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

McAvoy is fantastically proud of the film, and he is right to be. It is directed by Joe Wright - only his second feature film after last year's Pride and Prejudice, also starring Knightley - and is based on Ian McEwan's Booker-shortlisted novel, a tale of how a misapprehension, and a terrible lie, can in its own way be as destructive as war itself. Cecilia (Knightley) is the daughter of the great house, Robbie has been raised like a son despite his humble origins; having acknowledged their mutual passion, the pair are separated by a malicious accusation by her younger sister. He is taken to prison, and later to war, and it is his journey, from youthful hope to shattered experience, that makes up the emotional heart of the film.

Wright has said that one of the reasons why he particularly wanted the actor for the part was because of McAvoy's own working-class roots. "I think that my journey in life was interesting to him," says McAvoy, a little uncomfortably. "I'm from a working-class environment and I suppose I have changed class. I am no longer working class. And I also have access to a type of class of people that might be construed as the modern aristocracy - do you know what I mean? - all this celebrity bullshit. I think that he felt that was maybe somehow comparable and I might have some point of reference with Robbie.

"Because he is someone who is living in a no-man's land. He is told his whole life is a lie, that class is not a factor for him, that you can transcend class if you want to and if you work hard enough, if you just get a wee break. And one day someone comes along and tells him that that's a lie, that he isn't who he thinks he is, and you're going to jail. I think I'm always slightly worried that something like that is going to happen. I'm always slightly worried that somebody is going to find me out and come along [saying], 'Ach, you're not actually as good as you thought you were. You are just a wee boy fae' the Drum.'"

Fall

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The trappings of his success - today we are in a suite at Claridge's in London, ahead of the film's London premiere - McAvoy describes as "pockets of fucking madness," and he insists that his own life is "mundane, and I love it that way." But if he is self-conscious about celebrity, he is not about his remarkable career success. "Don't get me wrong," he says, "[my career] has been much quicker than some other people's, but it's been - what? - 10 years now of just getting jobs that are slightly better, slightly better, slightly better."

His career had a pretty implausible beginning, all the same. McAvoy's big break came, in an oft-told tale, when the Scottish actor David Hayman came to address the 16-year-old's school, but was heckled by his classmates for being a bit "poofy." McAvoy went to apologize on behalf of his peers, and on a whim offered to come and make tea on Hayman's next film set. "I was just trying to be a nice guy, but I also found it quite interesting. He had worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger … !" Four months later Hayman rang and asked him to audition for a part. ("I didn't ask to become an actor or anything like that. I just asked if I could come and make his tea.")

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