James McAvoy interview: X-Men: Days Of Future Past, BB guns, hair and more

Interview Ryan Lambie 27 Feb 2014 - 07:05

Last June, we sat with James McAvoy to talk about X-Men: Days Of Future Past, BB gun antics, hair and more...

What do you do to while away the time between takes on a huge, multi-million dollar movie? If you're James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult, you get down to your local department store, buy a couple of BB guns, and start taking mischievous pot-shots at each other behind the scenes.

That's one thing we learned when we sat down for a lively group interview with James McAvoy last June, and an example of the jovial mood on set - as director Bryan Singer said when we spoke to him, "The older cast are a bit more set in their ways, and the younger cast are having, like, a party."

Still dressed in his Charles Xavier circa 1973 get-up - long hair, incredibly wide lapels on his shirt - Mr McAvoy also talks about working with Patrick Stewart as two incarnations of the same character, Bryan Singer's approach to the X-Men franchise, and lots more.

We're not going to get shot with BB guns are we?

No, no. I don't get involved in any of that. [Laughs]

Nick [Hoult] and I started that, yeah. We went down to a store called Canadian Tyre, which if you're from Britain is like what Woolworths used to be, but on steroids - it's brilliant. And they just had machine gun BB guns and stuff. On these movies you have a lot of downtime, and you've got to pass the time somehow.

You look like you belong in a 70s band.

I feel like I'm back in The Last King Of Scotland. I'm Nicholas Garrigan grown up, a 34-year-old Nicholas. I like it. Michael [Fassbender] hates the 70s years for clothing, I think. But I love it, I think it's brilliant.

[Someone says something about Charles Xavier starting to lose hair in X-Men: First Class]

I didn't lose any hair in X-Men: First Class. No, Nick says to me, when I first go to use Cerebro, "Are you sure I can't shave your head because it'll work better." And I say, "Don't touch my fuckin' hair."

In this one I thought I'd be all bald, but I read the script and I have hair. I was very pleased. But that'll be a nice character development in the third movie, if we make a third movie.

Is the look reflective of where Charles is in this movie?

My look? My clothes are quite smart right now. This is probably the smartest I look in the whole movie. You find Charles at a very low point. Not just a low point - a dishevelled, messed-up point. So yeah, it does reflect who he is. My hair's neater than it usually is, which says a lot, because it's not particularly neat right now.

But yeah, for the bulk of the movie, he's a mess, really. In the same way that X-Men: First Class wasn't just an origin story, but it did serve as an origin story for Magneto, this one isn't just an origin story for Charles, but it does serve as one in part. Very much like I've said about First Class, there's no point in doing it if we're the same people who were in the original X-Men movies. You have to be very different. Not just from the previous portrayal, but also from my portrayal in First Class as well.

Otherwise, why have Charles in it? So in the beginning, he's a mess.

So you're not the leader that you were. It's the appearance of Logan that makes you the Xavier we know?

Uhh, yeah. Logan is constantly trying to push me to get my act together and Charles up. But he's not very successful in doing that, and it's another Charles who ultimately provides the key to help him become who he needs to be to help the X-Men to win the day and move on. 

What's it like to work on a movie with these two worlds coming together, and working with Patrick Stewart? I remember you talking about it on the first film, about being overawed.

I'm over that now. I think I'm 10 times better than him. No, not really. This one feels a lot more like the other X-Men movies that came before, partly because we've got the writers and actors back, and the director of the first two, which is fantastic.

This is a coming together of two different approaches to the same universe. So while not abandoning all the stuff we tried to find in the last movie, it's very much a conversation with the aesthetic and tone of the other movies, so hopefully those two tones will complement each other.

Have you had a chance to geek out about Star Trek with Patrick Stewart? I know you're a fan.

You know, I didn't get a chance to talk about Star Trek. We talked about Macbeth more than we talked about Star Trek, really. We geeked out about playing Macbeth, and how we were both sad that we'll probably never, ever do it again. It was such a joy. I even got to talk to Ian [McKellen] about playing in Macbeth as well, so it was cool.

