James McAvoy on the X-Men and the referendum

FROM independent films to superhero franchise X-Men and a sell-out stage run as Macbeth, James McAvoy is at the height of his powers, finds Siobhan Synnot

Actor James McAvoy. Picture: Getty Images
Actor James McAvoy. Picture: Getty Images

James McAvoy is a little tired after a day of shuttling between TV interviews, signing movie posters and launching a train. Pardon? Yes, early this morning he was at Euston station unveiling an 11-car Pendolino with the cast of X-Men: Days of Future Past painted along its length. “I noticed my face is up there on first class, mixing with the toffs,” he grins. “When I told my son about it, he said it was ‘traintastic’.”

Welcome to the glamorous, high-speed world of modern movie stardom, currently stationed at a posh art deco hotel off Oxford Street. Outside, there are clots of autograph hunters clutching pictures of McAvoy as mutant telepath Professor X, posed with one eyebrow cocked and a finger pressed dynamically to his temple. Two floors above them, a 35-year-old Glaswegian is nursing a cup of tea, and trying to talk about a film that neither of us has seen yet.

While McAvoy launched his train, I was in a Soho screening room watching seven minutes of raw footage, while a security guard watched me. It certainly seemed exciting, with landmarks and civilians being crushed by mutant-hunting, barrel-chested robots, and an extended sequence where an X-Men mutant uses his superpowers to flambé opponents with a firepower that would leave barbecue owners breathless with admiration. There are also hints that McAvoy is edging towards the Sir Patrick Stewart incarnation of Charles Xavier. In X-Men: First Class, McAvoy was a jovially decent superbeing, who is cruelly crippled in the film’s final moments. In the sequel, Days of Future Past, he’s set to acquire Xavier’s wheels, even though he’s still clinging onto an impressive head of hair.

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    Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Days of the Future Past. Picture: Contributed

    The rest of the picture is still being wrangled in an edit suite somewhere, with McAvoy booked to dub some additional dialogue. “I’ll see the whole film before we do the press tour, but I do think it’s going to be good. My guy’s been stripped of the good things he had in the first movie, and he can’t just shake everything off. He’s got to pay for all that… with drama.”

    The whisky Professor X cradles in the trailer suggests he’s not handling it well. “He’s a state, he’s a junkie,” says McAvoy. “Which is much more interesting than a guy in a muscle suit who can fly, and lives for truth, justice and the American way.”

    He shoots me a look of pure blue-eyed innocence. “Not that I’m saying that we’re better than Superman – but we are.”

    Even when sleep-deprived – and, I discover later, hungover – McAvoy is both forthright and playful. The attitude infuses his work too; reports have filtered back from the X-Men set in Montreal that the actors let off steam between setups with BB airgun shootouts, with McAvoy and Michael Fassbender the ringleaders.

    James McAvoy and Anne Marie Duff. Picture: Getty

    At one point Fassbender was forced to exit his trailer in his Magneto supervillain gear, using full wet-weather gear as body armour. “He had his hood and collar up, sweating away in 35-degree heat, but Nick Hoult still managed to find a sliver of flesh and raise a lump,” relates McAvoy gleefully. Weapons were holstered, however, after McAvoy caught Australian actor Josh Helman on the chin, earning him a telling-off from Helman’s fiancée.

    For the last 12 months McAvoy has been firing on all cylinders. A very bloody version of Macbeth at London’s Trafalgar Studios sold out for the entire run last summer, and we joke that McAvoy should go on tour with Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen and Fassbender as The Four Macbeths, since all of them have experience bellowing soliloquies about daggers of the mind. “A Macbeth-off!” he cries.

    He does try to make light of actorish “intensity”, but there is no question that he throws himself into his art. The nightly Bardathons left him so roughed up that he had to have physiotherapy sessions to get healed. “It was the most physical thing I’ve ever done, including any action movie,” he says. “I broke my thumb, got hit by an axe and had to have stitches when somebody hit me with their machete.”

    Was there a sense of artistic risk as well? In 1980, Peter O’Toole’s performance at the Old Vic was so spectacularly savaged that the reviews were included in his obituaries. “But I’m a better actor than Peter O’Toole,” deadpans McAvoy, then gives a mock-groan. “Oh god, I shouldn’t have said that. Please don’t make that the headline. Irony never works in print, I’m just joking.”

