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James McAvoy Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters

James McAvoy joins British GQ for part 1 of Iconic Characters. James McAvoy revisits four important movie characters in his film career so far: from playing Mr Tumnus in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ to an unexpected role as Lord Asriel in the hit fantasy drama series, ‘His Dark Materials’. “The director purposefully didn’t let [Georgie Henley] see me as Mr Tumnus through any of the prep or rehearsals,” James recounts as he reflects on his role in The Chronicles of Narnia. “So the first time [Georgie] sees me on-set is the first time that she sees Mr Tumnus on-set”. Watch the full episode of British GQ’s Iconic Characters, as James McAvoy breaks down four of his most iconic roles in TV & Film.

Released on 12/07/2022

Transcript

They knew that they had to get somebody

who was young,

and who was nice,

seemed un-threatening,

You'll cough up!

and I'm all those things clearly.

Who will stand against me.

And we ended up with something that I'm

intensely proud of.

Intensely proud?

So proud and intense about it.

[upbeat music]

The Chronicles of Narnia.

I'm sorry, please allow me to introduce myself.

My name is Tumnus.

Please to meet Mr. Tumnus, I'm Lucy Pevensie.

Mr. Tumnus is, I think, a centuries old fawn.

Interestingly enough as a character who would go on

to kidnap a young, I think five year old, six year old girl.

They were looking at much older actors

not much older but like thirties and forties.

And they were like, this just seems wrong.

This seems really creepy.

They knew that they had to get somebody who was young

and who was nice and seemed un-threatening

and I'm all those things, clearly.

But that was a long, long time ago

before this dreadful winter.

The winter's not all bad,

it's ice skating and Christmas.

No. No, we haven't had a Christmas in a hundred years.

And so I went in and auditioned

put myself on tape I think first.

And then I went in and I met Andrew Adamson

who's a genuinely lovely man and a great director.

I feel like I got the part in the room.

I think Andrew gave me the part in the room.

I'm sure the studio would've had

something to say about that.

There was a lot of old school makeup in that film.

Old school's not the right word

just proper special effects makeup.

The CGI element was from the legs down

but everything from I'd say the thighs up

was all the incredible work of Howard Berger

at K & B along with Tammy Lane and Sarah Urbano.

That trio sat with me every morning

at like four in the morning for

three and a half, four hours and hand laid

three hairs at a time, glued them on, took some hot tongs,

twirled them, then hand laid some more and all that.

And then the nose and the head and the helmet.

And I mean it was an incredible procedure.

Getting to work with Georgie was a real privilege

because she was so fresh and so,

had never done any acting before

and Andrew purposefully didn't let her see me

as Mr. Tumnus through any of the prep

or rehearsals or anything like that.

And it really truly was all new to her.

And on the day that Georgie and I

or Lucy and Mr. Tumnus meet for the first time

that was all kind of orchestrated

so that she would never see me.

So the first time that she sees me

on set is the first time that she saw

Mr. Tumnus on set.

[Mr. Tumnus groans]

[Lucy screams loudly]

[ethereal music]

Were you hiding for me?

And it was a really cool moment and I could see the sort

of magic in her eyes and all that and the kind

of slight fear in her eyes as well, which you know

done up like a horny goat with green CGI nickers

is one of those pinch yourself moments

where you go like I can't believe

that I'm a jobing actor who can actually pay my bills one.

But two, I'm getting to be in some of this stuff

that I've loved and made me want to be an actor

and made me love stories

and made me love TV and made me watch movies.

I'm getting to be a part of that

and that's one of the biggest privileges in my career

is that I've been able to be a part

of the cultural references that formed me

and formed what I enjoy in culture.

[rock music]

Filth.

I hear voices, Chrissy.

See things all the time.

The opportunity to play someday or portray someone's

severe mental health problems

but not just do it in a gritty realistic way,

to do it in a fun, anarchic,

quite nihilistic and violent but still quite

a fun entertaining and funny

and surreal artistic way was really exciting to me.

There's also moments of just like weird comedy as well

as the brutality of it and the brutalization

of the victim, of the patient, but of the people around him.

[little drummer boy playing in background]

[pig squealing]

I felt like I had to be able to portray his

not only his mental decline

but the guys falling apart physically as well.

