James McAvoy on becoming a goat and a sandworm

James McAvoy
James McAvoy. Photo: Eyevine

You might not have heard of James McAvoy until a few years ago, but recent roles in action flick Wanted, the Oscar-winning Atonement and Bafta-winning Last King of Scotland have propelled the young Scot up the list of British actors who have found real Hollywood appeal.

It’s been a rapid rise for the former baker from Glasgow who, at 30, has starred opposite luminous screen beauties like Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley and Anne Hathaway – not for him the steady accumulation of cameos in The Bill or Casualty. A winning combination of enthusiasm, roguish charm and real-world sensibility has meant even minor roles have been respected productions: Steven Spielberg’s Second World War drama Band of Brothers, political thriller State of Play or the tale of Siegfried Sassoon and shell-shock, Regeneration.

But meeting him to discuss his latest film, The Last Station, which tells the tale of Leo Tolstoy’s final days, it is two of his less well known roles that he is most chuffed about – Prince Leto Atreides II in the US television adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, and everyone’s favourite goat-legged, goat-eared faun Mr Tumnus in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Dressed down in a suede Harrington jacket and jeans, smiling, unshaven, and working through a plate of prawn Marie Rose sandwiches, McAvoy admits: “I’m a big science fiction fan, a total sci-fi and fantasy nut. By playing Leto Atreides and then Mr Tumnus I’ve played two of my favourite characters in literature. The only other one I always wanted to play was Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings but that went when I was still in drama school.

“I couldn’t believe my career had so quickly taken me to play my favourite characters.”

McAvoy met his wife, actress Anne Marie Duff, on the set of Shameless in 2004 where he played posh car thief Steve and she his love interest Fiona. They married in 2006, and last month announced they were expecting their first child. But despite playing a couple, it was, he says, “no different to meeting anyone else at work.”

Shameless, which he and Duff left in the second series, has rumbled on without them or writer Paul Abbott. It started life as a much darker, more serious programme which found its comedic heart at the very last minute. “Paul, being the maniac he is starts cracking on with re-writing it a week before filming. We were getting new scripts daily on the set,” McAvoy recalls. His character went from working class Scot to posh southerner overnight. “They said: ‘How are you with accents? Can you get one for day-after-tomorrow?’ I think that when the emotional depth of the programme comes out and smacks you it’s because that’s what it was originally, but that’s hard to maintain in later series.”

The Last Station stars Christopher Plummer as an aged Lev Tolstoy, the foremost author, playwright and thinker of his age, and Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife, Sofya. McAvoy plays Valentin, a naïve, idealistic follower of Tolstoy who has his edges rubbed off by the more worldly Masha, played by Kerry Condon. The film focuses on these two tempestuous relationships, one old, one new, Tolstoy’s political ideals and the wrangling over his estate.

Has he, now married for three years, taken any truths on marriage from the film? “The director [Michael Hoffman] would tell people how he couldn’t have made this film until he’d been married 20 years and gone through the wringer. This pissed his wife right off. In fact, he started using one of her phrases – ‘Art imitates wife’ – until she publically told him to stop it,” he laughs. “He says it’s a film about the impossible conundrum that is marriage and the necessity for love to live with love, the impossibility of living without it, but the difficulties that creates. But it’s also about being a public servant and being true to your family.”

Tolstoy, despite being born into the aristocracy, made a great deal of renouncing his worldly privileges and wrote works picturing a pacifist, egalitarian society, influencing many including Ghandi.

“I’d never heard of any of it,” McAvoy says. “And the weirdest thing is, he was big in Scotland – we had the largest concentration of Tolstoyan communes outside Russia. Did he practice what he preached? Did he hell – he had 13 kids, he wasn’t celibate, he cheated on his wife. But does that make his ideas any less valid? Because he helped create a Russia where a revolution could happen, he put the fires in place.”

Despite occasional red carpet appearances for one gong or another – last week he was nominated for a Lawrence Olivier theatre award for his efforts in Three Days in Rain – he has kept his personal life out of view.

McAvoy was raised in Drumchapel by his grandparents, who were “private to a fault”.

“I didn’t really understand that growing up, but I do now. I just feel I’ve got nothing to lose being quiet – whether or not it puts anyone out – but I’ve got lots to lose if I’m not.”

So what’s behind this great outpouring of our private lives that we find everywhere these days, from Facebook and MySpace to tell-all shows like Oprah and Jeremy Kyle?

“I think we’re obsessed with identifying ourselves, and if we can’t we get worried about who we are. People don’t say, Who are you? They say, What do you do? You don’t reply, I’m a guy called so and so who lives here with a family and enjoys hill walking and knitting. You say, I’m a postman.