How did being wheelchair bound affect your performance?

One of the things I always liked about the X-Men universe is that one of the main protagonists is severely physically disabled. And that's great, because heroes are generally all messed up, but they're messed up emotionally - they've got demons to fight and all that stuff, but they're still A1, good-looking muscly dudes. So to have someone who's fighting a physical battle, and who has fought a physical battle in their past - that was quite interesting to me.

With my time playing the character, you don't just get to see somebody who's dealt with that in their life, you get to see them dealing with it in the here and now. It's not just an obstacle he had in his life, it's an obstacle he's having to deal with right now. I think that's refreshing.

Does pop culture play a role in this movie, with the 70s setting?

That's really up to Bryan [Singer]. For me, I've been listening to a lot of psychedelic sitar music from the period [Laughs], and listening to a lot of 70s funk, like a lot of trippy funk. Gil Scott Heron, that kind of thing. 

What's it like sharing a role in the same film? You've got Patrick Stewart playing his part as Xavier. Did you work with him on that?

I don't think I've ever had to share a role. Have I? I don't think I've had to share a role. But not, not really. One of my main, overriding notes to myself since First Class, and on this film, is to let the paying audience see something new, different and yet travelling towards Patrick Stewart. He's in a very different place, he's on a very different journey to what Patrick's been on, and he's a different person entirely, but he's on a path where, by the middle or the end of the third movie - if we make a third movie - we'll be very close to Patrick.

And that'll be the biggest challenge for me. Because it's easy to go, that's what we've seen Professor X be like before, and I've got an entire universe of different things to pick from. But by the time we get to the end of this journey, I'm actually going to have to do something akin to what someone else did, and that'll be more difficult than anything I've done. But I don't have to worry about that in this movie.

What characters did you like when you were growing up?

I always liked Gambit, because he had a funny voice. And I thought his Creole accent was really cool. I also liked that he had a big long coat and that he gambled and stuff like that. I thought he was pretty awesome. I liked Superman, Batman, things like that. I liked the cheesy old Batman, that was awesome. I loved that line, "Some days you just can't get rid of the bomb."

Which is the ending of the last Batman movie.

[Incredulous yet incredibly animated] Did he say that?

No, he doesn't say that. But he has to get rid of the bomb.

Oh, right. "Some days, you just can't get rid of the bomb."

How old were you when you first read the X-Men comics?

I'd never read the X-Men comics. I read them when I got involved with the movies - it makes sense to do your research. But I watched the cartoons on a Saturday morning, with my mate Mark. That was my main diet of superhero fare.

What did you make of Bryan's take on X-Men?

I loved it. What was it, 2000, 2001? Yeah, I think it's one of those movies that reinvigorated the superhero genre. It was a really fresh approach, a really fresh take. He had such a great bunch of protagonists, and it introduced properly, I think, properly, the idea of the Wolverine, and that's why Hugh's still playing him 13, 14 years later - people love that character so much. This guy's struggling for his identity, and having to battle the obstacles of his own internal anger and all that.

Also the idea of a school somewhere for really cool super powered kids, I think that's a fantasy most young boys and girls have. 

Would you embrace the superpower your character has, or would you see mind reading as a curse?

Yeah, I'd say it'd be a big curse. I mean, have you seen that movie Mel Gibson did, What Women Want? Can you imagine that? Charles has got that but 10 times worse. He's got that with guys and women [Laughs]. You'd be taking these hits to your ego all the time. "God, he's minging". "He's not good looking. "I wish he'd shut up." Oh, dear.

