Exclusive: A Chat with James McAvoy


ComingSoon.net has interviewed Scottish actor James McAvoy a number of times, but for one reason or another, those interviews never saw print. It’s a bit of a shame, since he’s quite a pleasant and charming guy, as well as being a talented actor on the rise.

Most Americans first saw James in a fetching pair of goat legs as Mr. Tumnus in Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or in his starring role opposite the Oscar-nominated Forest Whitaker in the African drama The Last King of Scotland.

His latest film Starter for 10, based on the novel by David Nicholls, is another departure for the actor. He plays Brian Jackson, a young man from a working class family in England who gets admitted into a prestigious university where he has trouble adapting until he joins the school’s “University Challenge” team. Unfortunately, he’s constantly being distracted from his studies for the challenge by two very different young women, the blonde and beautiful Alice (Alice Eve) and the brainy Rebecca (Rebecca Hall from The Prestige). And yeah, fans of John Hughes movies like Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful will certainly appreciate Brian’s dilemma.

It’s a very different role for McAvoy after The Last King of Scotland, mainly because he has to carry the film rather than give the limelight over to a much more aggressive performance, so it seemed like the perfect time for ComingSoon.net to have another chat with him. It didn’t hurt that in a few months, James would start work on Wanted with director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch), a movie based on the comic created by fellow Scott Mark Millar, so we were excited to ask him about that as well.

ComingSoon.net: What was it about “Starter for 10” that made you want to do it?
James McAvoy: I didn’t have another job. It’s true. I was going off to do “Last King of Scotland,” they asked me to audition for this and I had a day before I went off to Uganda so I read this and said “I love this. I need to meet Philip and if he wants to meet me, I’d love to meet him.” I called the day before I traveled to Uganda and auditioned for the director and producer, had a really good audition and they gave me the part. I accepted it then and there and kind of said, “Okay I’ll do this when I get back from Uganda.” I think I ended up finished in Uganda and then starting this two days later or something.

CS: When did you do this movie? You seemed a lot younger in it for some reason.
McAvoy: Well I was 25, and I’m 27 now.

CS: Still, two years isn’t that much…
McAvoy: I know. But I mean, good lighting and I quite often wear a bit of facial hair, but you know, as soon as you shave this off I am quite baby-faced. When I come to America, I make sure I’ve got my facial hair so I don’t get f***ing ID’d every two minutes, every time I try to buy a beer.

CS: That’s a good problem to have as an actor.
McAvoy: Yeah, it’s nice.

CS: So was this shoot a bit of a letdown after filming in New Zealand and Uganda?
McAvoy: No, this film is total wish fulfillment for me. I have loved this type of film for my entire life. I have a passion for sh*t romantic comedies, particularly ones from the ’80s, and to get to be in one was really huge for me, man, and to get to be the lead in my own ’80s movie as well, was just incredible, so I’m just lovin’ it. Also, it’s comedy and I hadn’t done comedy in a little while. It’s been a couple years since I’ve done a comedy.

CS: Would you consider “Rory O’Shea” to be a comedy?
McAvoy: Not a romantic comedy I suppose, it was more a kind of tragi-comedy. Yeah, I suppose it was kind of comedy-ish with tragedy thrown in, but that was four years previous I filmed that. So to get to do something again with comedy and really have to carry the movie was very exciting to me. I had just had my first experience of really carrying–not carrying the film because I had Forest Whitaker there to kind of wow everybody–but I was in every scene. I had to come up with the goods every single day, and that was the first time I had had that experience and I loved that responsibility that gave me. I was slightly fortunate, like I said, that I had Forest there, who had I been sh*t, he still would have wowed people anyway, but on “Starter for 10,” I could use all that experience, because I really had to take charge of that. It was good though, I enjoyed that.

CS: Well, that’s the thing because this movie really is about selling it using your name, now that you’re known from “Chronicles” and “Last King.” How does that feel?
McAvoy: Strange, because I feel like, you know… the British poster was just me and it wasn’t a particularly wonderful piece of art and I remember thinking, “You’re expecting a lot, guys, for people to go to the cinema and go ‘Oh, that’s that guy James McAvoy'” because more likely than not, they’ll go, “Oh there’s that guy… what’s his name again?” So yeah, it’s strange, I haven’t quite come to terms with that. It’s all very weird.

