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James McAvoy: the new king of Scotland

From Macbeth on stage to Danny Boyles latest film, Trance, James McAvoy reigns supreme. He talks to Craig McLean.

By Craig Mclean 14 March 2013 7:00am
James McAvoy in Welcome to the Punch

Lunchtime in a cafe in north London. James McAvoy is declining a roll ('Im off the bread right now, and I do feel better, actually) while breaking down the vagaries of onset catering.

'One of the rules is, the bigger the gig, the worse the food, he says with a smile. Thus, the food on X-Men: First Class (2011), the superhero 'origins movie that marked McAvoys debut in a Hollywood blockbuster (he played Charles Xavier, the younger, able-bodied incarnation of Patrick Stewarts wheelchair-bound, Professor X) 'was s--t. Oh, it was terrible, he says, laughing.

It is October 2011, and McAvoy is in the middle of shooting Danny Boyles latest film, Trance. 'Its not a tiny budget, but its not a big budget either. And thats the perfect job, cos the food is always excellent on that level.

As one of Britains most successful, versatile and hard-working actors, McAvoy has a better, more intimate knowledge than most of the nuts and bolts of filmmaking from directors methods right down to the catering.

And recently, the experiences have been coming at breakneck speed. Immediately before shooting Trance, he filmed Welcome to the Punch, a stylised copsnrobbers film that aims to transplant Tony Scott-style slick, pulsing action-thriller atmospherics to a shiny, modern London.

James McAvoy in Welcome to the Punch

In the second film from the director Eran Creevy (whose low-budget debut, Shifty, was critically lauded), McAvoy plays a policeman chasing down the master criminal (Mark Strong) who shot him some years earlier, and with whom he has been obsessed ever since. 'The films action-y, and its stylish, the 33-year-old says, 'but its also got a heart as well. And it has a bit of an emotional punch to it, which is good.

Now, looming fast on the horizon, is another project. Filth is an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel, in which McAvoy will play a corrupt Edinburgh policeman with appalling morals and even worse dietary habits (the director Jon Baird 'wants me to go super-skinny, he says, shrugging; hence the no-bread rule). It will be the first time McAvoy has worked with his sister, Joy, three years younger and an up-and-coming actress. Their parents divorced when James was seven, and he has had next-to-no contact with his father since. The siblings were largely raised in a working-class area of Glasgow by their grandparents when ill-health left their mother unable to cope.

Having begun acting in his mid-teens, with a bit part in the 1995 film The Near Room, McAvoy attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He graduated in 2000, and won minor roles in the TV dramas Band of Brothers and White Teeth, before his 2004 breakthrough in Shameless, the TV series on which he met his wife, the actress Anne-Marie Duff. The couple married in 2006 and have a son, Brendan, who was born in 2010. His transition from TV to films was rapid and remarkably smooth: within two years, he had established himself as a leading man with his performances in The Last King of Scotland (2006) and Atonement (2007).

In Trance, McAvoy plays an auctioneer suffering from amnesia after he is clubbed during the theft of a painting. It is the first time he has worked with Boyle, and its clear they have built up a rapport.

Filming Trance (REX FEATURES)

'Danny said something to me the other day, and its a good lesson. We pay to see actors cry. We pay to see actors jump over buildings and die. And not just dramatic feats of action and derring-do, but stuff that we wouldnt let ourselves do. We rarely cry or devote the time and attention it takes to understand some of the things were going through. But we pay to see actors ----ing go through it, he says forcefully. 'And when Danny said that, I thought, Cool, Im going to do that on Trance. He thinks his wife has 'always done that, and she manages to do it without taking up too much emotional space. I dont know how she does it, he marvels with a combination of love, respect and admiration.

In Trance, McAvoy certainly 'goes through it. It tells a mesmerising story so deftly serpentine in its plotting that to describe it in any detail would spoil the enjoyment. (Indeed, viewers at advance industry screenings earlier this year were handed sealed letters from Boyle, to be opened post-viewing, requesting that no one describe in too great detail the substance of the film.) 'Danny never treats the audience as fools, McAvoy says approvingly. 'Hes clever, and great fun to work with. Hes a maniac, he adds with a laugh. 'An energetic ball of fire.

