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The Star Market: Can The Conspirator Energize James McAvoy’s Career?

James McAvoy stars in movies, but he's not yet a movie star. He seemed on the cusp right after 2008’s blockbuster Wanted, but in the years since he’s pulled back, focusing on prestige fare like Robert Redford's Lincoln assassination drama The Conspirator, out in theaters today. Can this sort of highbrow role push McAvoy to the next level? Or will it all depend on his summer blockbuster X-Men: First Class? Or has he already waited too long to make the leap? We spoke with industry insiders to answer these questions and the weekly Star Market query: If James McAvoy were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Much like recent Star Market subject Russell Brand, McAvoy, 31, had a healthy career in the U.K. before entering the American consciousness: He did Shakespeare and starred in well-received British TV shows (the original State of Play and the original Shameless). He made small inroads in Hollywood with supporting roles (Wimbledon, the first Chronicles of Narnia) before making his first big U.S. splash in 2006's The Last King of Scotland. Considering the slight $6 million budget, its $48 worldwide gross was excellent, but the overwhelming critical acclaim was better. Forest Whitaker would nab the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin, and McAvoy, as Amin's physician, was instantly branded a Young Talented Actor to Watch. He's kept it fairly highbrow since then, with Becoming Jane, Atonement, The Last Station, and, now, The Conspirator — with one big exception. That'd be 2008's Wanted, in which he co-starred with Angelina Jolie, a box-office behemoth that grossed $341 million internationally.

Peers: McAvoy’s peer group consists of a number of actors who, like McAvoy, could be described as a thinking person’s leading man — that includes his X-Men co-star Michael Fassbender, as well as James Franco (32), Matthew Goode (33), Jim Sturgess (32), Matthew Macfadyen (36), Ryan Gosling (30), and Chris Pine (30).

Market Value: McAvoy hasn’t had a big hit since Wanted, and other than The Conspirator, he’s only appeared in two movies since. In short, he’s been keeping a low profile. If he hasn’t been building his reputation, he also hasn’t been damaging it: He may not yet be considered a guy who can carry a franchise, but he's definitely a guy who is going to get a shot at carrying a franchise. There’s the X-Men movie, and if that hits, his track record in the big-budget stuff will be sterling. If it doesn’t, he still might get another shot if Wanted 2 ever does materialize, and according to one agent, “He’s being considered for the Bourne movie.” On top of all that, he has legit acting skills, which actually helped him land the part on X-Men: First Class (between him and Fassbender, it’s about as actor-y as action movies get). If the big-budget stuff doesn’t work out, he always has talent to fall back on.

Stock History: Much like recent Star Market subject Russell Brand, McAvoy, 31, had a healthy career in the U.K. before entering the American consciousness: He did Shakespeare and starred in well-received British TV shows (the original State of Play and the original Shameless). He made small inroads in Hollywood with supporting roles (Wimbledon, the first Chronicles of Narnia) before making his first big U.S. splash in 2006's The Last King of Scotland. Considering the slight $6 million budget, its $48 worldwide gross was excellent, but the overwhelming critical acclaim was better. Forest Whitaker would nab the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin, and McAvoy, as Amin's physician, was instantly branded a Young Talented Actor to Watch. He's kept it fairly highbrow since then, with Becoming Jane, Atonement, The Last Station, and, now, The Conspirator — with one big exception. That'd be 2008's Wanted, in which he co-starred with Angelina Jolie, a box-office behemoth that grossed $341 million internationally.

“I’d keep his profile visible in a studio film,” says the agent. “Probably a comedy, because his comedy chops are unproven. But then, I’d have him follow it up with something that shows his acting chops again. Put him in with the Derek Cianfrances of the world. He’s really talented, but he’s got more to prove.” Adds a manager, “I’m a big fan. They’re doing a really great job with moving that career forward. I think the best careers aren’t like anyone else’s. He’s not dark and dangerous, [so]he’s not Tom Hardy. He’s not quite as good looking as Gosling, but not as afraid of stardom, either. He proved in Scotland that he has bona fide chops. It didn’t resonate culturally in the same terms as The Social Network, but if he’d had the Andrew Garfield role in Social Network, he’d be Spider-Man today. I think it’s really only a matter of time that he gets some form of a franchise, something that allows him to be tested on the merits of his ability to carry a movie.”

As one publicist points out, “My mother doesn’t he know who he is. But with the right material, she will. This summer [with the release of X-Men: First Class] will beef up his presence internationally, with people of many ages. He would be wise to go around the world with the X-Men folks and try to get the best stand-out stuff. He’s a good enough actor and been around long enough to get some real covers on his own. He shouldn’t be doing the group stuff all the time. And he should be doing the stand-alone stuff in in opinion-making publications — Vanity Fair, that kind of stuff. He’s going to be in a very popular film, and that’ll be a platform to remind executives of him. Once you get the attention of the people making the decisions, you can be more particular.”

The Analysis: The manager's distinction between McAvoy and Gosling — that the former is less “afraid of stardom” — seems to ring true. McAvoy is clearly comfortable moving between the well-reviewed indie dramas and the studio fare, and the studios are clearly game to have him take a crack at the A-List. In an interview with Vulture, McAvoy explained his decision to do Wanted by saying, “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.” Sure, that's true — but the point is, as long as studios find non-sellout-y roles for him, he's willing to cash the big paychecks and take on the big responsibility. From the looks of the trailer, X-Men is a pretty somber affair, which fits surprisingly well with his lesser-seen works. If that's any indication, McAvoy will continue to make smart decisions, and that includes not shying away from the franchises and blockbusters. As the manager puts it, “He has as good a shot as anybody of having a long and meaningful career. You know how many years Brad Cooper floated around before he popped? He’s going to do his own thing in his own way, but he’s got a real shot.”

The Bottom Line: Stardom might not happen right now — but it will happen. He's too talented, and too smart, to let it slip away.

Buy/Sell/Hold: HOLD OR BUY FOR LONG-TERM GROWTH

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images