CS: This movie is interesting since it’s a bit like a John Hughes movie, but it’s also very British.
McAvoy: Someone said the other day that it’s the John Hughes movie he never made in Britain and I think so. That’s why I love it. It’s not just set in the ’80s. It’s actually trying to be like an ’80s movie, trying to have some of the similar structure and some of the similar principles and similar sensibilities.

CS: Did you have to go back and watch some of those movies?
McAvoy: It probably wasn’t that long since I’d seen a lot of those movies. “St. Elmo’s Fire” was one of my favorites. “Class” with Andrew McCarthy and Rob Lowe, when Andrew McCarthy has an affair with Rob Lowe’s mother, was one of my favorites. Andrew McCarthy and Michael J. Fox are in fact probably two of the biggest influences on this character, I think. I loved living out my teenage fantasies in that film and living out my desire to have a life like Andrew McCarthy or Michael J. Fox in those movies, do you know what I mean? Probably more so Andrew McCarthy than Michael J. Fox. There’s something about Michael J. Fox that I loved when he did all the ’80s stuff. His way of performing all the physicality, which is why it’s so tragic now, but the way he used his body so much as well I loved. So yeah, that was important.

CS: And you could do worse than having Alice and Rebecca as your romantic interests.
McAvoy: Yeah, I mean the guy [Brian] is punching well above his weight. I think he’s done rather better for himself than we believe is possible. (chuckles)

CS: I’ve interviewed you a few times, but I’ve been wondering. As far as your background, I know that in England they have a lot of drama schools, but being from Glasgow, did you end up going down to London to train at all?
McAvoy: No, I studied in Scotland. Scotland has got a few, but two particularly well-known drama schools, which is the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Queen Margaret College. I studied at the former for three years in Classical Theater. It was a proper conservatoire training.

CS: Is it nearly as competitive there as it is in London?
McAvoy: It’s not as competitive at all. There’s two schools, whereas in London you’ve got, I don’t know, forty? Fifty? A hundred? I don’t know, how many. They’re not all great, but say 40 of them are quite well known and good. In Scotland, we’ve got two. We didn’t have the rat race of agents near graduation, because the agents didn’t bother to coming to see us, so it was a little more protected. Which is nice because that’s the whole point of drama school. I don’t think you should let agents in to see students. I think you’re just asking for trouble. The great thing about where we were is we were left alone. Nobody came to judge us, and we were allowed to make really bold decisions and make huge mistakes and have great learning outcomes, learned huge lessons because we really put our performances on the line and failed sometimes rather spectacularly. Because you do that, it means you leave with a better education then if agents come to see every show. If it’s your second show when you’re 18 years old and all your worried about doing is getting it right, because you’ve got agents coming, it’s not about being in a learning environment where mistakes are cultivated.

CS: As far as your accent, you were finally able to use that in “Last King of Scotland.” Is doing a more British accent for this movie something you have to learn or be trained for?
McAvoy: Not particularly. I’ve always had the natural ability to do it, even from when I was a kid. I don’t know. I’m not one of those actors that think that accents are acting. Some actors I think fall into that trap a little. They think that as long as they’re doing an accent, they’re being wonderfully good actors. I’m not like that at all, but I cannot deny that was I not able to do whatever accents I’m required to do, I wouldn’t have had a tenth of the career that I’ve had. There’s just not enough work out there for Scottish actors. There’s hardly any work out there for Scottish actors. And people go, “Yeah, but come on, there’s Ewan McGregor and Dougray Scott and Gerard Butler,” but that’s four people, guys. There’s 5 million Scottish people, and there’s probably about 300,000 Scottish actors.

CS: And they also have to change their accents a lot.
McAvoy: We all have to change our accents a lot because as you know, there’s only 5 million Scots. There’s 250 million Americans and 50 million English people, so there are going to be more stories about those people than Scots.

CS: You’re going to start shooting “Wanted” in April, so for that, are you going to be an American?
McAvoy: Yeah, I’ll be American in that. I start that in April in Prague and then Chicago, myself and Morgan Freeman. We don’t know who’s going to play the girl yet but we’re getting closer. I’m really excited about, and I started training for it.

