Ever since he bore witness to Forest Whitaker's towering performance in The Last King of Scotland, James McAvoy has had a hell of a few years-- romancing Keira Knightley in Atonement, shooting giant guns in Wanted, and signing on to upcoming projects in which he'll play a Lincoln-era lawyer (Robert Redford's The Conspirator) and a twentysomething with cancer (the "untitled cancer project" he's doing with Seth Rogen). But in The Last Station, he's kind of back where many of us first saw him, playing a young man who's an unintentional witness to history. Except this time instead of Idi Amin, it's War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy and his crazy wife Sofya at the center of it all.
McAvoy plays Valentin, a young man assigned as the personal secretary to the aging Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), who is living at his country estate while, nearby, an entire proto-Communist society has sprung up inspired by his ideals. Tolstoy remains fiercely devoted to the fiery Sofya, but there's a question as to who will inherit the estate and the money when the ailing Tolstoy dies-- his family or his devoted followers. Valentin is thrust into the middle of the fight, while also being forced to question his "Tolstoyan" commitment to celibacy thanks to a beautiful fellow worker (Kerry Condon) and what's clearly the Tolstoys' own voracious appetites for one another.
McAvoy signed on to do The Last Station four years ago, when his career was first picking up steam, and says he jumped at the chance to make a biopic that actually had a sense of humor. We talked about his scenes with Helen Mirren in The Last Station, his unlikely career as an action hero with Wanted 2 looming on the horizon, how he uses Google alerts, and working alongside his wife, Anne-Marie Duff, who has a small part in The Last Station. We even dissected those persistent rumors that have him playing everyone from Ian Fleming to Bilbo Baggins (neither are true), and started a new one. You heard it here first: get ready to see James McAvoy wielding the golden lasso of truth.
There are a million different reasons to sign up for this movie when you look at the final product. What was the main one for you?
Sense of humor of the script was the thing that drew me to it more than anything. I felt it was quite unique. I don't often see costume drama biopics about visionary artistic figures in recent history being that funny. I'm not saying this is a comedy, because it's not, but it's got a lot of funny work in it I think.
Was there any cast attached beside you when you go it?
No. There were names being thrown about. But I knew we'd get good actors because the script was so good, it's such a good ensemble, there are so many good parts for people. And then when we got who we got, it was kind of like, what? Wow... shit. Fucking amazing, but... shit.
Presumably your wife came on board after you did.
Actually, when I came on board, it was four years before we made the film. And it was just as The Last King of Scotland came out. Then nothing happened for four years and it disappeared. I did forget all about the bloody film. Then Ann-Marie came home one day and said, "I've just been to an audition and got offered the part in The Last Station. Is that something that you were going to do at one point?" I was like, "What?" I phoned my agent up and I was like, "Is The Last Station happening?" And she went, "Yeah, but we weren't sure that we had all the money together, so we weren't bothering you until it did." I was like, "Bloody hell, come on!" It was quite weird to find that out from my wife. So she technically got cast before I did.
This period of time, with Tolstoy founding this new belief system and people coming out to live on his property, is so crazy. How did you access it and put yourself in it?
I had Valentin's diaries. I knew how he felt about everything that happened in the film. As far-fetched as everything that happens in the film seems, it hapened. And we not only have Valentin's point of view; everybody in that film kept diaries. Unless these people all got together and decided to hoax the world and make filmmakers 100 years from then make fucking ridiculous versions of what was actually very mundane, we know that they were that crazy. Not only that, I know exactly how Valentin felt about it because he wrote it down minutes after, say, Countess Sofya fell through the window and made a fucking ass of herself. I know how he felt about that. He was devastated by it. He was absolutely heartbroken for the woman. It's just incredible to have that level of contact with a character. I've never had that before.
Does it make it harder for you to do your own thing with the character?
No, it just made me love him more I think. Usually I have to keep the character in my imagination with the aid of the script and all that, and it's completely a construct. You still have to do a lot with your imagination, but there's a hell of a lot of inspiration coming from the outside as well.
Did you have to find in yourself the capacity to believe in this crazy belief system? Not that you believed it, but you could see how someone could?
