James McAvoy: 'Don't call me a star'

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The Independent Online

James McAvoy doesn't strike me as a man staring in the face of movie stardom. He looks more like a man in need of a holiday, perhaps slobbing out at home doing nothing much at all. "That's exactly what I crave," he says: "A bit of normality."

McAvoy recently returned from an eight-week publicity tour of North America, which, he claims, has turned him into a bit of a bore. "There's no working restrictions on doing publicity, so you find yourself talking about the same two films from 10am till midnight," he says in a Glaswegian accent that comes as a surprise, so rarely does he use it in films. In fact, he comes from deepest Drumchapel.

The two films McAvoy has been promoting in the US and Canada are Starter for Ten, a sweet British rom-com in which he plays a working-class Essex lad at Bristol University in the 1980s, and The Last King of Scotland, in which he plays a Scottish doctor who becomes the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's reluctant physician and confidant.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg for the busy 27-year-old actor, who is best known so far for his charming car-thief in Channel 4's Shameless and as the rather sad-faced faun in The Chronicles of Narnia. Already completed are Penelope, opposite Christina Ricci and Reese Witherspoon, and Atonement, Joe Wright's film of the Ian McEwan novel, with Keira Knightley.

Atonement, he says, is "the best thing I've ever worked on". It's the nearest he comes to a good actorish gush. "Profound, insightful, beautiful, tragic, romantic, soul-destroying... Joe Wright's a genius."

And there's more. McAvoy has also completed Becoming Jane, opposite Anne Hathaway, playing a roguish Irishman who breaks Jane Austen's heart. And he's just won the lead in a big-budget Hollywood sci-fi adventure called Wanted.

People are calling him everything from "the new Hugh Grant" to "the new Albert Finney". "Mmm..." he says. "I don't spend every day looking at my cuttings or reading the internet to see what people are saying about me..."

So he probably won't know that people are also talking of Oscars for The Last King of Scotland, which opened the London Film Festival and goes on general release in January. "Mmm... that's really sweet... and it's great that you're getting talked about like that... but you don't need to hear that every day of your life. Mind you, I think, some people maybe do."

This steady refusal to get carried away is partly, McAvoy says, to do with the "flukey" way he got into acting. He was at school in Glasgow when the director David Hayman came to address his class. McAvoy, mortified by the rough reception Hayman received from his fellow pupils, went up to him afterwards to thank him for his efforts and to ask if there was anything he could do ("make the tea, anything") on his next film. Four months later, Hayman telephoned to see whether McAvoy would audition for a part.

The role was the son of a pimp in a dingy drama, The Near Room. It was enough to divert McAvoy from an earlier ambition to become a missionary ("I thought I might get to travel"), and send him to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. By 18, he'd come a long way.

McAvoy and his sister were brought up on a housing estate by his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced when he was seven. His mother Elizabeth, a psychiatric nurse, was part of his upbringing, but it was his grandparents - James, a butcher, and Mary - who provided the main care and the right kind of cautious encouragement for their grandson's impossible-seeming ambitions.

"They were never negative about it - never stopped me, always supported me - but they never said to me, 'You'll be amazing' or, 'You can do anything you want to do.' They always said, 'You've got a right to do whatever you want to do, but don't expect to be a success at it.'"

They are still alive and well to see him being a success at it, although McAvoy thinks it is only lately that they realise quite how successful he has become. "I've had a lovely career for the past seven years. For the first five, I might not have been particularly well known but I was paying the bills, a very difficult thing to do as an actor. But my grandparents didn't quite believe I was OK. In the past two years since I've been on the telly more and on the films, I think they realise - 'Och, he's doing all right.'"

His father resurfaced earlier this year in a Sunday Mirror article, hoping in print to be reunited with his son. McAvoy shows no enthusiasm. "I can't really be bothered with it," he says. "If I was less secure in myself, I might be more interested. But I know what made me."

McAvoy goes back to Glasgow often enough, but he prefers the anonymity of London. "In Glasgow, I'm the returning successful son, and I don't know if I like that; it's a bit more pressure put on you, a bit more scrutiny, than you get in London. I was never special when I was in Glasgow so it's a bit strange to be special now when I go back."

His life in the capital he describes as "dead normal, very mundane. I like it like that." As of three weeks ago, it's also married; he wed his long-term fiancée Anne-Marie Duff in a secret ceremony shortly after returning from America. Duff was McAvoy's co-star and on-screen lover in Shameless, his breakthrough television role.

That period, strangely, marked a low point in his attitude to his career. "I'd convinced myself I didn't really enjoy acting," he says. "Because I was so worried about it disappearing, or not even getting started, I was treating it with disrespect - just trying to make it unimportant so that it wouldn't hurt me when it went away."

Falling in love with Duff, another actor on a sharp upwards trajectory, helped to turn him round. "I'm much more positive about it now. It could all disappear tomorrow, but while it's happening I've got a responsibility to enjoy it."

That doesn't mean doing the long round of red carpets and showbiz parties. McAvoy hates celebrity culture. "It makes me really annoyed, all this obsession about celebrities, all this stuff... I mean, if it was Colonel Gaddafi they were writing about I might raise an eyebrow and be interested, but not some guy who's been on Big Brother. In fact, not even just Big Brother - it's Jude Law and Sienna Miller. These guys... what a shame. I feel so sorry for those people. I mean, how the hell do you have a life?"

But now that McAvoy is sharing his working week with Hollywood A-listers, doesn't the lad from Drumchapel get a wee bit, well, star-struck? "I'm all right, actually, and I've always been all right. You're too busy getting the job done. The biggest pressure is not getting the scene right, and that's far more terrifying than being beside someone who's off the telly or the films."

The exception he makes is Tom Hanks, with whom he worked on Band of Brothers in 2001, and who's executive producer on Starter for Ten. "He was a big hero of mine when I was a kid," McAvoy says. "He was making The Da Vinci Code at the same time as we were filming Starter for Ten and, as he was only down the road, he popped in for lunch every now and again to see how we were doing."

In Starter for Ten, McAvoy's character plots to get on University Challenge so that he can impress a posh fellow undergraduate. It's the first British film to be made by Hanks' production company Playtone. "Before he went all serious, Hanks was Mr Romantic Comedy, and he was brilliant at it. I wish he'd do more," McAvoy says. "It's empowering to know that the guy who gave you the job has got a real understanding of the material you're working in. He knows what he's doing and he's picked me."

Why does McAvoy think more and more directors are picking him? "I think it's an accumulative thing; if you're lucky, your fan base within the industry grows and grows. You build up pockets of co-operation until quite a large number of people think that you're all right, actually."

And McAvoy seems to be the right face for all sorts of projects, from comedy and romance to action and art-house films. "I hope I continue to be allowed to be versatile, although the industry doesn't always want everybody to be versatile. But even if they want me to do the same thing over and over I'll take the work, even if it's the same part time and time again."

What price James McAvoy as a new James Bond if Daniel Craig doesn't make the grade? He wouldn't be the first bit of Scottish rough to don the tuxedo. Typically, McAvoy is having none of it. "There's a lot of people trying to be actors and there's a lot of people unemployed, so if you're in work and you're an actor, that's success. Anyway, it's just a nice job; a really nice job."

'Starter for Ten' opens today