Combustible Celluloid

Interview with James McAvoy

A Face for Period

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Born 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 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. Mr. McAvoy recently visited with San Francisco journalists to talk about the film.

Q: 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?

JM: 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.

Q: 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.

JM: 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.

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

JM: 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.

Q: 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?

JM: 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. 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.

Q: You've done a lot of period pieces. Is there something about history pieces that attracts you?

JM: Not particularly. The thing that attracts me to all the jobs I've done over the last few years was the offer of employment. I've had to audition for every single job I've ever done, I think. So it's not just a question of being attracted. Yes, I like the things I've done, and I've been very luck that the things I've done -- I think -- have a certain level of quality. But had I only got parts that were rubbish, I'd be doing them as well, because I'm an actor and I need the work. But I'm getting a little more choice. When I read The Last King of Scotland, I thought this is excellent, and I'd be very lucky to get this. That was my choice, but afterward I still had to convince somebody else to choose me. But as for period, I don't know why. Maybe I've got a face for period. I've no idea why I keep getting cast in period things. But I enjoy it.

Q: Given that American and the UK have very different perspectives on class, do you think the film will play differently for American audiences than it does for British ones?

JM: I think so. I don't think that the class system exists in Britain the way that it did then, in this film. It still does exist, though. Every time I think that it's completely been abolished, I meet someone who reminds me that, even though I have a very middle-class and kind of jet-set lifestyle, I'm still from the working class. I think the difference is that we're fascinated by it. It's not so much that it's immediately evident; it's just that we're fascinated by it. And I think that Americans are slightly less fascinated by class and maybe more fascinated by money. And largely they're the same thing. This film isn't about class, though class is a part of it. It's about storytelling.

Q: You've said that this film has made you a better actor. Can you please talk about this?

JM: I think the stylistic choice for all the actors to somehow emulate the acting style of actors of the 1930s. We went down an avenue that most of us had never been down before. I'm an actor that, I take great joy in employing different styles to tell different stories. The way I see it is that you don't become the character, you become a different actor for each film. Sometimes you go over it several times, but I've been very lucky to constantly change style. And this was probably one of the most enjoyable styles, but it only works when you've got an incredible script, because it's about not actively expressing. So you've got to have a really well drawn, clear story and beautifully-drawn characters. When I read this script I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. The only other time I've felt like that is with The Chronicles of Narnia, and that's because I read the book many times from the age of seven.

Q: Was there anything that you watched or read while preparing for Atonement that really stuck with you?

JM: I think that one that we are all really honest about, the fact that we stole from Brief Encounter. Which, really, is just a master class in acting, and script, and directing. Just incredible. It's beautiful. We nicked a lot from that. We definitely tried to steal the acting style from those guys.

Q: To what extent did you have any actual training as a soldier? Because there isn't a lot of action...

JM: Very little. We got a couple of days marching and a couple of days weapons training, but it wasn't necessary, I don't think. But then we've all played a lot of soldiers. I know how you march and I know how you turn on a spot, and I know how you hold a rifle. The most interesting is when you work with older actors, who were around when National Service was still up and everybody did two years in the army. They always know what they're doing. They're great. It's great when you have older actors around who can show you how to march. I love that. But those guys are kind of fading out now.

Q: How did you get into the zone for that Steadicam shot, the Dunkirk sequence?

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 making that shot work. And any one of them at any time, including you, could royally screw it up. And the stakes were really high because he had one day to shoot it, and we only did 3-1/2 takes. We had to rehearse the entire day; it was such a logistical nightmare. So you were trying to act truthfully, but you had one eye on where the camera is. And that guy is going to walk across the camera and it's really important they you can see "Lyndie London" on the back of the boat beside my head, and if he crosses at that point, you're not going to see it, so I'm going to move a wee bit this way. And the actors were helping create the shot because everything was constantly moving and nothing was ever the same way twice. It was an incredible day. People say, 'it must have been very emotional, very moving.' It was. Half of your brain is engaged in that, but half of your brain is just trying to get the job done. And it wasn't until we watched that scene two days later in a cafˇ just off that beach that the emotional impact hit home. I was in a room with a hundred of the crew and everybody was in floods of tears, completely independent of the rest of the story, the rest of the movie. I'll never be in anything like that again. If I am, I'll be very lucky. I am very lucky.

November 28, 2007

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