James McAvoy on Atonement: The RT Interview

The Scottish actor chats with RT about his latest role.

by | December 6, 2007 | Comments

Scottish actor James McAvoy has shot several films in the last few years (Becoming Jane, The Last King of Scotland, and the eagerly anticipated Wanted) but so far remains most associated with Mr. Tumnus, his hairy role as the faun in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But if early Oscar buzz can be trusted, his name may also be synonymous with Oscar nominee.

In his latest film, Atonement, McAvoy plays Robbie Turner, a groundskeeper whose entire life is irrevocably changed when he is falsely accused of a crime. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, McAvoy joins a talented crew including Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave, and the Pride and Prejudice team of director Joe Wright and actress Keira Knightley. Atonement opens this Friday in limited release. RT met up with McAvoy in San Francisco to chat about the challenges of playing a “perfect” character, the cost of training for Wanted, and why he might be taking a break from acting.

In Atonement, there is an incredible very long tracking shot on the beach, involving lots of extras. How did you rehearse for that?

James McAvoy: We wanted to be very particular, so we spent a whole day rehearsing. I think with something as daunting as that, most directors would say, “F–k it, we’ve got so many extras, we’ll just shoot all day and get 20 takes and one of them might work. And if they don’t all work, we’ll edit.” But Joe just decided that we would rehearse all day and get it perfect. And then when the light was just right, and we only had half an hour, we did three takes. Two of the takes didn’t work, so we were on the third take and it felt really good. So we went back to view it on the monitors and, of course, the monitors decided to f–king blow up, so we didn’t know if we had it. But we found out two days later when we got the footage back that it worked and it was all good.

How many extras were involved in that scene?

JM: There were 1500 people. Any one of them could have royally screwed up at any point, so it was a miracle that it worked. I always think that particular scene is a microcosm of what making a film is. It really is a miracle of people collaborating and it was interesting because it’s very rare that something is that free, and that the actor is the person that helps make the shot. Usually you’re told to stand somewhere and the cameras move all around you. It this scene, it was much more along the lines that the camera may be anywhere. It would never be in the same place twice because a horse would walk past me, so I would be like, “F–k, the camera’s over there!” The actors were creating the shots as much as they could, which was so enjoyable but also high pressure.

What is it about Joe Wright’s directorial style that brings out such praised performances?

JM: He grew up in the theater. His mother and father were both puppeteers and owned a puppet theater. His mother still owns one called The Angel. I think he loves actors, and that’s a big thing because not every director likes actors. A lot of directors feel like actors just f–k up their films. But Joe loves actors. He cares about them and tries to make them better. Having a director that is confident in you and cares about you makes you suddenly feel free. You feel safe to take risks and that alone is big. He understands every job on a film set, which I don’t think a lot of directors do. He appreciates everybody on set. He’s a proper f–king amazing über-director.

You mentioned that Joe Wright has a theater background. Since the cast lived together while filming Atonement was this a theater-like experience?

JM: I didn’t live together, I stayed separate. Partly because I went to college and couldn’t be asked about s–t anymore, and partly because my character is separate from all of them. It kind of helped that all of the actors that lived in the house with Joe and the crew were all quite posh. They were all quite upper class. Lovely people, and some of them are now really good friends of mine, but they were all quite posh and I’m not really. I’m not from that background. It was useful for me as my character to kind of stay away.

So when I’d go up there for my dinner or something like that, I’d go once or twice a week. I could have gone up any night I wanted, and I was always welcome, but in my head and my imagination, I was only going up when I was invited. It was also kind of just me doing a little bit of make believe. I’m not a method actor, but I just kept myself a wee bit separate.

Your character goes through many stages throughout the film — including age and going from being quite naïve to very jaded. How did you take on that challenge?

JM: I like playing a variety of characters. I feel like I’ve been able to play different kinds of characters — I’ve done a lot of period pieces — but I’ve never had to play the same type of character too much. Getting to play two different types of characters in one film was quite interesting.

I found him quite difficult to play and believe in to begin with, because he’s quite a perfect type of person and I found that strange. I didn’t know if I could play it convincingly because I wasn’t sure if I believed that people like that exist. And then it got easier as we went along because I started to believe that he could. People like that might not exist for real, but it’s what we should be. The type of person that he became halfway through the film after something bad happens to him is somebody that I’m much more used to playing. He’s somebody who is very conflicted and suicidal, and strangely because of that, much more human.

