In a café near his north London home, over a proper cup of tea (leaves, pot, china crockery, the works – “it’s why I come here”), James McAvoy is talking about the ones that got away.
First there was The Conspirator, the Robert Redford-directed historical drama about the assassination of President Lincoln, in which he had the lead role. McAvoy screws his face up at mention of the film.
“It’s a long film. There are a lot of words. It’s a bit slow. It’s a courtroom drama, d’you know what I mean? It was a bit like Greek drama – all the action is off-screen.” It “got away” in the sense that it was barely noticed on its release in the UK during the summer.
Then there’s 50/50, in cinemas later this month, with Joseph Gordon Levitt as an ill young man with a 50 per cent chance of survival. Back when the film was titled “I’m with Cancer”, the role was McAvoy’s. But the Scottish actor bailed on the project because, it was reported, he wanted to be at home for the birth of his first child.
“It wasn’t that,” he says, frowning slightly. McAvoy and his partner, actress Anne-Marie Duff (they met while filming TV series Shameless in 2004), are known – renowned even – for their desire to keep their private lives private.
“Unexpected family stuff up the road came in, and I had to be there,” he continues – “up the road” being Scottish expat speak for events at home, in McAvoy’s case Glasgow, where he and his younger sister were raised by his grandparents after his parents split when he was seven.
“Stuff I’m no’ wanting to talk about,” he adds, his Scottish accent surprisingly strong. (I say surprising given the fact that he’s been in London a dozen years, and that – aside from The Last King of Scotland, upcoming Danny Boyle heist movie Trance and Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth – he almost never uses his own accent on screen.) “I did a week [of filming] on 50/50 – if I’d wanted to be at home for the birth of the baby, I would have not taken the film.
“There was some article that said I had to be at home for the birth of the ‘million dollar baby’, ’cause that’s what I was getting paid.” He blows a good-natured raspberry of exasperation. “Was I f***, man! I think it would have worked out that I got paid less than I got paid on Shameless. It’s hilarious what people think actors get paid.
“A lot of actors do get paid a helluva lot, don’t get me wrong. And I didn’t get paid nothing for X–Men, of course,” says this serious-minded actor, whose candour is often at odds with his desire to keep himself to himself.
In X-Men: First Class, the recent superhero “origins story” (from Friday FilmFlex), McAvoy plays a young version of Professor Xavier, as portrayed by Patrick Stewart in the previous, “later” X-Men films.
“That was more money than I thought I’d ever make in my life,” smiles the 32-year-old. “But it’s never the figures that people think. And more recently that’s become even more true, ’cause the money’s just gone out of the business.”
Money was a factor in another “coulda been a contender” moment for McAvoy. He almost landed the Orlando Bloom part in Pirates of the Caribbean. Think how different the blockbuster franchise would have been with quietly charismatic McAvoy instead of the more-vanilla Bloom. Actually, consider how Pirates would have been with one of the other final-round auditioners playing Will Turner opposite Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann.
“The producers saw me, Adam Rickitt (from Coronation Street) and Paul Nicholls (from EastEnders)”, reveals McAvoy with a hint of a raised eyebrow. “We were all in the waiting room for the auditions with Keira, and I think I got relatively close to the part…”
He’s not lying when he says he’s relieved he lost out. For one thing, “by nature of the fact that you’re in something that cost hundreds of millions, you’re just a target… Keira nearly got crippled by the fact that she was suddenly an international movie star.” He pauses and clarifies. His Atonement co-star “wasn’t nearly crippled, but people’s opinions of her were really, really harsh. She was in a film that, acting-wise, wasn’t that demanding, and she got labelled as a terrible actor. That could have been the end for her.”
There are other reasons why he’s not sorry: “My career would have been completely different. I wouldn’t have met my wife…”
“I know! Well, I wouldn’t have this son, and I don’t want any other son,” he beams. Baby Brendan is now 18 months old.
What, I wonder, is McAvoy going to tell his son when he’s of an age to watch the child-friendly films – Penelope, The Chronicles of Narnia – on dad’s CV? And more recently his two animated features, Gnomeo & Juliet and his latest, Arthur Christmas, the festive family treat from Aardman that’s in cinemas from Friday 11 November.
In Arthur Christmas, McAvoy plays the hapless scion of the Christmas clan. His father (Jim Broadbent) is the current Santa, his grandpa (Bill Nighy) the Yule-ruler of yore, his overachieving elder brother (Hugh Laurie) the heir apparent. But when the very basis of the Christmas family’s present-dispensing business is jeopardised, young Arthur must step into the breach.
All of which makes for a typically entertaining Aardman romp. But when little Brendan hears dad in this role, won’t it reveal the unpalatable truth that – whisper it – there ain’t no Santa Claus?
“He won’t know, though!” claims McAvoy, hopefully, “as my accent’s so different in Arthur. The family Christmas is quite posh. They kinda styled them as an irreverent take on the royal family. So he’s a little bit like a less clever Harry. A less sophisticated Harry – mind you, that’s saying something…” he adds under his breath. But in any case, he won’t be telling his son that he’s in the film.
“And I’ll no’ tell him about Narnia, either. I’ll just let him figure it out. If he recognises me in that, cool. But I bet he won’t even notice.”
Brendan won’t realise that’s dad playing Mr Tumnus, a fawn with horns and goat’s legs? James McAvoy is a great actor, but even he’s not that good.