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]