Thu, Sep 13, 2007 - Page 14 News List

James McAvoy worries the bigger he is, the harder he'll fall

In just three years, James McAvoy has gone from unknown to Hollywood A-lister. As his new film, 'Atonement,' opens to rave reviews, he talks about his 'mundane' private life and the fear that one day it all might slip away

Esther Addley  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

James McAvoy front left, and Forest Whitaker center, in a scene from their film, The Last King of Scotland.

PHOTO: AGENCIES

James McAvoy wasn't meant to be an actor - anything but. His father, who walked out when he was seven, was a roofer, his mother a psychiatric nurse. His grandfather and grandmother, with whom Liz McAvoy moved in with her two children after her husband left, were a butcher and occasional lorry driver respectively. They all lived together in Drumchapel, one of the ugliest housing projects in Glasgow, Scotland. It is tempting to view them as an early version of the chaotic but loving Gallagher family in Shameless, the UK TV's Channel 4 series that provided McAvoy's big break - though without the stealing, incontinence and spectacular falling-down drunkenness.

McAvoy's vague ambitions, at that stage, included joining the navy and becoming a priest: both, in different ways, offered a chance of escape. But mostly, "I wanted to be all right. I remember my friend Mark Doyle and I, this confidence we had that we were going to be all right. And even if we ended up doing something rubbish that we would be happy."

It is fair to say he has done all right. McAvoy's latest film, Atonement, opened the Venice film festival last week to the kind of reviews that actors spend entire careers barely daring to aspire to. His performance as Robbie Turner, the son of a housekeeper at a country estate, raised with ambitions but appallingly wronged, holds the movie together. Inevitably - it is a sweeping period tragedy, after all - both the film and its leads (Keira Knightley is the other) have sparked talk of Oscars. Marco Mueller, the director of the Venice festival, told a newspaper last week that he believed 28-year-old McAvoy was one of the finest acting talents in world cinema today.

"Who's that?" says McAvoy when I mention Mueller's comment. "Oh, that's nice of him. Very nice." He's been flipping a silver teaspoon between his fingers and suddenly drops it on the floor; he scoops it up and starts flipping it again. "I don't know. I don't mix with those sorts of people. I don't mix with film industry people. So I really am separate from it, and I try not to talk about it. Ehm ... I generally just try to keep it out of my head. But it's really nice that he's saying that. It's so much nicer than if he was saying I was a hugely overrated wee pikey."

McAvoy's accent has "chilled out" a lot in the past eight years or so, he says, when "English people couldn't understand me sometimes and Americans just couldnae get it," but he retains a guttural Glaswegian brogue, to the frequent shock of those who have only seen him playing impeccably English posh characters.

It's a surprise, too, that in the flesh, McAvoy is really pretty unremarkable. Average height, slight build, jeans, shirt, dark hair. Plain, stubbled face; small neat hands. He has extraordinary blue eyes - huge and clear - but you have to look for them, and he gives the pointed impression that he flicks on the full beam only when he wants to. On screen, however, he has the ability to turn his lean frame into something commanding, radiating physicality and presence. You can't quite take your eyes off him.

For instance, the most astonishing scene in Atonement - designedly so - is a long, sweeping single shot of the beach at Dunkirk, where thousands of shattered troops await their evacuation amid scenes of carnage: burning buildings, horses being executed, a battered Ferris wheel rotating forlornly in the distance. McAvoy's character Robbie, and two colleagues, having been separated from their unit, have limped across northern France attempting to rejoin their comrades, and stumble along the beach in profound shock at what they are witnessing. McAvoy is dwarfed by the scale of the scene, the towering buildings and huge, beached boats, and is a head shorter than his two fellow actors, yet he is absolutely dominant, his stature boosted somehow by the pained slump of his shoulders.

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