There’s Something About McAvoy

How a career of fearless over-commitment 
prepared the British actor to play properly crazy.

We’re all very excited for Split to come out this week and have a whole bunch of articles to show it. Buy your tickets here!

The idea of essentially playing 24 different characters in the service of a single role is one most performers would baulk at. Not James McAvoy. The Scottish actor, beloved and yet undervalued, has seemingly been training for Split his entire career, throwing himself into each project no matter how lacking the material might be.

Although McAvoy isn't quite as highly-regarded as fellow (albeit older) countrymen such as Ewan McGregor or Robert Carlyle, it's easy to imagine him taking a starring role in Trainspotting in another life. For McAvoy has proven himself willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, convincing as, among others, a junkie, a cop, a mad scientist and a lowly accountant with a secret set of deadly skills. Like him or not, there's no questioning his commitment.

Tasked with describing the still relatively-young Scot (not yet 40, and with boyishly soft features mostly intact), the words “focused” and “fearless” immediately spring to mind. Sure, he may not disappear into roles the way Fassbender and his ilk do, but his uncanny ability to be different in everything, while still shining through as himself, is impressive.

Granted, McAvoy is significantly better suited to playing characters who are on the edge: typically isolated, tortured, or otherwise complicated men with an inner darkness barely concealed by the actor's often crazy-eyed demeanor. Take Wanted, a 2008 action movie loosely based on Mark Millar’s comic book and McAvoy's launch into the US market, for which he almost wasn't cast due to not looking the part.

He's easily the best thing in it. As sad sack loser Wesley, a flop of boy-band hair constantly in his eyes, McAvoy looks as though he's straining to keep his emotions in check throughout, and finds it taxing even to be alive. The actor, then just shy of thirty, stars opposite heavy-hitters Angelina Jolie, doing her usual po-faced thing, and Morgan Freeman, doing his usual godlike thing, but he's the standout - wildly committed to the escalating madness.

This is a running theme with McAvoy's work, particularly since his well-received turn in the drippily serious Atonement. He tends to give way too much to terrible material, the most damning example of which is Victor Frankenstein, a movie he spends spitting all over co-star Daniel Radcliffe (when you enunciate, you SPIT).

McAvoy often draws comparison to Welshman Luke Evans, to whom he also bears a striking resemblance. Evans has done his own fair share of crap, most notably, comparatively-speaking, Dracula Untold. Unlike his Scottish contemporary, however, he tends to retain a cool distance from the material.

McAvoy doesn't, or perhaps can't. He's a geek who wants to give his all no matter how little anybody else might care. Manic as he may be as Frankenstein, it's difficult not to believe him. One of his greatest attributes, as demonstrated even in complete dross, is his ability to go from complacent to crazy in seconds. It makes every character he plays an antihero.

As Welcome To The Punch's do-gooder cop, he retains a genuine edge. It's never clear whether he's about to shoot Mark Strong or high-five him. Consider his howls of pain when he's shot during the opening sequence, how he bobs on the spot while anxiously trying to prove his worth, the way he hangs out by the door looking in on a briefing, how he eats a piece of toast.

Each moment, each action, is orchestrated so we're never quite sure of his motivations. Even his Professor Xavier - perhaps McAvoy's most high-profile role to date - is knotted with nuances and contradictions. Who could forget the ghastly trailer reveal with him in that chair, bald, and presumably, in some marketing genius's head, magically transformed into Patrick Stewart?

McAvoy's Professor X was never going to convince as the natural successor (or, rather predecessor) to Stewart's because he's got too much pain, too much struggle pouring out of those almost alien blue eyes. In fact, he was completely miscast in a role that prevented him from playing to his gnarlier strengths in the way Fassbender got to as a young Magneto.

This is an actor who was simply never meant to play the hero. He has too much darkness. That last, defiant shot in Welcome To The Punch hints that his PC may even become a gangster, should the situation allow it. We just don't know, and he doesn't want us to know. He's a master of making the audience guess what he might be thinking.

Notably, McAvoy has leading-man looks, but he rarely plays to them. Hell, even Tom Hardy has done a rom-com, but the closest McAvoy has come is maybe Penelope(where he looks thoroughly uncomfortable even on the poster) or, er, Gnomeo & Juliet (barely a film, but with a sequel on the way!).

Working opposite fellow Brit Danny Boyle in Trance, McAvoy pulled back on the grit and shaved his ragged Punch beard to play another tortured protagonist with a twist, in art auctioneer/gambling addict Simon. There's an awful lot going on in the movie, but the trappings never swallow him. He remains the calm, near-silent anchor, utterly focused and totally convincing.

Simon's evil grin while watching someone else suffer belies darker depths but it's when he first picks up a gun that his true machinations surface. He may be jauntily narrating his own story, but McAvoy keeps him far away from DiCaprio's Wolf Of Wall Street smugness, or even the try-hard Wanted's Wesley.

However, McAvoy's true showstopper of a role was as dirty cop Bruce in Filth, an adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel of the same name that was set on home turf in Edinburgh. Although he seems like the weirdest choice imaginable, McAvoy excels at playing a bastard.

The flick is vile, lurid, and often hilarious. His incorrigible Bruce is its beating heart (and acidic tongue), a desperate man suffering from borderline personality disorder who cross-dresses as his ex-wife in a delusional attempt to keep her close to him.

It's a hugely unflattering role, the actor spending much of the movie with implied vomit and god knows what else in his greasy hair, but McAvoy is a revelation. Witness when he makes prank calls through tears...and then masturbates furiously.

Filth is a fearless performance, one that sets the actor up for Split, presenting, as it does, a flawed, possibly even deranged character with whom we find it impossible not to empathize in spite of his terrible behavior (it would take an incredibly hard-hearted person not to tear up from that rendition of "Creep" at the end). Once again, McAvoy's character gets the last laugh, the final shot, the focus.

In spite of looking a bit like he belongs on the moors in a frilly blouse, this is an actor who is at his best when covered in blood, sweat and grime, getting his teeth into conflicted, often despicable characters. A knack for accents has allowed him to play variations of English, American and, naturally, Scottish. He's grown into his offbeat looks since his Wanted helmet hair to establish himself as a real contender, someone worthy of nuanced, challenging roles that would not work without his zealous over-commitment.

He's not the obvious choice (he never is) but Split is the obvious role for James McAvoy. It allows him to exercise some very odd muscles, which he's been working out for years. It allows him to get properly loose and crazy, but also requires the focus and attention to detail that comes with playing so many different, often conflicted, characters at once.

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