Earlier this year, ComingSoon.net talked to actor James McAvoy for his coming-of-age comedy Starter for Ten and at that point, he had done a lot of press for his previous movies, though we hadn’t run anything on the site. (You can read that interview here.) Fast forward nearly a year and McAvoy is being interviewed a lot more for his starring role in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. In the film, McAvoy plays Robbie, son of the housemaid and a handyman for a wealthy family living in the British countryside, who falls for Keira Knightley’s Cecelia, only to have her jealous younger sister Briony (newcomer Saoirse Ronan) concoct a lie that breaks things up and gets Robbie sent to the warfront as World War II begins.
In Starter for Ten, McAvoy claimed to be “punching well above his weight” with his two lead actresses, but in this one, he’s the romantic interest of Keira Knightley, following his turn opposite Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane and before he appears opposite Angelina Jolie in Wanted next summer.
We decided to start our interview from Atonement‘s London junket where our last interview ended off, just because it seemed like the year has gone by so fast and it felt like only yesterday that we last talked to Mr. McAvoy.
ComingSoon.net: You sound like someone who’s sick of doing press already.
James McAvoy:Yesterday I was really sick of it. Doing TV’s so much more banal. It’s weird, man.
CS: Well, they have to get their soundbytes, which means you have to respond to everything in one or two sentences.
McAvoy: It’s really strange.
CS: I wanted to start by asking you about working with Saoirse Ronan. I’ve seen her in another movie and she’s a bit of a scene-stealer, isn’t she?
McAvoy: Yeah, she’s great, she’s really really good. She’s a nice girl as well, and she’s a proper actress. She’s not just like a little girl who’s very natural in front of a camera, because that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be able to do what the script says.
CS: Romola Garai mentioned that when she worked with Saoirse, she would tell her why she did things in a certain way, and I understand her father’s an actor as well.
McAvoy: Yeah, he’s good too, but yeah, she’s a proper actress.
CS: Is it hard to work with someone that young in terms of expectations of having to carry them before finding out they’re that good already?
McAvoy: No, not at all. You don’t really have expectations like that I don’t think, and also because you do three weeks of rehearsals and you just go, “Yeah, she’s really good. She can do her thing.” Nah, she’s wonderful. It’s a pleasure working with her and why wouldn’t you enjoy working with a good actress, whatever age she is? ‘Cause it only makes you better I think.
CS: But also when you work with kids, there’s a natural tendency for them to steal the scenes, but especially when they’re cute and they have talent.
McAvoy: Well, I don’t think she’s stealing scenes, because Briony is the lead character in this picture, know what I mean? So no, I don’t think I’m worried about that. My character is probably the protagonist simply because you can’t put yourself in Briony’s shoes, but she’s definitely the lead character. The only thing that breaks that up is the fact that it’s three different actresses playing the part.
CS: This is Joe’s second movie working with Keira and he’s said he’d like to put together a group of actors he can keep working with. Do you have a feeling you’ll be doing another movie with him someday?
McAvoy: I hope so. I’d be very happy to work with Joe the rest of my life, but I’m sure that can’t happen. I’d love to work with Joe again, definitely, but he’s tied up with doing his thing in L.A. at the moment.
CS: We talked to him about doing that huge beach scene, but what was that like from an actor’s point of view as far as doing something like that where you really have to set it up and get it right. How many takes of that were you able to do?
McAvoy: Only three and a half. We rehearsed for two days and filmed it in an hour and a half when the light was just right. It’s a big gamble though, because if you got it wrong, we’d have been f**ked, and we’d have had to come back and we didn’t have enough money to come back with a thousand extras, which costs a hell of a lot of money. That’s like 150 dollars a day, 1,000 people, that’s a hell of a lot of money for two days, and then say, “We need an extra $200,000” or whatever it is. It’s a lot of pressure, but we loved that. I think as an actor you crave those situations really where the stakes are high and you bring it home and all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t just for me, it was for all the actors in the scene as well as a thousand extras, any one of us could have royally f**ked it at any point, and also, there’s probably about 10 to 15 key crew members who could have f*cked the whole thing at any one point as well. There was a shared responsibility, but it really was like a microcosm of filmmaking, ’cause it was a miracle of collaboration and that’s exactly what making a film is.
CS: Only at the end of the scene do you get the impression how vast this scene is, but did Joe try to deliberately keep you away from the location before you started shooting so you could experience all the stuff that goes on in that scene and react to it while shooting it?
McAvoy: I don’t know. I can’t really remember. I think we were pretty integral to rehearsals actually.
CS: So the beach was all set-up by the art department and you were able to walk through where you’d go during that scene?
McAvoy: No, not just the art department setting up the beach. They set up the beach weeks before, and then when we arrived, we rehearsed for an entire day and then we went home, and then we rehearsed for an entire day and then with the hour and a half at the end of the day, when the sun was going down, we just shot it in three and a half takes. It was only the third take that really worked.
