With an unkempt flame-red beard, dried blood caked beneath his fingernails and battle-weary blue eyes, James McAvoy makes for an imposing figure. Or he would, if he took himself at all seriously. “I’m currently crippling myself every night doing Macbeth,” says the 33-year-old actor, his warm Port Glasgow accent still slightly surprising given his cut-glass dialogue in the likes of Atonement and X-Men: First Class. “It’s going really good, actually. Great, really young houses. Getting a lot of laughs, which is nice for a play like Macbeth.” McAvoy is folded onto a sofa in London’s Soho hotel in a Prada knit and jeans, getting animated about his challenging new psychological thriller, Trance, directed by Danny Boyle. “The great thing is it’s a 90 minute movie – he grabs you by the bollocks, really hard, Danny, and just keeps a hold of them for 90 minutes. I love that.” Here, he talks to GQ about the Scottish play, getting snubbed for 28 Days Later, his love of Prada suits and X-Men: Days Of Future Past.
You first met Danny Boyle auditioning for 28 Days Later and didn’t get the part. Did he remember you this time?
He says he remembers me but I don’t think he did. I chose to remind him on set. I thought I was going up for one of the leads but it actually transpired that I was actually reading for a “featured zombie”. I was like, “Brilliant! Bring it on. It has come to this. I’ve made it, all the way to the f***ing middle.” It said I could do acrobatics on my CV, so Danny said “Can you do a back-flip? I want to see.” He was trying to figure out how the zombies might move. So I gave him a back-flip, chatted for 20 minutes and never got the part.
You filmed Trance at the same time Danny was planning the Olympics opening ceremony. Did you feel that on set?
Kind of. He was prepping for the Olympics but he wasn’t sitting there with a monitor looking at the Olympic stadium while we were filming. Making a film is a 13/14 hour a day job, more often than not, six days a week. So he couldn’t step away. I don’t know when he did the Olympics. I remember a couple of times he’d be off to go dancing with a thousand people in a room somewhere. He’s like a nuclear power station on legs.
Trance is quite brutal at times. Does screen violence still shock you?
Not really, because you see and read shocking things all the time. Somebody shoots somebody -that’s shocking! That’s terrible! But it depends how the director shoots it – if the director shoots you putting the gun in their mouth and you can see their tonsils, then it’s shocking. But if it’s a cool guy shooting another cool guy, we don’t give a f***. So it really is up to the director how shocking they want to make it and how visceral it should be. And Danny is nothing if not visceral, bold and willing to challenge. Also the juxtaposition between fine art and this calm film with this hard violence is quite interesting. There’s the idea that things are suppressed, so that when they do come out they come out with Vesuvian power: hard and fast and brutal.
Do you share your character’s love of art?
I love going to art galleries. The Tate Modern is one of my favourite things to do. But I don’t invest in the history of it and I don’t read up on it. I am a guy who would buy a print rather than buy an original. I don’t know if that’s sacrilege to say…
You’ve done quite a few physical roles recently. How does Macbeth compare?
I broke a bone in my finger, I did my elbow two nights ago, I did my knee, put my back out – this is all over the last five weeks. I cut myself from there right down to there [illustrates a long, fresh scar along the length of his thumb]. It was quite deep! I can’t get the fake blood out of my fingers… I nearly broke someone else’s knee… there’s some heavy s*** going down! We’re all down the physio twice a week. The funny thing is, I’ve never really hurt myself in an action movie. I’ve done Wanted, X-Men, Welcome To The Punch, even Trance to a certain extent has little bits of action and stuff, but I’ve never really hurt myself at all – not even like a sprained ankle. And then I’m on stage, and every night there’s something new. I had a black eye for the first three weeks of the run. It made me look hard! [laughs] It’s good fun. Besides, the whole idea is that the dialogue, the poetry, is the most violent, hellish, gory, war-torn of all of his plays – and my personal opinion is you can’t come on stage and go [affects plummy accent] “Ah, so foul and fair a day I’ve never seen!” He’s just killed like a thousand people with his bare hands, he can’t be a nice guy.
Where do you go for suits?
Prada are always lovely for a red carpet. I’ve got a lovely tux that I always wear that Prada provided me with years ago – and they gave me a suit last night for the premiere as well. As a short man, Prada works particularly well, because they know how to fit short Italians.
How are people responding to the beard?
The scrag? People seem to like it. I like it. I always have a beard between jobs. I just let it grow until they pay me to shave it. People are quite surprised it’s ginger. Sometimes they ask me if dye my hair and I always say “Wow, no!” I’m “trans-ginger”.
How was it working with Irvine Welsh on Filth? Did you ask Danny about making Trainspotting?
Not really. We were so focused on what we were doing with Trance. Also while we were making Trance we didn’t know we were definitely going to get the financing together for Filth. It’s a very incendiary film. We aimed to make a film that people would love or loathe and in this particular moment in the film industry, that’s not that an attractive thing for financiers. We did manage to get it made, thanks to brave financiers who really pulled out all the stops to go “No, this is an amazing work of art.” Much in the same way that Danny Boyle did with Trainspotting, [director Jon S Baird] carved this incredible novel into a film while still retaining the dark, violent and surreal – even comedic – heart of the book. Danny actually gave me some great advice, because I’m a producer on Filth, on how to deal with financiers and distributors, how to conduct yourself in meetings with these guys. As an actor sometimes you can be a bit emotional and forceful and that’s not always the way to be. So he was brilliant as a mentor for that.
Next you’re off to film X-Men: Days Of Future Past. Is there a different vibe now that Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender are massive stars?
Nick Hoult as well, he’s struck big in America in Warm Bodies. Yeah, I’ve been speaking to Nick, I’ve been speaking to Michael. We’re really keen on the script. I haven’t spoken to Jennifer in ages actually – that’s because she is the busiest woman in Hollywood. Then we’ve got Sir Patrick [Stewart], we’ve got Sir Ian [McKellan], we’ve got Halle Berry, we’ve got Hugh Jackman, we’ve got all these guys coming back. So it’s going to be massive and they’ve done a great job in weaving everybody’s storylines together – and that’s no mean feat, actually.
So you’re going to go from the full beard to fully bald as Professor X.
Theoretically, you don’t know! I can’t tell you anything!