James McAvoy interview: Filth, Frankenstein and more

With the squalid comedy drama Filth due out on disc, we chat to star James McAvoy about unpleasant characters, Frankenstein and more...

NB: The following contains spoilers for Filth, plus a bit of saucy language.

When we caught up with James McAvoy for a chat over a decidedly crackly phone line, he was heading in to film Paul McGuigan’s Frankenstein with Daniel Radcliffe. But Mr McAvoy was talking to us about Filth, the comedy drama we recently listed as one of our favourite films of 2013.

Filth, adapted by Jon S Baird from Irvine Welsh’s novel, is another tale in Edinburgh’s tradition of Jekyll and Hyde – a man in a respectable civic position with a monstrous side to him. In DS Bruce Robertson, that monstrous side finds expression through racism, sexism, abusive relationships, mind games with his colleagues and a hefty intake of drugs and alcohol. It’s the best Welsh adaptation since Trainspotting, signifying Baird as a name to watch in both writing and directing, and featuring a seemingly endless parade of acting talent. You can find our review of it here.

Despite the choppy phone reception, McAvoy spoke entertainingly of his role in Filth, playing unpleasant characters in the face of his ‘nice guy’ media image, his role in Frankenstein, and more besides.

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Do you ever find yourself liking Bruce Robertson?

Ehm, no, not really. I think it’s been said that, y’know, to play a baddie you’ve got to like the people you play and all that kind of stuff, [that] if you’re playing Hitler you need to find a way to like Hitler and that sort of thing. I just don’t think that’s true. I think you’ve got to be able to sympathise with them and empathise with them and understand what they do, but no, I certainly wouldn’t want to be going for a pint with him.

He’s one of the two parts that I’ll probably miss most, knowing that I’ll never ever play them ever again, y’know?

With monstrous characters, do you ever feel like giving them a tragic event in their childhood is straddling the line between excusing and explaining?

If he’d gotten away with it all, if he had walked off with the girl into the sunset, it would have been excusing I think. And frankly I wouldn’t want to do that stuff, but I think the fact that the movie condemns him – that for me doesn’t excuse him. What the film tries to do is lure you into liking him and lure you into feeling sorry for him, and maybe lure you into excusing him – maybe not consciously but subconsciously letting him away with it. Right at the end we’re going, “Nope. You can’t have that”. 

How has Filth travelled? In some respects it’s universal, and in others it’s very Scottish, it’s quite Edinburgh specific, that bipolar quality…

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Yeah, pretty much. It travelled well to England for a start, thank God. It’s nice to make a tiny wee film like that and have lots of people go see it – it’s not always the case with movies, is it?

It did well in Scotland, it did well in Australia. It did well in… I think it was the number one film in Romania? I’m not sure France liked it – for some reason France was like, “No, eet eez not for us”. Even the distributor in France, who’d bought the rights, was a bit like, “We do not like theez film” even though they had a vested fucking interest in it. Scandinavian countries went for it, Germany… yeah, we’ve done relatively well for a low-budget film. It’s still not come out in America yet, that’ll be April or May.

Do you feel there’s a Glasgow equivalent to Irvine Welsh’s books? Do you wish there was?

I don’t think every city has their Irvine. There’s no one in the world like Irvine. He’s sort of unique in the world as a writer, I don’t think anybody’s got anybody… I think the person that I find most like him is someone like Dickens, who’s got this hyper-reality, y’know? It’s not caricature and it’s not cartoonish, it’s very 3D and it’s hyper-real to the point where you actually think it’s too real, which I love. I don’t think we’ll see the likes of Irvine again for a long time. I get a similar vibe when I read Dickens to when I read Irvine. 

In some of the publicity for Filth, I noticed a frequent comment saying you were shedding a nice guy image, but you’ve played some really horrible people over the years. Wanted, The Last King Of Scotland… is that a conscious decision on your part or merely a journalistic angle?

A little bit of both. I wasn’t actually looking for something to challenge some kind of nice guy image, but when this came along I clearly understood that it would do that. I was aware of what it might do, but it wasn’t what I looking for. I’m always looking for something a little bit different to what I’ve done in the past and that’s good quality. This [Filth] is one of the best I’ve ever read, I think.

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I think the nice guy thing’s something that’s been a little bit invented as well, but definitely I knew this role had the potential to alter that…but I know what you mean with me and Last King Of Scotland. He wasn’t a nice guy, and Wanted wasn’t a nice guy, and even the guy in Trance – but I appear to have a sort of image of being a nice guy!

Which isn’t bad…

No, I dunno, I’m lucky, I’ll be glad if I get to the end of my days having played nice guys.

Although, having said that, even Mr Tumnus [from The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe] is kind of dobbing them in…

Yeah, no, he’s totally questionable, and he’s a 400-year-old kinda male kidnapping an eight-year-old girl [for] white slavery. 

After you did Macbeth, you were quoted in The Guardian as missing, “Making people shit themselves nightly’, and Filth had a similar effect on viewers. So my next question is: what’s so great about making people shit themselves?

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I reckon… why is it so fun to do that? I don’t know really, it’s just nice to get a visceral reaction out of people, to manage to make people laugh. You get an immediate vocal, physical reaction and that’s good fun.

When people are scared you get that physical, sometimes vocal, visceral reaction and I think it’s good to get that kind of feedback, and that’s why I like making people laugh or scaring people – not that it’s what I’ve spent most of my career doing either of those things, but it’s one of my favourite things to do.

Also, it’s unexpected. You go to Macbeth expecting a dark and murderous play, you don’t really go expecting to be scared or terrified, so it was nice to take it and make people feel physically threatened by what was happening on stage. So that was quite good. 

You’re doing Frankenstein right now?

Yeah, I am. I’m on my way to work in the car right now.

Like Macbeth, Frankenstein‘s a story people keep telling. I appreciate you probably can’t say too much, but is this a new angle on it, doing something unexpected like Macbeth?

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Yeah it is, actually. It’s set in the period but it’s not really the existential kind of monster’s [story] it’s more about the relationship between Doctor Frankenstein, who I play, and Igor who Dan [Daniel Radcliffe] plays. The character of Igor isn’t in Mary Shelley’s book, you know what I mean? It is very, very different, but it’s about the same essential things. It’s about obsession, and relentless pursuit of scientific advancement, immortality, death, trying to replace God and whether that is right or wrong – it’s about the same things really, but it’s got a different angle. It’s much more about our relationship than it is about a mental doctor and existential ponderings.

Finally, what’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

Crank, because he got the line, “Does it look like I’ve got c*nt written on my head?” and that is the best line I’ve ever heard in a film.

James McAvoy, thank you very much.

Filth is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 10th of February.

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