James McAvoy on Macbeth and Welcome to the Punch

James McAvoy in new film 'Welcome to the Punch'. Picture: Contributed
James McAvoy in new film 'Welcome to the Punch'. Picture: Contributed
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HIS new life role as a dad took James McAvoy off our screens for a while but now he’s back, busy and doing as much ‘growing up’ as his two-year-old son.

STROKING a dagger-shaped (and faintly ginger) beard, James McAvoy is ruminating on the odder, insider-y aspects of his career – the foibles of friends, the strange relations with your family, the quirky casting choices, the methods of collaborators.

Working with Danny Boyle, for example, has been an all-round education. On the upcoming art-heist thriller Trance, McAvoy is the populist auteur’s latest leading man, coming after Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Beach), Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) and James Franco (127 Hours).

They shot the film in London in autumn 2011, while the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire was juggling early preparations for the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Boyle then shelved the footage for a year, only beginning the edit last autumn, once the Olympics were fading into glorious memory. McAvoy admits, “I have not seen it since it was finished. And knowing Danny, he radically changes things on a whim – well, not on a whim… I’m actually quite intrigued to see it.”

There’s another reason McAvoy hasn’t found the time to see Trance: he is a month in to his 80 performance run playing the lead in Macbeth on the stage of London’s Trafalgar Studios. The critics have described McAvoy’s gripping, no-holds-barred performance as “commanding”, “excellent and harrowing” and “possessed with manic brutality”.

The new production, conceptualised by Jamie Lloyd – who directed McAvoy in his last stage play, Three Days of Rain (2009), at London’s Apollo Theatre – is set in a Scotland 50 years from now. Environmental and economic collapse have reduced the nation’s inhabitants to around half a million people, approximately the same as the population of Scotland in the medieval period in which Shakespeare set his play. This is a Scotland where a desperate, battle-scarred people believe in magic and invest the natural world with supernatural powers – “because the elements have just f***ed us. The world just flooded Scotland. Everybody’s living north of Glencoe. So the elements are almost our gods…”

In this ‘shrinking world’, procreation is ever more paramount. “And the Macbeths can’t have babies. So much of the drama pivots on the question of, ‘Are you a man? You can’t have ren, but can you kill a king?’ It’s quite dark.”

McAvoy is, in his own playful words, “a short, compact guy”. But in common with the text’s blood-soaked, battle-hardened Macbeth, and in sync with Lloyd’s clanging, post-industrial set, the actor exudes a muscular physicality in a ferocious, pummelling performance on the Trafalgar’s small, in the-round-stage. “I’m not surprised that he’s physical as Macbeth,” says Mark Strong, his Welcome to the Punch co-star. “The same was true in our film – you get the sense of an actor who is very physically capable.

“Maybe since he did Wanted, James has kept that up and remained aware of the physicality of performance.”

All told, it might be Macbeth, but it’s a very new Macbeth, and a million miles from the last time McAvoy ‘played’ the regicidal nobleman – as an ambitious Scottish chef in the BBC’s 2005 Shakespeare Retold series. “The contextualisation of that worked a little bit because you have to set it in a fairly masculine world,” he reflects of his portrayal of Glasgow’s very own kitchen nightmare, Joe Macbeth. “And obviously theren are a lot of woman chefs, but kitchens can be a fairly masculine world.

“It was nice, that job. But I was way too young, I suppose. But that was my choice and I like that choice. And it made me think I’d like to do it properly, and do Shakespeare’s text young as well. And while now I’m approaching 34, it still feels like I’m young enough to play the Macbeth that I wanted to play when I started to imagine him when I was 25. The TV Macbeth made me think about this.”

But in any case, it’s perhaps better that McAvoy has yet to see Trance. Boyle’s film, which was co-written by Trainspotting adaptor John Hodge, is an intricate, puzzling thriller. Lest we spoil viewers’ experience of seeing the film, other than revealing that McAvoy’s character is an auction house employee who visits a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) after losing his memory during the theft of a painting, it’s impossible to discuss Trance in any great detail.

What McAvoy can say is “it was really good fun” to play a character with layers. “It’s the best thing you get to do, isn’t it? You get the audience onside and you go, ‘You’ve got to trust me, feel sorry for me…’ Then you do something to the audience. That’s what I love.

