James McAvoy Interview – ATONEMENT

     December 12, 2007

Already playing in limited release, but expanding to more theaters this weekend, is director Joe Wright’s follow up to “Pride and Prejudice.” His new movie is called “Atonement” and he’s once again paired up with Keira Knightley.

For those who don’t know about the movie, “Atonement” is based on Ian McEwan’s best selling novel of the same name. The story starts in the summer of 1935. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching Cecilia is their housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a childhood friend. By the end of that day the lives of all three have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had never before dared to approach and will have become victims of the younger girl’s scheming imagination, and Briony will have committed a dreadful crime, and she’ll have to deal with it for the rest of her life.

Acting alongside Keira Knightley is James McAvoy, someone who’s about to become a household name. The reason is James has been going non-stop with roles in “Starter for 10,” “The Last King of Scotland,” the first “Narnia” movie, and he’s recently finished his next movie “Wanted,” where he stars opposite Angelina Jolie. In fact, if you haven’t heard, Universal claims to be so pleased with how “Wanted” came out that they pushed it from March to the end of June. This means the film will be competing with some of the biggest films of the summer. So, as I said, people are about to figure out who James McAvoy is.

Anyway, during the short roundtable interview with James we talked about the move to June for “Wanted,” how that movie turned out, working with Angelina, and of course… we talked a lot about “Atonement.” As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio as an MP3 by clicking here.

And one last thing before the interview. I thought “Atonement” was fantastic and I definitely recommend checking it out. But… I’d avoid the reviews because it’s one of those movies that can be ruined. I so want to say why you should see this film… but I’d ruin the best part. All I can say is… even with all the great movies about to open, this is a special film. Now…here’s the interview with James.

Question: So since we last saw you, you’ve been a busy camper?

James McAvoy: I think so. When did you last see me?

Q: I think for “Starter for 10”.

James McAvoy: Yeah, probably. Yeah, I think I have. I think I finished this film before “Starter for 10” came out weirdly. I haven’t done anything since this film and “Wanted”, so in a weird way I have been a busy camper in terms of the public eye but I’ve not been actually doing much.

Q: Are you ready for another award season?

James: I don’t know if anybody’s ever ready for another award season. It’s kind of like Christmas. It seems to get earlier and earlier every year and I’m ready for whatever happens. Do you know what I mean? If it gets a lot of nominations—fantastic. If it doesn’t get any, then I hope we wouldn’t be any less proud of the experience we’ve had. I know we’re all very proud of this film. So yeah, I don’t know really.

I was going to ask you they announced yesterday that they’ve moved “Wanted” from late March to the end of June. It’s now all of a sudden positioned as one of Universal’s big summer releases.

James: Yeah I know.

Does this come as a surprise to you and are you ready to be a big summer movie star here in the States?

James: Bloody hell. Is that what that means? I don’t know really. I didn’t know the significance of moving it. When people say June—we’re going to June—we’re really excited we’re going June. You know like great, that’s great for you and then people explain the significance of it. So fantastic if they’re confident in it it’s brilliant. I haven’t seen the film yet so I don’t know.

Couldn’t it almost be expected though when you’re do a film with Angelina that they would you know do something with it special?

James: Not if it’s terrible. So it’s nice. I think March can really be great… some people are telling me is that’s the new kind of…that’s the new hot time to release a movie and I don’t know really because it seems like every time is a hot time to release a movie now. It’s like real estate or it’s the up and coming area. Every where’s up and coming. I don’t think there’s a bad time to release a movie anymore you know. So if they’re moving up to a more high class date or a more aggressive time then great. It just means they’re confident, but no I think a big studio like that with hundreds of millions of dollars. They’d gladly chuck it on the shelf if it were shit.

December’s not bad either.

James: December’s not bad either, no I know. It’s…I’m having a conversation over distribution, James McAvoy presents…

Why don’t we ask what were the challenges of this particular character?

