Five years ago, few people on this side of the Atlantic had heard of James McAvoy. Then the Glaswegian starred as Idi Amin’s yes-man in The Last King of Scotland, and the roles have been steady ever since — Atonement, Becoming Jane, and Wanted, the only action film to brag of a loom as a plot device. In his new film, the fact-based drama The Last Station, McAvoy plays the personal secretary to Leo Tolstoy in the final days of the author’s life. His character, Valentin Bulgakov, is a Tolstoy acolyte who gets caught in the cross fire of a love-hate relationship between the novelist (Christopher Plummer) and his stalwart wife (Helen Mirren). McAvoy spoke with Vulture about his method sneezing, why he would never ever play James Bond, and why his upcoming “cancer comedy” isn’t really a comedy.
At the Last Station screening I attended, I overheard a teenage girl and a fully grown woman gush about you. Have you had many personal encounters with your female fan base?
Yeah, but they’re really nice. I don’t even get sent weird stuff — I don’t get sent underwear. I’m more likely to get sent a scarf someone’s knitted because they want to take care of me. So yeah, the small but very nice fan base I have is very lovely.
Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer are huge acting veterans. Were you daunted by them?
I wasn’t daunted by working with them. I was daunted by the fact that when you work with people you really respect, you hope they’re gonna like you and you hope you’re gonna click with them. If you don’t click with them, it’s probably your fault because we’ve already established that they’re really good. And so for the first couple days you’re just like, "Shit, shit shit, shit, shit, is it gonna work? Are they gonna like me? Are they gonna respect me?" But after not long at all, you realize all your worries are unfounded because they’re nice people and very generous actors and they just become the dudes in the film with you. Also, we all had quite a good laugh on this. Helen is quite a good laugh.
In the movie, your character has this tic where you sneeze whenever you’re nervous. Was it hard to do that without overacting?
I don’t know, you’d have to be the judge on my overacting or not. It felt quite easy to do. I developed a little trick of making myself need to sneeze and it clicked in whenever I needed it to. But I can’t do it anymore. You need to spend a couple of weeks just to condition yourself to need to sneeze a lot, and then your body knows, “Ahh, you wanna sneeze now? Okay, I’ll help you out.” But if you get out of the habit, your body doesn’t recognize your psychological impulse to sneeze. It was a real tic that [Bulgakov] had, a real affliction. From what I’ve read, it was a real fucking nightmare for the kid.
You’ve had to play Russian, American, Irish, and British accents. As a Scotsman, is there one accent that’s harder to pick up?
I don’t think so. They’re all the same level of difficulty. There was one that was quite hard. I did a film called Inside I’m Dancing — or Rory O’Shea Was Here it was called in the U.S. The character was written to come from Cork. Cork has an incredibly strange and beautiful, but fucking mental accent, and I did that for four weeks. Then the producers just went, “What is that sound he’s making with his mouth?” It’s a strange, beautiful accent. Have you ever heard Cillian Murphy speak in his own accent? It is amazing. And so they just went, “Nah, let’s just make him from Dublin instead.” That was probably the hardest accent, because I’d never heard it before.
Penelope, with Christina Ricci, is another movie you did somewhat recently. It didn’t get much promotion here. Did that bother you?
No, not really. It’s weird, I really enjoy making films and I really want people to see them, but if they don’t, I kind of let it go. But also, I feel like a lot of people have said such nice things to me about Penelope. Women particularly. I don’t think a single guy has said something to me about Penelope. Actually, one guy said something because his 8-year-old daughter loves it.
I’m guessing that same little girl didn’t see you in The Last King of Scotland. I have to say, that scene with you being hung on a meat hook was one of the most unbearable scenes I’ve watched in recent years.
It was horrible to shoot. I passed out fucking filming it. They wanted me not to vocalize, not to scream, and the only way I could do that was to not have any breath. So I was trying to have no breath in me and then fucking had no breath for so long that I passed out and fell off the thing that was holding me up. I was hanging by one of these hooks in a prosthetic. They all thought I was acting as well, so nobody stopped me and I was seconds away from dropping four feet on my head until one of the props guys knew that something wasn’t right and ran and caught me.
Looking ahead, you’re doing the “cancer comedy” with Seth Rogen. Is it called I’m With Cancer?
I don’t know what it’s called. One minute it’s I’m With Cancer, the next minute it’s The Untitled Cancer Comedy. The expectation is kind of weird because I don’t think it is a comedy. It’s about a guy who gets cancer and then gets better — that story can’t just be a comedy. That story has to be sad, too. Or fucking cautionary at least. If it is just a comedy, I wouldn’t do it.
I guess people call it a comedy because Seth Rogen’s in it.
Yeah, but it’s also about Seth’s life. It’s happened to Seth and his best friend, so that’s not just a comedy. Although, it’s very funny a lot. It’s also very sad a lot. I play a guy called Adam who’s based on the writer, Will Reiser, who got cancer when he was 25. Seth and him are best friends, and he got a very particular type of rare cancer with very little chance of getting better, and he got better. It chronicles his time going through treatment, and what it is to have cancer — not just for anybody but for a young person, as well.
A new director was just hired for the movie, The Wackness's Jonathan Levine. Do you have any idea how the style might shift with the change of directors?
Not really. [Lovely & Amazing's] Nicole Holofcener is a fantastic director and we’re really sorry to lose her. I think Jonathan’s gonna be a fantastic director as well. Stylistically yes, the film’s gonna be different. But every director approaches every film differently, so I don’t know. I wouldn’t wanna label things now before we start it. There’s no use making anybody feel judged before we even begin. The slate should be completely clean.
You’ve also been attached to an Ian Fleming biopic. Is that just a rumor?
I’m not attached to it. Somebody was very naughty and said I was, and they shouldn’t have. I read it and I really liked it, but I never had a conversation with the producer and I never attached myself to it. I may end up doing it but just as equally may end up not.
How is Wanted 2 coming along?
We don’t know, it’s still up in the ether. I know they want it to happen. Wanted 2 is definitely wanted by Universal. But whether it happens now, tomorrow, next year, in two years, or never, all possibilities are possible. “All possibilities are possible,” did I really say that?
Were you onboard with a sequel from the get-go, or did you have to think about it?
I’m signed up to do it. When I did the first one I had to do a sequel. So I am Wesley. Unless they fire me, that is, which is their right.
Would you like to keep varying it up between big action movies and quieter films like this? I think Christian Bale does it well.
Not really. I don’t really see myself as an action guy. I did an action movie, but the part that I played was tailor-made for me to be an action guy and I don’t think I would suit most action-guy roles. So I wouldn’t go chasing them. I’ll do the sequel and all that if it happens, but I don’t think I’d actively seek another action franchise or comic-book adaptation. But who knows? Tomorrow it’ll be in the papers: “I will be doing Superman 15,” or something like that.
Or the next James Bond?
I would never, ever, ever play James Bond.
I love it, but I’m not James Bond. I’m just not James Bond. I think there should be a female James Bond. We should have a female Doctor Who, at that.