Rising star James McAvoy is best known to American audiences as Mr. Tumnus in the smash hit The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But the Scottish actor has also squared off with Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland and romanced Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. He has also starred in the charming romantic comedy Starter for Ten, the comedy-drama Rory O'Shea Was Here, and Stephen Fry's Evelyn Waugh adaptation Bright Young Things. Most recently, McAvoy has taken his career to the next level alongside Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's highly anticipated adaptation of Ian McEwan's bestselling novel Atonement, and as the star of the Hollywood blockbuster Wanted, for Timur Bekmambetov. I spoke to McAvoy at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel and later at WonderCon 2008.
Groucho: Timur Bekmambetov, your director on Wanted, is one of the great visual artists of the moment, and I wonder if he's also an "actor's director" and what it was like for you developing your character with him.
James McAvoy: The first thing he said to me, the director, was that we have to always look for the conflict, and immediately I kinda felt more comfortable with him. 'Cause as an actor, I’ve always used conflict—internal, external, environmental—to kind of use to find the energy for creating something interesting, because without conflict it’s not very interesting. So he's always trying to look for conflict as well, tonally and visually, but when he says that to an actor, I felt very, very comfortable, and that kind of went throughout the whole process. And yet it kind of let me do what I needed to do. So, yeah, I think he is a bit of an actor’s director...
G: I take it that you and your director Joe Wright were simpatico about the immersive process of living the film while you're making the film, and I wonder if you can talk a little about the various roles that were played by the research, like talking to war veterans, living on the grounds while you were shooting, and the role of the book itself as well informing your performance. What of those things could you put to work in your performance, and what did you kind of have to set aside?
JA: All of them. I had to put them all into my performance, I think. Meeting the war veterans was very important. I've done a lot of research of this period. I've played a lot of soldiers—British and American. It was obviously such an important point for world history, but particularly for British history. You know, if we hadn't have got the American men back from those beaches that we got, the war would have been over. And so therefore—God, it's so important to British history: you know, I studied it in high school, and the projects on it—at least once a year. So I did more research in terms of books. But the single most valuable thing was meeting a couple of veterans who were very—didn't say that much actually, didn't tell as many facts or tell as many stories that weren't funny or slightly-not superfluous in any way, but not the nitty-gritty. And, at one point I asked one of the guys, "Did you ever see any of your friends killed?" And his wife, or his partner, I think—I don't think it was his wife 'cause I think his wife had died, and she's his girlfriend—put a hand on his knee and leaned forward and said, "We don't talk about that." It was very—it was very moving. And at the end, after saying very little about the meat of what went on, he kind of just walked up to the three—me and the other two guys Danny Mays and Nonso Anozie and said, "When you're making this film, just know how terrible it really was." And it cost that guy a helluva lot to say that. And being there for that, should have imparted an emotional truth I think, that I didn't get from any amount of documentation or first-person accounts even, you know? It was incredible to me. That was important. The book: hugely important. I've done a lot of adaptations of books, and this one is a very faithful one so the book was very, very important. It was something I used a lot. Last King of Scotland—the character was so different, I was asked by the director to set aside the book because it was getting in the way—which ultimately proved to be a good decision. But I was very worried about it because it sort of depends how faithful the project you're in is being. And this one, Joe had always decided to be incredibly faithful with. So it was very useful. Staying on the grounds: all the actors stayed in one house together, with some of the key crew members and Joe, the director. And it was just off site, just off set. I decided not to—partly because I'd been to drama school, and I couldn't be bothered with it.
JM: I've lived in a madhouse. But also partly because my character is so separate from them all. And all the other actors in the film—not all of them, little Saoirse isn't, but a lot of the other actors in the film are from an upper-class background or posh. And I'm not. And I didn't have any problem with that. That's not why I didn't stay in the house. But I just thought it might—I'm not a method actor in any way, but I just thought it might be useful if I keep myself separate, you know? So I'd go up there for dinner once or twice a week, and I could have been up there having dinner every night if I wanted. But—and the invitation was always open for me to go. But in my head I kind of — I tried to slightly just pretend that I was only going up when I was invited up, you know? I was there at their convenience, you know? And that really helped a lot to keep myself separate from them a little bit, because the character is so terrifying to the classes above him. He's not somebody who makes them feel comfortable about the way the world is. He bucks a trend. He represents an imminent change in society—the emancipation of the working classes. The emancipation of fucking—of women, and their burgeoning freedom in the workplace. It all came post-World War II, after so much life was lost: he represents that. But he's ten years too early. And I think they're all a bit uncomfortable with it. So it was nice to kind of keep myself separate, for both reasons—
G: You said that this film made you a better actor, and I wonder what about the process increased your sensitivity or your skills as a performer?
