James McAvoy, action star.
There’s just no way that sentence can sound completely right. When we think of James McAvoy, we think of art-house fare, not popcorn thrillers. This is an actor, after all, who cut his teeth on Oscar contenders like The Last King of Scotland, and fantasy epics like The Chronicles of Narnia, and even critically-lauded literary adaptations like last December’s Atonement.
Sure, he has the rugged good looks of a young Bruce Willis, and the Scottish charm (and thick accent) of Sean Connery in his prime. But we just can’t imagine him jumping out of a moving car while shooting a semi-automatic at bad guys. But that’s exactly what you’ll get in Wanted, the new action flick based on the graphic novel by Mark Miller, and starring Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman and, believe it or not, one James McAvoy.
So does he actually pull it off? Surprisingly, yes. His secret may be that McAvoy never tries to imitate the smug composure or cigar-chomping bravado of most action heroes. Instead, he’s full of wide-eyed innocence, watching his transformation into gun-wielding, ass-kicking assassin with the same stunned disbelief as the audience. His every expression, even when he becomes an expert at making bullets turn corners and jumping into moving cars, tells the same story: “Holy shit, I can’t believe I just did that.”
As it turns out, the Glasgow native is full of surprises, and not just of the gun-slinging kind. We recently sat down with McAvoy to talk about action films, sex scenes, Mexican food, and – brace yourself – breathing fire.
I. EVEN FIRE-BREATHERS ARE SCARED OF THE CIRCUS
Eric Spitznagel: Is it true that you’re an amateur fire-eater?
James McAvoy: No, I have never eaten a drop of fire in my life. I promise you. However, I have, on occasion, breathed fire.
Ah, we see. An important distinction.
It’s a huge distinction, mate. One requires great skill and talent, and the other requires drunkenness and stupidity.
So where did you learn to breathe fire?
A festival called P in the Park in Scotland. It was 1985 and I was just a kid, like fifteen or sixteen. There was a circus performer there, and me and some friends stood around and watched him for awhile. He showed us how to do it, and how simple it was.
Have you done it at parties for friends? Do they ever go, “C’mon, James, do a little fire-breathing for us?”
The last time I did it was probably three or four years ago. But I fancy it quite a bit. It’s a cheap party trick. Everybody else sings or dances or does hand-stands, and I breathe fire. It takes a few seconds, and everybody goes, “Whoooooooo.”
Have you ever been tempted to join the circus?
What? What in the world for?
Well, you can breathe fire. Surely they’d hire somebody with your talents, right?
Naww. The circus always freaked me out. It just seemed a little bit scary to me. I never responded well to it as a kid.
Did it have something to do with clowns? They’re kinda spooky.
No, not necessarily. I’m not sure why, I just knew I was scared of it.
II. STUNTS AND BUTT DOUBLES
Wanted is your first action film, but it isn’t the first time you’ve used a gun in a movie. Are you comfortable holding and shooting a firearm?
Not particularly. It still feels very foreign to me. I’m not as familiar with guns as I’m led to believe your average American is. I find it strange.
Wanted has a lot of intense action sequences. Did you do most of your own stunts?
Well, I tried to, but they wouldn’t let me do everything. Which is understandable. There’s just some stuff I wouldn’t be able to do. I worked very closely with two stunt people in particular. A guy called C.C. Smiff and a guy called Rudi Vrba, who is a kickboxing champion. We rehearsed for a good month before we even started filming, just working out the fight scenes where we incorporate guns and everything else.
Did you learn any cool new tricks?
Oh yeah. I learned how to do this breakdancing kind of reverse slip-up to standing move, which I could never do before. Rudi taught me how to do that one.
Wait a minute, you were breakdancing? Please explain.
I have no idea how to verbally describe it to you. It just felt cool to me, but I could not possibly describe it. You’ll just have to see the movie.
What about naughty stunts? Do you do your own sex scenes?
[Long pause.] Is that a serious question?
You’ve never used a butt stand-in?
[Laughs.] Other than Wanted, which is the only film I’ve ever done that would’ve had the money for something like that, I don’t think the kind of movies I normally do would require me to have a butt double.
Do you feel awkward and nervous when you’re shooting a sex scene?
Always. I don’t really enjoy them. For one thing, you’re not in love with the person. Hopefully there’s someone out there that you would rather be kissing. It just makes it all seem a little bit strange. But, I’ve been lucky that the people I’ve had to do them with have always gotten on well. That’s all you can hope for.
Do you prefer that a director give you very specific instructions during a sex scene, or do you like it to be spontaneous and unplanned?
Spontaneity in a scene like that is kinda odd, because I could spontaneously stick my finger up the fucking wrong place. You know what I mean? I could spontaneously go too far or the other person could spontaneously do something that’s a little too much. Especially with a sex scene, if nobody is giving any instructions, and we haven’t actually rehearsed it like a proper scene, which it is, most actors get a little bit worried and hold back. But when you know what you’re meant to be doing and you’re on solid ground, then you can go for it. It’s not just the director calling out whatever happens to come into his head.
And an actor probably doesn’t always know where the camera is.