CS: You’re going to have a lot of action in that film I guess.
McAvoy: Yeah, kinda, and they want me to do as much as I can anyway. There’s a lot of free running and Parkour and all that kind of stuff. A lot of driving and guns and all that kinda rubbish. But it’s quite important for me because the reason I wanted to play this character in “Wanted” was because it still adheres to what I believe in, that heroes shouldn’t always be perfect. We shouldn’t always have the six-foot-five, chiseled-jawed, good-looking guy. That’s why it’s so good that Spider-Man is somebody like Tobey Maguire, and that’s why I took this role. They wanted someone geeky. I screen-tested for the movie over a year ago and they never gave me the part. Then, it was about seven months later when they went, “Look, we’ve been trying to find someone who’s muscle-y who looks good and all that, but it just didn’t work with someone like that so they said, “Could you come and do it?” They basically just said, “You’re the runt of the litter and that’s what makes it work” so yeah, and that’s why I like it. So while I’m doing all this physical work, it’s important for me to remain small. I’m sure they want me to get all big, but it’s important to remain believably geeky.

CS: What kinds of outfits are you going to be wearing?
McAvoy: Not particularly superhero-y stuff. I think he might wear a hoodie throughout the film.

CS: Have you met Mark Millar yet?
McAvoy: I haven’t yet, no. He is involved, but I haven’t met him yet.

CS: He’s quite a character.
McAvoy: Yeah, another Glawegian, so I’m excited to meet him.

CS: I was reading on the internet about someone asking you about playing Scotty in a Star Trek movie, probably just because you’re Scottish.
McAvoy: I know! I’m a huge Star Trek fan. No, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. It might happen, it might not.

CS: If you bulk up a bit and grow a mustache, you can show up for the audition and they’ll say, “Hey, that’s the guy!”
McAvoy: There’s Scotty! I hope they don’t… I love Star Trek, but my only gripe with Star Trek was that sometimes they fell into racial stereotypes and with Scotty more than any other, because he really was just a Scotsman and nothing else. There was nothing else behind his character really. I hope they don’t do that with him.

CS: Obviously as Americans, we don’t know much about Scotland. Do you find that when you come to America some people don’t realize that England and Scotland are two different countries?
McAvoy: Oh completely. Quite often. The fact that we are two different countries and yet we are one country, the United Kingdom. People don’t quite understand that Ireland is a separate country sometime.

CS: And at least that’s a separate land mass.
McAvoy: I know. I find it really strange. It was only eight years ago that someone asked me if electricity was available to everyone in Scotland, when I was still at drama school, an American said that to me. I was just flabbergasted. I suppose the reason I was so flabbergasted is that we’ve got such an intimate understanding of what America is like through television and film. We could take every British film out of the cinema for a whole year and not one single theater would have to close, because it’s filled with American product. It might not always be a truthful representation of what American life is like, but it certainly does a hell of a lot more for our understanding of your country than “Trainspotting.” Nobody went to see it, nobody could understand it, and that was one film ten years ago. And “Braveheart” is just a piece of romantic historical nonsense, kinda like 60 percent true and 40 percent Mel Gibson. So it’s difficult, isn’t it? But then, there’s really not that much of a difference in our cultures, not really. I don’t think there’s much difference in many cultures in the world.

CS: Having done press for three movies in a row here, how has that experience been, especially as you’ve built to these headlining movies?
McAvoy: It’s weird. It’s not what I’m paid to do and it’s not my job and it’s not what I trained to do, so it’s kind of weird. I’m not an actor when I’m doing it, I’m a publicist. But it’s part of the job but it’s not part of acting, d’you know what I mean? So I find it strange. I’ve slowly over like the last six months come to terms with how to deal with it I think, but at first, it does drain you in a strange way. It makes you quite a dull person I find, because I’m answering the same questions. You just become quite monosyllabic sometimes because people ask the stock questions you’ve been asked over the last six months.

Well, hopefully that wasn’t the case here, James. You can see McAvoy wearing a ghastly haircut while charming the ladies in Starter for 10, which opens in select cities next Friday, February 23.