Scottish actor James McAvoy has been appearing on stage and screen in Britain since he was a teenager, but the world first sat up and paid attention after he brought the beloved Mr. Tumnus to life in 2005's Disney hit The Lion, The Wiitch and The Wardrobe and also stood out as Idi Amin;s personal physician in 2006's The Last King of Scotland. His latest role, sees him play apprentice assassin Wesley Gibson, alongside Morgan Freeman, Common and Angelina Jolie in the Timur Bekmambetov-directed Wanted.
Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down with James McAvoy in Los Angeles to talk about learned to fake-shoot a gun, play-kiss Angelina Jolie and deal with being surreally named as one of People magazine's Sexiest Men Alive...
James McAvoy: No, I don’t have a plan. I audition for a film and if they ask me to be in it, then I might be in it. And if they don’t ask me to be in it, I won’t do it, so there’s no plan. It’s really what jobs I get offered. At the moment, I probably have more choice and I don’t need to audition all the time now, so now maybe I’ll have a plan and I’ll start to decide things more. This film was not part of any plan – it was just an opportunity that came up to do something different, and once they offered me the part finally, I thought this might be interesting.
EI: You must be happy about the way things are going for you. I don’t think I’ve ever read a bad review about you.
JM: I’ve read a couple of bad reviews. One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot during this press junket is, “Have you ever Googled yourself?” My character Googles himself quit a lot. I used to Google myself every now and again, like most people do, I’m sure. About four years ago, I got a very bad review for a film and I’ve failed to Google myself ever again.
EI: It was one review that stopped you?
JM: Yeah, one particular review. I won’t tell you who it was or what it was about.
EI: Don’t the hundreds of good reviews make up for this one bad review?
JM: Hey man, it’s like working out, as I’ve realized in this film. You can go to the gym and spend five months trying to get a nice body, and then in two weeks it will disappear. It’s the same with confidence. It takes a thousand good reviews to give you any kind of confidence, but it only takes one to take it all away…which is why it’s good not to read your own reviews.
EI: What’s the worst thing that review said about you?
JM: I think it called me a B-movie actor, at best.
EI: Was it a homegrown movie review?
JM: I’m not telling you what it was! [Everyone laughs.]
EI: Why do you think you’re a successful actor now?
JM: Luck. I don’t think I’m a bad actor, but I think “luck” also.
EI: Do you think you would be successful as a priest as well?
JM: That’s one of those things that’s become interesting for you guys now. I said it once in an interview at the beginning of my career and I really regret it. I contemplated becoming a priest when I was very young for a short time. There was no more weight given to that particular career path than I gave to going to University or gave to joining the Navy or anything like that. I think most people have different options. You hear people saying, “What would you have done if you weren’t a rock star?” and they tell you, “I would have been a scientist.” People are diverse and have many interests. And as a young Catholic guy growing up in a Catholic part of Scotland, it’s not that strange that you can settle in the priesthood for a short time. But it was a short time.
EI: So that option to join the Navy was a potential serious choice?
JM: If I hadn’t gone to the other school, I probably would have gone into the Navy.
EI: What was Angelina Jolie like to work with?
JM: She’s nice. There’s this humungous media image of her that just doesn’t match up with the person. And I’m an actor and I should know better, but I was intimidated and I was nervous to work with her. But within ten minutes of meeting her, you realize that she’s just a very cool girl.
EI: What about her entourage?
JM: What entourage, though? She had a make-up and hair person, but everybody’s got a make-up and hair person, that’s kind of like a SAG [Screen Actors Guild] requirement. She had a stunt double who she always works with, but I had a stunt double. It might have been the first time I ever worked with my stunt double, but she’s just using the same woman all the time. I didn’t really feel that there was an entourage. She doesn’t have an agent. I’ve got an agent. I’ve got two fucking agents, so I’ve got a bigger entourage than she does. She doesn’t have an entourage.
EI: Was the paparazzi following you around all the time? Was Brad and the kids with Angelina during the shoot?
JM: A couple of times, but that was it. I met him a couple of times. They weren’t on set all the time. I once saw one member of the paparazzi when we were in Chicago. That was it. So this whole kind of like “thing,” I just expected it to be hundreds of paparazzi clawing their way across a moving freeway to get pictures of her shoes, and it wasn’t true. It just didn’t happen. I don’t know what her private life is like. We didn’t hang out, so I don’t know what it’s like when she goes home, if there’s lots of paparazzi or not. But it never interrupted the filmmaking decision at all.
EI: What was it like kissing her?
JM: Just the same as I always am with any kissing scene. It’s always a pain in the arse.
EI: How was this Russian director compared to the other directors you’ve worked with in the past?