CS: Had you ever done anything like that before?
McAvoy: I was in “Band of Brothers” and so I was in some fairly epic big old recreations, but nothing as big as this Dunkirk beach scene.
CS: Did you have to do a lot of water tank stuff? I know you have that one scene with Saoirse.
McAvoy: Just one scene, which is really weird, ’cause I used to be surrounded by water and I just recently discovered that when I go underwater, I can’t stop the water from going up my nose. Don’t know why, but just that one scene, it was fine.
CS: I know that Joe was trying to shoot everything in sequence
McAvoy: For the first section of the film, it was filmed entirely in sequence, give or take a couple of scenes, but then they filmed all the sequences with the nurses, which is at the end of the film. We filmed that as a second chunk, so that was like week 6 to 9, then week 10 till 13 really was all the Dunkirk stuff. So the first section was all in sequence and then it was a bit back to front.
CS: But you didn’t have a water tank day where you did all of those scenes with you and with Keira?
McAvoy: Yeah, we had a water tank day.
CS: We’ve talked before about your on-screen chemistry and you’ve had a lot of great leading ladies. Did you get any make-out scenes with Angelina Jolie in “Wanted”?
McAvoy: We have a big old kissing scene, but it’s not a romantic kissing scene. She basically just does it to play a trick on someone, and I’m completely unwittingly taken along on this thinking she might like me, which she actually doesn’t in any way. Yeah, no, she was great as well. Angelina’s really cool.
CS: It doesn’t really look like the comic book at all, but more like “The Matrix.” Did you feel it had that kind of vibe?
McAvoy: I don’t know really. I don’t know what kind of vibe it had on set. We were just doing our own thing. It was very different from the comic book, simply because they started writing the script before all the comic book had come out, and after the initial kind of set-up, they just went off on their own thing. The comic book was kind of unfilmable, manwell, it’s not unfilmable actually, but it’s multiple dimensions, and it’s all super-villains and stuff, and this one is more rooted in the real world while there’s still being a modicum of super-heroism.
CS: Did they set things up at all for a sequel if the movie did well or is it like the comic book?
McAvoy: Oh, yeah, they’ve totally tied us all up and that kind of stuff, just in case it makes millions.
CS: Any idea what you’re doing next? There’s a movie called “Two-Way Split”?
McAvoy: That’s not definitely happening. I’m not definitely doing anything next. I’m just taking it easy. I had to take a break after “Wanted” because that was physically quite demanding, and I’d just done seven jobs back-to-back without a break really, and I really needed some time off.
CS: Is your manager and/or agent trying to get you onto something before the potential actors’ strike next year?
McAvoy: They’re all doing that, but the benefit for me is that I live in Britain, so I’m not a member of SAG, and we get no benefit from your strike, so there’s no reason we should go on strike. I can do theatre, television, film…
CS: Do you think you might want to return to the stage since you had such a good career there before getting into film?
McAvoy: Yeah, I hope so. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been on stage, which is way too long, and it is my favorite medium, so I would definitely like to do something on stage again. The problem is that people see you as a movie actor now, so the offers don’t come in quite as easily.
CS: Of course, they can also now say “Starring James McAvoy from Movie X” which can help get people into see the play.
McAvoy: Possibly yeah, that happens, but who knows? I don’t know. I don’t find offers coming in every day for theatres.
CS: When you were in Prague filming “Wanted” were you able to get over to the set of “Prince Caspian” to see Georgie and Andrew and the rest of them?
McAvoy: I was actually, a couple times. I got over roughly the same time as you, when they were storming the castle.
CS: Actually, I got there a bit later when they were getting ready to film the big outdoor battle scenes.
McAvoy: Was that in Usti? Yeah, I went over and saw Howard Berger from KNB and all my guys.
CS: Did you get a chance to throw on Mr. Tumnis’ furry legs to film a cameo or a flashback?
McAvoy: They offered. Howard really wanted to do me up as Mr. Tumnis and take me on the set and just stand by the director and just go “Hey, how’re you doing?” but I couldn’t be f**king bothered to be put in three hours of make-up.
CS: Or they could have just put you in one of the battle scenes in the background as an Easter Egg.
McAvoy: Well, in “Wanted,” I’m in every single scene and every single day, so we were all keen to do it for me to be in one of the battle scenes running around in the background dressed up as Shrek or something, but it never happened.
And here’s more with James from an earlier roundtable, also from the UK junket:
CS: Is the kind of role you’d have always wanted to do when you became an actor?
