DAILY MAIL WEEKEND MAG - June 2003
(2097 total words in this text)
28th June Daily Mail Weekend magazine
Since starring in the thriller State of Play, James McAvoy has been lauded
as the new Hugh Grant. Lina Das discovers how the hit series has transformed
his life - and why Stephen Fry thinks he is the new bright young thing
James McAvoy flops into the chair and pronounces himself "absolutelyshattered."
His dark brown hair curls foppishly over his blue eyes and you can't help but
notice that there is something of the young Hugh Grant about him. His tiredness
is unsurprising really, as over the past few months he has been working nonstop,
in the Craig Cash comedy, Early Doors, but most memorably in the sensational
BBC political thriller State of Play. "It's funny," he says, lighting
up a cigarette, "but I can normally walk down the street and not be recognised
at all. But, since doing State of Play, I've had more comments from people than
I've had throughout my entire career."
State of Play was the most raved about drama in recent years. Centring on mysterious
deaths, Whitehall conspiracies and a group of young, tenacious, journalists
eager to uncover the truth in a maze of lies - and obfuscation. It boasted an
impresive cast - David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald and the wondrous
Bill Nighy. But it was the relatively unknown McAvoy who charmed his way into
our consciousness as hotshot London journalist, Dan Foster. His elationship
with father Cameron (Nighy), the paper's charismatic editor may not have been
the drama's central pairing, yet it was a touching and truthful portrayal of
a father and son who communicated with hundreds of thousands every day through
the newspaper and yet who singularly failed to communicate with each other.
"When I was told Bill was going to be playing my father," McAvoy begins,
"I was like `Well, I'm about five foot seven and he's about six foot seven
- how's this going to work?' But working with him was just amazing. He has the
heart of a rock star, actually, and I think he's probably missed his real calling.
He was one of the lighter people on set and, because it could sometimes get
quite intense when we were filming, he was the one who gave energy to everyone
in the group. John Simm was lovely too - very amiable. He'd just had a wee baby
and so he was very happy."
The news is that, although viewing figures for the show weren't as good as
they deserved to be (around five million), the BBC has already commissioned
a second series focusing on The Herald's newsroom staff. "And even if they
only gave me two lines," insists McAvoy, "I'd jump at the chance to
be in it.
When we were filming the first series, we were sworn to such secrecy I couldn't
even tell my girlfriend who did it. The writing by Paul Abbott was just amazing
and I'd love to be a part of something like that again."
State of Play was the show that brought McAvoy to our attention, but it is
just one credit on an already impressive CV for the 24-year-old Glaswegian.
Roles in Band of Brothers (`I met Tom Hanks and he was great - he took me aside
to tell me not to get freaked out by all the stuff around me because I came
into the show late and all I could think was, `Oh my God - this is Tom Hanks!'),
White Teeth and the cult TV series Children of Dune have highlighted his promise.
Yet, with State of Play, McAvoy's status as a sex symbol and gradute of the
Hugh Grant School of effortless charm seems to have been cemented.
"Me a sex symbol?" he gasps, blushing, embarrassed though not a little
pleased by the compliment, "well, maybe in my own mirror! To be honest,
though, my fans tend to be women over 40 who like their men baby-faced or young
girls who are way too young for me. Or men. I spent the first year of my career
playing rent boys, so that might have something to do with it," he sighs,
looking somewhat disappointed. And does he get much fan mail? "Well, I
have received some, but I could never write back to anyone - that would just
be so bigheaded, don't you think? I really don't think that I'm famous at all
and, hopefully, if fame ever happens it would just be a by-product of me doing
good work. God," he says, disgusted with himself, "how pretentious
did that just sound?"
For an actor, McAvoy is remarkably unaffected and chatty. Is he very happy?
"Och," he says, "I can't believe the way things are going. I
just walk around feeling very lucky that things are going so well."
Initially, he harboured no ambitions to become an actor. Hailing from the tough
Drumchapel area of Glasgow, he had, he says, "absolutely no clear idea
of what I wanted to do." He fell into acting when "a film director
called David Hayman (A Woman's Guide To Adultery, Harbour Lights) came to our
school to give us a talk about Macbeth. It was a pretty rough school and all
the pupils started calling him names, but when he'd finished, I was pretty interested
and went up to him to say thanks.
