Philip Roth's sweeping 1997 novel "American Pastoral" is about many things: the breaking apart of a family, the political schisms of the '60s and '70s, the meaning and mutability of Jewish identity. But at its heart, the book is about how we routinely fail to understand one another on a fundamental human level.
"The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway," Roth writes in one of the book's most famous passages. "It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again."
On Friday, an adaptation of Roth's novel hits theaters, with Scottish actor Ewan McGregor starring and making his directorial debut. And if that seems surprising — if a foray into Rothian literary territory doesn't totally square with our image of an actor who dove into a toilet as a heroin-addicted slacker in 1996's "Trainspotting," sang and danced in the lavish 2001 musical "Moulin Rouge" and wielded a lightsaber in the "Star Wars" prequels — it may be because we've gotten McGregor wrong all this time.
In "American Pastoral," McGregor plays Seymour "Swede" Levov, a successful businessman and former star high school athlete whose world is upended when his teenage daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) becomes politically radicalized amid the turmoil of the 1960s. After Merry sets off a bomb to protest the Vietnam War and goes into hiding, Levov and his wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), find their once-happy, upper-middle-class lives tragically unraveling.
On paper, McGregor, 45, seems a rather unlikely candidate to take on Roth's story. He had never directed a feature before (two previous projects he had hoped to helm over the years both fell through), let alone an adaptation of a celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning novel with an epic historical sweep. Nor, though he has lived in Los Angeles for roughly a decade with his wife and four daughters, is he American — and "American Pastoral," as the title suggests, is very much about America.
But over breakfast on a recent morning in Beverly Hills, McGregor — radiating the infectious positivity and restless curiosity that helped win him the job of directing the film — shrugged off the idea that the project was outside of his wheelhouse.
"I'm asked about it all the time, but I really don't think so," he said. "I've spent my working life imagining characters who, like, 80% of them are not Scottish. It's sort of my job as a creative person to learn. Ultimately I was telling the story of a dad and a husband and a wife and a daughter, and I know an awful lot about that. I think those topics are quite universal."
McGregor was initially attached simply to star in "American Pastoral." But when director Phillip Noyce ("Clear and Present Danger") departed the project months before shooting was set to begin, McGregor's wife, production designer Eve Mavrakis, encouraged him to throw his hat in the ring to direct it himself.
"I had wanted to direct for 20 years," said McGregor, whose only previous directing credit is a short film that was included in a 1999 collection of stories about London Underground passengers called "Tube Tales." "I've always been a very busy actor and I like it that way, but I always felt like a filmmaker. I recently saw a clip of me on [a British talk show] just after 'Trainspotting' and he asked me, 'Where will you be in 20 years time?' I said, 'I'll be directing and acting.' I was right!"
If McGregor felt daunted by taking on such a monumental novel, he didn't show it on the set. "I don't think Ewan was approaching it from a place of fear and trepidation," Connelly said. "He was just coming at it with great enthusiasm and admiration for the novel and excitement about telling that story."
Throughout the process, McGregor never met or spoke with Roth, whose books have long been considered difficult to translate to the screen. (An adaptation of his 2008 novel "Indignation" released earlier this year, directed by James Schamus, earned strong reviews.) But, after seeing a screening of "American Pastoral," the author relayed positive feedback through his representative. "I felt hugely relieved," said McGregor. "If that hadn't been the case, I would have felt like I'd failed in some way."
It's been 20 years since McGregor first burst to international fame, showcasing his irrepressible charisma and leading-man looks in the cult hits "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting," both directed by Danny Boyle. In 1997, Empire magazine placed him at No. 36 on its list of the top 100 movie stars of all time, despite the fact that at that point, he had only made a handful of movies.
But movie stardom for its own sake was never a part of McGregor's calculus. "I didn't want to come to Hollywood for ages," he said. "I felt like I was involved in something British that changed things to an extent with 'Shallow Grave' and then 'Trainspotting,' and I felt like it defined me a bit as an actor. Even when [Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and I] came as a filmmaking team and we did 'A Life Less Ordinary,' which was an American romantic comedy, I felt like it was us almost trying to beat the Americans at their own game."
In 1997, McGregor signed on to play a younger version of Alec Guinness' Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas' highly anticipated "Star Wars" prequels, 1999's "The Phantom Menace," 2002's "Attack of the Clones" and 2005's "Revenge of the Sith" — an opportunity that most actors would have leapt at but one he settled on only after much deliberation.
"It didn't really feel right to me in a way," he said. "I was terribly arrogant about my work and felt absolutely assured of what I was about. At the time I just felt, 'That's not me.' I thought about it long and hard and spoke to lots of people.
"The closer I got to the part, the more I wanted to do it – and I'll always be glad I did," he continued. "But I didn't indulge in the afterglow of it... It's funny – I just think of them as being three films I did among all the others. It didn't become anything else to me."
Indeed, whereas some actors might have used such a massive franchise as a jumping-off point for more glittery blockbusters, McGregor continued to chart an unpredictable course, zigzagging between lead roles and supporting parts, theater work and film, bigger movies like "Moulin Rouge" and the sci-fi film "The Island" and smaller ones like the romantic dramedy "Beginners" and the wrenching tsunami drama "The Impossible."
At perhaps his moment of peak fame, as the "Star Wars" prequels were coming to a conclusion, McGregor literally dropped off the Hollywood radar, embarking on a 19,000-mile, 115-day global motorcycle trek with his friend Charley Boorman, the son of "Deliverance" director John Boorman, a journey chronicled in the British documentary series "Long Way Round."
"Ewan is a great actor who is not content with just being a movie star," said Tom Rosenberg, who produced "American Pastoral" along with Gary Lucchesi. "He wants to be challenged, he has a great appetite for difficult roles and he's not precious about what he does."
The fact is, McGregor says he wouldn't even know how to chart a career in a more conventional fashion if he wanted to. "I'm not very clever with it," he said with a laugh. "I don't really think that way. I made this brilliant film last year called 'Last Days in the Desert,' where I play Jesus and the Devil. None of my agents were that enthusiastic about me doing it because it's the kind of film that I guess no one is really going to go see. But it was an amazing experience and I just wanted to do it so badly. I'm not thinking beyond, 'I've got to play this part.' "
That said, high-profile movies still regularly come McGregor's way. He recently wrapped work on a live-action reworking of Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast," playing Lumiere, and also will reprise his role as Mark Renton in an upcoming sequel to "Trainspotting." And while he has avoided the "Star Wars" convention circuit over the years, he says he'd be up for another crack at playing Kenobi in the now-revived franchise should the chance ever arise.
"I've always thought there would be a good film between the last one that I made and Alec Guinness," he said. "There's got to be some story about Obi-Wan in the desert when he's lost his way." He laughed wryly. "There's probably even a trilogy — who knows? It could be cool. But there's nothing on the table at the moment."
Having been deeply immersed in "American Pastoral" for the past few years, while also acting in numerous other projects, the ever-busy McGregor is now preparing to start work on another deep dive into American life, albeit a more darkly comic one, in the third season of FX's acclaimed crime series "Fargo."
"I play two parts — they're brothers but they're not twins," he said. "I was given the directive I've been waiting for for 24 years, which was to get fat, so I've been eating like a pig. And I have to learn the [Minnesota] accent, which is difficult.
"I'll get there, but at the moment it's a bit scary," he added after a pause, sounding less scared than excited at the prospect. He smiled. "Oooh, yaah."