“It’s a difficult thing to identify yourself as an actor, especially because quite a lot of what actors do is being unemployed and not acting,” he adds. “I have to redefine myself in my head as to who I am outside of acting and being an actor, which was quite hard for me for a while.”

As well as baking, the young McAvoy toyed with joining the navy: “I had good enough grades to join officer training school and probably would have stuck to it. I like the idea of doing something physical. If anything, I’d like to have been in a mountain rescue team.”

So with a family brewing, McAvoy the smiling Scot is loving his accidental acting career. Despite his growing Hollywood cachet, he’s in no mind to move to LA. “Well, perhaps if my career goes south and I don’t work for a few years. But I think I’ve spent about seven weeks in my entire life in LA and it’s not hurt me, so perhaps it’s not required.”

And whether home is London or Los Angeles, with premieres, shooting and visits across the globe, it looks like the would-be sailor got to see the world after all, without having to enlist.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, February 2010]


Food, Inc

Food Inc.
Food Inc. Credit: www.foodincmovie.com

What happens when companies become more powerful than their regulators and inspectors? What happens when people no longer know what is in the food they buy? What happens when children believe advertising over science?

The documentary Food, Inc is a critical look at the food industry and how industrialisation has transformed the food we eat into something that is doing us harm.

Filmmaker Robert Kenner, with the expertise of journalists Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, demonstrates how far removed modern farming is from the pastoral images used to sell the product. They ask not, how do we feed the world, but, what are we being fed?

Food, Inc draws on Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, which documented the excesses of the fast food industry and its effects on industry workers, animals and consumers, and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a study of the same meal as produced by alternative agricultural systems; intensive, large- and small-scale organic and food foraged for ourselves.

Like those books, the film reveals the unpleasant reality behind industrial farming of animals and crops. Half a dozen corporate behemoths produce the vast majority of chicken, pork and beef, corn, and soy available in the US – for example, Monsanto sells around 90 per cent of soybean seed and 80 per cent of corn seed, Tyson, Cargill, Swift and National Beef Packing Company control more than 80 per cent of beef production, and Smithfield, Tyson, Swift and Cargill control 66 per cent of the pork industry. The charge sheet – lagoons of pigs’ effluent filling the air with choking fumes and poisoning rivers, animals cruelly crammed into barns and sheds, migrant workers suffering in silence and injury, and bullying corporate tactics – is probably also familiar. As these companies now turn their eyes towards Eastern Europe and the UK, the filmmakers urge an alternative approach to sourcing our food.

“In many parts of the US you can’t drink the water because the topsoil is poisoned by pesticides and chemicals,” says Kenner, a short, burly, talkative man who speaks with his hands, when The Big Issue caught up with he and Schlosser after they had spoken to school children in Hackney. “For me the real reason to eat organic is that rural communities are being poisoned,” adds the taller, more quietly spoken Schlosser. “Farmers, workers, the water table are all being poisoned. It’s more a concern for an environmental catastrophe than it is me thinking I’m going to die if I eat that apple.”

E.coli poisoning and other food-borne illnesses are on the rise, found not only in meat but in spinach, lettuce, even peanut butter. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention 73,000 people get E.coli poisoning every year. In one memorable scene, we see meat pushed along conveyors into tanks where it is blasted with ammonia – bleach – to kill the bacteria. The bleached, pink meat is folded into cartons to be used as “hamburger filler”. This is a complex solution to a problem that could have been solved easily: cows fed grass shed 90 per cent of the e.coli in their gut in a few days, but are more expensive than cows in concentrated feedlots where they are fed corn.

Free range pig farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, whose methods are shown in contrast, points out that the harm extends beyond that done to the creatures: “A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasm to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect.”

And it is perhaps exactly that disdain that can be seen in the behaviour of the large agribusinesses, whose substantial economic clout is felt by the farmers contracted to them. Farmers are warned off from speaking to the filmmakers, pursued by legal threats and court cases, and refuse entry to chicken farms for fear of retribution from the huge companies on whom their livelihoods depend.

That clout is also felt in government, where industry representatives form a powerful lobby. For example, although foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be labelled in Britain, there are no such requirements in the States. Kenner says: “I think for me the most frightening scene in the film is when Eric goes to Sacramento to talk about how we should label products better, and a meat industry representative says ‘it’s not in the consumers’ interest to know that information’.”

About 70 per cent of supermarket items in the States contain GMOs, but most Americans don’t know they’re eating them, or even what they are.

