Photography by Matt Irwin
James McAvoy passed on playing the part of a grieving young dad in the film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby in 2010, an easy decision for the actor to make back then. “I’d just had a kid, and I didn’t want to touch a script about a couple that loses a baby,” he says. Two years later, the Australian actor Joel Edgerton was attached to the role, then fell off the project. Director Ned Benson approached McAvoy once more. “They had four or five days to save the financing,” McAvoy says, “and it was two years on from having my kid. It wasn’t as raw, and it didn’t seem so horrific to me at that point.”
Despite his stealthy upward career arc, the fact that McAvoy is now in a position to help secure funding for a sensitively handled major commercial picture comes as some surprise to the actor. “Honestly? If you’d have told me about my career as a wee boy, I’d have been really fucking surprised,” he says. “I wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t even think about acting until I was acting.”
McAvoy, a 35-year-old with a sandy complexion and handsome physique, fits comfortably into the transparent 21st-century fame model. He is neither showy nor defensive on the subject of his talent and possesses enough quiet, internal self-confidence to back it up. He left drama school in Glasgow at the end of the ’90s, a time when his native Scotland was precipitously attracting Hollywood’s interest, post-Trainspotting. That he’s never played a relative of Ewan McGregor’s seems like a shortcoming on the part of all casting directors; however, he did get to play the lead in the recent, underappreciated Filth, based on Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh’s 1998 novel about a misanthropic, coke-snorting Scottish policeman.
McAvoy and I spend an afternoon talking in the churchyard of a grand, decaying chapel in the East End of London. It’s a scorching, sunny day. He arrives on a motorbike and says his recognition factor is low enough to get away with sitting out in the sun without interruption. This turns out to be true, though he’s partially disguised behind tortoiseshell-framed Ray-Bans. He’s genial to a fault, swears a lot during conversation, and is never stumped for either anecdote or opinion. It’s almost impossible to gauge whether he would be of any use in a fight, a personality trait that has surely proven handy for a dramatic portfolio that has had him racing between playing tough and tender, hero and heartbreaker.
His earliest roles included a couple of gay characters, including one on the British television drama Murder in Mind, in which he played a rent boy employed by errant headmaster David Suchet (“or David Suck-it, as I called him,” McAvoy says). In Beautiful Thing director Jonathan Harvey’s 2001 play, Out in the Open (at the Hampstead Theatre), he was the paramour of a man still grieving over his dead partner. His onstage partner was Mark Bonnar (“or Mark Boner, as I called him”).
As for the apparent, post-Brokeback rush of major screen actors pursuing gay roles, McAvoy thinks it’s largely a matter of the industry catching up with creative impulse. “I think actors have always wanted to play those parts,” he says. “They’re just not so bothered now about what those roles might say about their personal lives. It’s a nice wee sign of the times.”
McAvoy first came to global attention as Dan Foster, a star-making role in the 2003 BBC miniseries State of Play, which covered politics and the press in conspiratorial thriller fashion, and saw McAvoy shine with quiet, willful steeliness. The next year he was on set in The Last King of Scotland, a role that would earn him a BAFTA nomination.
With their family, McAvoy and his wife, actress Ann-Marie Duff, try to adhere as closely as possible to a one-on, one-off model when it comes to dividing child care and jobs. They met on the set of the Northern English drama Shameless, later adapted as a Showtime series with William H. Macy as the lead. In Britain, the show cast a long shadow over the decade that followed, singularly capturing the conditions of modern poverty and giving area denizens respectful bite, tenacity, and humor. The McAvoy-Duffs clan managed a spell together in New York recently, after he’d filmed Eleanor Rigby and while she was playing Lady Macbeth on Broadway.
McAvoy’s early eureka moment with acting happened when he was 15, in high school, when a kindly English teacher brought in her esteemed next-door neighbor, actor David Hayman, to speak to McAvoy’s class of unkempt Glasgow schoolboys. “He’d famously played Lady Macbeth, too, actually,” McAvoy says. “It was in an all-male production at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in the ’70s. The [students in my class] weren’t being total dicks to him, but it wasn’t the most fucking productive visit we’d had from an outside professional. I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘Thanks for coming — that was really cool.’”
When Hayman was later directing The Near Room, a compelling Scottish noir about child prostitution and pornography, he asked the young lad that stopped him after class to audition. There is still footage from it — of a skinny, tightly coiled teenage McAvoy, boxing in the backyard of a crumbling council house — dotted all over YouTube. Before that moment, McAvoy describes himself as having been “quite an average kid, the type you wouldn’t notice for being too much of a failure [or] too much of a success.” He attributes some of his willingness to speak to Hayman to being placed in a school rock band the previous year. “I was a nice enough boy that needed something to do,” he says. “Suddenly, I was around people who weren’t afraid of being slightly different or called names, or singing a song, or playing in a band. I could suddenly stop being afraid to be different, or to aim for something, or to ask for something, or of being bullied. I could step outside the safety circle of being like everybody fucking else.”