Couldn't just do that with makeup or acting.

I had to actually sort of look the part physically as well.

We did use makeup a lot.

I mean we tried to age me with makeup as well.

Yeah, I basically just ate too much bad food

and drank too much alcohol

until my body started to cry out against it and say no.

At one point I felt like the doctor was saying

it sounds like you've got colitis.

And I was like, oof.

So I kinda toed the line

and then I started just eating healthier foods

but way too much of it to kinda keep the weight on.

But yeah, I drank a lot of Guinness

I drank a lot of whiskey.

I would have a big shot of whiskey

before bed and I remember in the shoot drinking too much

not while I was filming but drinking too much the night

before a lot and waking up every day.

It, you know, as you do for the film business,

you wake up at 5:00 or 5:30 or 6:00

and with a horrible hangover but it kinda was okay

because usually you're coming to set

and even if you're not playing the lead,

you're kind of expected to look your best

or look okay, you know.

Nobody wants you coming with blurry eyes

and bags and stinking like a brewery.

But on that job it was actually quite helpful.

♪ Having fun ♪

♪ It's the season ♪

[guttural heaving sounds]

It's not like, I couldn't just like vomit right now, right?

But it doesn't take too much of

a bad smell or just a little bit of me

sitting there thinking about being sick

to start to get a bit nauseous.

Considering whilst playing Bruce, I was pretty unhealthy

and I was drinking a lot and I was eating a lot

and I was eating a lot of bad stuff as well.

It wasn't very difficult to make myself throw up

in that particular film.

I don't think you need to do that

on every film where somebody throws up.

I think you can just fake it

or have a cup of soup and puke that up.

But for that film it felt like

we were definitely trying to make the audience

have a visceral reaction at times.

Some people will watch that and go

yeah whatever, he puked.

And some people watch it and go like, oh my God!

We wanted that whatever possible.

In the scene that I got to shoot with my sister,

Joy McAvoy who is a brilliant actor

Do I know you from somewhere?

No.

No you don't.

No you fucking don't.

What have I done wrong?

Wasting police time, withholding information,

and possibly harboring a murder suspect.

That's shite.

You'll fucking cough up, or I swear to God

you'll be stuffing cuddly toys

in Cottonville Prison faster than you can

tie a bunch of fucking daffodils.

I had to kinda threaten her physically and kinda

with some physical violence in a little bit

of sexual violence and that's my sister.

So that was weird.

But I don't know, that's just another challenge

to doing what you've gotta do and

as long as the challenge isn't a bad script

or bad direction that kinda challenge

is just the kind of good challenge

that you need to make you get better.

It didn't stop me being incredibly nasty

to that particular actor, who happened to be my sister

and who I love so dear, she's like one of my best pals.

Was I aware of Irvin Wilson's work?

Absolutely.

I think my first exposure to Irvin

was when I was a young kid and

I'm watching Train Spotting for the first time.

Danny Boyle's masterpiece that got me into him

and got me reading his work.

Filth was a book that I hadn't read

and in fact they said to me,

don't read it until you're finished.

Because the book, if you can believe,

if you've seen the film,

the book is even sadder, darker,

more violent, and upsetting.

Our amazing director John S. Baird

just did the most incredible adaptation

of Irving Welsh's amazing novel

and we ended up with something that

I'm intensely proud of.

Intensely proud?

So proud and intense about it.

But it's one of my favorite films and one of my

favorite performances that I've ever given.

[upbeat music]

Shameless.

[loud explosion]

Whoa ho ho!

Woo!

I didn't enjoy watching the US remake of Shameless

but that's not because it was bad.

That was just because it was our work that we did.

And I'm sure that pretty quickly like

with the the British office and the American office

they deviated and went off and did their own thing.

But I remember watching the first episode

and bits that I improvised the guy was doing

and I was like whoa,

there's a bit where I get my arse out.

And that was just, I just decided to do that.

[group hooting and hollering]

And luckily Tony Slater Lang who is our DP

who was like, I was like, did you get that?

He was like, you couldn't miss it mate.

It was like the fucking full moon.

But he was just like,

I also saw what you had for breakfast.