JM: I think—I think the stylistic choice of all the actors to somehow emulate the acting style of actors of the 1930's meant that we went down an avenue that most of us hadn't been down before.
G: Stretched a different muscle?
JM: Totally. And that always helps. I'm an actor who—I take great joy in acting in different styles and employing different styles to tell different stories. And almost, the way acting is, you don't have to become the character. You have to become a different actor for each film. And sometimes you go over similar territory, but I've been very lucky to constantly kind of change the style. And yes, again, it was probably one of the most enjoyable styles. But it only works when you've got an incredible script, I think—because it's about not actively expressing, so you've got to have a really well-drawn, clear story, I think, and beautifully drawn characters, which this script did. When I read the script, I just thought it was the most beautifully crafted thing that I had ever read, in terms of screenplays. It really was like a blueprint. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the character right from the minute I read it. And I very rarely feel like that. It's strange, the only other film I felt like that was with The Chronicles of Narnia. That's because I'd read the book many times from the age of, like, seven, so in a weird way I knew exactly what I was going to do with the character as well. On Atonement, from first read, it read the same way, you know what I mean?
G: In gauging that pre-war/wartime acting style, was that challenging to adopt that style while also being truthful to the inner motivation of the character?
JM: No, I don't think so. What was challenging was galvanizing—what, I don't know, twelve actors, fifteen actors?—so that they all seemed one thing. Quite often you do a period thing and everybody just turns up and they start shooting and they're all doing their little different accents and stuff. And yet they're all posh English accents. But they're all over the fucking place, y'know? But with this one, because it was a stylistic acting choice, it was really important that we all sounded the same. And some of the actors in the cast sounded quite like that anyway and found it easy, and so it was good for the other guys to kind of sit and watch them and kinda—and tune in so that we all—and then they tuned in—and by the end of the three weeks we all had a similar style going on, you know? And that's—it's great 'cause usually when you rehearse for a film, you get a week and you just spend the whole time saying the lines a lot—and rehearse just keep on doing the scenes and doing a lot of wig fittings and shit like that. And in this one, we had a lot of time to actually bond. And not just as people, but personally, I mean—kind of get focus and direction in terms of the way that we were all going to take it. And it was such a great script that it allowed for everybody to go, "What does this scene mean?" "Oh, you think it means the same thing as I do." And everybody thinks it means the same thing as each other. But there's a lot of times when you do the script, the problem isn't that you can't play it properly. The problem is that everybody has got a different idea to what it's meant to be doing. So the job of the day becomes about trying to fuckin' get some cohesion, rather than all of you executing it properly. But in this film, it was never like that. We all knew exactly what we needed to do. It was just a question of could we do it well, you know—?
G: In that bear of a Steadicam shot that's five-and-a-half minutes—that's a unique sort of projection element. Was it easy to get in the zone there? What was the process like of capturing that?
JM: It was easy to get in the zone, but because it was such a feat of planning and collaboration, it was really important to remind yourself that, as much as it was an acting task, there were probably 1500 people involved in making that shot work, and any one of them at any time could—and you could—royally screw up. And the stakes were really high because we had one day to shoot it. And we only did three-and-a-half takes—because we had to rehearse the entire day because it was such a logistical nightmare. So you were trying to act truthfully and all that, but at the same time, you had one eye on where the camera is. And that guy is gonna walk across the fucking camera and it's really important that they see Lindy London on the back of the boat beside my head, and if he crosses at that point he's not going to see it, so I just move a wee bit more this way. And the actors were helping to create the shot because it was constantly moving and nothing was ever the same way twice, even though we only did it three-and-a-half times. So it really was quite—it was an incredible day. And like a soldier, I suppose, to whom it must have been very emotional and very moving, it was—half your brain was engaged in that, but half of your brain was just trying to get the job done. And it wasn't until we watched the scene two days later, in a café just off that beach—the entire crew watched it—that the emotional impact of it hit home. And I was in a room with like a hundred of the crew watching it on a big screen and we just—everybody was in floods of tears, you know? Completely independent of the rest of the film and the rest of the story. Just the—
G: It is a short film in itself.
JM: Evoking of that moment, the realization of Joe's vision of that part of the Dunkirk experience, was just so moving, you know, and so powerful—thank you very much. Thank you!
G: Thank you.