Actor-directors Jewish connections shine on-screen

Ewan McGregor’s thoughtful adaptation of Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” encompasses a multitude of great themes: the American dream, Jewish assimilation, the price of success, and the postwar relationship between blacks and Jews.

The core of the story, however, is the profound generation gap between Seymour “Swede” Levov, a star high school athlete who marries Miss New Jersey after World War II and subsequently takes over his father’s successful factory, and his beloved daughter Merry, who becomes radicalized and estranged in the 1960s.

“I wanted always to understand everybody” in the film, says McGregor, the 45-year-old Scottish actor who is making his directorial debut with this film and plays the wealthy, angered father known as “the Swede.”

“I wanted at least to keep the possibility for discussion open all the time. Which is a very Jewish thing, I think.”

Ewan McGregor directs “American Pastoral” and plays Seymour “the Swede” Levov (above), with Dakota Fanning as his daughter Merry. photo/courtesy lionsgate-richard foreman

The film is based on the Roth novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and was one of the runners-up in the New York Times Book Review’s 2006 contest “What Is the Greatest Work of American Fiction in the Last 25 Years?”

As for McGregor’s credential in positing that open dialogue (aka arguing) might be a “Jewish thing,” he has been married to French Jewish production designer Eve Mavrakis for 21 years, and she has raised their four daughters Jewish.

“I think it’s what I’ve loved about the Jewish faith, as opposed to the Christian world that I grew up in, where there’s absolutes: ‘Here are the 10 rules to live your life by,’ ” McGregor muses. “After many a Friday evening with our friends in London, with an enormous discussion going on around the table about things that people feel they can argue about, I respect that things are up for discussion as opposed to sort of being fed down people’s throats as rules.”

“American Pastoral” opens Friday, Oct. 21 at Bay Area theaters.

The film was in development for several years with McGregor — known for playing Obi Wan Kenobi in a trio of “Star Wars” sequels and for his roles in “Trainspotting” and Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” — attached to play the Swede.

When the director dropped out and the project was in jeopardy of falling apart, McGregor persuaded the producers to let him take the helm.

The Swede, McGregor notes, was a hero to his Jewish peers for excelling at the non-Jewish pursuit of sports. But in one important way, the Swede stayed on the path: obeying his father’s wishes.

“He always does the right thing by his father,” says McGregor, dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans for an interview at a San Francisco hotel during his recent visit for the Mill Valley Film Festival. “He could go off and join the Yankees or he could be a football star, but his father wants him to take over his glove factory, so that’s what he does. He’s the good son.”

The actor acknowledges that the Swede doesn’t pay much attention to his religion after he marries a non-Jewish beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and moves from Newark to the countryside. The rural, white-bread setting highlights his assimilation, as does a key detail that has even more impact on-screen than it did on the page.

Merry (the daughter, played by Dakota Fanning) isn’t necessarily a non-Jewish name. But when it’s spoken in the film, as opposed to read on the page, Merry explicitly evokes the Christian name Mary.

“It’s almost like Dawn gets away with it,” McGregor says with a laugh. “She would never get away with [naming] her Mary, but she [names] her Meredith and then she can call her Merry. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that Roth does that.”

The actor-now-director’s understanding of the Swede’s accommodation of religion vis-a-vis Dawn and Merry drew on personal experience as well as the novel.

“I’ve had lots and lots of conversations with my wife over the years and I see in her the opposite effect of the Swede, whereas the Jewish faith for her has become more and more important as she’s got older,” McGregor explains. “When we had children, I noticed it was more relevant to her than it had been before, [such as] the holidays and going to synagogue.

“Now and again I’ll go with her because I know it makes her very happy,” he adds. “She never asked me to convert, and it would have been a hypocrisy for me to do so because I don’t have faith in my heart. But I’m always supportive. My kids wouldn’t have got a religious experience from me and I’m glad that they got one from their mother. That’s important.”

McGregor and Mavrakis’ three oldest daughters, including a Mongolian girl they adopted, were bat mitzvahed in London. Their adopted daughter converted to Judaism while the family was living in Los Angeles.

Although the Swede doesn’t instill a sense of Jewish identity or tradition in Merry — in fact, she displays Catholic iconography in her room — McGregor is clear about what she inherits from her father.

“What the Swede gives her is an enormous strength and conviction about how to live your life,” McGregor says. “He’s got this incredible stubbornness about being a good man and only doing the right thing by people. He feels like he’s responsible for everybody, and if he can just hold everything together, life will be fine. She has the same strength of conviction about her beliefs, but her beliefs are radically in a different direction.”


“American Pastoral”
opens Friday, Oct. 21 at select Bay Area theaters (rated R, 126 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.