“I’ve done it a couple of times. I did it in Last King of Scotland – ‘Hey, I’m just an normal boy, a backpacker…’ But by the end of it, people are going, ‘You’re a f***ing c***!’” he laughs. “You’ve made them feel for you, up until the start point where you start really f***ing up.

“And I like that – it’s good fun to do. And in Trance the challenge was playing such a sap, playing such a pitiful character, but then…”

And there we must stop him. Let us, instead, divert ourselves with tales from the screen trade. In his early years in the spotlight, McAvoy was a somewhat reluctant interviewee – friendly but cagey, and possessed of a thin-lipped aversion to discussing anything personal. These days, however, with a decade of experience and success under his belt, he’s notably more relaxed. He’s still not one for the gossipy or celeby side of his trade, but these days conversation – like his brain – courses with animated vigour.

McAvoy is a choosy, picky actor who isn’t afraid to say no. After a busy few years – when he starred in Kevin MacDonald’s The Last King of Scotland with Forest Whitaker, Joe Wright’s Atonement with Keira Knightley and action movie Wanted with Angelina Jolie, and several more besides – he has been pretty much absent from screens over the last couple of years. This, in part, was a legacy of the Scotsman taking proper paternity leave at home with wife Duff (they met while making Shameless) and their son Brendan, born in 2010. “I took a bit of time off to be with the wee man, and that was amazing. But after you do that, you kinda go: ‘Gotta go back to making some films…’”

So we have discussed Mark Wahlberg’s recent, notorious appearance on Graham Norton’s BBC1 chat show. Glass of red wine to hand, the American actor seemed, shall we say, discombobulated as he lolled on the couch, interrupted fellow guest Michael Fassbender’s anecdotal flow and evidenced a touchy-feely appreciation of actress and comedienne Sarah Silverman. “That is hysterical!” hoots McAvoy. “I bet you Fassbender got him steaming,” he adds winkingly.

The Scotsman worked with the Northern Ireland-raised actor on X-Men: First Class, the superhero ‘origins’ movie that did sufficiently good box office business in 2011 to pre-ordain a sequel, which McAvoy begins shooting in America next month, the day after Macbeth closes. “He can handle his drink,” the Glaswegian says of the actor who plays the younger Magneto/Ian McKellen to his younger Professor X/Patrick Stewart.

Acknowledging that Wahlberg is a ample bloke, McAvoy continues, “It’s not about how big you are – because Fassbender’s not got an ounce of fat on him. I bet he was like [Irish accent], ‘Come on, let’s have a couple of Martinis…’ and f***ed him up.”

We have talked about Parade’s End, last year’s blue-chip BBC literary adaptation in which his wife, Anne-Marie Duff, played a genteel Edwardian Scotswoman. Even though it seemed more Morningside than McAvoy’s still-strong Glaswegian tones, did he help her with the accent? “No, she always can do a Scottish accent. She was going for posh jock, I think,” he smiles.

“That was great. I was very proud of her in that. She loved it. She had a good time doing it, and her and [co-star] Rebecca Hall got on like a house on fire.”

We have talked, too, about the one that got away. McAvoy was in the frame to join Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate, a movie by Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) about the Wikileaks saga. Cumberbatch is playing Julian Assange, and McAvoy was due to play his right-hand man, a German ‘hacktivist’. But shooting on the second X-Men: First Class film clashed. The Fifth Estate is sure to be a punchy, contemporary and controversial film, but McAvoy gives a sanguine shrug. “To be honest with you, now they’ve got a German guy doing it. That’s better.”

And we have discussed the recent job on which, for the first time, the 33-year-old worked with his younger sister Joy. No cosy Scottish family drama for the McAvoy siblings: they shared screen time in Filth, an upcoming adaptation of one of Irvine Welsh’s richer – and, it’s fair to say, more mental – later novels. “It was weird,” he admits of the scene in which his deranged policeman Bruce Robertson confronts a florist/murder suspect. “I had to threaten her violently and ever-so-slightly sexually as well.

“Yeah,” he chuckles, “that was well-weird, man. It wasn’t quite the Cusack siblings, but it was weird.”

