Jennifer Connelly and Producer Gary Lucchesi Talk 'American Pastoral'

"American Pastoral" movie starring Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly
Jennifer Connelly, Ewan McGregor and Hannah Nordberg in "American Pastoral."

The KCET Cinema Series concluded its fall season at the historic Aero Theatre on October 10 with a screening of "American Pastoral." The film stars Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning as a family pulled apart during traumatic times and is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth. "American Pastoral" also marks McGregor's directorial debut. 

Following the screening, KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond led a lively Q&A session with Connelly and producer Gary Lucchesi​. Below is a portion of that interview, edited for space and clarity.

The KCET Cinema Series' fall season was sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. The winter season opens at ArcLight Cinemas, Sherman Oaks on October 18. Tickets are now sold out. There will not be single admission tickets available for the screenings.

Jennifer Connelly on how she became involved with "American Pastoral."

I think it was about 10 years ago. Gary was making the movie and they came to me. I read the script. I was very moved by it. I was very moved by Dawn and interested in the complexity of the character and then it went away. That iteration never really happened. Then it was not that long before we wound up shooting and it came back and Ewan was attached to be in it, as an actor, at that point, not a director. Then we got to the point where it is now. I was very excited to do it because, as I said, I really loved the story and the character. 

Jennifer Connelly on Dawn, her character in "American Pastoral."

I felt like she was someone, both of them, as a couple, you felt like good things were going to come to them and good things would happen to them and then everything goes terribly wrong and they're left wondering and I think we're all left wondering why and how it became derailed. 

I thought she was really moving. One thing that was really interesting in the novel, and in the script as well, was the conversation about judgment and the kind of assumptions we make about one another. And I think Dawn really struggles with that. It was one of the things that I found really moving about her — her struggles with her own identity. And we see them first. And the first image is of her as a contestant in a beauty pageant and I think that depiction of her kind of follows her around and people make decisions about her based on that and it sort of haunts her. When things start going wrong with Merry, people say it's because, "oh... she's fake," "because she's too perfect." There's this conception about her and she struggled, I think, to find some sense of value, her sense of meaning. And she finds that in her family and it's so excruciating for her when her daughter then rejects her love. I think it's really very heartbreaking, what winds up happening to her once she loses that meaning that she found in the relationship with her daughter. 

 "American Pastoral" movie starring Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly
Jennifer Connelly in "American Pastoral."

Jennifer Connelly on Dawn's facelift in the film.

That was Judy Chin, who is an amazing makeup artist. I've worked with her many times. I worked with her first on "Requiem for a Dream" and we've done a number of movies together. Jasen Sica did my hair and I also worked with him on a few projects and he's also really wonderful and talented. They had various little tricks that they did that were kind of painful, but, I think, pretty effective — a little bit. I thought it really worked. 

I thought it was an interesting choice and a very sad choice that she makes. I understood it. She's completely dismantled by that loss, the loss of her daughter. And I think that after so many years of waiting for her... she literally can't bear it anymore and Seymour goes a different way. Swede is sort of looking to the past and to this fantasy, this dream of what they once were, that Dawn knows is never going to be again and she literally can't survive it anymore. She knows she can't, so she has to look to the future. And I think she sort of tears down the narrative of their life together and she has to rebuilding something. She has to build a new way forward and she wants everything to be modern. She just wants a new exposure, a new exposure of their house. She remodels the house and wants windows that let the light in from a different direction and he needs a new point of view. She needs to look to the future.

Gary Lucchesi on adapting "American Pastoral" for film. 

I think there were three things and John Romano, who was the writer, and I talked about it a lot when we first did the adaptation. There's the story of the pastoral 1950s of the United States coming into conflict with the 1960s. There was certainly the father/daughter story, which was profound. And then, as John says, there was the scenes of the marriage story that was part of it, which is really Dawn and Swede. So, you don't oftentimes get to deal with three such interesting subjects, but the book gave us that opportunity. 

Jennifer Connelly and Gary Lucchesi attend KCET's screening of "American Pastoral"
Pete Hammond, Jennifer Connelly and Gary Lucchesi talk "American Pastoral" at the KCET Cinema Series. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

Gary Lucchesi on Ewan McGregor's directorial debut. 