Yeah, that's empathy, and just being able to understand and put yourself in somebody's shoes that you've never walked in before. Empathy is imagination, I think. You just understand different people form you and try and get inside them, and find their motivations. But I just think that's what acting always is. I've never played anybody who's got the same life as me.
Do you think it would be boring if you did?
A story about my life would be utterly dull. It would be the fucking dullest thing you've ever seen in your life, I promise you.
Helen Mirren's character in The Last Station is just on a plane beyond everyone else, and you share so many scenes with her. How do you figure out how to act alongside her?
You just do what you think you need to to tell the story. Look at the script, identify what you think the script wants the audience to feel, then identify how best to facilitate that. Then you both go about doing your job. I never felt like I couldn't connect to her. I felt like she was completely there. The bigger she was, the more exceptional she became to me. He was in her thrall because she was exceptional. That was amazing me for me to have that, to fall in love with.
Did that ever make you doubt what you were doing, because she's Helen Mirren?
No, I'm fairly confident. The doubts and all that-- I don't think the doubts are there when you're doing it. The doubts are there after you've done it, and you're going "I hope it was good, I hope that worked." But when you're doing it, you're too busy being in the moment and being truthful and looking at the other person's eyes and believing that they're not Helen Mirren, believing that they're Sofya. I'd be really worried if I was sitting there going, "Maybe I should act like Helen Mirren."
Does it take time to get to that point of confidence, where you erase the doubts?
Sometimes they creep in, usually when a scene's not working. Most of the scenes felt like they worked when we filmed it. You've just got to invest yourself and absorb yourself completely with the person sitting in front of you, and believe in them, because everything that you need is them. Everything you need is the other actors, if they're open and if you're open. That's my personal way of doing acting. You've got to give energy to other actors. Some actors really don't, and it's like a crime against the other fucking actors. I hate it. You've got to give them focus, you've got to give them attention, you've got to give them something to work with. Otherwise you're going to get nothing back, and how are you going to do what you need to do?
Not really, actually. There are quite a few emotional scenes in Wanted, and they felt quite dramatic. That's one of the things I liked about the script-- there were things I didn't like about the script, but one of the things I liked-- I kind of felt like a lot of the scenes, especially in the first half, they were quite decent scenes for an actor to play. That character journey was quite a complex one to go on, I thought, in a silly big old action movie. The only thing that was harder in an action movie is that you were physically fucked all the time, as well as having to act. Do your job and be all mentally engaged and emotionally engaged, at the same time as going "You know what, I just want to fucking lie down. My body is killing me." That was the only thing that made Wanted harder.
Obviously when you made Wanted you didn't know that you were probably going to make a sequel. Does having this future as an action star feel odd?
To be honest with you, I didn't expect it at any point. If you'd told me that 10 years ago I would have been very surprised. It is odd, but it's just the way it's going. I don't regret anything.
You've said all the rumors about which films you're doing-- like Ian Fleming or The Hobbit-- don't affect you that much.
They don't really, no.
But when someone calls you and says "you've signed on to play Captain America"--
Did somebody say that?
No, no-- that one's made up.
Let's see if we can get that one going. "James McAvoy will play Wonder Woman."
That would be a very big scoop for me, so if you just say that--
I'm signed on to play Wonder Woman. I'm very excited about it. It's a huge character role for me. Yeah, I don't know-- I had somebody phone me up and say "Hey, are you playing Bilbo Baggins?" And I was like, "No," and they were like, "Yeah, right, you've just got to be quiet about it."
Do you know where that rumor came from? Because it's been around forever.
I think it was speculation, and then it was speculated so much that it just became received that it was a leak somewhere. But it was only ever speculation. It was kind of weird, all that. But again, unles you're checking yourself out on the Internet every day, you're not going to see that. It's not in the papers.
So you don't have a Google alert for yourself?
No. The only person I have a Google news alert for is Stacy Kent, who's a singer, a great jazz singer. And [Scottish singer] Paolo Nutini, because I really like him. You want to know when your favorite singers are coming to town.