X-Men: Why playing a mutant superhero was a doddle for James McAvoy

"I've spent over a year now exploring skewed mental states, and this is the easiest I've found it"

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X-Men: Why playing a mutant superhero was a doddle for James McAvoy
Written By
Andrew Collins

I’m in Claridge’s in London to discuss the seventh movie in the $2.3 billion X-Men franchise, Days of Future Past, with one of its stars James McAvoy.

But it’s proving tricky. Not because the prolific, 35-year-old Glaswegian is unforthcoming or difficult, or that his hangover after last night’s award ceremony has impaired his repartee. (He beat Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Freeman and Tom Hanks to best actor for his fearless turn in the unapologetic Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth and raised a glass to the sponsor, Jameson’s, from the stage.) No, we’re reduced to discussing the length of his character Charles Xavier’s hair in the trailer, because I’ve only been allowed to see the first five minutes of the film. And so has he.

To make matters worse, this tantalising pre- credits sequence, which hints at how Marvel’s mutant heroes fight across two time periods in what is a prequel and a sequel, does not even feature McAvoy as the 1970s incarnation of Professor X (played in later life by Patrick Stewart). What we do know is that he’s at some- thing of a low ebb: disillusioned, gone to seed, in a vest and as hairy as a member of the Grateful Dead. I mention that McAvoy looks pretty cool with beard and long hair, and his low-key Scots bonhomie becomes more animated.

“I am not somebody who looks spectacu- lar easily,” he insists. “I never get into my costume, make-up and hair and go, like, ‘F***ing hell, you look gorgeous.’ Whenever I’ve had to play somebody who’s meant to be, for the sake of the story, attractive, I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable, like, ‘F***, I hope I can pull this off.’ But in this...”

The hairstylists were going to leave his locks at their natural length, but they didn’t reckon on McAvoy’s deep love for the period: “As my wife will attest, the 70s is my favourite decade.” (Though born in 1979, he points out that people in Glasgow dressed like it was the 70s well into the 80s.) So McAvoy insisted on hair extensions, a process that took 17 hours. But when he walked on set – “nose to nose” with Patrick Stewart – out time traveller caught a glimpse of his reflection for the first time. He punches the air. “I was like, ‘Yesss!’ I f***ing love the way I look in this film. It’s the only time I’ve ever done that in my whole career.”

His career ought to give him cause to punch the air on a regular basis. While fully accredited as a Hollywood name since hit British exports The Last King of Scotland and Atonement, and an unlikely, pumped-up action hero role opposite Angelina Jolie in Wanted (they were nominated for an MTV award for best kiss), McAvoy can now lend clout to smaller, home-grown projects.

He is rightly proud of his all-or-nothing, performance as the hedonistic, racist, homophobic, bipolar detective Bruce Robertson in Filth, which defied expectations and grossed £4 million in the UK, topping the box office in Scotland. “We were trying to repel people but attract them at the same time,” he explains. “Create conflict within the audience as well as on the screen.” Not one for pretensions, he immediately qualifies: “Which is, y’know, daft but it’s what we were trying to do.”

Predominantly raised by his grandparents in Drumchapel, Glasgow, he considered the semi- nary but instead joined Paisley’s PACE Youth

Theatre, then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He entered the national consciousness in Channel 4’s White Teeth, Paul Abbott’s State of Play and, for the same powerhouse writer, as charismatic car thief Steve in the first two series of Shameless, where he met his future wife, Anne-Marie Duff. Guarded about their private life, they have a four-year-old son, live in north London, and combine acting jobs with their cherished home life. Days of Future Past (which opens in cinemas on Thursday 22 May) was shot in Montreal and was the first time he’s worked away from home for three years.

In 2012, McAvoy made three British films on the trot in which he was, in his own phrase, “front and centre”: the aforementioned Filth, Danny Boyle’s psychodrama Trance (Tuesday Sky Crime/ Thriller) and glossy thriller Welcome to the Punch, all released last year.

He followed this demanding hat-trick with a run as Macbeth at London’s Trafalgar Studios, to further plaudits (the Telegraph called him “commanding”). He then got four days off before flying to Canada for the X-Men shoot, which he describes as a “doddle” after “four of the most physically demanding jobs of my life”.

How does an X-Men movie differ from a low-budget British production? “There’s a lot more faffing about with technical jiggery-pokery,” he explains. “So quite often you can be in at six in the morning, having a nice nap, sit about, have a chat, have a smoke, and then it’s lunchtime...” He and fellow cast members Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and “one of the boys” Jennifer Lawrence turned the shoot into an activities holiday, having BB-gun battles around their trailers and, in serious downtime, racing V8 Mustangs at one of Montreal’s two Formula One circuits (“incredible, man”).

Those previous four jobs did, however, feed into playing cerebral mentalist Professor X. “There was a lot of mental illness that year. My character in Trance has had his mind molested. Bruce in Filth and Macbeth are both raving mental cases. Even in Welcome to the Punch I’m dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. By no means is X-Men as balls-out as those films or Macbeth but I’m glad that Fox and [producer/director] Bryan Singer afforded me the chance to go somewhere quite interesting with a part in a $200 million movie about super- heroes. Charles is effectively a junkie who’s denying who he is. I’ve spent over a year now exploring skewed mental states, and this is the easiest I’ve found it.”

In all this, it’s difficult not to conclude that cinema’s great gain has been TV’s sad loss. McAvoy hasn’t appeared on the small screen since Peter Moffat’s modern update of Macbeth for BBC1’s ShakespeaRe-Told season in 2005. So when – if ever – are we going to see him back on our TV screens?

“I’m keen to get back on telly,” he enthuses, blaming “scheduling conflicts” for scuppering a couple of possible recent projects. He mentions all too vaguely “a couple of ideas I’ve got that I want to try and get made in the next couple of years”.

As a viewer, he’s well behind the curve, currently working his way through Breaking Bad, and not the second but the first series of Line of Duty. He also checked out the inaugural episodes of BBC’s Sherlock because they were directed by Paul McGuigan, for whom he’s just been shooting a new version of Frankenstein alongside Daniel Radcliffe, for release in 2015. He calls it a “bromance between Frankenstein and Igor”.

Before I leave McAvoy to his well-deserved hangover, I attempt to get a “yes” or “no” out of him regarding the Scottish referendum. But you’d expect nothing but diplomacy from the man who, when asked by one newspaper to tell them a secret, revealed, “I have to paint the skirting boards.” He won’t be drawn, insisting he’s not “anti-politics”, but simply thinks people should vote “with their heart”.

Would a “yes” vote improve the prospect of a Scottish film industry? “I don’t know,” he ruminates. “I would hate to think that we’re not expressing ourselves culturally and blaming the English for that. That’s ridiculous. It’s because nobody’s got off their arse to invest properly. It’s not a priority for the government. I always think it’s a shame we’ve not got our
 own studio.”

Sounds like an undecided to me.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is in cinemas now

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