And then I'm watching the US version

and the guy does that and I was like, what?

I guess that's the nature of remake.

But those guys seem great and they've clearly

had massive success and fair play to them.

They've done their own thing by all accounts.

But I just thought it's not for me watching this.

How important do I think it was

in terms of the way it portrayed working class?

The working classes are a myriad of different things.

Sometimes they're like they are on Shameless.

And I think something that celebrates society is important.

Not all the time you need something

that tears society apart.

Just like you need something that tears

the political system apart.

You also need something that celebrates it sometimes.

So while it critiqued it and while it was brutal

and sometimes exposed the ugliness of certain parts

of working class society in that part of the world

it also celebrated it that no matter how rough it seemed

or how deprived it seemed and at times depraved

it seemed there was our joy and our love

and a verve there, you know?

A real passion there.

Growing up where I grew up, I grew up

in a council estate and it wasn't like Shameless

it wasn't always like a total caper and like mad cap fun.

But it was at times, and that aspect of it

that they captured I think made everybody who lived

in a council estate or came from a council estate

see themselves in it.

And that's what one of the main functions of art is.

To see yourself reflected.

His Dark Materials.

Oh you don't understand.

The Magisterium have no power anymore.

No more oppression, no more abuse,

no more darkness.

I was doing a show called Privates on Parade

at Donmar warehouse, Indira Varma was in it.

We were talking about Lord of the Rings I think.

I was saying you need to read the Lord of the Rings.

And she in return said, you need to read His Dark Materials.

I was like, okay, I'll read them.

And I started reading His Dark Materials

and it blew my mind, absolutely loved it.

When my very good friend Kahleen Crawford,

who cast the show, started talking to me

about the fact that she was gonna cast His Dark Materials.

I was so excited, we chatted lots,

we went through everything.

'Cause I know the books inside out,

but I kind of thought there's not really

a part for me in it.

Anyway, about a month or two later she came to me.

It was kind of like we split, someone else

let me down at the last minute and she went,

Hey, how would you feel about playing Lord Asriel Belacqua?

And I went, when would you like me to start?

And she said Monday.

And I was like, okay, great I'm doing.

I happened to be available and I loved it.

I just, I knew exactly what I was gonna do

with the character from the minute she said

do you wanna do this?

I believe Grumman found evidence of these multiple worlds

and he paid for it with his life.

[the Sub-Rector] His life?

I found his body preserved in the ice off Svalbard.

I brought back his head,

I believe you knew him best Sub-Rector.

[the Sub-Rector] It could be Grumman.

Who would've done this?

Gentlemen, there is a war raging between

those trying to keep us in ignorance

and those like Grumman, willing to fight

for the light, to fight for true academic freedom.

In season three you see a hell of a lot more of him.

We get to see him more as a soldier.

We get to see him more as a leader

of a burgeoning society.

But we get to see his ego truly challenged and collapse.

And the, sort of, dismantling of his ego

to allow him to actually see the truth.

He is doing something that is for the greater good

but it's also about him.

He needs to be the star of the show.

He thinks he's the Messiah, actually it's his girl.

Just go.

Take me north, you promised you would!

Take me with you, we'd have loads of time then.

North is no place for a child.

I've got one tattoo,

but if I was to get another one

and my tattoo is very, very subdued

and you wouldn't even notice it a lot of the time.

You'd think it was just a mark.

If I was gonna get any tattoo of any note

it would be a quote from the book

and it would be Phillip's line, tell them stories.

Because I think that is so fundamental to human nature.

We need stories.

It's a weird thing.

We need food, we need shelter, we need sex,

we need power, we need water, but we need stories.

It isn't just an industry,

it isn't just entertainment of an evening.

It's part of what we need as a species.

We might not always need it

but right now I think we still need it.

We survive on stories because they're there to reflect us.

And that's why all parts of culture

all parts of society, all races, creeds,

colors, religions, and sexualities and everything

needs to be represented.

Art is there for us to look at ourselves

and see ourselves represented.

You can criticize the viewer

or you can entertain the viewer.

You can shock the viewer, you can celebrate the viewer.

But we all need to see ourselves up there.

Starring: James McAvoy