Following memorable turns as Idi Amin’s reluctant sidekick in “The Last King of Scotland” and a rebellious faun in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Scottish-born actor James McAvoy says his greatest challenge was playing Robbie Turner, the falsely imprisoned hero of Ian McEwan’s bestselling novel “Atonement.” The problem? Robbie is, well, a bit too pure.
“It was quite difficult for me during the first half of the film because the character didn’t allow me to play to my strengths,” McAvoy admits. “He’s a very straight, very good person, a classic leading man. I’m used to playing characters who are, if not evil, then arrogant, narcissistic, conflicted or just screwed up.
“Robbie is none of those things, and I had to convince myself that people can actually be that good. He’s certainly not like me. I’m not as open as he is, and I’m much less forgiving. I’m not as good a person.”
Despite his initial misgivings about Robbie’s uncommon valor, McAvoy, 28, was drawn to McEwan’s tale of star-crossed romance set against the turbulent backdrop of World War II-era Britain. To prepare for his role as the son of a blue-collar groundskeeper living among the elite, he separated himself from the rest of the cast and crew, which took up temporary residence in a lavish 19th century mansion. (“I’m a rather private person,” he explains.) Even so, he developed an easy rapport with fellow star Keira Knightley, with whom he shares a passionate – and, at one point, extremely intimate – on-screen romance.
“It wasn’t intimidating as much as awkward, kissing someone you’re not in love with,” says McAvoy, who is happily married to onetime co-star Anne-Marie Duff. “I haven’t done many scenes like that before, but it really helped that Keira and I felt safe with each other, that we were artistically on the same page. Plus, the scene is really essential to the story – it’s not bare bums and breasts and sweat that make it sexy, it’s the story itself.”
With “Atonement” in theaters and already rumored to be an Oscar contender, McAvoy will soon turn his attention to “Wanted,” the long-awaited adaptation of Mark Millar’s graphic-novel series about a working stiff who abandons his cubicle to become an assassin. Starring alongside Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, McAvoy acknowledges that “Wanted” may prove the most visible role in his young and promising career – but not necessarily the most rewarding.
“As an actor, you’re always trying to make fabricated drama seem real, but in a movie like ‘Atonement,’ it’s more the responsibility of the actors to get it right,” he says. “Whether or not the acting is good, the success of movies like ‘Wanted’ depends largely on the special effects and industrial imaging. You walk away from a film like that not really knowing what it’s going to look like.
“I’ve already seen ‘Atonement’ three times at film festivals, and I know that it worked. It’s an incredibly moving story, and that really comes across in the film. So I guess we got it right.”