You'd have to develop a really thick skin, I think. Or disengage from it when you need to. That's one of the things that my Charles had to go through in this movie; he's always been able to hear what people think, but now he can feel what they feel even more. He was a voyeur in people's experiences before. He was a voyeur of Magneto's experiences in the last movie, when he saw the trauma that Magneto had gone through, that Eric went through. And he felt for him, but he was a tourist through someone's angst-ridden memories. Now he's no longer a voyeur, when he sees someone's pain, he can empathise with them. It reminds him of his own shit. Now the voices are harrowing and nightmarish to him. So he has disengaged, not just temporarily, but we find him at a point where he's numbed his intellect, his character.

How is Bryan different from Matthew Vaughn as a director?

Well, one director's different from another, they always are. Bryan treats the film incredibly seriously. He treats it with a lot of integrity and passion. I think he feels very protective over the universe, partly because he loves it, but partly because he owes a debt to it - it helped create him as well. I think he feels like he's a custodian and protector of it. Whereas Matthew was very irreverent - not for the sake of being irreverent, because he loved it, too - but he was much more like, "Fuck it, let's paint everything pink and have you all being funny." But weirdly, they both get similar results by going at it differently, you know?

You mentioned earlier about the trauma of Charles finding himself in a wheelchair. Is that what makes these kinds of films interesting to you as an actor, because they can get away with exploring something deep in a populist setting?

Yeah. Like I say, it's not often that I get to do a multi-million dollar film about superheroes and deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, and someone who has a serious physical disability. And yeah, that's fresh and exciting, and hopefully there's room for more of that.

Do you think that's why people go to see them, though? They think they're going for the explosions and the action, but really they're going for the deeper stuff without necessarily realising it?

I think the best ones do that. I think the best ones satisfy your need to be entertained and also your need to be stimulated. And you can't stimulate if it's the same old thing. You can have a really intelligent point to make, but if it's been made a million times, you need something else. Hopefully there's some stuff in here that will stimulate as well as entertain, because all you get otherwise is entertainment as a form of pacification, you know? But yeah, you know what you mean: lure people in with the poster and the promise of crash, bang, wallop, and then give them intelligent thought.

There was a great movie, Master And Commander. The trailer made it look like Pirates Of The Caribbean without the gags. But you get there, and at the beginning of the movie there's this great big action sequence, and then an art movie happens, about what life's like aboard a ship, for about an hour and 20 minutes. And then they have an action movie at the end again for 20 minutes.

People do do that, but this is much more balanced, this movie, in terms of the mix between action adventure and character-driven, relationship-driven drama.

But what's the relationship between Eric and Charles now, with their friendship being integral to First Class, and Charles being in the situation that he is?

Umm, well, it's pretty dire, really. I'd go so far to say that Charles fucking hates him. And yeah, again, it's about exploring the things that were built up in Bryan's previous movies, about these two people who were obviously  on a very similar path at one point, then some mega shit went down, then they find themselves as adversaries. This movie and the end of the last movie are an exploration of that shit that went down. But again, they are in lots of ways very, very similar. They can't help but relate to each other, and be drawn to each other, because they should be friends, despite the fact that they come from different camps, and they have different approaches to the same thing.

James McAvoy, thank you very much.

We'll be running the full interviews with X-Men: Days Of Future Past's cast and crew over the next few days. You can read our interview with director Bryan Singer here. The finished film is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd May.

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Disqus - noscript

Great interview! I can't wait to see this movie. Dear Lord I hope it wipes X3 out of existence. lol.

Top bloke.

This movie looks so amazing. They have a perfect cast of very capable actors and the movies deal with serious stuff. I never go to X-men because of the action, I go because of the characters and the personal stories. It is such a wide, wonderful universe. The action is great and very enjoyable, but everything is so character driven...

James McAvoy is a very intense actor and always a pleasure to watch. I have to say, though, that I don't agree with what he says about not having to think about Stewart's Charles right now. If he wants to eventually go there, he should totally keep it in mind from this point. He can't suddenly change his mannerisms and mindset for movie 3... But he knows better than me, so what the hell, go ahead, McAvoy!

Hey I'm from Canada, it's called Canadian Tire.

I was surprised to see that the interview was conducted in June 2013. Was there a press embargo on publishing it until recently?

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