JAMES McAVOY IS on a tightrope. Not literally, of course. The Scottish-born star of Atonement and The Last King of Scotland hasn’t suddenly added circus stunts to his repertoire. But right now he’s working on some of the most dangerous projects of his career – without the proverbial safety net.
“A lot of what’s happening now, it’s a very safe time in film,” he sighs, when we meet in London’s Knightsbridge. “Less so on television. But it’s a very safe time in film – unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or Danny Boyle.”
So it’s easy to see why McAvoy, 34, has just made Trance, his first film with Boyle, the director fresh from orchestrating last year’s London Olympics opening ceremony. McAvoy sums up the experience in a way typical of his easy-going, colloquial manner.
“It was mental,” he grins, through a thick sprawl of facial hair. Written by John Hodge, Boyle’s writer on Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, the film is a mind-bending thriller set in the world of hypnosis.
McAvoy plays Simon, a trusted employee at a prestigious London auctioneering house.
When he gets involved with a criminal gang (led by a charismatic Vincent Cassel), he becomes central in a plot to steal a Goya painting mid-way through an auction.
However, the artwork disappears while in his care and, following a blow to his head, Simon suffers amnesia and cannot explain what has happened.
Things get even more complicated when Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist character, Elizabeth, arrives, in the hope of unlocking Simon’s fractured mind.
Similar to Christopher Nolan’s Memento in its exploration of memory, Trance is a woozy noir-like thriller as much as a character study – as Simon is forced to rediscover his past and who he really is.
“It’s a film where you really get to explore the boundaries of what’s strange and odd,” says McAvoy. “All of the situations Simon finds himself in are slightly off and unexpected; altered in some way. And as he gets closer to his memories, it has huge repercussions for everyone involved.”
But Trance is just one reason why McAvoy is balancing on that highwire. Currently in London, he’s coming to the end of a fourmonth run playing the title character in Macbeth in Jamie Lloyd’s post-apocalyptic production at the Trafalgar Studios – a tiny space “on the doorstep of Downing Street”.
With a muscular, yet wiry McAvoy retching into toilet bowls one minute, sliding down ladders the next, it’s a blood-and-thunder performance, dizzying and dazzling in equal measure.
Then there’s Filth, Jon Baird’s film adaptation of Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh’s scabrous book about Bruce Robertson, a depraved, drug-addled lawenforcer spiralling out of control.
“What’s interesting about it is that you get this guy doing all these objectionable, mental, dangerous, risky things that are totally abusive and disgusting,” says McAvoy.
“And you expect he’s going to get his comeuppance. But what ultimately happens is he unravels himself. Nobody takes him down. He starts to fall apart.”
Certainly, those who were raised on McAvoy’s breakthrough performance as the loveable faun Mr Tumnus in 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will be taken aback. Welsh, on the other hand, is delighted, calling McAvoy’s performance “incendiary”. “It’s one of the best solo performances I’ve ever seen. I think he’s better than [Robert] De Niro in Taxi Driver. He has all the craziness, but he has more pathos than De Niro has in Taxi Driver.
It’s a really edgy and totally disturbing performance,” the writer says.
With British thriller Welcome to the Punch also in the can, McAvoy is clearly on a roll.
He’s a producer on Filth – the first time he’s taken such a credit – which has been an eyeopening experience. “The braver the film, the longer and harder the road is,” he says, “which is strange, as when a brave film truly blows up, we all go: ‘This is it – this is what we’re looking for!’ You’re not going to get that unless you let people make them.”
McAvoy’s own background may not be quite on the level of an Irvine Welsh character, but he knows the terrain. Born in Glasgow, he was raised in the working-class area of Drumchapel – his father, James, was a roofer, his mother, Liz, a psychiatric nurse.
His parents divorced when he was seven, and he and his younger sister, Joy, moved in with their maternal grandparents who raised them in a strict but loving environment.
Everything from becoming a missionary to joining the navy flitted through the young McAvoy’s mind – though he’s keen to play down the former. “The missionary thing, I thought about for five minutes,” he says. “I said it in an interview about 10 years ago and it’s since become ‘I was taking my holy vows’ and ‘I was chaste for the first 18 years of my life’. It’s not true, really. I did think about it, as most Catholic boys would consider it at one point in their lives. You just try to think of something useful to do.”
After accosting actor-director David Hayman, who was visiting his school, McAvoy wound up auditioning for a play he was directing, which led to a stint studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
From there, he began winning television roles – notably, in the BBC drama State of Play and as the cheeky southern car thief in the television series Shameless, where he met future wife Anne-Marie Duff. The two married in 2006, and she gave birth to their son, Brendan, four years later.
In the wake of Shameless, McAvoy’s career has been on an upward curve – Bafta nominations for Joe Wright’s Atonement and Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland (where he sparkled as the physician to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin) led to a Hollywood spell. He went up against Angelina Jolie in action thriller Wanted and starred as the young Professor X in superhero prequel X-Men: First Class.
But still based in London with Duff and their son, he has no desire to relocate to Los Angeles. “I don’t go there a lot,” he says. “I don’t want to be all worthy about it, but I don’t do red carpets, I don’t do events and I don’t accept freebies that much – although I do accept a couple, I have to say.”
Hollywood may be kept at arm’s length, but he is about to start shooting X-Men: Days of Future Past, which will bring the First Class cast together with their older selves from the original X-Men series – which, in his case, means hooking up with the venerable Patrick Stewart.
Still, McAvoy doesn’t feel like he’s ready to climb onto the A-List. “I doubt I ever will,” he says. “After 10 years, I could stop playing leads and I could stop getting films. But I’d still want to be an actor. And if you play the star game too much, I don’t think you can go back to playing character roles. I still feel like I’m dead lucky to get character roles.
Hopefully, I’ll be doing this when I’m 80, if I make it that far.”
Trance is screening now