On location, most of the cast lived together in a large manor house rented for the shoot, but McAvoy kept to himself, living in a small cottage at the bottom of the estate. The decision was his and suggests a touch of the Method approach used to intense effect by Whitaker in Last King. McAvoy says that he generally tends to be skeptical of the American technique—“Films don’t exist for you to be truthful in,” he says, “they exist to tell a story”—but he does acknowledge that he may have “instinctually” tapped into the similarities between his personal experience and his character’s story.
“Like Robbie, I move in a very upper-middle-class to upper-class kind of world, but I’m not really from that world,” says McAvoy. “Most of the people who were staying in the house were a bit posh, and I was thinking that it was just better to keep myself away from them a little bit.”
Wright defends the actor’s choice and points out that McAvoy wasn’t exactly standoffish from the rest of the cast—he could be quite funny and convivial at times—but suggests that the actor simply needed a reliably quiet retreat.
“James likes his privacy,” says Wright. “Some of his favorite pastimes are hiking and mountain climbing. He’s not a party animal.”
“I move in a very upper-middle-class to upper-class kind of world, but I’m not really from that world,” says McAvoy.
McAvoy began acting thanks to an early introduction to Scottish actor David Hayman at a high school career fair. Hayman encouraged the 16-year-old to audition for the 1995 film The Near Room, about child prostitution in Glasgow, and the performance secured McAvoy a spot at drama school. By his own assessment, he did not rank highly among his classmates—he rates his skills as “fairly middling to not bad”—but he was nonetheless able to quit his day job at the bakery soon enough. By the time he was 20, he had earned his first professional acting gig, as Romeo in a London stage production, and he has since worked steadily onstage, in television and in film. It’s much more than he had expected in the early days.
“I prepared myself mentally for the possibility of maybe working once or twice a year,” he recalls. “I was actively imagining an existence that didn’t involve acting.”
McAvoy credits his success to the mentoring of a few formative figures along the way, among them Fry, who cast the young actor against type as the suicidal aristocrat Simon, Lord Balcairn, in Bright Young Things.
“I’d seen about 10 others for the part,” recalls Fry, who had never heard of the actor before he was brought in by casting agent Wendy Brazington. “And there stands this Scottish kid. It was as if a country boy from Kentucky was reading for Dickie Greenleaf in Ripley. I was dubious to say the least. But then he spoke some lines in character. It was like love at first sight.” Fry took McAvoy and his costars, including Emily Mortimer and Fenella Woolgar, for a weekend stay at Cliveden, the former estate of Lady Astor now run by the National Trust as a palatial country-house hotel, to teach them the manners and mores of Waugh’s bright young things. McAvoy, who apparently has a faultless ear for accents, says he already knew that he could “stand up stiff and wear a suit,” but before his work with Fry, which he likens to a “boot camp in aristocracy,” he didn’t actually believe he had anything in common with “people of that class.” Apparently he did.