He talks with hard, considered passion about his time at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the institution that first turned him into a leading man. There he discovered that his skill set was suited to Restoration comedy. “For some reason, I took to it really well — to the sense of humor, the naughtiness, and the sauciness,” he says. At the end of his second year, he got to play Archer, the show-off role in Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, “an amazing, very funny, very dirty, very naughty but actually about-something play.” It whet his whistle for the spotlight. “I thought, OK, I’m going to have it,” he says. “I can throw my weight around a bit — not that one needs to, or should, throw his weight around, but I shouldn’t be afraid to when it’s required. When you’re playing the lead, you’re not just playing the character with the most lines. You’re partly leading the company, helping to set the tone and the example of the work ethic. You are coloring the production with every choice you make, and you’ve got to do that on purpose, and not be so precious and gentle with it.”
This is an attitude that has served McAvoy well on set ever since. “You come in, kick the doors open, and give them something,” he says. “That’s easier to do in a professional environment after having had three years failing at drama school. Some people love drama school; some people hate it. I took a lot from it.”
McAvoy’s own career has turned out to be a pleasing mirror to David Hayman’s formative influence, effortlessly freewheeling between art house and multiplex, stage and screen. He sees no distinction. “For me, good acting is good acting,” he says. “Some of the best stage performances I’ve ever seen are a guy standing still and fucking whispering to himself. Some of the best screen performances are Daniel Day-Lewis chewing the fucking scenery. Just because a lot of whispery acting happens on-screen doesn’t mean that it’s all good.”
Technically, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is the collective title of three works. The first, a truncated version that screened at Cannes and is subtitled Them, was released September 12. The second and third, packaged together and subtitled Him/Her, tell the same story from the perspectives of both the male and female leads; they hit theaters October 10. The project represents a further counterpoint to McAvoy’s most famous role, Charles Xavier in the X-Men series, for which he has gained a dementedly loyal fan base. Early in the promotional run for X-Men: First Class in 2011, he and co-star Michael Fassbender worked out exactly what interviewers wanted from them. They turned themselves into an affable Celtic double act working the junket circuit for a multimillion-dollar action-adventure vehicle.
“There’s only so many times you can say, ‘Come and see this film — it’s great,’ ” he says. “So we’d just mess around for five minutes with each other.” During this time, McAvoy learned to enjoy the junket cycle, which continued with this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. “You’re sitting in a private helicopter with Michael, flying into São Paulo. Patrick Stewart’s in the back pretending to control it with his mind,” he says. “What’s not to like?”
What first attracted McAvoy to Eleanor Rigby was that “it was a really grown-up, sophisticated, and poetically beautiful exploration of adult love and how fucking traumatic it can be.” His leading lady is Jessica Chastain. “She’s phenomenal,” he says. “And in the last few years she has just come out of nowhere to be one of the most important people in the industry.” He loved his time with Chastain during the limited eight-week window they were given to shoot in New York. “There was one day when we were shooting a scene near St. Marks Place,” he says, “and Jess and I were talking about actors we really admired. I’d said Sam Rockwell, and literally, at that moment, round the corner, there he is.” Chastain summoned his hero over. “Aye, that wasn’t embarrassing — at all,” McAvoy says with a laugh. Indeed, these light notes helped amid filming heavy subject matter — there is a scene between McAvoy and Chastain toward the end of the picture that will break viewers’ hearts in two.
McAvoy regards his fame at a pleasingly distant angle without quite shying away from it. He keeps an apartment in the center of Glasgow for family visits — trips back to his roots. In many ways, he is just a deeply ordinary North London dad in deeply deserving and extraordinary circumstances. He’s equivocal on the issue of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, a tricky Pandora’s box.
“I don’t mind staying together, and I don’t mind splitting up,” he says. “but I don’t really like either of the parties who’ve made arguments. I don’t trust politicians at the moment. Why suddenly believe them now? Whether it turns out bad or good, you can make the best of independence. But pursuing it with a goal to be richer is fucking pointless. We could be [rich] for four years, but then we might not be. That’s what happens.” Before long, McAvoy begins to bluntly put things in perspective. “If you look at Ireland, people were willing to fight and die for their fucking independence 100 years ago,” he says. “Ask any Scotsman who wants independence whether they want to shed blood for it. I don’t think they’d say yes.”
Surprisingly, McAvoy has played only four Scottish roles in his career so far. Unsurprisingly, one of them was Macbeth, on the West End stage last year. “It gets called ‘the Scottish Play,’ but it’s not about Scotland — it’s about a fucking mental case,” he says. “For me, it’s about a guy with huge trauma: firstly post-traumatic stress disorder, but also the trauma of not being able to have a child. I’ve been doing a lot of that sort of stuff lately. My roles over the last couple of years have mostly been about mental people losing their families or [going through] huge traumas and suffering mentally for it: Trance, Filth, Eleanor Rigby — even fucking Frankenstein is about the loss of a child, and more mentalness, and playing God with people’s lives.”
Perhaps because he is so sure of himself, McAvoy isn’t worried about being typecast. “You can’t control your career as an actor,” he says. “If you could strategize your way to the top, then everybody would be successful and playing the leads in movies where they’re commanding millions of dollars. And they’re not. You can’t. There are better actors than me who are struggling, and there are worse actors than me who are coining it in. Luckily for me, the work has just kept coming.”
And he’s not the type of actor to go chasing a role. He doesn’t suffer from the insecurities that usually come with rejection. Laughing, he says, “If a director doesn’t want me, that’s their fucking loss.”
Styling by Jessie Culley; Grooming by Lisa Eastwood.