JM: Good. Timur [Bekmambetov] was very, very different, but I think the source of his difference…I don’t know if it’s in his Russianness or whether the fact that all directors are different anyway…he’s particularly odd. And he has very strange ideas and he implements them in strange ways, and he’s sometimes quite surprising to the actors and the producers, and the scriptwriters and the producers at the studio.
But the studio saw fit to give him supreme freedom, and that kind of freedom on the set is fun for the actors. He was very loose. It’s quite chaotic making a film, but it’s especially chaotic making an action film and he’s really good at marshalling the chaos and seeing through all the shit and finding the bits that work.
A lot of people were saying that he doesn’t speak English too well and you don’t speak any Russian to him, so how did you communicate? My answer is just that I’ve worked with English directors or American directors who speak my language perfectly and they’ve had a harder time telling me what they’d like me to do. So he was great to work with, I really enjoyed it. I don’t know what it was particularly about him that was Russian that made him great. He was just great.
EI: Can you speak a little bit about your other upcoming film, The Last Station?
JM: It’s about the last year of Tolstoy’s life. It’s about the different factions that surrounded him and he’s in a circle trying to wrestle control of his philosophical and political works for prosperity or alternatively for his family and their future wellbeing. It’s quite Chekovian [Anton Chekov]. It’s quite high melodrama at the same time as being high comedy as well…like Chekov – at his best. It’s got a great cast – a ridiculously good cast: Paul Giamatti, Dame Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer…
EI: Will you go to Russia to promote The Last Station?
JM: We hope to go to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s house, to promote and publicize the film. Next year, though.
EI: Where do you live normally?
JM: I live in London. I’ve been there for nine years.
EI: Do you feel the need to move to LA? How do you feel about LA?
JM: I don’t think I’ll move to LA, simply because, logistically, it’ll present lots of nightmares. I spent two weeks here making a film and two weeks in Chicago, so I’d move here and end up spending all my time flying back to Europe. There’s no point in me coming here. I’ve done a film in New Zealand. I’ve done a film in Uganda. Other than that, everything’s been in Europe. Even this film, Wanted, was in Europe – in the Czech Republic – and I spent two weeks in Chicago, which was great, but there’s just not any point in coming here [LA]. But also I’m British, you know what I mean? Moving from Scotland to England was a big enough culture shock in the first place. I’m 29 now and I don’t want to go through a big huge culture shock again, approaching my 30s.
EI: What do you make of the fact that LA is an entertainment-driven town?
JM: It’s weird that it’s centered around one thing. And of course, the city’s got more to it than just that one thing. But it’s really hard for me to find it, as an outsider. But I like it. It’s great to come and visit. And I’ve got friends here now, which makes it more “friendly” to come and hang out.
EI: You say you don’t read reviews and press, but what happens when you find out you’re on the cover of People as one of the sexiest men alive?
JM: It’s hilarious, isn’t it? It’s quite amusing…mildly amusing. I don’t fall off my chair laughing. It brings a smile to my face. When your family hears about stuff like that, they find it particularly amusing and then they start to fall off their chairs. They find it more amusing than I do.
EI: Who normally tells you news like that?
JM: You guys [the press]. [Everyone laughs.] My agent’s gotten used to the fact that when she tells me things like that, I just go, “Uh-huh, great.” So she doesn’t bother anymore. The exciting things that she tells me about are when a job offer that I really want to get comes in. We have big, exciting conversations about that. That’s just because I try not to read my own press. I think people say nice things about me and that’s lovely, and I’m so glad that people are saying nice things. But if I give too much away, too much power to people when they’re saying nice things, when they do say bad things, which will get said about me at some point, there’ll be weight and power behind the stuff I don’t want to hear. So it’s just good to stay away from it altogether, I think. We’re not meant to look at or examine ourselves as much as we do. I don’t know how healthy it is to have opinions of you given to you everyday. It’s not particularly useful, although it’s still very nice when people say nice things.
EI: What about your involvement with the upcoming The Hobbit film?
JM: It’s just Internet rumor, I’m afraid. I was just as surprised as anybody else.
EI: Would you like to be involved?
JM: You’d need to read the script and all that good stuff. Apparently they’re miles away from even having a script, so you’d have to wait and see.
EI: Would you like to continue to do action movies?
JM: I don’t think so. Maybe! But I don’t think my next film will be one. The reason I did this film was to give myself a challenge and to give myself some variety and see if I could do something completely different. And I got that from it. But hopefully the next job I do will give me, again, new challenges and something different, and new learning opportunities like this one did. But again, hopefully it’ll be different from even Atonement as well, and the stuff I’ve done in the last couple of years. So hopefully what I do next will be totally different. I can’t see myself doing an action movie very soon. But I wouldn’t say “never.”
EI: What if this movie is successful? Would you repeat this character in a sequel?