He phoned my English teacher afterwards and said that if I ever wanted to do
any floor running or work on set, then he'd be happy to help. Four months later,
he asked if I'd like to audition for a part in his new film (The Near Room)
and I did and got it, but was rubbish in it," he laughs. "I ended
up working in a bakery for a spell, but I kept thinking about how much I enjoyed
acting and tried to blag my way into roles in The Bill and that kind of stuff.
Eventually, I thought, `No, I've got to do this properly.' He enrolled at the
prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and has, he says, `a lot
to thank David for.'
As well as good looks and charm, McAvoy also brings an endearing vulnerabiltiy
to his roles and not without reason. He is at pains to stress this his childhood
was "very normal - I don't want to make a big thing out of it," and
yet McAvoy's was certainly an unsual and fractured upbringing.
Born in 1979 in Scotland, McAvoy was one of two children - his 21-year-old
sister Joy now sings in a band. "We grew up in a working-class area."
When McAvoy was seven, his parents split up and the young James was sent to
live nearby with his grandparents, James and Mary Johnstone, while his sister
stayed with her mohter. "My sister and I never really got on that well
as kids although we get on brillaint now. I was a bit emotionally screwed up
by the time my grandparents took me in, although I wasn't a bad lad as such.
There was a bit of hassle between my mum and dad, but my gran and grandad effectively
brought me up and put a straight head on me. I don't call my gran `Mum', but
I do call my mum `Mammy'. I'm very close to my grandparents. They're amazingly
McAvoy is vague about the problems besetting his parents, but adds that "my
dad was probably not the best dad in the world. He married too young and had
kids too young. I don't see my father at all - the last time I saw him, I was
13. I do worry about people thinking this is a real sob story, because it isn't.
It's just the way things turned out. My grandparents were wonderful - they really
sorted me out. They instilled a lot of confidence in me.
Kids can take on a lot of guilt when their parents split up and it took me
a while to be able to say to myself, `Well, it's not my fault they screwed up.'
But I suppose all that stuff makes you the person you are. So many people come
from broken homes these days that it doesn't seem anything out of the ordinary.
And anyway, kids are pretty resilient; I just accepted the situation and I think
I was a positive kid. While all the other kids were freaking out in their exams,
I always had this feeling that everything was going to be all right in the end.
As well as film credits such as Bollywood Queen and Regeneration, and TV work
such as Murder In Mind and Inspector Lynley Mysteries, McAvoy also played Private
Steven Flowers in the Donmar Warehouse production of Privates On Parade, not
bad for someone who came into acting almost as an afterthought.
Did his rather shaky upbringing make him more sensitive to playing roles? McAvoy
shakes his head. "I don't think so," he says. "I don't think
I'm a bad actor, but I certainly haven't reached my full potential yet."
His girlfriend, Emma Neilson, 21, is studying to be an actress and, although
both are now based in London, "we made a conscious decision not to live
The couple have known each other for nine years and, although McAvoy says that
Emma is "the only person I've ever been in love with," he admits that
his upbringing has made him slightly reluctant to get married. "I suppose
it's made me extra careful about settling down. We've talked about marriage
but we feel we're too young. I'd love to have kids one day, but I think we're
too focused on our careers right now."
McAvoy's next big project, out in October, is Bright Young Things, the film
making the directorial debut of Stephen Fry. An adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's
Vile Bodies, Bright Young Things was, says McAvoy, one of the best projects
he has worked on. "Stephen was great, always trying to make us feel at
ease and he was just funny and witty and clever all the time. He'd start talking
and we'd be hanging on his every word because we just loved listening to him
so much and then he'd stop talking because he'd get embarrassed. The world the
characters live in is very wild and hedonistic and so Stephen took us to Cliveden
for a few days before we started filming just so that we could get a feel for
the life we were meant to be living. It was great. One of the girls even got
to sleep in the bedroom where Christine Keeler and John Profumo were meant to
McAvoy will also be starring in the next big Paul Abbott drama, Shameless,
which promises to be every bit as engrossing as his previous work, State of
Play. "You know," he smiles, "I just can't believe how well things
are going at the moment, although a part of me is still waiting for it all to
disappear one day." Somehow, I don't think McAvoy has a great deal to worry
about. Hugh Grant had better watch out.