Jennifer Connelly was supposed to be in “American Pastoral” years ago. The project, adapted from Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 novel, had been in development hell for almost a decade, sometimes looking like it might happen, then spending years in oblivion. It finally did happen, with Connelly as Dawn, a former beauty pageant contestant who married a Jewish glovemaker known as “The Swede” (Ewan McGregor, who also directed). They seem to have the perfect life. But in 1968, their teenage daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning), becomes so incensed about the Vietnam War she becomes an activist, eventually blowing up a building and killing a man. She then goes underground, leaving her parents to take separate paths: The Swede struggles to find her while Dawn accepts that she’s never coming back.
The Oscar-winning actress, 45, talks to us about carrying over the complexity from Roth’s book and finding compassion for a difficult character.
In the book and the movie, there’s a great empathy for people who make what could be seen as bad decisions.
I think the movie talks about judgment. We hear that in the narration at the end of the film: Nathan [the narrator, played by David Strathairn] says we get people wrong. That’s certainly true about Dawn. People make decisions about her based on the fact that she had been a contestant in a beauty pageant and what she looks like. She’s trying to understand her own purpose and find her value, a sense of her place in the world. She finds that in her relationships with her husband and her daughter. So it’s particularly tragic when her daughter ultimately rejects her.
That passage you mentioned is one of my favorite parts of the book: We really do always fail to understand each other and wind up being reductive, even when we have good intentions.
It’s a treacherous thing to do, to take such a black-and-white perspective on each other. It’s explored really well in the scene between the Swede and Rita Cohen [a young activist who claims to be in cahoots with Merry when she’s underground]. She’s saying he exploits his works; she’s accusing him of things that are certainly pitfalls of capitalism. But he’s not so guilty of the specific things she’s accusing him of.
It’s an interesting twist that Dawn and the Swede aren’t pro-war. They’re progressives.
[Laughs] Yes, they are. Their politics are pretty much aligned with their daughter’s. And Merry’s not wrong that there is great injustice. She’s not wrong that for some people to succeed in a capitalist world, some people are exploited.