James McAvoy is talking about Cyrano de Bergerac, the long-nosed, lovestruck poet he first played on stage in 2019, and is now about to reprise. But every now and again he interrupts himself with off-piste observations that have nothing to do with 17th-century libertines and doomed love triangles. It slowly becomes clear that he is inside his car, which is parked at the stage door of the Harold Pinter theatre in London, ready to jump into rehearsals after our chat.
“What’s this guy doing?” he says, in his meta commentary of people-watching. “Oh my God. There’s a labourer walking down the road and he doesn’t have any trousers on. He’s just in long johns and he has got the biggest penis I think I’ve ever seen.” Wait, how can he tell? “Because he’s wearing long johns! And he’s packing a nine-inch –”
All right, back to Cyrano. How does it feel to return to the loquacious swaggerer? "Partly," he says, "it makes you feel like two years haven't happened. Most of the lines were still just there in my head, without me having to worry, which has never happened before. I once sat with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and both of them had a 'Macbeth-off' where they started speaking Macbeth to each other. I had just finished doing Macbeth and I swear I could not remember a syllable, man. It was awful."
The show is directed by Jamie Lloyd, who dispensed with the idea of "characters" early on in the original run. Instead, he asked the cast to bring themselves to their parts.
This, says McAvoy, is what makes it a tricky endeavour: “The show relies on being authentic and you’re two years older now. So you’re slightly different people. Then Jamie went even further and said, ‘I don’t want you guys to wear costumes.’ And we ended up wearing a slightly heightened average of what we all wore a lot of the time.”
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Lloyd's production is a daring reconceptualisation, using everything from rap and beat-boxing to poetry slam mics front of stage. Edmond Rostand's Alexandrine verse has been freely – audaciously – adapted by Martin Crimp, who adds modern parlance and street slang, all of it striking for its intensity and speed of delivery. What's more, Cyrano's relationship with Christian – the handsome young lover for whom he writes words, to help him woo the woman they both love – comes with homoerotic edges. What does McAvoy make of these reworkings?
“It’s radical in lots of ways but it’s quite classical as well. Martin really sticks to the couplets and rhyme of Rostand’s original, more than a lot of versions. The fact that it sounds like rap at times or poetry slams is partly down to Martin, but also down to the fact that Jamie cast people who create those beats, and for whom spoken-word performance is part of their everyday.”
Even the homoeroticism doesn’t seem particularly radical to McAvoy, because it was always nestling in the subtext of the story. “I feel like it’s daft not to explore it when you’re talking about a love triangle. If I had to spend all my time loving a woman through a man who loved her and who loved him back, I would have to love him, too. The fact that it doesn’t get explored in other versions, I think, is about what people want to see and what they are ready for.”
And what about the absence of Cyrano’s biggest comic feature? Why no big nose? McAvoy replies: “As soon as Jamie and I said, ‘Let’s do Cyrano,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to do any noses.’ I said, ‘Oh, but it’s about a nose.’ And he said, ‘No it’s not. The first act’s about a nose – but the rest is about objectification.’”
After London, the show is transferring to New York but before that it will go to Glasgow, where McAvoy spent his childhood. His parents split up when he was seven, after which his father dropped out of his life. When his mother became ill, McAvoy was sent to live with his grandparents, who partly brought him up. How does it feel to be taking this show home, if Glasgow is still home? "It's where I was born, where I grew up. I've still got a place there and all my family there. I see myself as a Glaswegian and a Londoner – a Glaswegian Londoner."
McAvoy, who is 42, separated from his former wife, Anne-Marie Duff, in 2016, and met the Philadelphian Lisa Liberati on the set of M Night Shyamalan's thriller Split (Liberati was Shyamalan's PA). They began a relationship a couple of years later and, he confirms, recently got married. So he's now an honorary Philadelphian, too, isn't he? "Yeah, it's like a second home for me," he says, but does not want to elaborate on this side of his life for fear of creating tabloid fodder.
Acting wasn't McAvoy's first or only vocation. He thought about becoming a missionary so he could go to "far flung places", then almost joined the Royal Navy. He grew up on a council estate but the ambition was to have a big life and broaden his horizons. In the end, he chose to go to drama school, at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, graduating in 2000, and his career didn't take long to sky-rocket. It hasn't really come down, with such acclaimed films as The Last King of Scotland and Atonement under his belt, alongside the X-Men blockbusters and the BBC/HBO series His Dark Materials. In 2015, he pledged a significant sum of money to a 10-year scholarship programme at his old drama school. Was that about greater access into the industry?
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Not really, he says. “I don’t really care if all the people who have been through the scholarship process end up becoming actors or not. It would be a symptom of things getting better if our stages and screens continued to be diverse for the next 40, 50 or 100 years. But being exposed to art at an early age is not about creating artists – it’s about creating better people who are more able to communicate and feel worth something. Art, in all forms, allows you to see beyond your physical confines. If you do that then anything’s possible.”
McAvoy has spent the entire pandemic in Britain, taking only UK-based film projects, and co-parenting his 11-year-old son, Brendan. He has done his part to help the NHS, too: in March 2020, he donated £275,000 (€325,000) to a crowdfunding campaign. Having been here throughout the lockdowns, how does he feel about partygate? "I've been disappointed in our political system for decades. So the fact that it's letting us down isn't a massive shocker." So he feels disappointed by the system rather than by Boris Johnson? "I think the system relentlessly produces people that disappoint." As for partygate, he adds: "We're not even asking that they be held to a higher standard – and they can't even f**king do that."
McAvoy has spoken about Scottish independence. Does he think Scotland should reach for this now? "The fact that Boris and his company of people who enjoyed a drink while they were telling everybody not to isn't necessarily something that will make me go, 'Oh yes, Scottish independence' – even though he is iconic of an educational and elitist class system that plays into Scottish independence massively. Independence could be a fantastic thing but it needs to be done for the right reasons. Don't choose it because we don't like Boris. Choose it because we want it. We can't just define ourselves by our relationship with England. I'm sick of that."
What about post-pandemic life? Does he feel safe under the new relaxed rules, in theatres particularly? He says he recently contracted the Omicron variant, even after being double-vaccinated and boosted. It put him out of rehearsals for a while. Although there is a risk, he says, there is also the importance of congregating as a society, in which theatre plays a vital part. “Every time you step outside you are taking a risk. But how long can we maintain a society that doesn’t move, that doesn’t connect? If you feel comfortable coming, we’ll see you. If you were a regular theatregoer and you’re not coming, we’ll see you in a couple of years. But if we wait to put on shows until this whole thing is truly over – if that’s ever going to happen – then things like theatre and music might not exist.”
McAvoy has sometimes nodded off in the wings, a result of experiencing the same kind of tired tension a boxer might feel before a fight.
He did so with Macbeth in London in 2013, which demanded so much, physically and emotionally. But he loved the part and would like to take on more Shakespeare. Maybe Hamlet? “Nah, I’m not that bothered about doing Hamlet. He’s always seemed a bit of a moaner to me.”
King Lear? “Yeah, I’d love to, when I’m 100. You can do whatever you want in a production – but I want to feel I’m giving something of myself. So if I’m playing someone on their deathbed, I want to at least feel nearer to it.”
Cyrano de Bergerac is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until March 12th, then at Theatre Royal Glasgow from March 18th to 26th, and at Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, from April 5th to May 22nd 2022.