Ten years after her brother broke through in the Channel 4 drama Shameless, Joy McAvoy is now carving a career for herself. She starred in Ken Loach’s whisky comedy The Angels’ Share and is also in The Wee Man, a drama about Glaswegian gangster Paul Ferris. “She has been doing good and she’s enjoying it,” he says proudly. “She’s f***ing brilliant in The Angels’ Share. She just comes out of nowhere and you’re like, ‘Who’s that really sexy, charismatic young lassie?’

“Amazing. I know she’s my sister, but I think she’s brilliant. So it was good getting to work with her.”

Then, finally, we have discussed McAvoy’s first, did-they/didn’t-they encounter with his other recent big-screen collaborator. He and Eran Creevy, the writer/director of slick London-set thriller Welcome to the Punch, both worked on Working Title’s bouncy tennis-themed romcom Wimbledon (2004). McAvoy was playing the brother of Paul Bettany’s tennis pro, Creevy was a “crowd assistant director”.

Wincing slightly, McAvoy says, “We crossed paths on Wimbledon but I don’t remember him that well. We talked about this, and Ranny was very annoyed with me. But he was pretty much in and out before I was on set for that. And his favourite job on the entire shot was inflating and placing rubber dummies all round Wimbledon for the crowd scenes.”

Creevy has come far. He made his first feature, the brilliant low-budget suburban drugs yarn Shifty, for £100,000. For his second feature, he had a budget 50 times that, around £5 million. He has used the money to fashion a high-octane, energetic yarn about a cop, Max Lewinsky (McAvoy), hellbent on bringing to justice master criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who slipped his clutches years previously, shooting him in the knee as he made his escape.

Compared to Robbo in Filth, this McAvoy policeman is more supercop than bent plod. “But he’s actually pretty dysfunctional,” offers the actor. “He’s a bit of a mess really. But yeah, he’s not really on the same level as Robbo.”

Where Filth is about depravity and personal corruption, Welcome to the Punch is about obsession and high-level corruption. “There are guns in it, and cops and robbers,” continues McAvoy over tea in a café near his north London home, acknowledging the familiar tropes on which the film is based. “But it’s a sophisticated cops and robbers movie. It’s very un…” he begins. “It’s not what Britain does a lot. It looks like a Michael Mann movie,” he says of the director of Heat, “melded with a Hong Kong actioner. It feels to me like British movies quite often feel too modest to go for it.”

The focus, he adds, is on both the action and the styling. “I’ve got slick suits at the beginning, then I’m T-shirt and jeans. And the slickness is left to Mark Strong. My guy’s a little more unravelled than slick suits. And by the end we’re just bulletproof-vested and bloodied up,” he beams enthusiastically.

The script by Creevy, despite being a relatively unproven director, immediately appealed to this meticulous actor. “Ranny doesn’t really write bad dialogue. They say that thing with actors when they turn writers: who knows whether they can write story and structure and narrative and all that – but they’ll never write a bad part. They will write stonking parts. Even the smaller parts will be meaty and interesting. And Ranny’s, like, an actor like that. Every part’s got a real back story.

“There’s a guy right at the beginning of the film that I punch, and that’s it, that’s his part,” he smiles. “But he had a name, a back story, we knew what he had been doing that night, the woman he’d had sex with, the whole f***ing thing. It was hilarious,” he concludes, meaning it was thorough and brilliant and, for an actor, wholly useful.

Hot on the heels of Punch comes Trance – and after that come Filth and an American film he shot last year, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. The latter, in which he stars alongside Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), is a relationship drama with a heavy back story, and is being split into two separate movies – one told from ‘his’ perspective and one from ‘hers’.

James McAvoy, then, is growing up fast. And in 2013 he has the raft of challenging, full-force, big-screen – and small-stage – appearances to prove it. A director who knows about leading men has seen this first hand.

“He wants to be a man,” offers Danny Boyle. “He’s looking at himself, as [actors] do when they get to a certain stage, where they get a pick and choice of stuff and some good opportunities. And James wants to make his mark as a serious, heavy actor. He’s not a boyish hero any more.” n

• Welcome to the Punch is on general release from Friday; Trance is on general release from 27 March; Macbeth is at Trafalgar Studios, London, until 27 April (www.macbethwestend.com)