Living In London, Acting In L.A.: For James McAvoy Work Is Work, and Play is Play

For this fast-rising actor (and would-be priest) there's no need to atone

August 29, 2007 -- A day in the life of James McAvoy: At the 64th Venice Film festival with "Atonement" co-star Keira Knightley.  "Atonement", director Joe Wright's second film, opens in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles on December 7 and other U.S. cities in the following week.

By Omar P.L. Moore/

November 30, 2007


James McAvoy cites a definitive difference between Los Angeles and San Francisco: "Whenever I land in L.A. I don't feel like I'm coming to America, I feel like I'm just coming to work.  But I land in San Francisco, and I go, 'hey great, U.S.A. man, excellent, I feel like a tourist!'  It was a nice difference, you know?"  With apologies to the City of Angels aside, the Glasgow-born thespian loves this city, and this was his first trip here.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and for James McAvoy there has been plenty of work on the big screen in the last two years, as well as some time to be his working-class self, for those are his roots, and he's definitely sticking to them.  He comments before a small group of Bay Area journalists assembled at a suite inside a local hotel that while he leads a charmed middle-class life these days as a fast-rising actor, he loves to hold on to the things in his life that have made him who he is.  Asked what makes him who he is, he lists hobbies that include hiking and playing football (that's soccer to those in the United States) and slips in an FYI for the ladies: he likes to cook.  (And he does the dishes, to boot.)  He confesses that for a fleeting moment he wanted to be a priest, "and then I found women, and I realized that I didn't want to sell my sexuality to the Catholic Church."  He says that if he hadn't gone to drama school he would have joined the Navy.  McAvoy graduated from drama school "at about 20."  The biggest transition in his life he says, was moving from Scotland to London, and while he seemed hesitant during this late November morning interaction to cash in his chips and move to Los Angeles, he is anything but hesitant to talk about "Atonement", the new film he stars in, opening very soon in the U.S. and Canada.

Mr. McAvoy, 28, is attired in a jacket and narrow black tie, with jeans.  A lean and sturdy presence, he speaks in low tones and is about as casual in his speech and as down to earth as an actor who has been on a hot streak in Hollywood can be.  He will say that he has been very fortunate career-wise, as the ball has bounced very kindly for him.  With all of the good things that have come his way of late he remains grounded, focused and thankful.  Of acting McAvoy says: "It's an incredible job.  I'm very, very lucky."  He also provided a frame of reference applying threads of his own life to aid in constructing Robbie Turner, the character he plays in "Atonement".  "The life I lead right now is very kind of elite -- I live in a world that not a lot of people get a glimpse of, let alone get into, and that's a similar environment that Robbie is in." 

Joe Wright, who directed "Pride & Prejudice", the only celluloid feature on his resume prior to this new film, put Mr. McAvoy through his paces.

"It was tough," Mr. McAvoy said of the character Robbie, in "Atonement", "to play someone who wasn't conflicted or real." 

The award-winning book "Atonement" is real however, and Ian McEwan wrote it.  The story about a young girl named Briony Tallis, who tells a story involving Robbie and his love Cecilia (played by Keira Knightley), a story giving Robbie an unenviable choice in his life, riveted the actor and after reading the script that Christopher Hampton adapted from the book, Mr. McAvoy made up his mind that there was only one way to play Robbie, and that was as he was depicted.  Audiences will see this portrayal in select U.S. and Canada theaters beginning on December 7 before Mr. Wright's sophomore feature film effort expands to more cities across North America in the following weeks.  "Atonement" received a lot of plaudits at Cannes and Venice earlier this year, and it is already been generating critical buzz this awards season.  Mr. McAvoy's performance is expected to get significant attention amidst the awards hoopla over the next two or three months for his work as Robbie, a working-class educated man in pre-World War Two England who gets caught up in a web of predicaments.  "When I read the script I thought it was the most beautifully crafted thing I'd ever read, in terms of screenplays," Mr. McAvoy explained.  "Atonement" also features Brenda Blethyn ("Introducing The Dwights") and Saoirse Ronan. 

James McAvoy as Robbie in "Atonement".  Of his life off the big screen, the Scottish-born McAvoy says, "I'm fucking dull, man.  I adhere to the stereotype of a Scotsman.  I have a very tight wallet.  I keep it closed."  (Photo: Alex Bailey/Focus Features)

For his role in Mr. Wright's film McAvoy didn't need to undergo much military training; he half-jokingly says that he knows what a soldier has to do.  He did more reading and watching of films like the classic David Lean movie "Brief Encounter" (he mimics a flawless English accent of the film's actor Trevor Howard) and British war documentaries like "Listen To Britain", which he described as a jingoistic piece, to prepare for his role than anything else, but of his most important interaction, a moving experience with one of the World War Two British veterans he spoke to who told him that "'when you're making this film, just know how terrible it really was,'" Mr. McAvoy recalled.  "Being there for that I think imparted a sort of emotional truth that I didn't get from any amount of documentation or first-person accounts, either.  It was incredible, really," he added, citing the importance of all of the sources he pulled from to make Robbie work within the scope of Joe Wright's epic canvas.  He acknowledged that he didn't know why he kept being cast in period films, but was glad to have the work.  Mr. McAvoy also said that an actor had greater latitude when cultivating a period of time rather than the present day.  "Evoking and capturing the spirit of a time . . . it's a little bit more artistically expressive."  As he spends a few minutes discussing the contrast in audiences views of contemporary versus historical pieces, providing examples of science-fiction films and the like, he mentions that at the end of the day "truth is just perception, isn't it?", and then says a few other things, adding, "I don't know what I'm talking about."

