He may hail from a gritty Glasgow neighborhood and live in north London, but right now James McAvoy could rival Rhett Butler with his insider knowledge of life in Georgia.
“Spanish moss—excellent!—but don’t rub it on your face, or you’ll get lots of bites from red bugs that the locals call chiggers,” says the 31-year-old actor, who shot his last two films— The Conspirator and X-Men: First Class—in the Southern state.
“I ate a lotta grits. I’m a bit of an aficionado on grits,” adds McAvoy over a cup of coffee at a London neighborhood cafe. Dressed in a jean jacket with a scruffy sheepskin collar, his mousy hair center-parted and floppy, an iPhone in his pocket and his fingernails bitten into near oblivion, McAvoy could be any urban Londoner on a coffee break.
Yet he’s one of Britain’s most versatile actors, a quirky but charismatic leading man who rose to fame with his role as a medical school dropout-cum-car thief in the TV comedy series Shameless and who went on to star in films including Starter for 10, Atonement and The Last King of Scotland.
In The Conspirator, he plays Frederick Aiken, a 28-year- old Union war hero and law clerk who reluctantly agrees to defend a mother of two implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The film, directed by Robert Redford, also stars Robin Wright as the conflicted and haggard Mrs. Surratt, Kevin Kline sporting Lincoln-esque facial hair for his role as war secretary Edwin Stanton and Danny Huston as the thuggish prosecutor. McAvoy, who in real life speaks with a rolling Scottish burr (which means that person sounds like pare-son and difficult sounds like deffa-cult), took the role for a number of reasons.
“I needed a job. They were paying me more than I thought. Beyond that, it was an opportunity to tell a story that was—without being too up-your-own-ass— important. It’s been awhile since I’ve done that.”
Redford says McAvoy had been on his radar since he saw The Last King of Scotland, in which McAvoy played the young doctor and confidante of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. “He was very much on my mind, and there was no other actor I considered for this role. It was the same with Robin Wright. But that’s the way I always cast my films,” says Redford. The director was also impressed with McAvoy’s ability to switch his “very big Scottish brogue” on and off and speak like a Yankee. “When we started filming, I told him to only occupy himself with Americans between takes. But he didn’t—he’d lapse right back into his brogue when we weren’t shooting. He’s a natural at accents,” Redford says.
Few have heard of Aiken, who would eventually become an editor of The Washington Post, and the trial is rarely discussed in high school history classes. McAvoy thinks he has an explanation: “Lincoln’s like the rock star of history, and so he eclipses all around him. Why would you look to see who the interesting bass player is when you’ve got Lincoln on lead vocals?”
McAvoy is a natural comic, full of exuberance and excitement about his work. He’s animated during the interview and stops the conversation midstream to comment on an infant he spots outside the cafe who is slouched at an awkward angle in its mother’s sling. “That’s like a bungee-jumping baby,” exclaims the actor before quickly returning to the conversation—and talk of Redford, whom McEvoy calls a minimalist.
“Most of what he told me to do was: ‘Stop doing that.’ It sounds reductive, but most of what he says involves him telling you not to get in the way of the story. But I love that. As an actor, you end up trying to do lots of ‘interesting’ things, and you ultimately make it really fluffy and muddy and suddenly the story isn’t being told.”
Redford says McAvoy reminds him of the late James Cagney. “James [McAvoy] is a quick, exact, fast-moving actor with an intense energy—like Cagney. My challenge was to manage that energy—which was quite often very physical, very surface—and get him to pull it inside, and allow it to flow,” he explains.
Wright, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, says watching McAvoy act—which she did during all of the courtroom scenes—is like attending the theater. “His command of language, his command of the stage, is incredible,” she says.
Not that there was an all-work atmosphere during the making of the film. McAvoy reports great camaraderie among his co-stars on and off the set, with much time spent at a restaurant called The Olde Pink House and “a good few bars with Justin Long, Danny Huston, James Badge Dale and Robin, who—I have to say—likes to have a wee swally,” he says, using a Scottish term for a little drink.
Wright lets out a laugh when she hears that. “He is Mr. Congeniality, the life of the party. Everyone loves him. You always hear these terrible rumors about how self-consumed and narcissistic actors are. But James is not like that at all: He’s thoughtful and very human. He believes we are all one—he’s just a love.” And she insists that McAvoy didn’t spend all his downtime barhopping: “He was in almost every scene and had tons of dialogue to learn, so most nights he’d go home and study.”
McAvoy has had a strong vein of discipline—and derring-do—since he was a boy. When the Scottish actor and director David Hayman came to his high school to talk to students about Macbeth, McAvoy, then 16, approached him to ask if he could do work experience as a tea boy on one of Hayman’s next projects. He never did get the job, but six months later, the director cast him in the role of Kevin, the lover of a young prostitute, in The Near Room.
“I got paid something like 1,200 pounds—and that kept me going for about five years,” says McAvoy, who later began traveling to London to audition for roles, appearing in a few episodes of The Bill, a long-running British police TV series. At 18, he enrolled at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and after graduation won roles in acclaimed TV series, including Band of Brothers and the BBC drama State of Play, before blasting away audiences in Starter for 10 and The Last King of Scotland.
Acting, however, doesn’t run in his blood. His father, a builder, and his mother, a nurse, divorced when he was a child, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents and mother. Although he’s been estranged from his father for years, McAvoy says his childhood in Drumchapel, an area of Glasgow known for its great spirit of community, was a happy one.
“We lived in a kind of rough-enough area. My grandparents and mother were very protective and made sure that no harm came to us,” he says, referring to himself and his younger sister, Joy McAvoy, an actress and singer. “They were quite controlling, and until about the age of 15 or 16, I was firmly on a leash.”
His family remains supportive of his roles, large and small. “They love it. I think my grandparents went to see Gnomeo & Juliet for Valentine’s Day,” says McAvoy, referring to his starring role as the voice of an amorous garden gnome in the 3-D cartoon that came out earlier this year.
McAvoy, who is married to Anne-Marie Duff, an actress nearly nine years his senior whom he met while filming Shameless, recently became a father himself. Their son, Andrew, was born last year, and they live a decidedly discreet and unstarry life in Crouch End, a north London neighborhood popular with young families and literary and media types. One of his favorite pastimes is riding his Triumph Street Triple motorcycle down to Brighton. “With the exception of the helmet on your head, it’s nice to feel the wind in your hair,” he says.
The future—like the seafront road in the early morning—is wide open. McAvoy says he’d like to do more theater—his last play was Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain in London’s West End. As for more film roles, he adds: “I’ll hopefully just wait for the offer to come my way. Does that sound weird? I do feel funny about going: ‘There’s a script out there, and I want to be part of it! Get on the phone, make it happen!’
“If you have to try and insinuate yourself in the creative imagination of your director, then you’re in a bad place to start with. I want them to choose me,” he says with the self-assurance and conviction of a young law clerk with a righteous cause.