The day before I met James McAvoy I asked a female friend of mine which qualities came to mind when she thought of him. “Sexual energy,” she replied promptly. “Also, a certain type of male cockiness.”
When I put this to McAvoy, he rocks back in his chair, puffs out his cheek and blows a long, incredulous, but not entirely undelighted sounding raspberry.
“Wowser!” he says. “Sexual energy, eh? That’s really good to know. This friend of yours, can she see? Actually, the cockiness I’m probably aware of because I’ve done it on purpose a few times with the character I’ve played. Still, it’s nice to be told.”
There are, however, few if any opportunities for McAvoy to show off his sexual energy or his cockiness in his latest role. He plays a lovestruck garden gnome called Gnomeo in the animated feature Gnomeo and Juliet, a tragic – but not too tragic – saga of love, enmity and pointy hats. While this may not have been the most challenging role of McAvoy’s career, it’s certainly been one of the more time-consuming: he’s been working on it off and on for more than three years.
“It’s been very peculiar. I’d come in every three or four months, and for half a day I’d try to hit as many scenes as I could and offer up as many ideas as possible. And then I’d go away and come back three or four months later.”
Occasionally, he would run into Emily Blunt who plays Juliet, in the studio, but for the most part he’d been there on his own, stuck on top of his toadstool – or in his own little soundbooth. As a result, he had little or no idea what was going on elsewhere. When I tell him the film has a theme song performed by Elton John and Lady Gaga, he looks at me in astonishment.
“It does? Really? I must have missed that. Mind you, I didn’t even know that Dolly Parton and Ozzy Osbourne were in it until I saw it.”
McAvoy is 31 now. He has a family of his own, a long list of credits and a fullish brown beard. Yet there’s still something youthful about him. Something faintly awkward, too. His nails are bitten and his teeth, though not brown or snaggly or anything like that, don’t give off a pearly Hollywood gleam whenever he opens his mouth.
While he’s friendly and relaxed enough, you get a sense that somewhere behind his blue eyes is a carefully cordoned-off area to which few people – especially not journalists – are ever admitted. He’s also a modest man and the whole process of having to talk about himself is one he clearly shrinks from.
When he arrives with his publicist, she hovers protectively around him before he reassures her that he’ll be fine on his own. All this must make fame tricky to deal with. In fact, he says, he doesn’t get recognised much. Certainly no one at the Soho hotel where we’re meeting looks up from their almond croissants or their BlackBerrys when he walks in.
“I think my recognisability ebbs and flows,” he says in his soft Scottish burr. “I don’t lead a particularly celebrity lifestyle or anything like that. I don’t go to showbiz parties or red-carpet events, so it all depends on whether I’ve got a film out. I’ve not been very visible in the last year or so and as a result hardly anyone stops me in the street.”
Another thing that McAvoy has ample stocks of onscreen – along with his sexual energy and his cockiness – is charm. He has it off-screen as well, albeit in a less obvious, more gentle sort of way. It must be strange, I say, to know that you’re a charming man – to have it as part of your professional repertoire and be able to turn it on at will.
“It is a bit weird, I suppose, especially if you start believing that it’s true. I first became aware of it when I started auditioning for things. I remember that it was never that difficult for me to get a director to look up and pay attention to me. Mind you, I don’t know if that’s necessarily charm. But I’ve played roles where my character has to be charming and I’ve found it quite easy to do. I think some of it is in my bones, but some of it is more deliberate.
“Even now when I’m auditioning, I’ll often stick in a wee thing or an extra line that I know will be disarming for the lady I’m acting with… Well, not necessarily disarming,” he says after a moment or two. “Hopefully non-repellent. So I know I can do that if necessary. But I can assure you there are lots of occasions when I’m not charming at all. I also found out quite early on that I could cry on cue, and get very angry and upset if I have to.”
Can you still cry on cue? “Pretty much so. There have been a couple of times when I haven’t been able to, but that’s usually at the end of a long day when I’ve done it 20 times already. It’s strange because I don’t think I’ve had a sad life, quite the reverse actually. It’s just something I can do for some reason.”
McAvoy may not have had a sad life, but it hasn’t been an easy one – at least not to begin with. He and his sister were brought up by their maternal grandparents in Drumchapel, a particularly rough suburb of Glasgow – this was after his father abandoned his mother. There was a lot of unemployment in Drumchapel, a lot of crime and a lot of violence. McAvoy was never beaten up, he says, but became adept at keeping his head down.
“My grandparents were always very strict with me, my mother, too. I know it may sound as if things were quite difficult, unstable or whatever, but in fact they weren’t at all. I was very happy as a child, even though I was never let out of the door on my own until I was 16. In a way I think that stopped me from getting into mischief, but I don’t think I was ever that mischievous anyway,” he says.
“I was talking to one of my aunties at Christmas and she said she didn’t think it was ever in my nature to go against the grain, that I was always a good boy. I think she was right – I did always want to be good.”
Periodically, his father has cropped up in the tabloids, trying to flog his story and piggyback on his son’s fame. James snr is a roofer who still lives in Glasgow; McAvoy jnr, you suspect, has no wish to have anything to do with him. Not that he says so directly – when the subject comes up, he gives one of his apologetic winces, shakes his head and nudges the conversation on.
