We know James McAvoy best for X-Men and Atonement, but he’s so much more than Professor X. His upcoming role as the eponymous Victor Frankenstein means it’s as good a time as any to focus on the Glaswegian star. While Victor Frankenstein has had a mixed critical reception, you can bet it will be lifted by McAvoy’s presence.
Believe it or not, James McAvoy only really burst into international consciousness about 10 years ago. Before then, he took parts in TV movies and mini-series, quietly impressing those he worked with. Born in Glasgow in 1979 to a roofer and a nurse, he was raised by his grandparents. McAvoy’s Catholic schooling nurtured ambitions within him to be priest or a missionary. Fortunately for film fans, he fell out of love with the church and turned to acting.
His first foray into the industry came after meeting director David Hayman at school, who offered him an audition. McAvoy ended up playing a pimp’s son in gritty drama The Near Room (1995). This initial part inspired him enough to pursue acting seriously, and he graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy in 2000.
A season of weighty theatre work, including Out in the Open and the Donmar’s Privates on Parade, attracted the attention of directors Joe Wright and Sam Mendes. While it would be a while before he worked with either of them (Wright on Atonement, Mendes on Starter for 10), McAvoy began to star in various cable TV hits, including Band of Brothers (2001), Children of Dune (2003) and State of Play (2003).
His first film role of note was as Paul Bettany’s hapless brother in Wimbledon (2004), where he proved he could do funny. However, it wasn’t until he played rough diamond Steve McBride in the Channel 4 series Shameless that people started to take notice. The part won McAvoy critical acclaim, and the series a BAFTA. It was also a personal win, as McAvoy fell for co-star Anne Marie Duff – the two have been married for nearly ten years and have a young son together.
Then, of course, there was The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). It’s hard now to imagine another person playing the good-goat-led-astray Mr Tumnus, and McAvoy managed to convey the moral nuances of the faun, prosthetic nose and all. His off-screen relationship with Georgie Henley (Lucy) was adorable, and the pair even established a swear jar for when Mr Tumnus misspoke in the vicinity of the child actors. The Chronicles of Narnia was, unsurprisingly, a worldwide box office smash, but it’s in Starter for 10 where we see more of McAvoy’s personality. He perfectly suits the role of Brian, the University Challenge enthusiast, and shows off more of his comedic prowess in the David Nicholls adaptation. A scene in which Brian gets stoned and has a close encounter with his love interest’s mother is a particular highlight:
Once again proving his versatility, McAvoy’s next role was as Dr Nicholas Garrigan, on the recommendation of Forrest Whitaker, in multi-award winning The Last King of Scotland (2006). The film was a gruelling experience for McAvoy, with reports that he fainted during the first take of a brutal torture scene. McAvoy described his character, the personal doctor of Forrest’s Idi Amin, as a “completely selfish prick”. Nevertheless, he received a nomination for a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA, and won Best Actor at the Scottish BAFTAs.
This marked a turning point for McAvoy. He subsequently played the romantic leads in Jane Austen biopic Becoming Jane (2007), Penelope (2006), an odd number starring Reese Witherspoon, and of course, Atonement (2007). Both Becoming Jane and Atonement saw McAvoy deliver heart-rending, and, in the case of Atonement, harrowing performances. It won two BAFTAs, including Best Film, a Golden Globe and was nominated for several Oscars, taking the prize for Best Original Score.
Since then, McAvoy has starred in a plethora of films so wide ranging it’s hard to keep track of. Since his entrance into the Hollywood market with Wanted (2010), where he played a geeky trainee assassin alongside Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, he’s taken it by storm.
The obvious is Marvel’s X-Men: First Class (2011). As Charles Xavier to Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, he brought a much-needed breath of fresh air to the regeneration. With his flawless English accent, he played the young, foppish Professor X with deft humour that certainly did Patrick Stewart justice (what a treat for Marvel fans when they shared screen time in X-Men: Days of Future Past). The next instalment, X-Men: Apocalypse, is due for release in 2016.
Whilst winning international acclaim and being the subject of fevered fanfic, McAvoy also voiced a lovelorn gnome in the Shakespeare adaptation Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), and played the black sheep of the Santa family in heartwarmer Arthur Christmas (2011). Perhaps this had something to do with the birth of his son Brendan in 2010, as he racked up the number of films suitable for family viewing.
McAvoy manages to entwine family entertainment with, well, Filth (2013). The adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s typically dark novel was a tour-de-force, and McAvoy’s turn as the corrupt Scottish detective Bruce Robertson was a flash back to Shameless days, and won him yet more awards. Danny Boyle’s mind-bender Trance (2013) is another fine example of British drama, where McAvoy plays an art auctioneer embroiled in a heist. His ability to convey a fractious psyche gives him a magnetic screen presence less observed in his romantic roles.
Part of McAvoy’s talent lies, as it does with many great actors, in his ability to use the skills of the stage on screen. Just this year he had an impressive stint at Trafalgar Studios playing the lead in The Ruling Class, following on from his excellent Macbeth in 2013. He’s adaptable, and just as convincing as a mad cop and a Regency suitor, with an off-screen charm to match his acting prowess. His choice of roles makes it clear he relishes a challenge, and decides on the parts that will best expand his repertoire.
McAvoy is one of those actors for whom it will be exciting to watch age – with a very impressive back catalogue already under his belt, we’ve got a lot to look forward to.
[He’s also a really nice guy. Watch this interview with Jimmy Fallon and you’ll see that’s no exaggeration:]