JM: If this movie is successful and it makes money and they want to make another one, then I suppose I’d come back. Yeah! But if this one doesn’t make money and it’s not successful, and they don’t want to make another one, I don’t think I’d run into making another action movie like within the next couple of years anyway.
EI: Why not?
JM: Simply because I’ve enjoyed, in my career, a certain amount of variety and I don’t want to end that by just doing action movies.
EI: But you’d return to that genre another time?
JM: Yeah, definitely, but not in the next couple of years. I’d give myself some space, I think.
EI: Was there anything interesting you had to learn for the movie?
JM: I had to learn how to make myself stay in the gym for more than five minutes. That was difficult. I don’t like spending time in the gym. It’s horrible. I play a lot of sports and I play a lot of football. I don’t like trying to be fit for fitness sake. I don’t like sitting in a room on my own. There’s not fun in it. But playing sports is fun. “Sport” isn’t dumb.
EI: Did the company behind Wanted give you a trainer to work with?
JM: Yeah, they did.
JM: That completely helps. I wouldn’t have done it quite as well on my own, otherwise. Actually, I’ll admit that the first four or five weeks, I really enjoyed it. It was like a new thing for me. But the film took four and a half months to make, and when the fatigue starts to set in and you’ve done 12- or 13-hour days, and half your days are filled up with doing stunts that are kind of a bit of a work out anyway, and then you’re doing kick boxing practice with your stunt double to kind of help you with the fight scenes, and then you having to go into the gym…!
Two months in, I hated it. I was trying to avoid my personal trainer. And if it wasn’t for him being a really good mild-mannered drill sergeant, I don’t think I would have made it through the film. It was important for me to be fit for this film because, physically, my stamina was so tested. I kind of felt capable doing all the stunts, but over 4 1/2 months, your stamina is kind of stretched.
EI: Did you know how to shoot a gun before production, or did you have to learn?
JM: Not really. I learned how to pretend how to shoot guns.
EI: Could you name three of your favorite action films? Would Goonies be on that list?
JM: Goonies? Yeah, that is a bit of an action film, actually. It is one of my favorite films. Alien. I don’t know if it’s an action film, but it’s one of my favorite films. It’s got horror/sci-fi based action. What else? I don’t know. That’s all I can think of right now.
EI: Did you get hurt shooting the action sequences?
JM: Unfortunately not. I wish I came away with scars and stuff like that, but I got none. I had a sprained ankle and twisted knee, and bruises all over, but that was about it.
EI: What would you do in real life if your girlfriend cheated on you with your best friend, as in the film Wanted?
JM: I would seek solace in an assassin named Fox and hopefully exact revenge on everyone around me by bending bullets into their face. [Laughing] I don’t know what I’d do. I’d hopefully never let it get that bad.
EI: How do you personally relate to your character? Would you say at the point of the beginning of the film, or later?
JM: When the movie starts, definitely. Yeah, he’s really unhappy. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so clinically depressed as he was, but I have definitely had periods in my life when I’ve been particularly unhappy or low or sad, and I can really empathize with him. A lot of people say he goes from being a geek to being a hero or whatever, or an anti-hero. I don’t think he’s a geek. I don’t think he’s a geek at all. I think he’s hollow. I think he’s nothing. He’s identity-less. He has no sense of self. He has no self. And I think that’s much sadder than being a geek. A geek is to have something, to be a certain way. Also, “geeks” can be very attractive and very cool and all that s***.
EI: Your character’s taste in ties is far too good to classify him as being a geek.
JM: Yeah, definitely! I love that costume, man. Especially the pink shirt with the pink strips and the tie. The costume designer is Timur’s [the director's] wife, Barbara. And she had a particular good eye for disgusting costumes. [Everyone laughs.]
EI: Are you married?
JM: Yeah, I am.
EI: Do you believe we have control over our own lives?
JM: No, not particularly. I don’t think it’s fate. I think it’s more chaotic than that. I think you’ve got to try to exert control over your own life. You can’t necessarily always get what you want. I think “luck” is more present than fate or human control.
EI: Do you have that opinion about “luck” due to your experiences?
JM: I have. I also think I haven’t exerted much control over my career or my trajectory, or the choices that I have made. I went up for big, ridiculously large popcorn movies about seven or eight years ago that I very nearly got. Had I got them, I would have done them with all my heart, but my career wouldn’t be the same as it is today. I wouldn’t have had the kind of work behind me that I got before I finally did a big popcorn movie. So it’s just luck that I got the career that I got. I’m glad that I did some nice highbrow work that I did in the past, but it’s just the way it’s panned out. I didn’t start at the age of 19 years old when I decided to go to drama school and go, I’m going to do nothing but nice period dramas that are all literary-based. It’s just the way that it happens.
Universal Pictures 'Wanted' is in theaters now nationwide.