TORONTO—“Don’t do that stupid thing with your mouth that you do.” Those were James McAvoy’s marching orders—“probably the most useful thing” that director Joe Wright said to him as he prepared for the biggest role of his career, the leading, and profoundly, unjustly wronged man in “Atonement.”
“When I’m in repose I tend to stick my lower lip up a bit,” McAvoy says, sheepishly, demonstrating such. Indeed, it’s a tic that connoisseurs of the McAvoy filmography—“Becoming Jane,” “Starter for 10,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” (he’s that faun dude, Tumnus)—will recognize instantly.
Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, Brenda Blethyn, Vanessa Redgrave, Juno Temple, Patrick Kennedy, Benedict Cumberbatch
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 7 Dec 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 7 Sep 2007 (General release); 2007)
“Sometimes I do it when I act, and Joe was just like, `Get rid of that, man. Stop it!’ ” he says.
Get rid of it, McAvoy did. In “Atonement,” the 28-year-old actor stars as Robbie Turner, son of a humble housekeeper in a grand country estate in late-1930s Britain. Although Robbie is technically one of the downstairs staff for the upstairs Tallis clan, tending to the grounds and whatnot, his schooling has been paid for by the family patriarch, and his friendship with the Tallis siblings is a strong one.
In fact, he’s in love with Cecilia Tallis—played with lanky limb and noble cheekbone by Keira Knightley—and she with him. As those familiar with Ian McEwan’s 2002 best-seller well know, Robbie and Cecilia’s relationship goes terribly awry when Cecilia’s young sister catches the couple in an amorous encounter, mistakes lovemaking for something fierce and hurtful, and goes on to make a most dire and unjust accusation.
From there it’s off to war—the Second World War—and all sorts of epic tragedy, beautifully shot, ensues. Director Wright, as he demonstrated with “Pride & Prejudice”—with Knightley his leading lady—has a knack for period drama, and yet makes the stuff of yesteryear feel very much of the here and now.
“What’s interesting about this film is that it’s not a war movie, and it’s not a love story,” says McAvoy, who hails from Glasgow, and who, on this September day, is in a hotel waiting for “Atonement’s” premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s the story of a lie. And how that lie unfolds, and affects people.”
McAvoy and Knightley, and the not-a-love-story/not-a-war-movie motion picture, are being touted for Oscar consideration. But for McAvoy, the real prize was just landing the part. After reading the script, and meeting with Wright, he had to screen-test opposite Knightley—knowing full well that two other candidates had already done so.
“I desperately wanted to be involved because I felt like not only did the project have an incredible script, but a director who understood it, which is not always the case,” he says.
So McAvoy and Knightley went through a few scenes together for Wright’s consideration, and then McAvoy waited for the call. As it happened, the actor and Knightley had read together before—for a film she was already signed to. McAvoy didn’t get that job (and he won’t say what film, or who did—“it wouldn’t be the proper thing to do”).
“I don’t even know if she remembers that we tested before `Atonement,’ or not. We’ve never talked about it.”
Once on board, McAvoy read the McEwan novel, and then managed to elude the “Atonement” author through all four months of the mid-2006 shoot.
“I was a bit scared, to tell you the truth,” McAvoy says with a smile, recalling McEwan’s visits to the set. “I kept overhearing him be really complimentary—well not complimentary, but really enthused in the general presence of anybody involved—and I just had this vision in my head of me going, `Hello there, Ian, I’m James, and I play Robbie.’ And of him just becoming very quiet, very pensive, and I didn’t want that to happen. So I literally avoided him until we finished the film.”
McAvoy, whose Glasgow brogue is thick and low, comes from humble roots. When he was 7, his father, a roofer, walked out, and his mother, a nurse, moved in with her parents—a butcher and a truck driver. When he was 16, still in school, McAvoy stumbled into a role in “The Near Room,” a film about child prostitution. Then he went to work in a bakery. Two years later, he had a couple of Royal thoughts—the Royal Navy, or the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He joined the latter, got small jobs in TV and film (he was one of the British infantrymen in Gillies MacKinnon’s harrowing World War I drama, “Regeneration”), moved to London, and went on to those fateful screen tests with Ms. Knightley.
Next up, something even McAvoy admits is “totally out of character”—he’s an action hero in a wild adaptation of the Mark Millar and J.G. Jones comic book “Wanted.” The director is Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian behind the crazed, bloody “Nightwatch” and “Daywatch” pics. McAvoy’s costars? Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman (yup, McAvoy gets to make out with Jolie). The film is due at the end of March.
“We shot it in Chicago and Prague,” reports McAvoy, who calls Bekmambetov a mad genius. “It’s a very different thing for me, very physical. I felt more like a professional football player than an actor sometimes ... you’re doing so many stunts, you’re training every day. ...
“It’s really not me,” he cautions. “I’m just not that guy, so it’s quite interesting when you get someone like me in something like that. Well, I hope it will be interesting.”