Eight months later, I meet McAvoy again this time for breakfast in a Soho restaurant. It is late June 2012, and since Trance finished shooting at the end of 2011, both he and Danny Boyle have been on Olympic duty. While Boyle has been marshalling dragoons of dancers, schoolchildren, pop stars and actors in preparation for the London 2012 opening ceremony, McAvoy has recently carried the Olympic torch as part of the relay through his hometown. 'Peoples children [were] thrown at me so their parents could photograph them with the Olympic torch. But it was very, very good fun. McAvoy chuckles as he tucks into a fried breakfast. They didnt want a photograph of him, he quickly adds for clarification.

Carrying the Olympic torch in Glasgow (GETTY IMAGES)

Always modest and unassuming, McAvoy is the model low-key actor, and does all he can to lighten the celebrity baggage; red-carpet appearances are rare, and he and Duff have always shied away from 'power-couple status. Danny Mays, McAvoys co-star in both Atonement and Welcome to the Punch, confesses himself to be in awe of McAvoys ability to manage his career, highlighting his way of meeting his 'celebrity obligations without becoming a celebrity. 'James is absolutely excellent in interviews on TV. Actors like him are confident in selling their product. And you have to have that in your armoury. It is a business.

During the making of Trance, Boyle was juggling filming and Olympic preparations: he would work on the opening ceremony on Thursdays and Fridays, then the rest of the week he would be shooting 'all over London. McAvoy declares himself amazed at Boyles 'incredible energy... It was quite something to behold, McAvoy says, adding that Boyle seemingly mainlines coffee, and the more hectic his schedule becomes, the wilder his hair goes. He grins. 'Hes about four feet taller when his hair sticks up.

McAvoys career has been impressively diverse, roaming across genres and offering diverse pleasures such as the comedy Starter for 10 (2006) with Rebecca Hall; the Jane Austen biopic Becoming Jane (2007) with the Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway; the action movie Wanted (2008) with Angelina Jolie; and the Tolstoy drama The Last Station (2009) with Duff and Helen Mirren. In part, at least, McAvoy attributes this to his facility with accents. 'I generally dont play Scottish people. In Trance, Dannys letting me be Scottish, which is fantastic. But one of the things thats really helped my career is the fact that I have played a lot of English people. Then, when I open my mouth and people hear my accent, theyre like, Oh, right, youre Scottish? So immediately you break typecasting boundaries.

McAvoy then tells me he is about to take another left-turn: hes preparing to fly to New York, for the two-month shoot of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, with Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). The film is about a young couple who break up in the wake of a personal tragedy, and McAvoy says his interest was piqued because the story is being cleaved into two separate movies, one told from his characters viewpoint, the other from Chastains. 'The script works on its own as a piece of funny but heartbreaking drama. It made me laugh a lot, and it made me cry. Its one of the most sophisticated and adult things Ive read in a long time, about what it is to be responsible. But its also very funny.

Anne-Marie Duff, meanwhile, is about to take to the stage again. After previous London West End triumphs (Cause Célèbre, Saint Joan) shes poised to star in Alan Hollinghursts adaptation of Racines Berenice at the Donmar Warehouse. 'Its a good play. And its nice that shes [going] back to the Donmar as well, he says of the theatre where she starred in Days of Wine and Roses. 'She particularly loves it there.

As the young Charles Xavier in X-Men: First Class (REX FEATURES)

McAvoy hasnt done any theatre since Jamie Lloyd directed him in Richard Greenbergs Three Days of Rain at Londons Apollo in 2009. 'Im hankering after theatre, he admits. 'But I feel like Ive got to make hay when the sun shines with the films.

McAvoy says the quality script offers are coming thick and fast, which hes pleasantly surprised by 'considering there are not a lot of mega-interesting things out there. People are trying to be really safe. Moneys tight, and for whatever other reasons, the film business seems to be putting their eggs in big baskets. So getting smaller films made is very difficult. Ive been lucky enough over the past year to get some really interesting things sent over. But I do want to do theatre again, he continues. 'I get sent a lot of [scripts for the] West End. But its always stuff that we know. I dont think I want to be in that Shakespeare play that Ive seen 20 times in the West End even if it is really good.