Though he may have just experienced this moment of je ne sais quoi, James McAvoy's acting has been talking very clearly.  He has played roles that have required inner conflict rather than external crisis in such films as "The Last King of Scotland" and "Becoming Jane" (the latter was released late this past summer in the U.S.) and "Atonement" was an opportunity that he couldn't pass up, even if he still had to convince others in auditions that he was worthy of the role, and even if it meant that he would inhabit a character that would go against the DNA of characters he has played in the past.  He agreed with one journalist's assessment that in using acting styles of the 1930's he had to flex a different muscle with Robbie.  "I found [Robbie] ... wasn't particularly representative of the human race because he's so good.  I mean, he has so little conflict in him and I really didn't recognize him as a member of the human race to begin with, and I think that that's fair to say because he is a slightly idealized human figure, and it's necessary really because the story's a tragedy," notes the star of such films as "Starter For Ten", a more light-hearted film for McAvoy, who in 2006 was the inaugural recipient of the Orange Rising Star Award at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards. 

The actor acknowledged that he was worried about how his portrayal of Robbie would play out, especially for the first half of Mr. Wright's film, and he would later offer a cautionary piece of advice, saying that as an actor when you are in the moment "you have to be aware at the same time that you might just be going too far because you like going far, do you know what I mean?  So you just have to take yourself back a wee bit."  Especially when characters in a period drama like "Atonement" are not, as Mr. McAvoy would say, "actively expressive", in light of the era of a repressive and staid British society of the 1930's and '40's.  McAvoy is not a method actor, though he did employ some preparatory techniques to help mold him into the character of Robbie.  "A lot of the other actors in the film are from an upper-class background, and I'm not, and I don't have a problem with that," he said, but when it came to eating dinner during breaks in filming each night with the cast and crew Mr. McAvoy decided "that it would be useful to kind of keep myself separate," electing to join the rest of the actors and crew up at a house for dinner only once or twice a week.  "I could have been up there every night having dinner if I wanted, but -- and the invitation was always there for me to go -- but in my head I kind of, I tried to slightly just pretend that I was going up when I was invited up, that I was there at their convenience.  And that really helped a lot . . . because the character (of Robbie) is so terrifying to the classes above him.  He's not somebody who makes them comfortable about the way the world is.  He bucks a trend.  He represents the emancipation of working classes, the emancipation -- fucking -- of women and their burgeoning freedom in the workplace . . . he represents that, but he's ten years too early."  (Lest there be any confusion, this journalist is of the mind that McAvoy uses the word "fucking" as an adverb or adjective, and in an awe-struck or incredulous sense, and not literally, when he speaks about women.)

photo of Atonement,  James McAvoy
"I've no idea of why I keep getting cast in period things, but I enjoy it," says James McAvoy, shown here at last summer's 64th Venice International Film Festival.  (Photo courtesy: WireImage)

In "Atonement" there is psychology and physicality, as well as innocent victims, innocence shattered and innocent malfeasance of the adulterated kind, but above all, as the movie's tag line hints and lead star agrees, "Atonement" is "a film about storytelling".  The film is set in late 1930's London and spans about 20 years and later revisits several characters.  No matter whether awards are feted upon it "Atonement" will be remembered and celebrated for an unbroken tracking camera shot that lasts all of four minutes or so, and McAvoy says that this shot was the biggest challenge.  "The stakes were really high -- we had one day to shoot it and we only did three and a half takes because we had to rehearse the entire day and it was such a logistical nightmare."  The emotional effects of this shot paid off however, as McAvoy mentioned the tearful reaction from many crew members, at least 100 in number, with whom he had watched the scene with during the production.

Mr. McAvoy is later prompted to answer whether he thinks "Atonement" will play differently in America as opposed to England, where issues of class are concerned.  (As of the date of this writing, the film has been playing in theaters in England for about 12 weeks now.)  I don't think that the class system in Britain exists now the way that it did then in this film.  I think it still does exist.  Every time I think that it's completely been abolished I meet somebody who reminds me firmly that I'm -- fucking -- even though I have a middle class and kind of jet-set lifestyle -- [that] I'm still from the working class.  But I think what the difference is is that we're (meaning the British) fascinated by it . . . I think Americans are less fascinated by class and maybe more fascinated by money.  And largely they're the same fucking thing -- but not quite -- there are slight differences."

Within three months after "Atonement" hits American cinemas, James McAvoy will be back on the big screen in North America in "Wanted", an action-thriller starring Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman.  He says he hasn't seen it yet, but hopes that it will be good once he does.  When the cameras and the lights have been turned off, Mr. McAvoy says he is content to retreat to the comforts of home, in the tradition of his sedentary grandparents.  He will "do the monkey dance" and promote the heck out of any new film release he figures in, but declares that if movie posters for his subsequent films are hung up on billboards adorning the streets and he is toasting his success, "I won't be driving past swigging whiskey one minute after I need to."

"Atonement" opens in select U.S. and Canadian cities on December 7.

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