    In the early days, McAvoy was a more guarded interviewee, and there are still no-go areas. After his parents split up when he was seven, McAvoy lost touch with his estranged father, and closes down any enquiries. On the other hand he remains close to his grandparents, who brought him up in Drumchapel, as well as his mother and sister Joy, who is also an actor.

    Family life with actress Anne-Marie Duff is another tricky topic. Unlike Brangelina, the McAvoy-Duffs don’t fancy being bracketed a “McDuff” powercouple. A few months after McAvoy’s Macbeth in London, Duff appeared as Lady Macbeth on Broadway, opposite Ethan Hawke. A joint performance at the Trafalgar studios had been considered, but it was felt that it would pull focus from Jamie Lloyd’s production. A pity, since the last time they struck romantic sparks was when they met on Channel 4’s Shameless as Fiona and Steve, before blushingly coming out as a real-life pairing. They married in 2006, and now live quietly in north London, doing the school run and zipping around in a Nissan Micra.

    For all his fame, McAvoy has not yet been lured to live in the US, and most of his recent movies have been based in Britain so he can help parent their three-year-old son Brendan. “Family is really important to me. When a role comes along, you have to weigh up whether it’s worth going overseas,” he says.

    He credits his grandparents with a strict, solid upbringing; he was 16 before he was allowed out of the door alone. As a teenager he toyed with careers in caring professions – maybe a doctor, or the priesthood – so how did his grandparents respond when he announced he wanted to be an actor? “Listen, my parents are the most supportive people and would back me in anything I do,” he says, easily. “But when I said I wanted to be an actor, they were terrified. Every success in acting is fragile and shortlived – you can disappear in the blink of an eye.”

    A bargain was struck where McAvoy would give acting his best shot, but get a degree to fall back on, “which I never did, although I do have a degree in acting, made out of tissue paper and sandpaper”.

    After graduating from The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 2000, he moved to London, and quickly landed dramas like Lorna Doone and Foyle’s War, and intriguing low-budget fare including Bollywood Queen, a sweet cross-cultural musical where McAvoy sings in Hindi around Shoreditch.

    Fame has crept up on him gradually, with parts that got a little bigger each time. He’s now been working steadily for almost half his life, breeding a confidence that could be misread as cockiness if he didn’t make such a point of maintaining a spirit of humility.

    “I had someone stop me the other day, and go “Oh I love your films – and your TV shows.” McAvoy pulls a quizzical face – he hasn’t done television since he left Shameless in 2005. “So I said ‘oh right, what TV shows do you like?’ And they said ‘Oh you know, the one where you go round the world on a motorbike…’”

    When he’s not being mistaken for Ewan McGregor, McAvoy is an avatar for a brand of modern unfussy Scottishness, that includes a strong accent which occasionally bamboozles foreign journalists. “Ian McKellen says himself that his drama school knocked his Lancashire voice out of him,” he says, “but you don’t have to change like that anymore.”

    Along with the Scottish play and his amnesiac auctioneer in Danny Boyle’s Trance, McAvoy scored a Celtic treble last year with his scabrous antagonistic copper in Filth, which is the other reason he is feeling a little under par today. Last night he won Best Actor at the Empire Film Awards, ahead of Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Freeman, Tom Hanks and 12 Years a Slave leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor. “I’m still shocked by that,” he says, rubbing his beard. “I didn’t think I stood a chance, especially when World’s End won Best Film. I hadn’t got a speech and I’d had a few drinks.”

    For someone forced to rely on whisky and improvisation, a cheerful McAvoy had quite a lot to say (“I’m not going to go until you’ve all had a drink”), and the celebrations continued for some time afterwards. “You know when you get so drunk you throw a shoe across the dance floor and give someone a running jump hug?” wrote one award guest. “That’s called getting “James McAvoy’d.”

    Today he’s been checking YouTube to find out what was said onstage. “I was a little worried about my speech,” he admits, “but it was all right actually.”