The slush is thick on the pavements of north London when I arrive at McAvoy and Duffs front door. Another eight months have passed. It is now mid-February, and McAvoy is squaring up for a stellar 2013. Trance and Welcome to the Punch are out imminently. Filth and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby will follow later this year, and this spring, after long-running, script-related delays, filming is finally due to begin on the second X-Men: First Class movie.

We settle in his front room Duff makes me tea, he sucks on a Locket. Since we spoke last summer, McAvoy has indeed taken on a new West End theatre role: Macbeth. When I remind him of his 'no Shakespeare quote, he has a ready answer that speaks of his enthusiasm for Jamie Lloyds reimagining of the 'Scottish play.

The first innovation from the director has been to set Macbeth in a Scotland 50 years hence. 'Thereve been global environmental and economic disasters which have set the world back. If youre going to set it somewhere, you need to set it somewhere that serves Shakespeares text, McAvoy says, pointing out that Macbeth was set in 1044 '[when] people believed in magic and omens; where horses will eat each other. And witches are real.

'So Jamie had the idea of setting it in a future world where weve regressed, he continues, almost without pause, 'where Scotland has a population similar to that of 1044 theres 500,000 people in it. Petrols running out; everythings running out. Were becoming feral again. Were getting by, but were becoming smaller in terms of our world view. And as such we are beginning to give power to the elements again

When we speak he has completed three performances at Londons Trafalgar Studios; only 77 to go. But already the knocks of full-bore performance are apparent a nasty bruise on his forearm, a blackened nail, a raw throat. 'Its very physical, he acknowledges. 'But I wanted it to be. And Jamies taken that and run with it.

True enough. I see the play that evening, and McAvoys Macbeth is a raging, roaring force in a battered, dystopian Scotland.

'James and I knew absolutely we wanted to do this very visceral, very modern production, Lloyd says. 'And its a mammoth role. Jamess instinct is such that hell throw himself into it 100 per cent each time we do it. Theres no skirting around the edges.

McAvoy and Claire Foy in Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios (JOHAN PERSSON)

This is McAvoys way. Theres a no-nonsense rigour about him. When he signs on for something, he applies himself wholeheartedly. But getting him to sign on, it seems, is the first battle. 'James is notoriously difficult to get hold of, Eran Creevy, the writer-director of Welcome to the Punch, tells me. 'Hes very choosy about the projects he works on. But hes one of the best British actors of his generation, so trying to cast him was a no-brainer, really. And luckily he agreed.

'Jamess career is a role model so many could learn from, his friend the actor/comedian James Corden says. 'He doesnt do anything he doesnt want to do. And he doesnt do anything for money. But you can see in his career there is a sense of one for me, then one for them: one project to keep the bigger picture happy, Wanted, or X-Men, and then one to feed the soul, The Last Station, or Filth. He straddles both worlds brilliantly.

McAvoys thoughts on his recent collaborations and relationships with his different directors are revealing, saying much about what he looks for in a job. 'Ive been lucky, actually. The last three directors Ive worked with have been the hardest-working Ive ever worked with, bar none. Out of Eran, Danny and Jon on Filth, I dont know which of them is more impressive: Eran and Jon because they are only their second films? Yet theyre so focused and organised and incredibly gifted beyond their experience. Or Danny? Whos made a million films and is not 25 anymore and yet his energy is just through the roof.

By now, McAvoys own energy has propelled him off the edge of his sofa and on to his feet. He has to dash he is still in rehearsals while the play is in preview, happily grappling with the part. You get the sense he will continue grappling with it daily until the sell-out run ends. The day after which he will fly to America to begin work on the second X-Men: First Class movie. Directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), it is subtitled Days of Future Past, and he pronounces himself satisfied with the script. 'Its exciting, yeah, he says, beaming. 'Im sworn to secrecy, so I cant tell you anything about it James McAvoys next director couldnt have hoped for a more staunch ally and leading man.

Welcome to the Punch is released on March 15, Trance on March 27

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