James McAvoy on Atonement: The RT Interview
The Scottish actor chats with RT about his latest role.
In his latest film, Atonement, McAvoy plays Robbie Turner, a groundskeeper whose entire life is irrevocably changed when he is falsely accused of a crime. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, McAvoy joins a talented crew including Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave, and the Pride and Prejudice team of director Joe Wright and actress Keira Knightley. Atonement opens this Friday in limited release. RT met up with McAvoy in San Francisco to chat about the challenges of playing a "perfect" character, the cost of training for Wanted, and why he might be taking a break from acting.
In Atonement, there is an incredible very long tracking shot on the beach, involving lots of extras. How did you rehearse for that?
James McAvoy: We wanted to be very particular, so we spent a whole day rehearsing. I think with something as daunting as that, most directors would say, "F--k it, we've got so many extras, we'll just shoot all day and get 20 takes and one of them might work. And if they don't all work, we'll edit." But Joe just decided that we would rehearse all day and get it perfect. And then when the light was just right, and we only had half an hour, we did three takes. Two of the takes didn't work, so we were on the third take and it felt really good. So we went back to view it on the monitors and, of course, the monitors decided to f--king blow up, so we didn't know if we had it. But we found out two days later when we got the footage back that it worked and it was all good.
How many extras were involved in that scene?
JM: There were 1500 people. Any one of them could have royally screwed up at any point, so it was a miracle that it worked. I always think that particular scene is a microcosm of what making a film is. It really is a miracle of people collaborating and it was interesting because it's very rare that something is that free, and that the actor is the person that helps make the shot. Usually you're told to stand somewhere and the cameras move all around you. It this scene, it was much more along the lines that the camera may be anywhere. It would never be in the same place twice because a horse would walk past me, so I would be like, "F--k, the camera's over there!" The actors were creating the shots as much as they could, which was so enjoyable but also high pressure.
What is it about Joe Wright's directorial style that brings out such praised performances?
JM: He grew up in the theater. His mother and father were both puppeteers and owned a puppet theater. His mother still owns one called The Angel. I think he loves actors, and that's a big thing because not every director likes actors. A lot of directors feel like actors just f--k up their films. But Joe loves actors. He cares about them and tries to make them better. Having a director that is confident in you and cares about you makes you suddenly feel free. You feel safe to take risks and that alone is big. He understands every job on a film set, which I don't think a lot of directors do. He appreciates everybody on set. He's a proper f--king amazing über-director.
You mentioned that Joe Wright has a theater background. Since the cast lived together while filming Atonement was this a theater-like experience?
JM: I didn't live together, I stayed separate. Partly because I went to college and couldn't be asked about s--t anymore, and partly because my character is separate from all of them. It kind of helped that all of the actors that lived in the house with Joe and the crew were all quite posh. They were all quite upper class. Lovely people, and some of them are now really good friends of mine, but they were all quite posh and I'm not really. I'm not from that background. It was useful for me as my character to kind of stay away.
So when I'd go up there for my dinner or something like that, I'd go once or twice a week. I could have gone up any night I wanted, and I was always welcome, but in my head and my imagination, I was only going up when I was invited. It was also kind of just me doing a little bit of make believe. I'm not a method actor, but I just kept myself a wee bit separate.
Your character goes through many stages throughout the film -- including age and going from being quite naïve to very jaded. How did you take on that challenge?
JM: I like playing a variety of characters. I feel like I've been able to play different kinds of characters -- I've done a lot of period pieces -- but I've never had to play the same type of character too much. Getting to play two different types of characters in one film was quite interesting.
I found him quite difficult to play and believe in to begin with, because he's quite a perfect type of person and I found that strange. I didn't know if I could play it convincingly because I wasn't sure if I believed that people like that exist. And then it got easier as we went along because I started to believe that he could. People like that might not exist for real, but it's what we should be. The type of person that he became halfway through the film after something bad happens to him is somebody that I'm much more used to playing. He's somebody who is very conflicted and suicidal, and strangely because of that, much more human.
He doesn't really know who he is anymore. I don't think he can quite remember who he was, because he is so different. The only person who knows who is his and can make him feel like he can even remember the person he used to be is [Keira Knightley's character] Cecilia Tallis. If it wasn't for the fact that she still cared for him, still loved him, or that she's even alive, I think he'd kill himself because who he was would be completely lost. I think that's just such an amazing place to start of playing a character.