James: His angelic kind of character was something I didn’t identify with because I’m not an angel. I kind of found him difficult to recognize as a member of society and therefore play him truthfully because he was so good. And it wasn’t until I really kind of accepted the potential that someone like that could exist and I started kind of identifying with the character and falling in love with the character, you know, and that took about a week of rehearsals of me playing it quite badly I felt. That was one of the biggest challenges also to play someone so good, what he is as an actor is he’s not going to be interesting enough so you keep trying to make him more interesting and that’s when you kind of fuck up because human beings are interesting and bad acting is people trying to make them more interesting, you know. That’s one example of bad acting anyway and that was something I had to watch I didn’t fall into doing.

Was that little touch of his dirty side any help to you? At least he had some sort of vulgarity.

James: I don’t think that’s dirty though. I think we’ve all got that. I think the best thing in the world is the fantasies of doing things like that, so I don’t see that as anything that taints him in any way. I think that makes him more human. It makes him more like us, but I know what you mean. I think the letter that he writes to her is shocking but it’s not bad. It’s not untrue and it comes from a place—a desire to communicate love and that’s a good thing.

No, I agree. You were describing him as this kind of saint so I was like yeah, at least he’s got that.

James: Yeah, at least he has a dick, you know what I mean? And saints apparently don’t have appendages so you know.

Speaking of having a dick, how is it like working with Keira? (lots of laughter)

James: Are you describing her as a dick?

No, no.

James: Yeah, fine. Completely asexual working with her. She’s a great person to work with. She’s a fantastic girl. There’s no…there’s nothing to do with my dick. I’m a completely happily married man. But she’s got…we connected quite early and quite quickly. I realized that we were there to back each other up and we had someone willing to kind of fight for each other if we needed it. And also we realized at artistically speaking we were very much on the same page from day one and when that happens you feel quite safe. You feel like you have a collaborator you know and someone you can really bounce off of so it was great working with Keira.

It was an iconic performance—did you know it reading the script? It’s like one of those films where like defines an actor like an “English Patient” or like…

James: When I read the script, no I didn’t think of it in that kind of thing about the iconography of the character, but I definitely responded to him and realized that it should be a really good part and it could be a really good part if it’s played right and I felt like I might be able to do it well. I felt like I had the things that you need to do it well.

How do you choose your projects?

James: People ask me that a lot. I would have chosen to do “Atonement”. I would have chosen to do “Last King of Scotland” if I had any choice, but after I made my choice I had to go and beg them to give me the part and audition and screen test and things like that. So strange, you do chose your work but it’s only now that I’m getting to choose, then it was…

Were you the first choice for “Atonement”?

James: I don’t know. I know that they auditioned 3 other guys so who knows.

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What was your most difficult scene to shoot?

James: The scene in the tea room where they see each other for the first time in 6 years. That was incredibly difficult. Also the scene where we lambaste middle Briony and we really give her a tailing. That was quite difficult actually because you don’t want—we could have gone further or I could have gone further but you don’t want to take up all the emotional space. You want to leave some of the emotional space for the audience to feel something. If you’re just standing on stage crying the whole time, you know the audience kind of just goes fuck. Actually that was the same thing with the big Dunkirk tracking sequence—the big 5 minute short. Very easy to get carried away with the emotion of the recreation, the evocative nature of something like that is very easy to get carried away with. It would have been wrong for the actors to get carried away with that, I think because soldiers at that time in the middle of that experience some of them would be but not all of them would be crying their eyes out and all that kind of stuff and then it was quite hard as an actor to not to feel the loss, to feel the pain, to feel the waste of what happened on those beaches in 1940-1941. It was just incredible for me. It was just about holding back and being a bit like a soldier in one way and going “this is war. This is madness”, but at the same time going “this is my job as well” and somehow holding back that distance from your character.

I read that you considered becoming a priest.

James: Yeah, I did.

What made you decide to go into acting instead?

James: I decided to give up the idea of being a priest before I decided I wanted to be an actor. I considered it for a couple of weeks really. I’m a young Catholic, do you know what I mean. You’re going to consider it. I really wanted to think about becoming a missionary. So I just got the idea of going to places like South America and Africa and you know China or the Indian sub-continent. It was all like hugely exciting then I realized I’d be going there to make people Catholics or something. That’s a bit dodgy, that’s a bit not right. So I gave up that idea.

Speaking of choosing your parts, what happens when a big Universal Studios comic book movie comes your way?

James: You accept it.

Is that how it happened?

