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Great Scot 

Sipping tea with James McAvoy

Wednesday, Feb 21 2007
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On January 1, one day after his 27th birthday and fresh from his honeymoon, James McAvoy slips into a coffee shop in the fashionably scruffy North London borough of Crouch End, where he’s bought a house with his bride, the actress Anne-Marie Duff. Rumpled in baggy jeans and a backpack, his brown hair rising adorably into two little devil’s horns that suggest recent contact with a pillow, McAvoy goes unnoticed in the café until the pretty pregnant woman at the table next to us gets a closer look and perks up. Though McAvoy’s big Hollywood breakthrough, The Last King of Scotland, has yet to open in England, he’s already a big deal at home as a former star of the popular television series Shameless, in which he played a charming wide boy with a big crush on Duff (who also played the eldest sibling in The Magdalene Sisters and has a small role in Notes on a Scandal).

Whether by humble temperament or humble origins — he and his sister, who’s in a Scottish girl band, were raised by their grandparents in a rough Glasgow housing project after their parents divorced — McAvoy wears his successes with an unforced modesty that sells his prodigious talent laughably short. Along with his other recent triumphs, the actor describes his 2006 BAFTA award for best newcomer as “very nice,” and though he admits that life is good now, he feels his luck could change anytime. “Look at all the actors who were so successful at 27 and then disappeared,” he says in his soft Scottish brogue.

Notwithstanding stellar notices, McAvoy seems to regard his blossoming career as a long series of accidents unrelated to his gifts or the hard work he put in on television and in his favorite medium, the theater, before he cracked the movies. You could call it luck that brought the actor and director David Hayman, who was playing Lady Macbeth in an all-male production at Glasgow’s celebrated Citizens Theatre, to McAvoy’s high school class as a guest speaker. Or luck — never mind the brass that McAvoy mustered to call and ask — that led to a small role in a film Hayman made a few months later on child pornography and prostitution. (“He shouldn’t have given me the part,” recalls McAvoy. “I was very bad in it.”) No doubt it was luck too that got McAvoy into Glasgow’s prestigious drama school (“I was never the most successful student, and nobody expected me to do particularly well”), which he paid for by working nights as a confectioner. And was it luck too that brought him to London at age 19, where within the year he was up and running as a working actor?

click to enlarge Bright young thing (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
  • Bright young thing (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

So lots of good fortune, yes, none of which would cut much ice were it not for McAvoy’s sheer versatility as a rebellious paraplegic in Inside I’m Dancing (released in the U.S. as Rory O’Shea Was Here); a suicidal gossip columnist in Bright Young Things (whose director, Stephen Fry, McAvoy counts as an influential mentor); the kindly but weak Mr. Tumnus the faun in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and, in the role that has turned heads in Hollywood, the undiscriminating young doctor who gets too chummy with Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.

McAvoy likes the fact that the movie’s “most attractive figure is a mass murderer with whom you can empathize” and that his own character is an ambiguous figure whose charm exceeds good sense or conscience. “He gets away with it,” says McAvoy, “but I’d have liked to see him get shot before he gets on that plane.” The two-and-a-half-month shoot proved more grueling than the actor had bargained for. Forest Whitaker was “brilliant, and a lovely, sweet, chilled-out guy off the set. But in that character he was focused and intense, and that was quite tough to be around.” McAvoy passed out for lack of air during a particularly graphic torture scene, his discomfort aggravated by the fact that the scene was shot the same day that news broke of the London bombings, when none of the crew could get in touch with their families. “It was an amazing experience,” he says wryly. “But we didn’t have much of a good time.”

For all his small stature (he’s 5 feet 7 inches), McAvoy exerts a powerful physical presence. He’s a gymnast, acrobat, mountaineer and, apparently, a sometime fire-eater, and though he hasn’t done many action movies so far — “because I’m not 6’5” and built like a brick shithouse” — that’s about to change when he plays a young man who follows his father’s footsteps into the assassin business in the upcoming studio picture Wanted. On first acquaintance, McAvoy doesn’t strike one as a romantic lead. “I don’t think I’m ugly,” he says, “but I’m not exactly a matinee idol either.” Maybe not, but he has bags of charm, intense, cornflower-blue eyes that flash an inviting twinkle, and a feral grin that gave him a sexy magnetism in The Last King of Scotland and will doubtless enhance his turn as an Irishman who seduces and then dumps Anne Hathaway’s Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, which will be released later this year. I can’t wait to see McAvoy opposite Romola Garai and Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s upcoming adaptation of Ian McEwan’s wonderful novel Atonement.

He’s also, well, nice, but niceness has its dangers. In Starter for 10, a harmless, nerveless British romantic comedy opening next week, McAvoy uses no more than a fraction of his range as a nerdy college student who can’t get any traction with the opposite sex. The same goes for the upcoming Penelope, in which he plays a Prince Charming who shows up to relieve Christina Ricci of her piggy nose (don’t ask). McAvoy diligently does his duty selling these movies, but, he admits cheerfully, “I’ve also done a lot of shit.” When I ask for specifics, he smiles sweetly and leans forward. “I’ll never tell,” he whispers confidentially. Then he chugs back the dregs of his peppermint tea and goes home.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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