    Despite its audience-throttling 18 certificate, Filth topped the box office last autumn, and McAvoy is terribly proud of its success. “Some British films dumb down because we think that Americans won’t understand them. Meanwhile the Americans are going ‘this is a really dumbed-down, unsophisticated movie’. It’s patronising for them, and it short-changes us. Filth’s done well in Scotland, Australia, Scandinavia and I think it was number one somewhere like Romania. France for some reason didn’t like it, but we’re opening in America this month, so we’ll see how that goes.”

    McAvoy was 32 and had just finished recording the voice of Santa Claus’ well-meaning son for the kids’ film Arthur Christmas when he first met director Jon S Baird and novelist Irvine Welsh to discuss playing Bruce Robertson. Both men admitted they thought McAvoy too boyish to play a fortysomething dissipated, drug-abusing copper.

    “I knew that beforehand,” says McAvoy. “I went into the meeting thinking “God they must be desperate.”

    Actually, it was even worse than that.

    “I only found out a few months ago that my agent had to approach them and say ‘Have you considered James McAvoy?’ And they went ‘No’”.

    According to Baird, “In walked James wearing a baseball cap, looking about 15 years old... but as soon as we started talking about the character, James completely changed into this grizzled, middle-aged cop.”

    McAvoy recalls a slightly less dramatic conversion. “I wasn’t auditioning, so I couldn’t go…” McAvoy mimes a Jekyll to Hyde transformation, and then does it a little bit more, because it made me laugh.

    “I think other actors had been going in and saying, ‘This is a non-PC thrill ride, and the lads are going to love it’. But I felt that after half an hour, the film reveals itself to be a rather different film about mental illness. So that’s what we talked about. Maybe it was the topic that aged me.”

    McAvoy has played flawed characters previously, but his gonzo performance as Bruce Robertson is a gamechanger, and he’s interested to see where it will lead. Shooting in Edinburgh and Glasgow was also his first sustained stay in Scotland in years, aside from family Christmases. He remains connected to his home in other ways; keeping an eye on Celtic, staying in touch with old schoolfriends and like every Scottish celebrity this year, staying alert to opportunistic attempts to co-opt him into the referendum debate. “There’s an image of me in X Men: First Class with basically a Saltire on my face, and I’m like ‘oh please, don’t use that for the f***ing ‘Yes’ campaign’.”

    How does he feel about the current referendum hustings? “I feel negative about the Yes and No campaigns,” he says carefully. “I’m not anti-political as a person, but I am anti-political when it comes to independence in Scotland.”

    So far, he’s unimpressed by tactical debates where political pedantry distracts voters from what he feels to be a fundamental choice. “This should be a choice about identity, not about whether we’ll get oil, the pound or whether we will be richer. You know that there are statements that just can’t be backed up on both sides. It shouldn’t be a question of ‘are things going to be better?’ There’s no country in this world that says, ‘I’m really happy with this government. Taxes are great, education is great and everything is cool, because I voted for my guy’.

    “So yes or no, we’re still going to be bitching. Things are still going to be s**t, or good. It’s just going to be different s**t, or different good. These politicians, you can’t trust them as far as you can throw them, and we’re getting sucked into a meaningless political debate. I will go with whatever way my country votes, but I don’t know which way I want to go yet.”

    McAvoy can be bullishly direct, uncommon in a profession that floats on tactful allusiveness. “When I get on set, I like to kick the door in,” he agrees cheerfully.

    His first day on X Men: Days of Future Past involved one of the biggest scenes in the picture: a meaty encounter between the older and younger Charles Xaviers. The two actors had never met, and barely had any time to rehearse so McAvoy jumped in with the suggestion that the two characters should film their scene as a practically nose-to-nose confrontation.

    “It is nerve wracking to stand in front of the guy who has been doing the character for 14 years, and basically say, ‘And this is how I do it, mate. Learn off me, Patrick! Come on, give me your f***ing Charles’.”

    “On the other hand, I’m coming in and setting the tone, so if someone doesn’t like the way I’m doing it, people can have a debate that day and wrangle about it.”

    McAvoy pauses solemnly for a split second, then breaks into a foxy smile.

    “Then still do it my way!”

    • X-Men: Days of Future Past (3D) (12A) is released on Thursday.