James McAvoy on Atonement: The RT Interview

The Scottish actor chats with RT about his latest role.

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It's hard to make a nice character seem interesting. How did you approach that for the first half of Atonement?

JM: Badly, I think. I kept trying to make him interesting -- conflicted, tainted, restless, passionate, and angry -- and I had to stop doing that because it was not working in rehearsals. It was just bad. I just had to trust that the most boring person in the world is interesting, because we're all interesting. We're all miracles as well, that we're even here.

I don't know why we're not interested in seeing good people. I think we like seeing good people, but only if bad things happen to them. Which is weird, isn't it? It's like the whole thing with Jesus Christ. F--king hell, it's an amazing story. Whether you're Christian or not, it's an incredible story because he's the best person that ever existed on the planet, and we crucify him. So there's something in our nature that enjoys stories where good people get royally f--ked up.

In the novel, there are many different descriptions of Robbie. Although there is a lot of dialogue, much of his character is internal. How did you take that from the novel and apply in to your portrayal of Robbie?

JM: I did it as faithfully as possible. I think it was clear to me that Joe was trying to make a very faithful adaptation of the film. Whereas when I did The Last King of Scotland, the adaptation of the film was very different. With that, it almost became a burden and a barrier to be too attached to the book, because the character was so different. But with Atonement, it was so faithful [because] the book was just an amazing source. If you wanted to know something about Robbie's history, you didn't just have to make it up. Which I've done before, where I think, "F--k, I want to know what his relationship with his dad is like." So then you spend five minutes inventing a history with his dad. But with this film, you don't have to do that because it's written for you. There's something about the fact that it's already been done that means your imagination and ego can't taint the character's history. There are hard facts that you may not like about the character, but you have to deal with it and there's something quite nice about that, because it means you can't have it all your own way as an actor.



You've done Band of Brothers and Atonement. Is there something that draws you to the World War II period?

JM: No, I don't think so. To be honest with you, none of the films that I have done in the last two years I have chosen to do. I've auditioned for them all. I could have been drawn to doing them, but it didn't mean I was going to get them. The jobs that I got were the jobs they decided to cast me in. I don't know why I get cast in a lot of period pieces. Stephen Fry told me that I had a face for period, that I look like someone from 1920. But I definitely do like that period of the two World Wars. They were such defining moments for British history and world history. They really helped shape the modern world -- the bravery, the loss, the waste.

Doing the action scenes for Wanted must have been a completely different experience for you.

JM: Totally different than anything I've ever experienced in my life. The 16-year-old boy in me was like, "Woo-hoo!" But after about three weeks, the 16-year-old boy just wanted to stay in bed, and the adult's going, "Oh, my back hurts so much. I don't want to go to the gym." The trainer who you used to really like is like, "C'mon, we've got to do some more weights." And you're just like, "May you burn in hell, you bastard!" [Laughs.]

But I'm really lucky. I've never really been pigeonholed as an actor and I've been able to play many different roles, so it was a chance to explore a different avenue. There's also a lot of comedy in it, and I love doing comedy. It was really quite a departure, and I think the thing that elevated it was the director, Timur Bekmambetov. [He's] mad as a box of snakes! He's just crazy, in a good way, in the best possible way, and and I'm really interested to see what he's done with it because I think he's really special.

Is it true that you're going to take a break from acting?

JM: I think I am. I've been saying that for a long time. But things are shaping up for next year, and maybe I'll be working again in March.

You've done a lot of films recently.

JM: Yeah, you've got to. And that's good because I'm young and that's the time for work, isn't it? You chill out when you get older. That's apart from the fact that I think people get sick of the sight of your face. It's probably a good idea to chill out. Also, if you're an actor, your job is to pretend to be a real person, to recreate reality. You've got to have a bit of a life from which to draw upon. If you don't live in the real world because all you do is spend all day on film sets, you become such a weirdo. Film sets are a strange place, but an exciting place. I do love my work, I really enjoy going to work. But if you just spend all your time on film sets or even on stage, you can become a Michael Jackson figure, living in your own little universe.

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