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In M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, James McAvoy plays a man named Kevin who kidnaps three girls, keeping them captive in a subterranean room while they struggle to escape. But the real drama is happening inside his skull: Kevin is just one of 23 personalities of this antihero, who is afflicted with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). There’s not a lot going on on top of his head, though, and McAvoy reveals that the shaved pate he sported as Professor Xavier in X-Men: Apocalypse led to his adopting a similar look for Split.
“I first met Night at a party at San Diego Comic-Con,” McAvoy recalls, “and I had just come down from Montreal, where I was filming X-Men. He said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen you with a shaved head before,’ and I was like, ‘Wanna touch it?’ [Laughs] I think that was the beginning of him thinking that I might be right for Split. Then when I got there, we were seeking ways to differentiate my characters from each other, saying, ‘Maybe they should all wear different wigs,’ and things like that. That’s so expressive about who we are; the way we wear our hair says a lot about us.
“But then we both agreed that instead of going that route, simplicity would be even better. The less we made it about the affectation of each personality having their own special thing, the more the audience could find it within the performance—in the face, in the eyes, and in the tiny gestures, movements, and changes—like the way someone holds their jaw, the way someone looks if they’re nearsighted or farsighted, that kind of thing. That becomes much more interesting to the audience than, ‘Oh, he’s that guy now because he’s wearing a red wig.’ ”
Fortunately for McAvoy’s own sanity, Shyamalan’s script only required him to portray nine of those 23 personalities on screen. “There was a lot of character work to get through, and I’m really glad that there weren’t any more!” he says. “Because I came in quite late in the day; Joaquin Phoenix was going to do the film, and then he pulled out for some reason. So it came to me, and I had about a quarter of the time I usually have to build one character, and I had to build nine in that time.”
These identities range from the confident Dennis to the religious Patricia to the childlike Hedwig, and the actor notes, “They’re different from you and I, in that we were born with no particular purpose; we were born because our parents had sex. But apart from Kevin, they were all born to perform specific functions, because they’re personifications of certain attributes within Kevin. I had to figure out why each of them are necessary, and what their prime driver is within the larger community of people who live within Kevin’s mind. As soon as I knew that, it was amazing—I was able to flesh them out, and determine their hopes and fears and dreams and goals.”
McAvoy came to some of his discoveries regarding the role through research into actual DID cases. “My misconception was that everybody who lives with DID suffers because of it—and of course there are many people who do, but there are also people who live successful and fulfilling lives with DID. Twenty of the people who live within Kevin, including Kevin himself, all get along fine; they have a good, positive existence, they’re all making it work, you know what I mean? They’re making their way through life.”
The three who are not, however, are responsible for Kevin’s 24th and most malevolent side: The Beast, who is spoken of in threatening tones by the others. To have that harmonious existence, McAvoy explains, “The group has had to ostracize the three antagonistic characters within the community—Dennis, Patricia and Hedwig. So they don’t believe they have anybody fighting for them. The rest of them feel they’ve got Dr. Fletcher [Kevin’s therapist, played by Betty Buckley] as their advocate, but this little trio don’t feel like anybody’s out to support them. So Patricia has developed this figure to worship—one that will look after them, that will fight for them, that will put them first. It’s an interesting situation where one of the alters has spawned another alter, and the Beast is there to be their avenging angel.”
How the Beast eventually emerges won’t be revealed here—though the presence of a character with that name does provide another tangential connection back to the X-Men franchise. As far as McAvoy’s part in the next entry (a New Mutants movie currently set to shoot in April) is concerned, the actor can’t say much about that either. He does note that he appreciates the namecheck to his part in the series spoken by Ryan Reynolds’ eponymous avenger in Deadpool. (As Colossus attempts to drag him off to see Professor Xavier, Deadpool quips, “McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are so confusing.”)
“I loved it; that was kind of awesome,” McAvoy says. “That’s maybe the second or third time my name’s been mentioned in a movie, and I was like, ‘Yesssss!’ I felt honored.”