Scottish Reel

James McAvoy has played toffs, a rent boy and Idi Amin’s doctor. Now, in Atonement, he plays the lead.

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Scottish Reel

Scottish Reel

James McAvoy has played toffs, a rent boy and Idi Amin’s doctor. Now, in Atonement, he plays the lead.

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.”

When McAvoy arrives for this interview in a Toronto hotel bar a few days after a film festival screening of Atonement, he chooses a seat beneath a large plate-glass window, where the even fall of midday light—painter’s light—allows a close study of his aquamarine eyes­, as well as his lumpy nose and Glaswegian pallor. (The plum circles beneath his eyes are further darkened today by the effects of a chest cold.) There is a quality of the gray north about McAvoy, a hint of inner life touched by secret emotion, which is just enough to save him from being the next Hugh Grant. “There is,” says Wright, “something inherently working class about him.”

Stephen Fry, who directed McAvoy in the 2003 film Bright Young Things, puts a finer point on it. “For all his youthfulness, James has a kind of dirty threat to him,” Fry writes via e-mail. “You get the feeling that behind the puckish and twinkly blue eyes, there is a potentially deadly street fighter. James is not lightweight. Even though he is slight of build and, at first glance, almost pretty, there is something dark in there.”

Atonement makes much of the actor’s mixed qualities. The film was shot in the summer of 2006 on location in Shropshire, England, during just the kind of exceptional heat wave McEwan describes in the novel, a time when the normally temperate countryside lies listless and parched. It quickly becomes apparent that the sun that burns too brightly is a metaphor, as the heat soon boils over into a hot-blooded embrace between McAvoy and Knightley. She plays the Beaton-esque beauty Cecilia Tallis, home for the summer at her well-to-do family’s country estate, where Robbie’s mother (Brenda Blethyn) is the housekeeper. Robbie exists somewhere in between the two worlds. Thanks to the enlightened beneficence of Mr. Tallis, he attended Cambridge with Cecilia, distinguishing himself with a “first” in his final exams and adopting a plummy accent to assimilate with his grander peers. But that doesn’t entirely protect him from the casual snobbery he suffers at the hands of Cecilia, her mother and especially her fanciful younger sister, Briony, an aspiring writer with a fervid imagination.

“He very much occupies a no-man’s-land,” explains McAvoy. “Society doesn’t have a place for him. It doesn’t exist. It will in 10 years, but not yet.”

Robbie and Cecilia, who have known each other since childhood, initially fail to understand that the tension between them is erotic, and the opening scenes crackle with intrigues of sex and suspicion. McAvoy notes that the film’s mood—taut, portentous, slightly mannered—is self-consciously antique, inspired by the acting style of prewar British cinema. “Every line is clearly announced and enunciated,” he explains. “There’s nothing that’s a throwaway. Everyone is like, bang, bang, bang. The speed at which we speak is something that I love doing. It’s quite like watching The West Wing or something.”

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.

“I introduced [the cast] to Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, now Dowager Duchess,” Fry adds. “Her sister was Diana Mitford, to whom the source novel, Vile Bodies, is dedicated, and she knew Evelyn Waugh and the world of the film. Every time I bump into her now, she asks after James, with whom she was particularly smitten—‘I did like that handsome Scottish boy. What’s he doing?’ she always says.”

What McAvoy’s doing now, having established himself as a working British actor, is taking his shot at Hollywood stardom. After Atonement, the first film really to position him as a proper leading man, McAvoy will next appear alongside Christina Ricci in Penelope, due out this winter. He also recently wrapped his first big-budget action role, opposite Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, in Wanted. McAvoy is hard-pressed to describe the movie’s plot in much detail, other than to note that it’s “trippy,” but he says that he plays a young man whose father is murdered and who is given the opportunity to avenge his death. What remains more vivid for him is the intensity of the action sequences, with tons of stunts, fighting and shooting of “ridiculously large weapons.”

“I’ve never done anything so entirely physical before,” says McAvoy. “I felt more like a professional footballer rather than an actor sometimes, but I’ve always wanted to be a professional footballer and so it was a dream come true. It’s a lot of Angelina beating the s— out of me.”

He doesn’t have his next job lined up; he was cast in his upcoming films before the release of Last King and has yet to move on the flood of offers that have come in since. “I feel like I might be wasting a potentially valuable time for me,” says McAvoy, who lives in London with his wife of one year, actress Anne-Marie Duff, “but I need to step away a little bit—it’s come too much, too quickly.”

McAvoy notes that his back-to-back work schedule has not permitted him time to simply putter around the house. “I haven’t sat on my ass for a while,” he says.