Interview: James McAvoy, actor

JAMES McAvoy arrives for our interview dressed in a grey Pringle jumper and a pair of tattered jeans.

• James McAvoy

Sporting a "gingery beard", as he calls it, and a green woollen beanie cap pulled firmly down on his head, he has created a pretty decent disguise from any prying eyes. Not that he has any need to worry.

We meet in a modest Crouch End caf, just round the corner from where he lives. Virtually empty at 11am, the most you can say about it is that it's in a small row of shops where a scene from Shaun of the Dead was shot.

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Still, while most actors conduct their interviews in five-star hotel suites, it says something about McAvoy that he's happy to meet in an establishment as low-key as this.

Admittedly, while the Daily Mail dubbed the area "an unfashionable part of north London" when it began to investigate McAvoy just as Joe Wright's Atonement propelled him into the big time, in truth it's a haven for actors.

Simon Pegg, Clive Owen, Peter Capaldi and McAvoy's Atonement co-star Daniel Mays all live in the vicinity, mixing – rather aptly – with the proliferation of yummy mummies who patrol the area.

The week before we meet, it has been announced that McAvoy and his wife, actress Anne-Marie Duff, are due to become parents for the first time. Judging by the two high chairs sitting empty behind us, Crouch End is the perfect place to rear children.

"It seems to be, yeah," he replies, shifting uncomfortably in his leather armchair.

Before McAvoy arrives, the photographer rather cheekily asks the actor's publicist if he will pose with a baby rattle tucked in his breast pocket during the photo shoot.

• James McAvoy is shown in a scene from the film Wanted

Good luck with that one, I think. McAvoy is not the sort of actor you'll find regularly beaming from the pages of Hello!. Neither is he the sort person prone to pouring his heart out in an interview. Which is aptly demonstrated when I ask how he feels about impending fatherhood.

Excited, nervous? "Yeah, the usual emotions, I suppose," he says, his soft Glasgow accent striking a note of caution. "The usual healthy emotions. Excited and all that." Then again, as a 30-year-old male, he probably doesn't really know what to think about the prospect of changing nappies and sleepless nights.

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It doesn't help that there's something still very youthful about McAvoy's appearance. Maybe it's the baby-blue eyes or the soft skin. Or maybe it's the physique as fragile as the faun he played in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

He certainly seems to have lost the muscle he piled on for Wanted, the 2008 action vehicle that cast him opposite Angelina Jolie as an office drone who gets embroiled in an insanely ridiculous espionage caper.

Lest we forget, it was just four years ago when he convincingly played an 18-year-old fresher who appears on University Challenge in the comedy Starter for Ten. Even his latest role, playing an acolyte to Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, plays upon this.

On the day we meet, the Oscar nominations have just been announced. McAvoy's veteran co-stars Christopher Plummer, who plays Tolstoy, and Helen Mirren, who stars as his unhinged and unhappy wife Sofya, are both up for awards.

"We're dead, dead chuffed," he says, presumably referring to himself and Duff, who plays Tolstoy's daughter Sasha in the film. "We will totally be crowded round the telly, cheering them on."

He's also pleased for the film, which has been written and directed by Michael Hoffman. "It needs it. It's a small film – and there are loads of small films out there, doing well.

• Anne-Marie Duff and James McAvoy at the Evening Standard Film Awards in London

To compete, they all need a bit of something, don't they? And if they've not got the big marketability of Avatar then you've got no chance."

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While he has never been up for an Academy Award, McAvoy has twice presented at the ceremony, an experience he describes as "f***ing weird and amazing". The first time he was there, it was 2007 – the year Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland, in which he played the feckless doctor who befriends Idi Amin, was scooping awards.

The following year he was back, sitting "in the front f***ing row", along with his Atonement pals. Not bad for a boy who grew up on Glasgow's tough Drumchapel estate. "When you're on stage, you do look out and go, 'There's so-and-so, there's so-and-so, there's so-and-so.' And then every now and again, if you're lucky, you make them laugh, which is great."

Quite whether many knew who he was is another matter. Rarely given the chance to use his own accent on screen, most people are surprised to discover he's Scottish. "Even now, in America, people will go, 'Hey, I didn't know you were Irish.' You go, 'I'm not.' They go, 'What? Where are you from? Australia?' What?"

While he may have won the Bafta Rising Star award, he still gets mistaken for other actors. "People hear your accent and go, 'Are you Ewan McGregor?'" he says, with mock horror on his face. "I look nothing like him." He gets stopped in the street "hardly at all". And when people do recognise him, it's usually followed by, "You're the guy from Wanted."

At least he probably won't be getting that with The Last Station. McAvoy plays Valentin Bulgakov, a nave young zealot who has been appointed secretary to the ailing Tolstoy. Already famed for such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy is also the head of a movement that advocates celibacy, communal property and passive resistance – something McAvoy believes will surprise modern audiences.

