Four years ago, Scottish actor James McAvoy starred in an adaptation of the Frank Herbert classic Children of Dune for the Sci-Fi channel. Although this performance as a tortured, prescient prince didn’t put him on the Hollywood map, subsequent roles in Bright Young Things, State of Play, and, of course, his big American debut, The Chronicles of Narnia as the faun Mr. Tumnus, did. But it was only last year that he attracted mass critical attention, when he starred as the morally adaptable Dr. Nicholas Garrigan opposite Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
“Now that I can choose what [roles] I want, I find it kind of strange that I haven’t chosen to do anything yet. I’ve found it too difficult to choose.”
Now he’s in a shoo-in for a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. As Robbie, a pure-of-heart but status-challenged gardener’s son with lofty aspirations, he makes Keira Knightley’s heart skip a beat or eight, and in one particularly sexy library scene, he makes audiences sweat a bit too. It’s just another step in the modest actor’s climb to superstardom. While racing from a San Francisco hotel to the airport, he took a few minutes to chat about his new movie, what his recent success means for his career, and, blush, what it’s like to be one of the sexiest men alive according to People magazine.
So, do you go by James, Jim, or Jimmy?
Well, James, how does it feel to be the fifth-sexiest man alive?
Oh God, I have no idea. I had no idea about any of this until recently. The thing is, I haven’t changed. I’m blissfully unaware of my new-found status.
Did you pick up a People and give it a read-through?
No, I haven’t yet. I’m trying not to get carried away with my own shit and my own press, you know what I mean?
But it has to be amusing . . .
No, don’t get me wrong — it is amusing, but it’s very strange to think somebody thinks that. Thank you very much, but, honestly, I’m not going to think about it that much.
Still, your wife must enjoy bragging about that to her friends. “I’m married to the fifth-sexiest man alive. Your husband’s an accountant.”
[Laughs]. She finds it hilarious.
You’ve gone from a virtual unknown who had to take roles simply because it was work to a leading man able to choose his own roles. Do you have a grasp on that professional transformation?
I don’t think I do yet, really. I haven’t been able to choose my roles for very long, and that started only after Atonement. So as much as public awareness of my work has increased, I’ve still had to audition for myself. Now that I can choose what I want, I find it kind of strange that I haven’t chosen to do anything yet. I’ve found it too difficult to choose. I almost wish I could go back to auditioning for parts, to have them picked for you.
Are you still trying to figure out who you want to be as a movie star as opposed to the actor you’ve been up to now?
I’ve never really tried to figure out who I want to be, ever. I just go along with the situation. I think if I tried to be a particular person too hard, even a good person, I’d probably fuck it up.
How did you react to the script for Atonement when you were handed it?
I was blown away. It really is the best script I’ve ever read. I thought the character [of Robbie] was just beautiful, and beautifully drawn. But then there was Joe Wright, who I think is a bloody great director. I screen-tested opposite Keira, too, who just blew me away. She showed me the potential this movie had.
Is it true you found Robbie to be the most difficult character you’ve ever played because he’s too good?
I found him quite difficult, because I didn’t really believe characters like his existed. It wasn’t until I convinced myself that somebody like him could exist that I thought I could play the character well. It wasn’t until two weeks into rehearsals that I figured him out, actually. He’s just such an idealized version of humanity.
Next up is the comic-book adaptation Wanted, your first big-studio movie as the lead. Is this the end of James MCAvoy, independent-movie star?
Hey, I haven’t made an independent film in a very, very long time. Atonement, The Last King of Scotland, Penelope, Becoming Jane — none of them was an independent film. They were all studio pictures.
We don’t generally consider them studio movies on this side of the pond.
Studios have gobbled up the independent markets to make you think you’re watching an independent film, but they’re still studio pictures.