Split: James McAvoy on Playing Multiple Roles in the Shyamalan Horror

James McAvoy tells us about taking on the 23 personalities of a kidnapper in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.

Anyone who thinks actors are constantly putting themselves in danger of developing multiple personalities from the varied roles they play should be interested in seeing James McAvoy—Charles Xavier in the last three X-Men movies—put that theory to the test with his many roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.

McAvoy plays Kevin, a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) with his 23 distinct personalities, when he kidnaps three young women from a party—Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula)—and locks them up in his basement. They only find out about Dennis’ mental illness from the fact that he keeps switching personas, and we learn from his sessions with psychiatrist Doctor Fletcher (Betty Buckley) that out of Kevin’s 23 distinct personas, two of the more unstable ones, Dennis and Patricia, are responsible for the kidnapping.

Den of Geek sat down with McAvoy in New York to talk about his roles in Split. (Note: There are MINOR SPOILERS in this piece as we talk about some of the specific personalities in a vague way.)

Den of Geek: This is a great role, great performance. I don’t know if you still have to ever do auditions at this point, but this is one of those things where if you did, you can just send them the movie and say, “Look, I play a nine-year-old boy and a woman. I can do anything. I’m not going to audition for you.” How did Night approach you about this? What did he tell you about the role or movie?

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James McAvoy: We met at a party in San Diego, at Comic-Con in 2015. He was there, I think, selling The Visit. I was there selling X-Men. All the X-Men guys were there, and we were all having fun. We were all really drunk and Night just sees me with a bald head, and he’s like, “Yo, you’re James McAvoy but you’ve got a bald head.” “Yeah, I totally do.” He’s like, “Come over here and let’s have a chat.”

We got to chatting, and he says at that minute, you start to think wow, he looks really different, he seems really different from what I thought he’d be like, and he just thought I might be good for the part. So he calls up and says, “I’ve got this script. Have a read. Keep an open mind and stick with it if you get confused or you think it’s a bit simple. Just stick with it.” Alright. So I started reading it, and immediately I’m like, “What? Is it going to be just a movie where a guy abducts three girls and tortures them? Because I don’t think I want to be in that movie.” Then of course it changes, switches, and it presents something else, and then it switches again and presents something else, then it switches again. I just thought it was a really, really good bit of storytelling.

Because Night has always been very secretive about his scripts. I’m surprised he gave you the full script. He didn’t tell you anything before he gave it to you?

I think if you’re going to get an actor onboard, of course we got to be able to read the script. Certainly if you’re going to get an actor doing that role, you’ve got to get a full script. I don’t think you could make much sense of it in pieces. I don’t think I would have probably have accepted it unless I read the whole thing. My agents didn’t get to read it. And I accepted it without them reading. They were laughing. He’s just like, “Nope, they’re not getting it.” Okay.

What were some of the things that you knew you’d have to prepare differently from other roles you’ve done? Was there anything specific besides figuring out the different personalities?

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The thing that was different was the amount of work I had to do. I got the role quite late in the day, so I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, but I had to do nine times the amount of preparation in really less than half the time that I would usually get to prepare one character. So that was one thing. The other thing that was interesting is that, apart from Kevin, all the other personalities that lived within the same body, they had a different kind of genesis than you or I. You know, you or I are born because our parents did the do, and they’re born out of a necessity and to perform a pretty specific function within the larger group. That’s because they each personify a certain quality or qualities that Kevin has or had.

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Dennis is the only one that really talks about it. Dennis actually articulates why he came into being, why he was born, when he talks about having to be very neat and tidy, otherwise his mother would physically abuse him, Kevin, so Dennis was born because Dennis was capable of being that neat and tidy person, keeping the mother at bay.

I thought that’s interesting. That must apply through all of them. So I had to effect the way into each character was finding out, why they were necessary, what they did, what job did they perform in the larger community. What part or what facet of Kevin’s original character were they based on primarily. And of course they grow and they swell, and they become much more well-rounded than just that. They’re not just one thing. But it is their core. It’s their prime driver. You know?

