James McAvoy on why he loves to play mad men

Actor’s latest role as Victor Frankenstein continues a long line of manic, delusional characters with god complexes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 10:22am

“It’s been a strange few years,” reflects James McAvoy. “There have been a lot of mental people.”

It’s not what you expect to hear from the genial Scottish actor who made his breakthrough as the gentle faun Mr. Tumnus a decade ago in the big-budget adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. But change has been afoot for McAvoy both on screen and stage, ever since he played the memory-addled auctioneer in Danny Boyle’s tricky 2013 thriller Trance.

Since then, he’s played the sordid cop Bruce Robertson in an adaption of Irvine Welsh novel Filth and a rather depressed Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past. In the theatre, he’s taken on Shakespeare’s murderous Macbeth and a (possibly) paranoid schizophrenic in a revival of Peter Barnes’ comedy The Ruling Class.

“A lot of them are manic and delusional and have god complexes... so it’s been three, four years of being in quite a strong, mentally unwell vein.” He cuts a big smile. “And I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed it.”

McAvoy’s latest to fit this mould is the title role in Victor Frankenstein, a film loosely inspired by the classic Mary Shelley gothic novel about a scientist who plays god.

This latest version is a Frankenstein’s monster in itself – a stitching-together of everything from Shelley’s text to the Universal horror movies from the 1930s. Or as the script’s title page put it: “Inspired by the collective subconscious zeitgeist experience responding to the original Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley.”

Written by Max Landis, the young screenwriter behind the hit sci-fi Chronicle and the recent American Ultra, it immediately made McAvoy sit up and take notice.

“It was something descriptive and convoluted at the same time... Max was going into all those sources that already exist, but also what the zeitgeist created and what we’ve collectively put together without even talking about it.” Even Mel Brooks’ spoof Young Frankenstein somehow seems woven into this tapestry of horror, science and comedy.

Set in Victorian London, McAvoy’s Dr Frankenstein errs more towards the mad scientist side of the spectrum – even uttering the immortal line “It’s alive!” at one point.

“I think Frankenstein is liberating himself from a system of control that he doesn’t believe in, where God is at the top and he decides when we all die... yet he’s a maniacal doctor who is trying to make zombies, and that’s a bad thing. But there’s something noble at the heart of what he’s trying to do.”

If it sounds all too familiar, the story differs from other Frankenstein tellings, not least with the depiction of Igor (played here by ex-Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe).

The hunchback creature seen in James Whale’s 1931 movie Frankenstein, but not present in Shelley’s novel, here becomes the eyes for the audience; rescued by Victor from a circus, his hunchback cured by a gruesome but merciful medical procedure, Igor provides the emotional grist as he looks to elevate himself.

Surprisingly, McAvoy then cites David Fincher’s The Social Network – about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his cronies – as influential.

“After seeing that film, Max was interested in young men at the forefront of technology changing the way we live. That made him think about medicine, that made him think about Frankenstein.” So his good doctor is like a prototype Mark Zuckerberg? “Yeah, pretty much – except he was doing it with flesh instead of the internet. This should be called The Fleshy, Tissuey Network!”

Chatting away merrily, the 36-year-old McAvoy comes across as enthusiastic and erudite, even if he’s more cautious when it comes to talking about his personal life.

He’s been married for nine years to actress Anne-Marie Duff, whom he met on TV show Shameless, and they have one child, Brendan, who was born five years ago. He and Duff live a modest life in North London, and rarely talk about each other or their son to the press (though he does fondly discuss leafing through X-Men sticker albums “with my kid”).

“We keep our noses clean and keep our stuff private,” he says. “It’s a difficult thing – you’ve got to talk about yourself but you’ve also got to not try and say anything about yourself. Also, it helps if you’re not a girl. Girls have it 100 times harder. If you’re exceptionally, ridiculously beautiful – like Keira Knightley or Angelina Jolie – then it’s going to be different.

“I’m not saying I’m a bad-looking guy but if you look a bit normal, I don’t think you’re that much of a pot at the end of the rainbow for the magazines.”

Born in Glasgow, McAvoy’s own upbringing wasn’t easy. His mother Liz, a psychiatric nurse, and his father James, a roofer, divorced when he was seven, and he and his younger sister Joy moved in with their maternal grandparents. Raised in the tough working-class neighbourhood of Drumchapel, McAvoy planned to join the navy, but he veered towards the arts at school.

“I was really lucky,” he says. “I had two exceptional music teachers who went above and beyond.”

After a chance encounter with actor-director David Hayman, McAvoy auditioned for a play he was directing, which ultimately led him to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Television roles in BBC drama State of Play and Shameless followed, but it was his film work that really sparkled – winning two BAFTA nominations for Joe Wright’s Atonement and The Last King of Scotland, playing doctor to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

With McAvoy maturing towards his bleak period ever since, he’s about to go on to The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, Split. There’s also a cold war drama, The Coldest City, co-starring Charlize Theron, in the offing.

First, though, he’s back in the wheelchair for his third outing as Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men: Apocalypse. This time, with the plot set in the 1980s, McAvoy has been able to throw his weight around – well, a little.

“I requested a new wheelchair and I got one!” he grins. “The one that I used at the end of the last movie was Patrick Stewart’s old one from the first movie in 2000. I was like, ‘That’s cool, but I want one made to my dimensions that looks more ’80s!’”

It even does “endos” – where you hit the breaks and let it tip up on its front wheels. Whatever keeps you sane.

Victor Frankenstein opens on November 26