James: Again, I have to audition for that. I screen tested. They flew me over here and I had to do a couple of auditions and then they didn’t give me the part for quite a long time—for like 6 months then they came back and said do you want to do it and I was like what’s changed? They said “nothing. We always wanted you”. You’re like, ”did you?” So, yeah.

The trailer looks really amazing. Did you think about those sort of John Woo gun poses while you were doing it?

James: No, I didn’t actually. To be honest with you I don’t really watch…I watch action films if they’ve got sci-fi in them or fantasy in them or you know something like that. I don’t really watch the John Woo type action film where it’s just action. I like it when it’s tinged with concept or tinged with philosophy or something like that which this film is. And it’s also tinged with a manic, mad, weird, brilliant, genius director called Timur Bekmambetov who’s a very strange guy. When he makes an odd decision, he doesn’t make it strategically, you know what I mean? He doesn’t go I’m going to make a really cool, odd, left field, off beat decision here and that’s going to mark me out as an ingenious director. He just makes decisions that happen to be really fucking strange and people around him inform him that they’re strange and he goes really? That’s interesting and then carries on, you know. It gives that style that he has a truth I think about something real.

Could you talk about the challenges of working with someone who’s such in the limelight? I’m talking about Ms. Jolie.

James: I think working with Keira and Angelina actually 2 of the world’s biggest stars is quite an eye opener that kind of intrusion that happens in your life’s and the scrutiny they’re under and how difficult it must be for them definitely. I think it’s undeniable. Other than that I didn’t get an insight to any of their lives too much. I did get an insight into how much is made up and how much is false. 99.999999% of it is seems to be bullshit and it’s quite harming I think because it robs you of your identity. The world thinks you are something and you’re not that and it’s odd.

Isn’t it weird though—not weird but isn’t it a challenge for you because you’re starting to enter into this bigger Hollywood arena of big budget films, it’s possibly going to happen to you as well.

James: I don’t know. I don’t think I’m ever going to get to the point where people run across a freeway to take a picture of me. I really don’t see it getting to that level of hysteria unless I have an affair with the Queen of Sweden or something like that. I don’t think they have a Queen in Sweden—I think they do—yeah, they do don’t they? Lovely girl… but you know. So who knows? I try to keep my life low key and I don’t like going to parties unless they’re thrown by a friend of mine or they’re to do with a project I’m in or it’s because I’ve been nominated for an award. Then I’ll go to the parties and do all that, but I won’t go to the latest Samsung free phone exhibition, you know what I mean? You stay away from all that and hopefully gives you the chance to stay away and opt out of it a little bit.

What was it about Joe that was different from previous directors that you’ve worked with?

James: I think his vision is 360. Directors have to have multi-tasking abilities and you have to be able to concentrate in different areas at one time. And they all do and some are visual and acting and some of them are acting and script and some of them are visual and script and not all of them can always do that but Joe is 360. He can do it all. He doesn’t understand how to do everybody’s job, but he understands everybody’s job, you know. He tries to figure out what it is about your job that’s important. I mean the crew as well. I don’t just mean the actors. He applies his storytelling ability to everybody’s department and I think that’s something that’s really special about Joe.

Are you going to make it a point to choose another smaller film after “Wanted”?

James: I’ve never made strategic decisions and I refuse to. I’ll do what feels right and whatever comes along and I like the idea of it, I’ll do it. You know, it’s like Joe—after he did “Pride and Prejudiced” people said to him you should do a small independent modern contemporary piece that isn’t based on a book and he didn’t and it’s worked out fine for him. You know what I mean? I think good work is good work.

How has the writer’s strike affected you?

James: Not at all. Oh no, it did actually. It did actually. It has affected me slightly. A project I wanted to get going this year has to wait until the end of the year I think or maybe the beginning of next. The end of next year or the beginning of 2009.

Which project was that?

James: I’m not telling.

Were you contacted yet for the 3rd “Narnia”? Are you going to do that?

James: He’s not in it.

Are you doing anything for the holidays?

James: I don’t think so. Nothing that interesting actually.

Any toys or gifts you want? It’s the roundup so it’s that time of year.

James: What would I love? Is there anything I would particularly love? I’d love a pair of crampons. I’m not even joking. Ice boots.

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