Most people have different personality traits and characteristics and emotions, which isn’t what Kevin is, because all of his personality break into separate places. Did you do some reading about that disorder?

Yeah. Totally. Unfortunately a lot of the reading that I could find was argumentative. Really arguing with itself at times about whether or not it exists. Whether it’s fake, whether it’s just people attention=seeking or whether it’s delusional people or what. What I found really helpful was coming straight from the horse’s mouth. Not looking at it medically but looking at it just from a first-person point-of-view. In terms of people who live with the ID.

So reading people’s diaries was fascinating and really useful. Just reading the little things of one alter communicating with another alter or through the eyes saying please can we stop spending a lot of money on Lego. I mean, we don’t actually have enough money for fucking food. and there’s like 15 boxes of Lego there on Monday morning because the youngest alter is in charge over the weekend. You know?

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Then the extension of that was 11 in the morning you diarize on the internet—you video diary, you video blog. It’s sort of a tailor-made platform for people with DID, because you get to have all your personalities talking on-camera. All of them getting to express themselves and project themselves into the world and say, “I’m here, and these are my hopes and fears and dreams, and what I want to accomplish with my life. And by the way, she’s here as well. Let me introduce you two.” And they all have a moment to feel empowered and put themselves out there.

If you looked at that computer with all the videos on the desktop, did you tape something for all 23 of his personalities?

Yeah.

What was it like when you’re shooting scenes with the girls? You’re mainly playing Barry in your sessions with Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher, but with the girls, you’re switching personalities, so how was that on-set? Would you literally go off-set, put a dress on and come back?

Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes. I think it was pretty relaxed on-set, to be honest with you. I needed it to be relaxed on-set. I like to save my acting for the camera and save all my blood, sweat, and tears for the camera, and I don’t need to be like that off-camera to be able to turn it on at a moment’s notice. I hope that was helpful to the girls. I hope. Because we had a lot of fun.

There were only a couple of times where Anya and Jess actually needed me not doing that in between takes. They actually wanted to do the opposite. They wanted me to be pretty rough with them in-between takes and just scare them a little bit. At one point, it was just a bit weird doing all that, but it was for them and they needed it, and I was happy to oblige. Yeah, fucking weird.

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I wondered if there were any times they didn’t know what you would be doing. Some of Anya’s reactions seem like realistic surprises. I wasn’t sure if maybe you and Night knew what you were going to do and maybe there were kept out of it until you opened the door.

I can’t remember. I’m not sure. I don’t think so. There might have been a couple of moments, just a couple of moments. The only time that I ever really, truly surprised them was when they asked me to help them out off-camera and then I’d do shit to them.

Right. Just to stay in that head rather than switching out.

Just to make them terrified for the scene that they had to do.

What about working with Betty? I wasn’t too familiar with her work but she’s a veteran stage actress, in the Broadway Hall of Fame, no less. What were your scenes with her like? They seem very theatrical.

Yeah, yeah. It’s just very pure. Just two actors acting. Not really doing anything special with the camera. Not really doing anything special with the music. Not really doing anything special other than watching two actors act. If that’s theatrical, I always think the word theatrical sounds flamboyant. Those scenes aren’t flamboyant to me. They’re very, for me, just pure; it’s just very raw and very stripped back.

I think of theatrical of scenes with just two or more people talking.

There’s no crashes, there’s no bangs, the dialogue lasts more than one page.

Were you able to shoot those scenes with her in order at least?

I think we were able to shoot everything in order with her. My first day was doing one of the big, 13-minute long scenes with her. Which was jumping into the deep end, but it was fun. It was real fun. I love working with her. She’s like me—she’s got a ton of more theater experience, but we’re both fairly experienced in stage and it was nice to get that opportunity to take a run at a big long scene and not have to break it up all the time. It was great.