"People knew him and loved him as a writer of some of the greatest Russian epics. But he was more than that. Most people that have even read War and Peace or Anna Karenina don't know him as this spiritual, political and social thinker and leader."

While the priggish Valentin is "completely in awe" of Tolstoy, he finds himself caught in the crossfire of the fiery domestic battles between the writer and his embittered wife (played with huge relish by Mirren), who now feels surplus to requirements.

Apart from presumably learning how to duck, as Mirren flings china across the screen with all the accuracy of a frisbee expert, McAvoy hints that his preparation for the role was not too arduous – particularly as his character's diaries provided all the insight needed. But did he do the honourable thing and read War and Peace?

"I did it when I was 19.

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I nearly got to the end. Well, about 400 pages from the end. So not really the end." He raises a slight smile at his half-hearted bluff.

McAvoy first spoke to Hoffman about the film some four-and-a-half years ago, long before Duff was ever attached. "One day, Anne-Marie came home and went, 'I've just had a casting audition for something called The Last Station – and this was three-and-a-half years later. I couldn't quite get it in my head, but I thought, 'I f***ing know that.'

Then I went, 'Give me a look at the script,' and I realised this was the project I was supposed to be attached to. So I phoned up my agent and said, 'Am I still in this? Is it happening?' And she said, 'Yeah, but we didn't want to bother you, in case it's all bullshit. They say they've got the money but they probably haven't.'"

The last time McAvoy and Duff acted on screen together was on the show where they first met, Paul Abbott's cult comedy Shameless, which propelled McAvoy into the nation's hearts.

Still, they're rarely seen together in The Last Station. "That was part of the attraction in doing it. We'd get to spend two or three months together that we otherwise wouldn't, and we actually didn't have to do much work with each other. So it was a no-brainer really."

I ask how it has felt to watch Duff develop as an actress. "I've always been intimidated by how good an actress she is – and no less now," he says.

"Especially after watching the last two things she did – playing Margot Fonteyn (in the BBC production Margot] and playing John Lennon's mum (in Sam Taylor Wood's Nowhere Boy]. She was just incredible."

To even hear him speak about Duff, who is almost a decade older than McAvoy, is something of a surprise. Both are well known for refusing to discuss their relationship and for fiercely protecting their privacy – so much so that in October 2006, he revealed that the pair had married three weeks earlier "at a place people go to marry quietly".

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In truth, however, the ceremony wasn't for another month – a celebrity-free bash at the idyllic 19th-century Drumtochty Castle in Aberdeenshire. According to the local DJ employed to spin tunes for the evening, McAvoy didn't invite any co-stars "because he didn't want the day to be about being famous".

After having interviewed Duff twice, when she flatly refused to discuss McAvoy or even acknowledge his existence, I was expecting the same treatment from her husband.

But it turns out he's a little more relaxed, not quite as precious, chatting away quite merrily while acknowledging that he finds the whole publicity process tricky. "It's a difficult thing – you've got to talk about yourself but you've also got to try not to say anything about yourself. The more you give of yourself, the more there is to chase after."

Not that he is that sort of celebrity. "We keep our noses clean and keep our stuff private," he explains. "We don't have affairs, we don't turn up to parties, we don't fall out of places drunk. We're not that interesting. I don't wear a dress where you can see my knickers when I'm getting out of a taxi. Do you know what I mean? I find all that weird."

McAvoy evidently wrestles with conflicting feelings towards the film industry and the "celebrity bullshit", as he has previously called it. "I don't want to be all worthy about it, but I don't do red carpets, I don't do events and I don't accept freebies that much."

He stops himself, admitting that he does "accept a couple" now and again – primarily from the tailor Clemens and August, which provides him with free suits for events. "I can only wear a suit once. That's the f***ing annoying thing. But I get away with it.

I'm one of those actors that gets away with it, and I do recycle every now and again. But actors quite often get f***ing done in for it."

While his frugal behaviour is to be admired, you can't help but sense feelings of guilt in his voice. After all, he grew up in a distinctly working-class environment – his father, James, was a roofer, and his mother, Liz, a psychiatric nurse – where such wastefulness was frowned upon.

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Ever since he came to prominence, McAvoy's back-story has been chewed over by the tabloids. His parents split when he was seven, and he and his younger sister Joy moved in with his maternal grandparents, James and Mary Johnstone.

While McAvoy hasn't spoken for years to his father – despite the tabloids' best efforts to reunite them – he remains extremely close to his grandparents. He may be thankful now that they kept him on a short leash in his early teens, and gave him an upbringing that was by all accounts strict but loving.

McAvoy happily admits that his grandfather, a butcher by trade, instilled a strong work ethic in him. He still goes back to see his family regularly – as well as his beloved Celtic. The last time he watched the team play, though, was when they lost to Arsenal in the Champions League qualifying match last August.

"I saw both those legs of that disaster. F***ing awful, man," he groans. "There's a lot of shit happening up at Celtic Park at the moment. For the first time in ages, it's not packed out – and that's strange."

