When James McAvoy began to study acting at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama at age 18, he also undertook a second, more practical course of study—as a baker.
“Yeah, a confectioner,” explains the 28-year-old, who’s best known for his performance as a morally adaptable doctor under the spell of Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. “I was like the apprentice confectioner. The other guy did all the hard stuff, and I would come in and put the cream and the little kiwi fruit on the top. It was great fun—cakes and tarts and gâteaux and all that.”
“For all his youthfulness, James has a kind of dirty threat to him,” says Stephen Fry. “Even though he is slight of build and, at first glance, almost pretty, there is something dark in there.”
“Confectioner” seems a rather dainty backup career for the actor, who talks of pints and “football” and admits that his at-home cooking never progressed much beyond scrambled eggs and bacon. But there is something about the baker’s craft—work that is deliberate, measured, scrupulous and clean—that perhaps aligns with the grain of his character. McAvoy’s childhood was in the tough Glasgow neighborhood of Drumchapel, and he was raised with strict standards by his grandparents after his parents split up when he was seven. His reserved manner has an almost heirloom quality, like a trait handed down by an older generation proud of its Scottish thrift and rectitude, and it comes in startling contrast to his onscreen portrayals of silver-tongued schemers who quiver with worldly ambition, as in Last King; embody the arrogance of aristocratic youth, as in Becoming Jane; or seduce an audience with their scrappy charm, like Inside I’m Dancing’s Rory O’Shea, who is confined to a wheelchair but fancies himself a lady-killer. In person, though, McAvoy is Granny’s good boy, drinking a cup of mint tea.
It is that capacity for goodness, says director Joe Wright, that made McAvoy an ideal fit for his most traditional leading-man role yet, opposite Keira Knightley in Wright’s film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s best-selling novel Atonement. In the movie, due out in December, McAvoy plays Robbie Turner, a charwoman’s son who, through the kindness of others, attends Cambridge and graduates in 1935 with all the wide world before him.
“In the book there are many, many descriptions of Robbie,” says Wright, who first saw McAvoy act onstage in London some seven years ago, when he was playing a gay rent boy with a perfect Liverpudlian accent. “I felt the most important one was having ‘eyes of optimism.’ James has those eyes. He looks towards a very bright future. Those clear eyes were one of the primary reasons I cast him.”