For as long as he can remember, he had lofty ambitions. “I wanted to be a doctor at one point and I also wanted to be a pilot. I think if you grow up in a dodgy area, reality often beats down those ambitions as you get older. But with me that never really happened.
“It’s true I did start to get more realistic as I was about to leave school, but I never felt that there was this glass ceiling that I’d never been able to break though. I mean, it wasn’t as if I wanted to become an astronaut.
“Somehow I always had this sense that I was going to be all right, that I’d be happy and not have to depend on anyone else. That was always very important to me, not to be in debt to anyone, money-wise. I was determined not to take any money off my mother or my grandparents after I was 18.”
He was a clever boy, but not a cocky one – or not unduly so, anyway. “I certainly wasn’t before I got to the age of 14. If anything, I was quite shy. Then I was very lucky to get these two exceptional teachers who really inspired me. Due to them I started this little school band with a couple of mates,” McAvoy says.
“That was when I thought for the first time that I might have quite a strong imagination and a creative streak, and I didn’t have to be like everyone else. I suddenly started dressing differently and having pals that I wouldn’t have dared have previously, because it would have got me beaten up.”
When McAvoy was 16, the actor David Hayman came to his school to talk about acting. Hayman got a rough reception from most of the children, but McAvoy listened entranced. Then at the end, he put his hand up and asked if there was any chance of his doing some work experience. Six months later, Hayman offered him a small part in a film he was making.
“I certainly didn’t harbour any ambition of being an actor because no one I knew had ever done anything like that. I just started off and one thing seemed to lead to another. I found acting dead interesting, but it was still quite a long time before I seriously started to think of it as a career.”
In fact, McAvoy had already been accepted into the Royal Navy when he was offered a place at drama school. So there he was with one foot on the stage and one foot on the gangplank, having to decide which way to jump. “In the end I thought, they’re giving me a grant to go to drama school so I’m not asking for anything off anyone. Maybe it’ll be good fun. Let’s give it a go.”
I interviewed McAvoy’s wife, actress Anne-Marie Duff, last year and asked her if becoming well known had estranged her from the people she’d grown up with. Actors invariably lie about this, tearfully claiming never to have lost touch with their roots, yet Duff was frank, saying she hardly ever saw anyone she’d known as a child anymore.
McAvoy, though, has stayed in touch with his childhood friends, even if he doesn’t see them as much as he’d like. “I’ve moved on from some pals and acquaintances, but I’ve kept some as well. I’ve got three or four best pals who I grew up with. I may not see them that much but they know I’m there if they need me and the same is true of them. I don’t really think success has changed anything in that regard,” he says.
“Mind you, I think my friends back home were quite surprised when I started to get work, let alone that I’ve done OK for myself. Well, not surprised exactly… Stunned would be more like it.”
By now they must have had plenty of time to get used to it: McAvoy has barely been out of work in the past 10 years. Fame, he says, rather stole up on him – there was never a moment when he felt he’d stepped out of the shadows into a barrage of bright lights.
“No, it wasn’t like that. All that happened really was that the parts kept getting a little bigger. I remember the first person coming up to me and saying: ‘You were on the telly last night.’ And then very soon afterwards, or so it felt, I was doing Atonement and The Last King of Scotland and Narnia.”
Throughout it all, McAvoy stayed grounded. Far from believing his own publicity, he’s never even read it. “I do love acting, but maybe there’ll come a time when I’ll think, I can’t be doing this for the rest of my life. I have to be able to come home and be happy with who I am and my family and all that. I know I need more than just my job. If you want to let your career run your life then fine, but just stay single. If you commit your life to someone else, then you can’t let the job control you.”
McAvoy married Duff four years ago – they met when they were both in Shameless in 2004 – and had a son, Andrew, last year. Not that McAvoy will talk about either of them. He gives another apologetic wince and brings down the shutters.
“When I started out, I felt I had to try to be interesting in interviews. I’d talk up things I did as a kid, you know – taking drugs, silly things like that. But after a while I felt it was very important that I should just try to be myself. Also keep my privacy intact. Because if you lose that, you’ve kind of lost everything. If I make a friend and I want to tell that friend something, I’m doing it because I want to share something with him or her. But what’s the point if they’ve already read about it in a magazine?”
I suspect McAvoy’s chances of keeping his head down in the next few months are pretty remote. He’s co-starring with Robin Wright in Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, which comes out in April – he plays the lawyer who defended the only female conspirator charged in the Abraham Lincoln assassination; and then, in June, comes the X-Men prequel, X-Men: First Class, in which he plays a young Professor Xavier – “I’m giving my best Patrick Stewart impression.”
Is he the sort of person who lies awake at night agonising about parts and the state of his career? “I quite often have that before I do a job. I remember I had it a lot before The Last King of Scotland, which was weird because it’s arguably the part that’s closest to me as a person. Inevitably I have times when I regret things that I’ve done, or wish I could have done them better.
“But despite the odd 3am moment, on the whole I don’t agonise about work. Some things I’ve done have really lit up my heart and soul, and others I’ve done for strategic reasons, because they’re good for your career.”
Lest any whiff of purism should cling to him, he adds: “I mean, I play that game, too, you know.” And lifting his hands, he gives another apologetic wince.