We had other directors and then we had a director who was going to do the movie with Ewan and Jennifer, but then he fell out. Ewan approached us and said that he was interested. Tom Rosenberg and I, we talked about it, but it really wasn't that long of a conversation. We knew that we had a performance movie deep down inside. We knew that Ewan could perform Swede. We also had spent time with Ewan and knew that he was a very serious gentleman who really wanted to direct. We knew that Jennifer, if Ewan could convince her to stay on, that she was the perfect Dawn and we knew that Dakota was fantastic as Merry and everybody loved the script. It was then a question of putting the right technicians around Ewan. To his credit, he was the person who had Martin Ruhe, the cinematographer. And he introduced Martin to us and I think that was the key technical component. The collaboration between Ewan and Martin was really superb and it was a friendly union and it made the set just wonderful.

Gary Lucchesi on showing the film to "American Pastoral" author Philip Roth.

We had to show the script to Philip Roth before we made the movie, but then we showed him the script and we didn't hear from him. Then, after we finished the movie, we wanted him to see the film. And before we went to Toronto, we said, "look, we're going to Toronto, people are going to review the film, you should see the film." He said, "I'll see you at two o'clock in the afternoon in a New York screening room." And afterwards he sent us a congratulatory email, which Tom Rosenberg and myself and Eric Reid have framed in our office, saying that he felt the film was really terrific, that he knew there were going to be some changes to the book that you have to make to make a movie, but he felt that the changes were very wise and cleverly done. He thought that Ewan did a fantastic job as a director and was great as Swede. He loved Jennifer. He also complimented us on the courage for keeping in the Rita Cohen scene the way that it was supposed to be. I think that he was a little, he might have had concerns that we were going to wimp out and not do that scene the way that it was written, but we held fast. 

 "American Pastoral" movie starring Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning
Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning in "American Pastoral."

Jennifer Connelly on the cast of "American Pastoral."

It was a privilege to work with [Dakota Fanning]. I think she's so talented. She always has been so formidable as an actor and she gets more so, I think. I just loved it. I loved working with her. Gary was mentioning the atmosphere on the set. It was so collaborative. It was so warm and open and it was just, I think Ewan helped create that environment. He was really very interested in giving his cast, actually everyone that he worked with, room to collaborate and to bring forward their ideas and share their thoughts. For the cast in particular, I felt like it was a very gentle environment, a very comfortable environment. We had private rehearsals every morning where he literally would shut the door and there would be no other crew, it would be just him and actors, sometimes just the two of us in the room with the doors closed where we could try walking different ways, running through the scenes. It was a really wonderful way for all of us to work and I thought that was really useful in those scenes with Dakota to have that time and that space to ask questions and just put things on their feet and investigate them before making choices. 

It was wonderful to have that time. We had sort of informal rehearsals before we started shooting, pre-production where we would sit together at night. There were a lot of hair and makeup tests and that comes up during the day and then, at night, we would sit and read through the script and ask questions and hang out and have dinner. That was also really useful, really useful time. 

She's so open, so available, and I just felt like it came easily, working with her. 

Jennifer Connelly on "American Pastoral," the book.

Yeah I did. I referred to it frequently. I had passages underlined and very annotated. I looked back at it very often. I love the book. It's exquisite. It's exquisitely written and it's like having a very detailed journal for a character. For me, I found it very inspiring, so I look back at it very often. 

"American Pastoral" movie starring Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly
Uzo Aduba in "American Pastoral."

Jennifer Connelly on working with David Bowie in "Labyrinth."

It was amazing. He became really a hero of mind after working with him. I knew his music, but I wasn't really listening to it that much at the time. I think I was about 14 when I made the movie. I was impressed by his talent. I was really impressed by the way he treated everyone. Even though I hadn't really gotten into his music so much yet at that point, although I am very much now and still listen to his music very often — pretty much every day — I was really impressed. I understood his stature and what he meant to people. And I was really impressed by his generosity on set and how kind he was and how much time he made for everyone on the crew and his sense of humor. And he really was an example to me and he really became a hero of mine, just from what I saw working with him. 

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