If he were not an actor, James McAvoy would have liked to have been a neonatal nurse. The X-Men star has friends employed in that capacity and, he says, rubbing his closely cropped hair, “It just sounds like a truly important job. It seems a very pure thing.”
For McAvoy, purity of purpose is important. His other ideal job, outside of acting of course, would be working as a ranger in a country park. “I like the thought of professions where I can’t find a slant on them,” he explains. “If you were a lawyer, sure, you’re helping people but you’re also taking so much money off them. But being a nurse or ranger, they seem pure professions.”
The 37-year-old Glaswegian is in a candid mood. He’s turned up for his press duties with no entourage. He travels with me in the lift, no publicist in tow, and happily chats about his aspirations, his work, and his family.
His career took off a decade ago with critically acclaimed roles in The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last King of Scotland and Atonement. In 2006, he married fellow actor Anne-Marie Duff, whom he met on C4’s Shameless [the pair announced their divorce this week]. Their child, Brendan, was born four years later.
Brendan, he says, likes his dad’s short hair. “My kid likes it when he sits on my shoulders and rubs my head. He goes, ‘Ooh, it’s all prickly.’ Personally, I liked it when it was really short, when it was a buzz cut. This is a bit too long,” he adds. “It’s in a terrible in-between stage.”
The buzz cut and current “in-between stage” come courtesy of his third outing as Charles Xavier, or Professor X, in X-Men: Apocalypse, a role first played by bald icon Patrick Stewart. In the latest film, Xavier loses his locks.
This is not the first time McAvoy has shaved his head. “I did it for a movie called 50/50 [a 2011 comedy drama inspired by screenwriter Will Reiser’s experience with cancer], but then I had to leave the film after ten days of shooting because we had a medical emergency back home. I arrived home looking like a skinhead.”
When cutting his hair for X-Men: Apocalypse (in cinemas from today), McAvoy called up Patrick Stewart, with whom he’d shared screen time in previous film X-Men: Days of Future Past.
“I FaceTimed him at his apartment in New York,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m shaving my head. Do you want to watch?’ It was awesome! When it was done he said I looked really nice.
“This film shows how Professor X goes from an idealistic but narrow-focused person who is scared to look out into the world to somebody who is, I suppose, the leader of a paramilitary organisation with super-powered soldiers,” McAvoy explains. “It’s quite a big arc for him – it’s about how he hardens as a person.”
The film plays out in the 1980s. “It’s a time I grew up in, though the characters look nothing like I would have done,” the actor says with a smile.
“Certainly, I wouldn’t have gone for the full Don Johnson look that I have in the film, or a Flock of Seagulls brunette quiff [before going bald, Professor X’s hair is pretty big]. I didn’t really like the 80s in terms of what it offered us culturally or fashionwise. I like the 70s.” He laughs. “Michael Fassbender was very into the 80s, though, and is pleased to be in a Miami Vice-style outfit.”
This is the last X-Men film to which McAvoy is contracted and, though he’s not ruling out doing more, he’ll enjoy spreading his wings. He’s already shown his range, moving audiences by suffering love and loss in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and by going slowly bonkers in Filth. He’s left viewers somewhat baffled with Danny Boyle’s mind-bender Trance, as well as stone cold with last year’s critical misfire Victor Frankenstein.
He’ll hope for a better reception from the forthcoming BBC/Netflix Watership Down remake (he’s to voice Hazel) and from spy thriller The Coldest City, which also stars Charlize Theron. “It shows a very different version of the Cold War. It’s set in Berlin where everyone is going feral and taking too many drugs and having too much sex – it really isn’t a Cold War full of anoraks and guys in hats.”
One day, McAvoy would like to direct. “Although nothing like X-Men,” he says. “When you get a budget over $40 million, I don’t know if you are the director. You are just holding it for the studios.
“I have always wanted fulfilling and interesting experiences in my life. Acting is something that has allowed me to do that but I never thought that I needed to be an actor to get that feeling.” Of course not. He could have been a park ranger. Or maybe a neonatal nurse.