On January 1, one day after his 27th birthday and fresh from his honeymoon, James McAvoy slips into a coffee shop in the fashionably scruffy North London borough of Crouch End, where he’s bought a house with his bride, the actress Anne-Marie Duff. Rumpled in baggy jeans and carrying a backpack, his brown hair rising adorably into two little devils’ horns that suggest recent contact with a pillow, McAvoy goes unnoticed in the cafe until the pretty pregnant woman at the table next to us gets a closer look and perks up. Though McAvoy’s big Hollywood breakthrough, The Last King of Scotland, has yet to open in England, he’s already a big deal at home as a former star of the popular television series Shameless, in which he played a charming boy with a big crush on Duff.
Whether by humble temperament or humble origins — he and his sister, who’s in a Scottish girl band, were raised by their grandparents in a rough Glasgow housing project after their parents divorced — McAvoy wears his successes with an unforced modesty that sells his prodigious talent short. Along with his other recent triumphs, the actor describes his 2006 BAFTA award for best newcomer as “very nice,” and though he admits that life is good now, he feels his luck could change anytime. “Look at all the actors who were so successful at 27,” he says, “and then disappeared.”
Notwithstanding stellar notices, McAvoy regards his blossoming career as a long series of accidents seemingly unrelated to his gifts or the hard work he put in to television and his favorite medium, the theater, before he cracked the movies. You could call it luck that brought the actor and director David Hayman, who was playing Lady Macbeth in an all-male production at Glasgow’s celebrated Citizens Theater, to McAvoy’s high school class as a guest speaker. Or luck — never mind the brass that McAvoy mustered to call and ask — that led to a small role in a film Hayman made a few months later on child pornography and prostitution. (“He shouldn’t have given me the part,” McAvoy recalls. “I was very bad in it.”) No doubt it was luck, too, that got him into Glasgow’s prestigious drama school (“I was never the most successful student, and nobody expected me to do particularly well”), which he paid for by working nights as a confectioner. And was it luck, too, that brought him to London at age nineteen, where within the year he was up and running as a working actor?
So lots of good fortune, yes. None of which would cut much ice were it not for McAvoy’s sheer versatility as a rebellious paraplegic in Rory O’Shea Was Here; a suicidal gossip columnist in Bright Young Things (whose director, Stephen Fry, McAvoy counts as an influential mentor); the kindly but weak Mr. Tumnus the faun in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and, in the role that has turned heads in Hollywood, the undiscriminating young doctor who gets too chummy with Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
McAvoy likes the fact that Scotland‘s most attractive figure is “a mass murderer with whom you can empathize” and that his own character is an ambiguous figure whose charm exceeds good sense or conscience. But the two-and-a-half-month shoot proved more grueling than the actor had bargained for. Forest Whitaker was “brilliant, and a lovely, sweet, chilled-out guy off the set. But in that character he was focused and intense, and that was quite tough to be around.” McAvoy passed out for lack of air during a particularly graphic torture scene, his discomfort aggravated by the fact that the scene was shot the same day that news broke of the London bombings, and none of the crewmembers could get in touch with their families. “It was an amazing experience,” he says wryly. “But we didn’t have much of a good time.”
For his small stature (he’s five foot seven), McAvoy exerts a powerful physical presence. He’s a gymnast, acrobat, mountaineer, and, apparently, a sometime fire-eater, and though he hasn’t done many action movies so far — “because I’m not six foot five and built like a brick shithouse”—that’s about to change when he plays a young man who follows his father’s footsteps into the assassin business in the upcoming studio picture Wanted. On first acquaintance, McAvoy doesn’t strike you as a romantic lead either. “I don’t think I’m ugly,” he says, “but I’m not exactly a matinee idol.” Maybe not, but he has bags of charm, cornflower-blue eyes, and a feral grin that lent him a sexy magnetism in Scotland and will doubtless enhance his turn as an Irishman who seduces and then dumps Anne Hathaway’s Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, slated for release later this year. Then McAvoy will show a nicer, more vulnerable side — the side he shows in person — opposite Romola Garai and Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s upcoming adaptation of Ian McEwan’s wonderful novel Atonement.
Still, niceness has its limits. In Starter for Ten, a harmless, nerveless British romantic comedy opening this week, McAvoy uses no more than a fraction of his range as a nerdy college student who can’t get any traction with the opposite sex. The same goes for the upcoming Penelope, in which he plays a Prince Charming who shows up to relieve Christina Ricci of her piggy nose (don’t ask). McAvoy diligently does his duty selling these movies, but, he admits cheerfully, “I’ve also done a lot of shit.” When I ask for specifics, he smiles sweetly and leans forward. “I’ll never tell,” he whispers confidentially. Then he chugs back the dregs of his peppermint tea and goes home.