James McAvoy: ‘I knew I had to make my character filthy’
‘Like he hasn’t changed his knickers in weeks. Not like the spy world in Bourne’
If you are one of the little (or bigger) girls who was bitterly disappointed when Wonder Woman’s Amazonians versus Germans stand-off descended into a flurry of fast cuts and special effects, well, fear not: Atomic Blonde is here to show us how to properly fight like a girl.
A lesbian John Wick from that film’s co-director David Leitch, this fabulously brutal actioner follows MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to Berlin in 1989, where she and the agency’s station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) get caught up in any number of deadly late-Cold War intrigues.
“Charlize was so cool, I knew I had to make my guy filthier,” says McAvoy. “Not cool filthy, but actually like he hasn’t changed his knickers in two weeks. Our film is grubby. It’s not like the representations of the spy world you find in Bourne. It’s Bourne in the sewer. It’s minging Bourne.”
In this spirit, McAvoy is introduced to the audience with a visible hangover and two girls chained to his bed in a grotty dwelling stacked with black-market goods. It’s his least appealing look since he blazed up the screen as the homophobic, misogynistic, racist, drug-taking, predatory, auto-asphyxiating cop at the centre of Filth (2013).
“I actually asked for a girl and a guy,” says the 38-year-old. “But they said no, because Charlize was already doing the lesbian thing. I had read a really great thing about how MI6 tried to recruit agents after World War II. They looked for drug addicts, alcoholics and gay men. They liked drug addicts and alcoholics because they knew they would burn out or possibly die in their 50s. So they weren’t going to retire with a lot of secrets to keep. They liked gay men because they needed people who were experienced and skilled at keeping massive secrets. People who were functioning in society without anyone knowing.”
Atomic Blonde isn’t the first occasion when McAvoy has played second banana to a female action star. In 2008, he was mentored by Angelina Jolie’s assassin in Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted. In recent years, as Charles Xavier, he has frequently been surrounded by the X-Women of the X-Men universe, notably Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, Halle Berry’s Storm, Anna Paquin’s Rogue, Ellen Page’s Shadowcat, and Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey,
“Someone asked me earlier about the differences between films from the 80s and films now,” he laughs. “Can I sum that up? No. Not a chance. But I can tell you this: action movies were a ton more sexist than they are now. That’s not to say that action films are perfect now and we’re all sorted. But we are seeing women a wee bit more in superhero films. And Atomic Blonde is sort of a superhero because she’s so superior to everyone else around her. Hopefully that bleeds out into other genres and then the rest of the industry. Because how things were was nuts.”
Growing up on a fairly salty council estate in Glasgow’s Drumchapel, McAvoy landed his first screen role in The Near Room, aged 15, after cheekily asking director David Hayman for a job when he visited McAvoy’s school.
“I got a part in a f***ing film! Wow! And that gave me the bug, if you like. But I had no outlet for it really. We didn’t have drama at school. I didn’t have an agent or anything like that. I managed to scrounge a couple of extra little jobs. I walked on to the set of Gillies MacKinnon’s Regeneration wondering if anybody would be there from the first film and there was. So I get brought to the casting director and ended up as a crying silhouette in the background. When I was leaving school I was going to join the navy or take the university place I’d been offered in social sciences. I didn’t know what the course was and I didn’t have any passion for it. And I thought ‘F**k it, I’ll l try drama school in Glasgow’. If I hadn’t got in, I think I would have just floated away. I was really lucky. Because it gave me direction and a very rewarding life.”
Sure enough, he has seldom been out of work since, but the parts and the budgets have gotten steadily larger. Having scored early movie breakthroughs in his 20s with The Last High King of Scotland, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Atonement, he has graduated onto to back-to-back blockbusters; his most recent pictures scared up $276,921,998 (€234m, for Split) and $543,934,787 (€460m, for X-Men: Apocalypse) at the box office.
“I look at what I’ve done and I pinch myself,” he says. “Whether a film is successful or not is not something I take any gratification from. Where I get my satisfaction in is working on a scene, on the day, trying to tell the story well. If I’m on a good set and getting to play a really interesting character with a director who is helping me mine even more out of the script, helping me become a better actor: that’s when I pinch myself.
“I never thought any of this would happen when I started out: neither the amount of work nor the level at which I’ve been able to work. In theatre or film. Had my career stalled about 10 years ago and I’d been able to continue at that level, I would have thought that was tremendous. But now I have franchises on the go. Who thought that was possible?”
Sure enough, following on from M Night Shyamalan’s wildly successful dissociative identity disorder thriller Split, McAvoy is now the star at the centre of two major franchises.
“I probably did more press for Split than for any other film. But it worked. We got a good crowd in. It’s strange, too, but a lot of the jobs I’ve done in the past five years felt like they were leading up to Split. I’d played Jack in The Ruling Class who thinks he’s Jesus Christ and then Jack the Ripper. I don’t have multiple personalities in Danny Boyle’s Trance but there are memories he has locked away from himself.”
And, of course, Filth’s Bruce Robinson.
“Yeah. Weirdly I resonated with him a hell of a lot. In my entire career the characters I’ve resonated most with are him and Macbeth. For some reason they are the characters are I have found easiest to play. And yet they’re deranged and suicidal. And not at all like me.”
As we meet, McAvoy is preparing for three months off in Montreal for his other franchise as X-Men: Dark Phoenix cranks into production: “I love that the films are full of Scots and British and Irish all pretending to be American. Except for me. Although my character was American in the comics, they changed him for the first film in 1999. But that suits me. I’ve been a professional Englishman for almost 20 years.”
McAvoy has never discussed his private life, nor made comment on the estranged father who attempted to sell his story to the tabloids, or his now ex-wife Anne-Marie Duff. (The couple announced their divorce following nine years of marriage last May, but they continue to live with their son Brendan at the family home in north London.)
Still, nobody could describe the Glaswegian as reticent. He chats away, like a casual acquaintance you’ve bumped into on the street. We’re in Soho: he hasn’t come far. You can hop on the bike. He wasn’t sure about Brendan Rodgers at first but he thinks he’s done a brilliant job transforming Celtic FC from a team that was “winning shit” into “winning and looking good doing it”. His own football skills are “Rubbish, but what I lack in skill I make up for in ankle-biting and belligerence”. He had to give up boxing for seven months after he missed his mark and punched a metal door on the set of Split, breaking two knuckles and two fingers in the process; it’s the first breather he has taken from the sport since he began fight training for 2008’s Wanted with his three-time world kickboxing champion stunt double. He talks about James Bond like a man who has little or no interest in taking up Daniel Craig’s post.
“Bond isn’t even really a spy,” he says. “It’s not like he does any spy work. He walks into a room and everyone knows who he is. I’m James Bond. So everybody looks around and thinks: ‘Oh fuck, it’s James Bond, he’s got a licence to kill, better watch it’. He’s not getting any information. He can’t go undercover. How is that spying?”
– Atomic Blonde opens August 9th