The audience definitely seems to like Barry, but they absolutely love Hedwig. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the movie with an audience yet, but they really love that persona. What do you tap into to play Hedwig? Is nine-year-old James in there somewhere?

I think it was just that thing of, Hedwig is an interesting character. His reason for being born was to take the place of Kevin when he was being abused I think. So Hedwig has an innocence that is almost fake. That’s why he’s the only one that’s not been able to grow up, because his prime mover, his prime characteristic is youthful innocence. But he’s been physically abused repeatedly for his whole life, therefore he’s got this malevolent streak to him as well, so I really enjoyed playing that kind of goofy, funny, innocent thing that had a malevolent, kind of nasty streak, too.

Also, ‘cause he can’t grow old, because he is in a state of arrested development, he’s desperate to be taken seriously and be older than he is. Which I think is always a really funny thing with kids, when kids try to act older than they are. However, with him I think it’s really sad. From my point-of-view, not necessarily from an audience’s point-of-view, but I know everything that’s going on inside him and it was really sad acting him at times, because he’s a little boy that’s not allowed to grow up.

What’s Night like as a director? I know he’s very specific and he storyboards a lot.

Incredibly specific. They all storyboard a lot. They don’t necessarily stick to it. He sticks to it. He’s meticulous with it. His vision, as put on paper, his story, as put on paper, is exactly what he wants to make. He has a vision in his head and he’s got the chops and he’s got the technical ability, and he’s got the artistic vision to be able to actually realize all of that as it is in his head.

Rather than, “Alright, I’ve storyboarded the whole thing, I know how it is in my head,” and you get there on-set in the day, and it’s like, “I don’t know what we should do, how should we shoot this?” And you still end up cobbling together a great movie by committee, everybody chipping in, all that kind of stuff, and the director’s really pleased with what they got. It sort of doesn’t necessarily reflect what was on the script or what the initial vision was, or certainly the storyboards.

But Night is the exact opposite. It’s sort of like getting a model kit, and he’s putting together the pieces every day. You know?

I don’t know how much you can say about the physical transformation you go through at the end, but was that done with makeup or CG?

The veins? Some of the veins are real. They augmented the veins massively. No, there’s one bit where I’m pulling the bars apart and I’ve got the camera behind me and my muscles appear popped up. Like, they’re just swollen and popped up. That’s fucking me, but you can’t see my face, so people will think it’s a fucking stand-in or fucking bullshit. That was me, because I’d been working like a motherfucker for this part in the short time that I had.

He just wanted me to be a bit more physically intimidating for the beast, but also for Dennis as well. He just wanted me spread a little bit. I didn’t need to be necessarily muscular, I could have been just weight as well, but I felt I didn’t want to do it just putting weight on; I wanted to do it putting muscle on. So I went off and power lifted for a month before I got out there. Which really isn’t a lot of time to put on any weight. And ate like a fucking shit, I mean like six thousand, seven thousand calories a day.

Wow. Is that the most physical thing you’ve ever done for a role?

No, the most physical thing I did was probably this last summer going, where I continued power lifting, up ‘till April or May, did a film with Wim Wenders, shot the first six weeks, still power lifting, eating a ton, and then I had four weeks to sort of lose a drastic amount of weight. That was probably the most extreme thing I’ve ever done was losing that weight that quickly. Was kind of tough. Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t to the point of being emaciated—but trying to lose that weight that quickly was crazy, crazy, crazy.

What was the experience like working with Wenders?

Fantastic.  I don’t know what he’s like all the other times, but he was amazing to work with this time. He’s a very kind, generous man. Sort of pains to tell me that he doesn’t really direct very much in terms of what the actors and stuff like. He just let’s you do your own thing, but I actually found him forthcoming and very, very informative.

Split opens nationwide on Friday, Jan. 20 with previews on Thursday night. We’ll have more interviews, including with Shyamalan himself, over the next week.