Like any teen, McAvoy had a scattershot approach to what he would do when he left school. Everything from becoming a missionary to joining the navy flitted through his mind – though he's keen to play down his path to a life of religious devotion.

"The missionary thing, I thought about for five minutes," he says, rolling his eyes. "I said that in an interview about ten years ago, and it has since become, 'I was taking my holy vows' and 'I was chaste for the first 18 years of my life.' It's not true really. I did think about it, as most Catholic boys would consider it at one point in their lives. You just try to think of something useful to do."

In the end, instinct took over when David Hayman came to his school to give a talk. While his mates largely ignored the actor-director and larked about, McAvoy went up and asked if he could get some work experience on his next set.

"I was faced with the prospect of working in a bank for my work experience, and having heard about the experience from a mate of mine, who was a year above me and went to the same bank the year before, I was dreading it.

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It was sitting on your arse licking stamps and doing that for six days solid, nine to five. Then going out and getting everybody's lunch. And I thought, 'I'd rather be doing that in an interesting environment,' so I thought, 'F*** it, I'll go and ask.' I don't know what possessed me, really."

Four months later, completely out of the blue, Hayman rang up McAvoy and asked if he'd audition for a role in a film he was directing, The Near Room, playing the son of a pimp.

It led him to a stint at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. "I've never worked as hard as when I was at drama school. It's the most professional environment I've ever been in. Drama school makes you think the professional acting world is like f***ing hell. Like you're going to 'Nam. So when you finally come out into the industry, you're so prepared, so over-prepared, then it's fine."

By his own admission, he was hardly one to watch. "I was under no illusions," he says. "I wasn't a standout of my year by any stretch of the imagination. There was no evidence to suggest that I was going to have a dead easy time."

But he did – getting an agent straight away and swiftly winning bit parts in prestigious TV series such as Band of Brothers and White Teeth. After claiming a big role in Stephen Fry's 2003 Evelyn Waugh adaptation, Bright Young Things, McAvoy began to draw attention with parts as a young journalist in BBC drama State of Play and, of course, as Steve, the cheeky southern car thief in Shameless.

Of the latter, he has hardly watched it since, he says. "It's quite hard to watch things you used to be in. What I like to see is where the kids are at, and how big they are.

And they're not kids any more. I got a text message from Becky Ryan (who played Debbie Gallagher in Shameless] the other night. It's weird – her text messages all used to be kiddy text speak. And they're not any more. They're all sophisticated now – 'All the best, see you soon' – and you're like, 'What? That's not Becky.' She's all grown up. They're all grown up."

Now he's about to become a father, you might say the same for him. Will he and Duff take time off after the baby is born? "I don't know really," he says. "You need to wait and see what life throws at you, and see what your career throws at you. You just make the decisions as they come."

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He then neatly side-steps the discussion, recalling the time, around the making of Atonement, when suddenly the next two years of his life were planned out with a series of movies. "I got a little bit freaked out by that. So I just went, 'Stop! I'm not going to plan a year ahead.' All this, you're on board from the conception point and you're going to film it in two years, I really don't like. You don't feel like an actor. You feel like a producer."

Even so, McAvoy has been choosing wisely of late. He recently made his first film in the US (excluding a couple of weeks filming Wanted there) for Robert Redford, which is set around the Abraham Lincoln assassination trial.

McAvoy plays lawyer Frederick Aiken and co-stars alongside Robin Wright-Penn. He seems at ease with working with such Hollywood royalty. "The really strange thing about Mr Redford is that he makes you – forces you – to call him Bob. Which is f***ing weird. It'd be like calling Prince Charles Chuck. Or calling former prime minister Thatcher Maggie or Mags or Peg."

This month he leaves for Vancouver to star in the risky-sounding I'm with Cancer, a comedy-drama co-starring Knocked Up's Seth Rogen. The film – written by Rogen's friend Will Reiser, who based it on his own experiences – follows a young man's account of his struggle to beat cancer.

What with this, the Redford movie and the inevitable Wanted 2 in development, McAvoy seems destined to become a Hollywood A-list star. He's not convinced, though. "I doubt I ever will, to be honest with you. So it's not that big of a deal. Also, after ten years, I could stop playing leads and I could stop getting films. But I'd still want to be an actor."

McAvoy contains that innate insecurity most actors inevitably feel. "You always worry you're going to get found out. I think it's something a lot of people feel," he says. Much of this comes from the battle to control his nerves on set or stage. "So when you get asked to explore things – like in an interview – all the shit you push aside comes out.

"But it doesn't plague you in life. As an actor, it's part of your job to go, 'F*** it, I'm doing it. I just have to do it.' That's the leap of faith you take." With that, he leaps out of his chair. "I need to go for a pee because I'm f***ing desperate," he says, disappearing in a flash. r

The Last Station opens on 19 February

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, February 14, 2010

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