“I wanted to make a film about the science, but they’re not willing to talk about it,” he adds. There’s a lack of resilience to the system because it’s designed for only one thing: profit.”

Schlosser agrees: “The companies say that they’re good for you, but they’ll do everything possible to stop that information coming out. The justification for GMOs was this rice with vitamin A that was going to cure blindness, or be drought resistant, or give better yields. But all they’ve been proven to do is to allow greater application of pesticide and fertilizer, which is very good for the companies that make pesticides and fertilizer which, surprise, surprise, are the same companies that make the seed.”

What does come as a surprise is the all-pervading nature of subsidised corn: a bewildering array of derivatives are found in foods, from corn starch and corn sugar additives, corn syrup, to malt extracts, vegetable oils, and thickeners, in everything from Coke to batteries. It is also fed to cattle, pigs and chickens, and turned into a huge number of ‘value-added’ or processed products which Pollan calls “the tangible material formerly known as food”. The fact that so little of this food has any nutritious value other than carbohydrates have led to criticisms that the government is essentially subsidising huge agribusinesses to feed people food that is bad for them – and is making them ill.

In one scene, a class of children are asked who knows someone who is diabetic, and practically all of them raise a hand. Two people? The hands stay up. Three? Most are still there.

The diabetes and obesity epidemic that has already swept across the US, where one in three Americans develops early onset diabetes, is in danger of reaching British shores too. Certainly the methods used in British farming are little different to those in the US.

But despite the mounting evidence of the harm “conventional” agriculture – itself only 50 years old – is doing us and the environment, and despite the un-sustainability of agriculture based on intensely petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, there remains a substantial backlash against “unconventional” farming.

Schlosser warns against the idea that organic or alternative farming is elitist: “If you look at obesity and diabetes rates, it very neatly correlates with levels of poverty and education.”

“It remains to be seen whether the tabloids particularly can get past the fact that many of the early adopters are trendy or healthy or media types. Because the truly elitist system is the system in which the wealthy get good food while ordinary working people eat shit food that makes them ill.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, February 2010]


Hot Chip take a One Life Stand

Hot Chip. Photo credit: Shamil Tanna -www.shamiltanna.com

Contrary to popular opinion, Hot Chip will not break your legs, nor will they snap off your head. They are as unlikely to put you down, under the ground.

The five mild-mannered multi-instrumentalists from southwest London – singer songwriters Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard, Owen Clarke, Al Doyle, and Felix Martin – are a far cry in the flesh from the pugnacious lyrical claims they make on The Warning, from their 2006 album of the same name. And while The Warning was filled with belligerence lurking under its quirky electro, and 2008 follow up Made In The Dark revelled in more elements of electro-rock, new album One Life Stand is in many ways a more restrained, considered affair.

Or is it? Joe Goddard, when I meet him, Taylor and Clarke during a break in their punishing pre-tour rehearsal schedule, doesn’t necessarily think so: “It’s a common reaction to say that it’s mellow, but in our mind we were trying to making something exciting, something uplifting.”

Technically speaking it’s the fastest album they’ve made to date, he adds. “There are louder, more brash elements on Made in the Dark – it’s quite rocky and there are moments of raveyness too, but in fact that record had quite a few slow songs to balance it out.”

The majority of the band’s output has been written between Goddard and Taylor, each writing lyrics or music and exchanging them with the other’s music or lyrics to complete a track. But each has taken a more solitary, focused approach on this album, Taylor says: “This time around even though there are a few tracks written collaboratively, if Joe or I had written something that is self contained, those tracks are more personal, in the sense that the songs are more of a complete thought.”

Known more for dancefloor-oriented tracks from previous albums like Over and Over, Ready For the Floor, and A Boy From School, there is something thoughtful about the songs on One Life Stand that suggest it may be the album where Hot Chip grows up.

The album opens to a strong start with Thieves in the Night, where Taylor warns over urgent arpeggios: “A need is a want wearing disguise/It can be confused and fuelled by desire”. Hand Me Down Your Love, a future single, throws together a piano riff, snatches of modulated, synthesised speech and strings with a plaintive lyric. The third track, I Feel Better, is Hot Chip’s “obligatory autotune track”.

Goddard explains: “I wanted a high vocal to go with the low vocal that appears on the song, but when I recorded it, it was massively out of tune, and I thought – I know how I can sort that. I also quited like the idea about singing something quite doom-laden through a vocoder, something mournful in a robotic voice, like a 1980s science programme.”

There’s certainly never been any shortage of humour in Hot Chip, something they’re not worried about injecting into their music. “We’re really not taking the piss,” Goddard says. It’s an accusation that’s been levelled at them before. “When we’re writing something that’s been seen as comical it’s because it’s was something spontaneous because we’re having fun in the studio.”