That’s right. It could be a very tight close-up shot on the leg or whatever, so you don’t know that at a particular point you need to put a hand on her leg. So you have to be told. It’s just a scene like any other.
III. ACTORS AND BAKERS GET UP TOO EARLY
Tell us something about you that nobody would expect.
Wow. I don’t know. People seemed to be shocked when I tell them that I like to do my own washing up.
You mean bathing?
[Laughs.] No, I mean doing the dishes.
Really? That is kinda shocking.
I think people assume that just because you do a couple of movies, you have a multi-million dollar pad and you’re living the high life. And I really don’t. I have a fairly normal existence. I like to think if I did earn millions and millions of pounds and dollars and all that rubbish, I would hope that I didn’t hire a cook.
You cook for yourself?
Oh course. It’s an absolute fucking joy to cook. I eat out so much because of my job. When I’m doing a movie, your breakfast is at work, your lunch is at work, and then you generally work too late to have a proper dinner, so you just snack on little things. When I’m at home and not working, I cook all the time. It’s one of those things that we’ve all done since the beginning of time. I’d feel like I was distancing myself from the rest of humanity if I didn’t cook.
What’s your specialty? If we came to dinner at the McAvoy house, what would you serve?
Probably curry with onions. Indian food is my favorite. I like trying to make Mexican food but I’m not all that brilliant at it. It tastes good, it just doesn’t taste particularly Mexican.
Speaking of cooking, wasn’t your first job at a bakery?
You’re exactly right.
You were a trainee confectioner for a few years as a teenager. What did you do, exactly?
Every morning I’d put the unfinished dough into the oven, and then I’d head out to the confectionary room and assist the main guy with making cream cakes and tarts and things like that. It didn’t require any great skill. It was fairly simple.
Do you ever miss it?
Not really. I enjoyed being completely alone during the early morning shifts, and during the night shifts. But I kinda hated baking. I love cooking but I’m not really into baking. And I also didn’t care for the ridiculously early mornings. Which is funny, because I’ve picked a career that also has ridiculously early mornings. I obviously haven’t learned my lesson.
IV. REMEMBER TO GET STUCK IN
You’re become a sex symbol. Do you like that attention, or does it seem like a distraction from acting?
I don’t really think too much about it. If I did, I’d be quite worried that I was becoming self-obsessed. I think that’s the best way towards it. It’s nice that people aren’t saying horrible things about me, but I can’t give it much thought. When it comes to opinions about yourself, the only person you should be listening to is yourself.
Have you ever Googled your own name, just to see what people are writing about you?
No, I haven’t done that. It’s odd, actors have so much written about them – or singers or politicians or anybody else in the public eye – and because of the Internet, well, you can find out what people think about you quite easily. But really, what other people think is unimportant. I have read the occasional review, which never turns out well. I like to think I’ve done some nice films, and sometimes people will say to me, “Oh, the reviews are great,” so I’ll go searching for them. But I always seem to find the bad ones. It’s a pain in the ass.
Wanted is a big change for you. Do you like where your acting career is heading?
I’ve never really done the same thing more than once. I can’t see myself doing another big action movie straight away. But I don’t know, I’ll probably do one again at some point, if I was offered, maybe. I don’t plan things. I don’t strategize with my career. I can’t even make it up as I go along.
Was it surreal to work on such a big budget Hollywood movie?
Oh, yeah. Just learning how to cope with the size of a project like that. I’ve done big movies like The Chronicles of Narnia, but I was really a supporting role in that. There wasn’t so much responsibility on my shoulders. In Wanted, it’s the first time I’ve been the lead in a big hundred million dollar movie, and if I’m not good in it, the movie will feel it.
You must’ve felt like an ant in Times Square.
Sure. Because of the type of movie it is, there’s a lot of technical stuff going on, a lot of CGI going on, and a lot of stunt vehicles and ropes and wires and all that shit, as an actor you can feel alienated from what’s actually happening. You know what I mean? You feel a bit disconnected from the work of the day. In all the other films I’ve done, what the actor is doing is the main focus of the day. But in this one, there’s so much going on that you don’t have any fucking understanding of whatsoever in any way, and you don’t even know how you got there, so you feel a distance from it all.
Did your co-stars have any advice on dealing with that?
The best advice was from Morgan (Freeman). He told me, just get stuck in.
Get stuck in?
Yeah. Just get stuck in the middle of it. Which is something I’ve always tried to do as an actor, but particularly for the first week of production, which was so much overload, I forgot to do that.
The experience has got to be a far cry from your first film, the 1995 indie The Near Room.
That’s right. [Laughs.] Things were so much simpler back then.
You once said that the term “Near Room” was something Muhammad Ali used to describe that dark, scary place inside a person’s head, where the alligators play trombones and everything’s a bit crazy.
So, what’s in your Near Room?
Oh, fuck knows. I think… I have no idea. God, what the fuck would be my Near Room? Umm, the tax man, maybe?
Your biggest fear is income tax evasion?
No, not tax evasion, because I’d never do something like that. But the taxman is probably the scariest thing I can think of. Yeah, that’s about it, I think.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May 2008 issue of Mean magazine.)