckerman returns to Newark, N.J., for his 45th high school reunion to discover the Swede, his best friend’s larger-than-life big brother, had just died.

The Swede had seemed destined for greatness: He was a multi-sport star, a Marine Corps officer and heir to the family’s Newark glove factory. Over the objections of his father, Lou (Peter Riegert), he marries Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), the shiksa former beauty queen.

“Perfect wife, perfect house, perfect baby,” Zuckerman (David Strathairn) narrates. “Something was smiling down on him. This is the way I always thought it would be for him. He was the Swede.”

But it wasn’t to be. His daughter, Merry (played as a teenager by Dakota Fanning), is a stutterer with emotional problems. She becomes radicalized, plants bombs that kill three people and is forced to go underground. The Levov family disintegrates just as the nation around it erupts into riots, violent demonstrations and domestic terrorism.

McGregor said he had read Roth before. But he said he hadn’t read “American Pastoral” until after he had been offered the script. He agreed to the role, but the project stalled.

Eventually, McGregor threw himself into the book, reading and rereading portions every day. “My goal was to sop it up and sear the book into my soul,” he said.

And he largely succeeded. While some might disagree with what he put in and what he left out (the reviews have been mixed), McGregor effectively captured the book’s essence — that nothing is what it seems, that beneath the seeming tranquility of postwar American life simmered anger, subterfuge and lies.

“I was reminded this morning [in another interview] that the Swede is not my first Jewish character,” McGregor said. “I played Jesus in “Last Days in the Desert.’”

It raises the issue of how comfortable he was playing a Jewish character. Very comfortable, it turns out.

“I’m married to a Jewish woman,” he said of wife Eve Mavrakis. “My children are Jewish and we brought them up as such. It is sort of the only religious experience I’ve ever had, so I was very proud to be telling this story since half my family is Jewish.”

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