McAvoy: Um, no, not really. Generally, I’m not attracted to the classic leading man type character, partly because I don’t think I’m right and castable for those types of roles. This particular time I think I was right for this character. There were certain reasons that made me right for it, but usually, I prefer doing the lead roles I’ve done in the past that are maybe not edgy, but where it’s a character leading man or a flawed leading man or it’s tinged with comedy. I don’t think I’ll be playing too many more leading more like this. Just this particular leading man led itself to me playing it I think. ‘Cause the thing is that in this film it is a classic role, but within the film, there’s a classic romantic period tragedy, but the film tells that very simple story in a very modern intelligent and sophisticated way. The narrative is very simple: Good people are wronged and bad things happen to them as a consequence, and it’s very simple, which is lovely. But the real intelligence of the film comes in how the narrative is imparted to the audience. I think that helped me play it I think, and also the fact that the character is caught between classes.
CS: Why did you think this role was right for you?
McAvoy: Both characters come from a working class background, but also both characters require a capacity to sound incredibly posh, which I can do. Also, he occupies a kind of social ground that doesn’t exist yet in the world, which is between classes, and I don’t think the world is ready for him at that point. I think that terrifies those around him, those from his own class and from outside his class. I see similarities with myself, not in terms that I terrify people or that I have an untenable position in the world, but I come from a very working class background, and I’ve been allowed access to a way of life that people from my background just don’t get, people from any background just don’t get. I live the life of an actor, and whilst I try and maintain as much as a normal life as I can, I can’t deny my life is weird and strange and a little bit jetset, so I do feel that we have a similar kind of journey in some ways. Like him, I’ve embraced this life, but also I try to not be untrue to who I was as well. Who I was is who I am.
CS: Joe’s said when asked why you were right for this role that you had “eyes of optimism” so do you know what he meant by that?
McAvoy: I think to play Robbie, you have to have hope and you have to be incredibly open. I think someone once said to me that it was their life’s ambition to be as open as possible, and I thought, “What a f**king brilliant ambition.” I don’t know if that’s my life’s ambition, but I know I certainly try to be as open as possible. I’m nowhere near as open as Robbie is. Briony hurts him so badly because he’s so open and naïve about the danger around him, and I think that’s the same as optimism as much. I think he has empathy for all those around him, even empathy for Mrs. Tallis who doesn’t like him. I think he gets it and understands her. He’s a little bit Christ-like and angelic and unrealistic, at least for the first half of the film.
CS: Can you talk about your chemistry with Keira?
McAvoy: The question of chemistry is always a funny one, I think, because people talk about it as if it’s separate from acting, and I just think it’s just good acting. Everyone always says, “But yeah, yeah, if you don’t get on with somebody.” Well, I have. I’ve had good chemistry apparently–I’ve been told by journalists–with people I didn’t like. (laughter) But I’m never going to say (who they were). I had a great time with Keira though, and I think chemistry is aided I think by like-minded people, and I think the greatest thing for ours was that we felt really quickly that we had similar ideas and similar responses. We never had that thing where one person says, “We turn left” and the other person says, “No, we turn right.” That’s partly due to Christopher Hampton’s wonderful adaptation of what is an amazing book by Ian McEwan. It’s just so clearly drawn, so we were on the same page, and because we were on the same page, it meant there was a lot of time to have a good laugh and talk and bond and communicate, and with communication, our relationship builds and then you can have chemistry really well I think, so it wasn’t a forced chemistry I think. It was really important that we did have that chemistry because the film relies on us caring about this tragically aborted relationship. For us to care about it, we have to believe in it, and we only have four scenes together, so you really have to go for those scenes.
What was wonderful about this film is that instead of Joe having three months plus two weeks film shoot, he said, “I’m going to have a three month film shoot and we’ll have three weeks rehearsals.” So he spent money rehearsing, which is quite rare I think. And also, when you rehearse for films, people don’t know what to do with the rehearsal time. They go, “Great, we have this rehearsal time. We’re all going to sit in the same room and nothing will happen.” Maybe it’s because Joe grew up in the theatre, maybe his parents were theatre practitioners and Joe was an actor for a short period of time himself, and a lot of his friends were theatre people as well. I think he understands what to with rehearsal time, and the rehearsal time in this was invaluable, because at the end of that rehearsal time, all the actors knew exactly what we were trying to achieve. One of the main problems I think with acting is turning up on the day and the script isn’t direct enough, it’s ambiguous, you can take from it anything you want or maybe it’s just unfocused, so you’ve got ten actors and a director and they’ve all got different ideas, and none of us are particularly certain that any of our ideas are good as well. How do make this work and how do we come to some consensus here? And that becomes the job of acting, whereas on this job, it was never like that. We all knew exactly what the script meant, it was like a blueprint. We all made our ideas clear to everybody else, and everybody else went, “That seems logical and excellent,” and Joe made his vision clear to us and we all went, “Yup, that seems great.” By the time we came to filming it, it was really about how well we could execute what we knew that we wanted to do, rather than us spending two hours going, “Maybe if I change that line no, that doesn’t work.” It was a f**kin’ dream, man!
Atonement opens in select cities on Friday, December 7 and will open in more places over the next few weeks.