|He first caught our attention as a cocky journalist in State of Play. Now he's
stealing cars, and our hearts, in Paul Abbott's acclaimed new drama Shameless.
Clare Dwyer Hogg meets James McAvoy
SHAMELESSLY LOVELY - The Independant - January 28, 2004
(1680 total words in this text)
The Langham Hilton is hushed. Apart from the murmured "good mornings"
of the doormen, the carpeted lobby is silent. The only activity is the flashing
of a camera in the corner. James McAvoy is having his picture taken. Something
that can happen now, in January 2004, without much fuss, but which is unlikely
to be the case in the future.
At the age of 24, McAvoy is well on the way to Big Things - good supporting
roles in television's Band of Brothers, State of Play, and Stephen Fry's Bright
Young Things have paved the way for his romantic lead in Paul Abbott's new TV
drama, Shameless. By the time Wimbledon - the film he's in with Kirsten Dunst
- comes out this summer, he'll probably find it more difficult to wander through
hotel lobbies without being stopped. But, for now, the picture-taking is uninterrupted,
and it's all over very quickly. He takes a look at the photographer's digital
picture, nods, smiles, and that's it. Which is good, considering that, before
it was arranged, McAvoy's publicist's assistant was worried about the whole
affair. Didn't we need a room for hair and make-up? No? At least for a change
of clothes? Not even that? Disappointed silence. The attitude of his minders
couldn't be more different from that of McAvoy.
In the bar, black coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he settles
down to have a conversation. "It was nice to play a romantic lead in Shameless,"
he says. "I haven't done that since theatre. It was really good fun."
For the uninitiated, McAvoy plays Steve, a charming car thief, who spends his
spare time wooing Anne-Marie Duff (of Magdalene Sisters fame). The first episode
saw them having sex on the floor, up against a cabinet. "It was terrifying,"
he laughs. "I've never done a sex scene before. There were these little
triangular pieces to cover our bits. They have to be attached by wardrobe people,
and they ask you whether you prefer a man or a woman to do it. First you think
a man, and then you think 'do I actually want a man?' But then if I choose a
woman I hope she doesn't think I'm trying to get off with her. The politics
are weird." He rests his chin on his hand and grins.
"In the end I was a bit shocked about how realistic it looks. I've never
had sex on the kitchen floor, and I've never had that violent and kind of clumsy
sex, so it's quite funny to see myself do that."
In Shameless, Steve exudes the kind of charisma which blinds your eyes to the
fact that he's got bad hair. And, in life, McAvoy shares many characteristics
with his screen alter ego - of which bad hair is certainly one. When we meet,
his locks are in especially bad shape, having been bleached a particularly unfortunate
shade of blond. He points to the offending article.
"This is part of the last film I did. The roots are getting quite dark
now so I'll be able to get it chopped off soon. Mmmm." He wrinkles his
nose. "Meself and my girlfriend went to New York before Christmas and we
had a great time. But the amount of funny looks I got just because I'd bleached-blond
hair. It really surprised me. I thought it would be really bohemian, really
chic and really kind of... trendy. But New York was really straight."
He shakes his head. He's been in London for a few years now, but hasn't lost
his Glaswegian accent. That's an indication of his real roots, and he's not
cutting those off. From the age of seven, when his parents split, he was brought
up by his grandparents, and he is fiercely proud of them. Already, though, he's
realising the pitfalls of interviews and the consequences of talking about his
background. "At the beginning, when there was media interest, people would
ask me about my background I'd go yeah yeah yeah this is what happened,"
he says. "But it gets to the point where I'm like, well, I'm not trying
to sell myself so what am I doing?" This seems to be pretty key, because
McAvoy doesn't have to sell himself. In fact, he turned down a film in Hollywood
- against the advice of agents and managers on both sides of the Atlantic -
in order to do Shameless, because he thought it was important.
"Shameless is something deeply related to Paul [Abbott], and quite personal
to him," he says, "so I thought it was going to be good. And when
you've had a collaborative experience with someone and you get a chance to do
it again, you jump at the chance." He worked with Abbott on State of Play,
and, for someone who didn't plan to be an actor, seems to have quite a clear
idea of what he wants from his career. It was actually David Hayman, the actor
and director, who offered him his first part in a film: he lived next door to
McAvoy's English teacher, so was invited to the school to give a talk. He spotted
McAvoy, remembered him, and got in touch six months later. It was, you could
say, his lucky break.
A few years down the line, though, he isn't leaving much to chance. He's very
careful about how he approaches roles, and he hasn't been out of work since
he left the Royal Scottish Academy. The bleached blond hair was for Inside I'm
Dancing, which he finished filming last month, and which will be released in
the summer. His character has muscular dystrophy, a wasting disease which often
causes the death of its sufferers by their mid 20s. When he's talking about
his role in the drama, his voice gets quieter, and his conversation doesn't
flow as easily as it did. He spent time prior to filming with two men who have
"It's a very delicate thing," he says, "because it's not like
researching pirates for The Pirates of Penzance or 14th-century literature if
you're playing a poet. It's really quite difficult." He sits up straighter.
"It was quite hard to begin with. But what you have to say is, ***** it,
it isn't hard. I've got the easiest job in the world - they're doing what's
hard: they're really giving me themselves and being so generous. Spending time
with them you see how the smallest thing can be so affecting. It was amazing.
It opened my eyes. Changed me a lot. Just... made me think." He stops.
"This is a bit of a cliché, but it made me think that I need to
adopt more care over my life, enjoy my life a lot more. These two particular
men I was working with really did strive to enjoy their lives."
There have of course been catalogues of actors who have "researched"
roles, and the light they've seen seems altogether trite, but McAvoy isn't about
that. One of the appealing things about him, as the conversation progresses,
is that he has ideas about things. Which is what you'd hope for in anyone, really,
but he's happy to elaborate about what's going on in his mind aside from acting.
"Something my mates slag me off for," he says, "is that I'm passionate
about evolution at the minute." He laughs and shifts in his seat. "But
I'm really into man's progression and where we're all going. We've got information
about what's gone before and what's likely to come, but we're still doing it
blind. I think we managed to get this far so let's get together and take control
of our own evolution."
He leans forward. "We live in a capitalist world and capitalism only works
if half the people are suffering. Third World and South America aren't like
that because they just are. They're like that because we've made sure they're
like that and we keep them in debt. I don't think I'm a Marxist or a Communist,
I don't even think I'm a socialist - I just think, if anything, we should be
a bit more humanist." McAvoy stops and grins again. There's no interrupting
him, unless he interrupts himself. He has to go - to a meeting with the producers
of Shameless about the second series. He offers to buy the coffees, volunteers
his waiting taxi for a lift, and walks out the door that says, "Please
do not use this door".
"I'm really capable of enjoying my life," he says, "and it's
within my reach to do what I want to do. So if I can do that while making sure
the people around me are still loved and happy, then that's good." And
he leaps into his taxi, off to better things.