James McAvoy: "I Am Very Lucky"

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

AtonementBorn in Glasgow, James McAvoy, 28, has a bit of the regular guy about him. You could run into him at a pub, and there he'd be, smiling and laughing and telling jokes. Yet most of his acting gigs have been in historical pieces, stories set in times other than the present. Before he went to acting school, he briefly considered becoming a priest and joining the navy. (The discovery of girls changed his mind.) He landed his first big job in the TV miniseries Band of Brothers (2001). From there his star rose as he landed jobs in Bright Young Things (2004), Wimbledon (2004), Rory O'Shea Was Here (2005), as Mr. Tumnus, the Faun, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), The Last King of Scotland (2006), and earlier this year, Starter for 10 and Becoming Jane.

His new film, Atonement is already awash with Oscar buzz. Directed by Joe Wright and adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan, it tells the story of a fateful summer day in 1930s England. A young girl, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) sees something that causes her to interfere with the lives of her sister (Keira Knightley) and her sister's lover (James McAvoy), and her actions have long-standing repercussions. The film's first half covers one day, then the second half adheres to a larger canvas, including a celebrated 5-minute long tracking shot of the Dunkirk evacuation. James McAvoy recently visited with San Francisco journalists to talk about the film.


After seeing The Last King of Scotland, Becoming Jane and even The Chronicles of Narnia, you seemed to have this sideline of men who knew how bad they were, or men who were aware of their own failings. Was it a relief to jump into something more straightforward?

It wasn't a relief in any way. I find comfort when I'm playing people with internal conflict, when I'm playing men who are arseholes or pricks and kind of know it, or they know they're doing something bad. And in this role, I wasn't really able to do any of that. Every character I've ever played is based on internal conflict. And I love doing that because I think it's very human. And I found this character quite... he wasn't particularly representative of the human race because he's so good. And he has so little conflict in him. I didn't really recognize him as a member of the human race. He is a slightly idealized human figure. And it's necessary really, because it's a tragedy. But there are so many flawed characters in it, and to have a tragedy work you have to have bad things happen to good people. And he becomes flawed. He becomes somebody who's much more suicidal, and strangely more representative of the human race. But for the first half of the film, it was a worry of mine that I wasn't going to be able to portray him in an interesting fashion.

Your character in a way is a figment at times, and his fate is at the mercy of another. You had to play a character that was sometimes physically present and sometimes not physically present.

I think in terms of playing when is it real and when is it not, and when is it a figment and when is it not, as an actor you ask those questions and you wonder whether to play with reality. But the decision was made for us because we all had to do it. So it was important that every actor had the same understanding, so the decision was made by the director to play it all as if it were real. It was a strange one. It was difficult. I think there's only one scene in which he's a complete creation, and that's the one in which he lambastes her, and he all but kills her. I wish he had killed her. I'm of the opinion that she should burn in hell.

Did you get that from watching the movie or during the making of the movie?

No, I wanted to go further in making the film. But I knew I shouldn't. I knew I was just being selfish. Sometimes you want to go further, but generally, if you're an actor who isn't afraid to go beg for it, which I don't think I am, you have to be aware that you might just go too far. I think the characters are very expressive but not actively expressive. The social restrictions of the time dictate that over-expressing is a bad thing. So it's like he's punched the shite out of her anyway, even though he's not laid a finger on her. We've not seen an outburst like that in the film. So I went as far as I could have gone.

I wonder if you could talk about the research, talking to war veterans, reading the book, living on the grounds while you were shooting. What of those things could you put to work in your performance?

All of them. I could put them all into my performance. Meeting war veterans is very important. I've done a lot of research. I've played a lot of soldiers, British and American. I did more research in terms of books, but the single most valuable thing was meeting a couple of veterans, who didn't say that much. They didn't say many facts or tell many stories that went funny.

At one point, I asked one of the guys, "Did you ever see any of your friends killed?" His girlfriend put her hand on his knee and leaned forward and said, "We don't talk about that." It was very moving. At the end, after saying very little about what went on, he kind of just walked up to me and said, "When you're making this film, just know how terrible it really was." And it cost that guy a hell of a lot to say that. And that emotional truth I didn't get from any amount of documentation or first person accounts. That was very important.

Atonement

The book was very important. I've done a lot of adaptations of books, and this one is a very faithful one. So the book was very important. It was something I used a lot. In The Last King of Scotland, the character was so different that I was asked by the director to set aside the book because it was getting in the way. 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. I decided not to, partly because I'd been to drama school and I couldn't be bothered. I've lived in a mad house, and also partly because my character is so separate. A lot of the characters in the film are from an upper class background, or posh. And I'm not and I didn't have any problem with that, and that's not why I didn't stay in the house. I'm not a method actor in any way, but I just thought it might be useful to keep myself separate. I'd go up there for dinner once or twice a week, and the invitation was always open for me to go, but in my head I tried to slightly just pretend that I was only going up when I was invited. I was there at their convenience. And that really helped.

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