A disabled man with a sense of humour, a Shameless boyfriend, a comic-relief spandex-clad sidekick, a doctor caught under Idi Amin’s regime and a contestant on University Challenge and a faun. Not the start of a slightly more complicated Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman joke, but rather a list displaying the huge range of roles that have fallen at James McAvoy‘s talented feet.
The Scottish actor has had a busy few years since his role in Shameless brought him to the attention of the British public, and the feature film roles that followed had Hollywood taking an interest. His latest is perhaps his most challenging yet, as Robbie Turner in Joe Wright‘s adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement.
Wrongly accused of raping a young girl he’s sent to prison and, eventually, the Second World War, but not before revealing his feelings of love to Cecilia (Keira Knightley). His character is, at turns, a peasant, a socialite, a criminal and a soldier but McAvoy’s confident performance keeps him consistent and ensures we’re engaged until the end.
So, for the second time this year, Rotten Tomatoes relished the opportunity to sit down with him to talk Atonement, Robbie, and a decidedly different kind of action movie we’ll be seeing very soon…
What inspired you about the story that made you want to do it?
James McAvoy: He’s the most beautiful character I’ve ever played in terms of who he is. Not physically! And, actually, I wish he was real. I think the fact that we destroy him utterly and rip his heart open and spit on it and do horrible things to him is strangely compelling and makes for a brilliant story. So that was really why I was drawn to it.
Also, Joe Wright, after auditioning him two times for this film, I just knew he was incredible and I desperately wanted to work with him; I knew he was going to make something special.
Had you read the book before you took the role?
JM: No I hadn’t, I read the script and then made a pact with myself that if I didn’t get the part I wasn’t going to put myself through the ordeal of reading the book and feeling terrible about the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to play this character who I loved. So thankfully I got the part and then I read the book and was devastated and found it harrowing all over again.
Joe is shaping up to be an incredible talent and he seems to have a style that is very much his own.
JM: He does. I think he just understands how to tell stories and I don’t think that a lot of directors do. I think a lot of people know how to do certain things very well or how to deal with certain situations. Maybe he’s good at working with actors, or maybe he’s good at shots, or set decoration or design or something, but Joe really knows how to tell a good story in any environment. I believe he could tell a good story in a pub or in an opera house or on radio or a joke, or whatever, but I think he translates that to film incredibly well.
When presented with every challenge he sees a clear route through that challenge and how he can not only overcome an obstacle but how he can make that obstacle help him tell his story; and that’s in every department. Acting, set, design, the whole thing down to sound and things.
Is he an actor’s director?
JM: Very much so, but he’s all the kinds of directors. Someone in the industry said, “Well, that would of course be the case working with someone like Joe, he’s very good with actors, but when you’re talking about a much more visual director…” It was like, are you kidding me?! Joe’s completely visual at the same time. It was such a strange thing, from a very intelligent man. But yeah, Joe’s quite incredible really.
The tracking shot is about as visual as it comes; was it a tricky thing to shoot?
JM: It was quite a challenge! We got there at six in the morning and started rehearsing. We rehearsed for eleven hours and we shot for two hours. We got three takes and we quickly realised we’d better get this; not only because the sun was going down but because our steadicam operator’s legs wouldn’t hold up! He was covering about a mile holding a small elephant, on sand going uphill, running, walking, the whole thing.
It was quite incredible and amazing to be involved in something so epic and that evocative. Really to evoke the spirit of that disaster was quite something and very moving.
You’ve had the opportunity to play a wide variety of roles in your career; is variety something you need to keep things fresh as an actor?
JM: I think so; I do. Don’t get me wrong, if I stop working tomorrow and people start offering me the same roles over and over again I’ll do it because I’m an actor and I want to work. But the great joy for me in my career is that not only do I get to do what I enjoy but that I keep challenging myself and keep learning more as an actor.
And you get to play different people so you learn more about the common human experience through different aspects of different people. I find that very exciting. And it’s challenging, it keeps you on your toes.
Maybe when I’m in my late forties I’ll want to just do the same thing over and over again because I’m knackered, but hopefully not.
Are we going to see something even newer from Wanted?
JM: Yeah, you’re going to see me do something I’ve never done before which is be an American action hero, which is a ridiculous concept for me. Me, doing that?! So that’s going to be quite good fun.
It’s very different and it could be quite a typical thing really, if not for the presence of our director, Timur Bekmambetov, who is mad beyond belief. It’s turned into something rather amazingly interesting and very strange and I like that, I think that’s got merit. Even were it to fail – and I don’t think it will, I think it will be great – you think, well at least we failed trying to be different. It’s when you fail trying to do something just like everyone else does it’s completely without merit.
So the fact that he’s an evil genius in making something really good and really different, that’s going to make it a very exciting film.