He doesn’t really know who he is anymore. I don’t think he can quite remember who he was, because he is so different. The only person who knows who is his and can make him feel like he can even remember the person he used to be is [Keira Knightley’s character] Cecilia Tallis. If it wasn’t for the fact that she still cared for him, still loved him, or that she’s even alive, I think he’d kill himself because who he was would be completely lost. I think that’s just such an amazing place to start of playing a character. It’s hard to make a nice character seem interesting. How did you approach that for the first half of Atonement?

JM: Badly, I think. I kept trying to make him interesting — conflicted, tainted, restless, passionate, and angry — and I had to stop doing that because it was not working in rehearsals. It was just bad. I just had to trust that the most boring person in the world is interesting, because we’re all interesting. We’re all miracles as well, that we’re even here.

I don’t know why we’re not interested in seeing good people. I think we like seeing good people, but only if bad things happen to them. Which is weird, isn’t it? It’s like the whole thing with Jesus Christ. F–king hell, it’s an amazing story. Whether you’re Christian or not, it’s an incredible story because he’s the best person that ever existed on the planet, and we crucify him. So there’s something in our nature that enjoys stories where good people get royally f–ked up.

In the novel, there are many different descriptions of Robbie. Although there is a lot of dialogue, much of his character is internal. How did you take that from the novel and apply in to your portrayal of Robbie?

JM: I did it as faithfully as possible. I think it was clear to me that Joe was trying to make a very faithful adaptation of the film. Whereas when I did The Last King of Scotland, the adaptation of the film was very different. With that, it almost became a burden and a barrier to be too attached to the book, because the character was so different. But with Atonement, it was so faithful [because] the book was just an amazing source. If you wanted to know something about Robbie’s history, you didn’t just have to make it up. Which I’ve done before, where I think, “F–k, I want to know what his relationship with his dad is like.” So then you spend five minutes inventing a history with his dad. But with this film, you don’t have to do that because it’s written for you. There’s something about the fact that it’s already been done that means your imagination and ego can’t taint the character’s history. There are hard facts that you may not like about the character, but you have to deal with it and there’s something quite nice about that, because it means you can’t have it all your own way as an actor.

You’ve done Band of Brothers and Atonement. Is there something that draws you to the World War II period?

JM: No, I don’t think so. To be honest with you, none of the films that I have done in the last two years I have chosen to do. I’ve auditioned for them all. I could have been drawn to doing them, but it didn’t mean I was going to get them. The jobs that I got were the jobs they decided to cast me in. I don’t know why I get cast in a lot of period pieces. Stephen Fry told me that I had a face for period, that I look like someone from 1920. But I definitely do like that period of the two World Wars. They were such defining moments for British history and world history. They really helped shape the modern world — the bravery, the loss, the waste.

Doing the action scenes for Wanted must have been a completely different experience for you.

JM: Totally different than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. The 16-year-old boy in me was like, “Woo-hoo!” But after about three weeks, the 16-year-old boy just wanted to stay in bed, and the adult’s going, “Oh, my back hurts so much. I don’t want to go to the gym.” The trainer who you used to really like is like, “C’mon, we’ve got to do some more weights.” And you’re just like, “May you burn in hell, you bastard!” [Laughs.]

But I’m really lucky. I’ve never really been pigeonholed as an actor and I’ve been able to play many different roles, so it was a chance to explore a different avenue. There’s also a lot of comedy in it, and I love doing comedy. It was really quite a departure, and I think the thing that elevated it was the director, Timur Bekmambetov. [He’s] mad as a box of snakes! He’s just crazy, in a good way, in the best possible way, and and I’m really interested to see what he’s done with it because I think he’s really special.

Is it true that you’re going to take a break from acting?

JM: I think I am. I’ve been saying that for a long time. But things are shaping up for next year, and maybe I’ll be working again in March.

You’ve done a lot of films recently.

JM: Yeah, you’ve got to. And that’s good because I’m young and that’s the time for work, isn’t it? You chill out when you get older. That’s apart from the fact that I think people get sick of the sight of your face. It’s probably a good idea to chill out. Also, if you’re an actor, your job is to pretend to be a real person, to recreate reality. You’ve got to have a bit of a life from which to draw upon. If you don’t live in the real world because all you do is spend all day on film sets, you become such a weirdo. Film sets are a strange place, but an exciting place. I do love my work, I really enjoy going to work. But if you just spend all your time on film sets or even on stage, you can become a Michael Jackson figure, living in your own little universe.

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