James McAvoy on His Dark Materials, loving fantasy and his daemon allergy
Speaking to Michael Hodges in Radio Times magazine, James McAvoy discusses the final season of His Dark Materials and whether he gets career envy with other actors.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
On stage as Macbeth or on screen as Charles Xavier in the X-Men films, James McAvoy’s career is littered with popular and critically-acclaimed performances.
Asriel’s merciless quest to destroy the Kingdom of Heaven drives the narrative of Pullman’s books, yet McAvoy’s character disappeared from series 2 when an episode concentrating on Asriel was dropped thanks to COVID — “A bit frustrating!” as he puts it.
But this year he’s back, and McAvoy’s return has re-energised and refocused a series that reaches its much-anticipated finale this week.
This final series of His Dark Materials has had a different feel to the second one – is that simply because there’s been more McAvoy in it?
"Well, it’s a lot more action-packed than previous series. They’ve been talking about war against the Kingdom of Heaven for such a long time. You can’t just keep going, 'I’m gonna do this' with one guy walking about with a gun. You’ve got to finally deliver war, and so we do get war by the end."
As you were spending more time as Lord Asriel, did you find yourself becoming a little more like him?
"It’s not that you’re transforming into a different character when you play someone, because it’s always just me. It’s like you’re transforming into a different actor, the actor that you need to be to play the part. I think Laurence Olivier once said, acting is just 'knowing what kind of play you’re in'."
Do you sympathise with Asriel?
"Asriel is a maniac – he killed a little boy to burst through to other worlds at the end of season 1. He’s sort of self-righteously and deludedly in his own ego, thinking he’s a good guy. But his journey is towards realising that it’s just about a wee girl. His wee girl. And the only thing that he can do to help win the day – is be her dad."
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His Dark Materials is a critical success, but it’s not something you’d planned to be in, right?
"Yes. Somebody else backed out, I stepped in and started filming a week and a half later. I think sometimes you come along at the right time for the project and sometimes a project comes along at the right time for you. It’s so clichéd but what’s for you won’t go by you. But you’ve got to make the effort to try and grab it before it goes by you. Things can be for you and go by because you never tried hard enough."
Do you mind when other actors get parts that you would like?
"I’m not competitive with my peers. I don’t feel like, 'That guy’s bloody doing brilliantly, I should be doing it.' I’ve never felt that. Though sometimes I do think, 'How are they doing so well, they’re not very good.' I’m a bit, 'Eh? I don’t get it.'"
When you were young was there someone onscreen that you wanted to be?
"Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors was a really weird cartoon in which the heroes were proponents of industry and used drills and lasers to rip plants apart. Jayce had a shock of white hair, young as he was. And I thought, 'When I’m older, I’m going get that dye in my hair.' My hair’s grey now and, since I got older – for the last five years – I’ve had this shock of white hair. Yes!"
Did you dream of Hollywood and international success?
"As a teenager my favourite thing to do was lay in bed and imagine stories with me as the protagonist. They generally involved me going to an American high school and I had to overcome a bully or something. But instead of coming from New Jersey, I was coming from Glasgow. There were other fantasies as well, but that was the one I remember. Imagination is important."
You’ve always been a keen fan of fantasy, then?
"I read all the key science fiction and fantasy, Lord of the Rings, David Eddings, all the Anne McCaffrey books. I didn’t get to His Dark Materials until I was 21 or 22. I’ve read the books twice, but I’ve also listened to Philip [Pullman] narrate the books twice. I’d almost say to people, do that first."
What’s the great attraction with Philip Pullman’s voice?
"The way Philip reads it is beautiful. It sort of feels like you’re listening to your grandpa – if your grandpa was an English teacher, telling you a made-up story. It becomes clearly structured eventually, but to begin with, it’s just beautiful. And to write about the soul just manifesting as an animal!"
What has it been like working with the daemons – in Lord Asriel’s case, Stelmaria the snow leopard?
"The fact is, I’m allergic to so many animals, cats, dogs. Someone sent me something [about a part] today, asking, 'Is it just horses you’re allergic to?' They sent this great offer but involving dogs and it’s like, 'I can’t do anything with dogs!' The daemons are CGI, and I’m still allergic to them."
The His Dark Materials finale 3 airs on BBC One at 7pm on Sunday 5th February, while all episodes are available on BBC iPlayer now.