“There is a comic side to us, so it’s there in the music as well,” Taylor adds. Though less so on One Life Stand? “It’s true that there are less moments of obvious sillyness,” Goddard says. “We’ve had moments like that in the past, I think it comes from when we’re making each other laugh when we’re writing and that comes through in the music. Perhaps there were just less of those situations while we made this album.”

One Life Stand, with its titular suggestion of in-for-the-long-run, seems like a record made with higher things in mind. “This album does feel like a piece, sonically. We did set out to produce these threads that run through the album, using the same instruments on different tracks,” Goddard says. But it’s probably the fact they took a year off from touring in order to record it that has formed the record’s sound, given it a more mature feel.

Taylor: “We were living at home with our partners, and perhaps the focus becomes more about your relationship with them, and you’re not just in a mad rush like you are on tour. Real life sort of… interjected.”

The second half of the album feels in some respects like tales of the home lives and loves of the now-married songwriters – loves songs from a Hot Chip that is older, wiser, looking inward to what they have near rather than out into the world.

You can hear it in the warm, luxuriant bass guitar on Alley Cats, as Taylor softly croons “We wear each others heads like hats/speak in tongues like alleycats/cradle them in both our laps/when we lie alone”, the atmospheric ambience of Keep Quiet, and the first single from the album, Take It In. Though it starts in a discordant, almost foreboding way, with Goddard grumbling “The wheel of fortune stops at six o’clock/so what am I supposed to do until midnight?”, the track then blossoms into a wash of guitars, piano and Taylor’s remarkable falsetto voice.

Was he ever nervous about using his voice? “I’ve sang from quite a young age, started doing it more publically at school and was quite aware that it was an odd-sounding, androgynous voice,” Taylor says.

“There’s been plenty of times people would say, who’s the black lady singing on this record? I don’t think it sounds like that, but people have said it,” he laughs.

“But I like singing, there was never any second thoughts about it. And I like singers with their own voice. I just don’t believe a lot of singers – those that put on American accents.”

There is a quiet determination from both Taylor and Goddard, a refusal to bow to others’ perception of what Hot Chip should or shouldn’t be, of what pop should or shouldn’t be. It is true, they do not look like the well groomed, highly-styled indie bands or hipsters we are too used to seeing, with their on-message words of wisdom or just-enough market-friendly rebel tendencies. Both look stony faced with the suggestion they are “music nerds”. Taylor, 5’ 5”, quietly spoken and with thick-rimmed spectacles, says: “I don’t really see it myself.”

“We’re not trying to overstate the fact that we listen to loads of records and that we’ve got influences. But I find it much easier to pinpoint the influences of other bands who are much more referential. I certainly don’t think we’re trying to show off our record collection.”

Goddard points out that Hot Chip doesn’t sound like anyone else, unlike all too many other bands: “With a lot of bands this question doesn’t need to be asked, because the answer is obvious. They sound like Joy Division, or Gang of Four, or some other touchstone band. You don’t need to ask what influences them because it’s obvious in every song they make.”

The band’s frustration with being pigeonholed is evident in their relation with the music press. “We’re kind of between a lot of things in a way, a little bit homeless,” Goddard says. “We’re not looking to be in any kind of camp or scene. We’re on the fringes of pop music. Sometimes we say we make pop music – and occasionally some people believe us and we end up on the Radio 1 Big Weekend. But we fall between camps.

“We’re not really popstars as people. We don’t really know how to deal with TV interviews, but at the same time we make music that is catchy and simple and straightforward, and so some underground people deride us for that.

“In the end,” he sighs. “We’re just doing what we’re doing.”

As “the nerd band”, the “electropop band”, the “thinking man’s pop act”, Hot Chip get thrust into pigeonholes unsuccessfully and often. But, despite – or perhaps because –they don’t fly the flag for any scene, nor dress to impress, nor come across like mouthy youngsters, despite being, at heart, some slightly shy friends who met at school and wanted to make music, Hot Chip are just getting on with making some of the most diverse and unusual ‘pop’ out there. The fact is that tracks on each album are dissimilar enough to warrant different pigeonholes all of their own.

“It seems like it’s really important for journalists to do that with bands and we’re no exception,” Taylor sighs. “We try and make music that is stylistically different from one track to the next and embraces a lot of types of music. So we obviously make it a bit harder for people.”

“Pigeon-holes,” Clarke says darkly, “are not for humans with diverse opinions and emotions and depressions and exultations. Pigeon-holes are for pigeons.”


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, February 2010]