James McAvoy
Photo by Jake Walters

James McAvoy: “I don’t feel entitled”

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Short Profile

Name: James McAvoy
DOB: 21 April 1979
Place of birth: Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor

Mr. McAvoy, do some actors take their work too seriously?

Well, I’ve seen actors who talk about it like it’s holy science but it’s like, you’re full of shit! You just do the same shit I do! (Laughs) I’ve been told so many times that if you want to win awards, you need to start making it sound like you’re fucking sweating blood every time you step on set…

Morgan Freeman told us, “I’m not digging tunnels, I’m not building buildings. My work is not hard, it is lying around and getting no job that is debilitating.”

People want me to say things like, “That was the hardest thing I’ve done! It consumed me completely!” People will ask, “Was this the most challenging role of your career?” I’m always like, “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.” It was probably a lot of effort and sweat but… I think if you tell yourself this is the hardest thing you’ve ever done, then it will become the hardest thing you’ve ever done. For me, it’s just my job and creatively speaking, it didn’t leave me fucked — but I feel that people are disappointed when I say that!

“If you don’t get the chance to express everything on set, then you take it home with you.”

You once said that while you love acting, there will come a time when you’ll think that you can’t be doing this for the rest of your life. Is that still true? 

I don’t know if I agree with that anymore! I would love to do this for the rest of my life, I love it, I really, really love it and I hope that every job allows me to love it. When I’m doing it, there’s nothing else. You get up at 6:00 am and you don’t get home until eight or nine and then you do it all again and it’s so exhausting — you have no life when you work. If I’m spending half my life doing that, then half my life is entirely that. But the other half is bringing up my kid and being a stay-at-home dad. So, comparatively, acting is just my job. And I think that that approach makes it easy to separate myself from roles. I’m relatively mentally healthy and I think it’s hard to separate yourself from roles when you’re not.

Has that ever been a challenge for you? 

Nah, not really! It’s only been two or three times in my entire career. Once was when I played Macbeth because the language kind of creates imagery in its poetry and it sort of sinks in because it’s so demonic. It sinks in more than normal prose does. And then the other time was when I was working with a bad director and a bad script — I fucking hated him and he hated me. And that was horrible.

So it’s more the experience that gets to you rather than the characters?

What I think is that if you don’t get the chance to express everything, if you don’t get the chance to get it all out on set…. Then you take it home with you. There was one night where I went home from the set of Split feeling really upset and really annoyed with myself, but I went back the next day and I just thought, “You know what? Give yourself a break.” We did it all again and it was fine, and in the end, I felt like I had the opportunity to say everything I wanted to say in that role.

“Art education expands your horizons beyond that which you can see.”

Do you think your upbringing in a rather rough neighborhood in Scotland contributed to your resilient nature?

(Laughs) Drumchapel has got a shady side, you’re right. My grandparents sort of didn’t allow me a lot of freedom until I was about 15, 16 because they were just scared for me, I think. They wanted to protect me from what was happening in the street. But it was a good upbringing because I don’t feel entitled. I feel like I’ve taken the same amount of success as a lot of other people are given but I’ve taken it and I appreciate it but I don’t feel entitled, I don’t feel like I deserve things, I feel like I deserve them as much as anybody else. I’ve earned them as much as anybody should. But I do think that being deprived of culture — which I think I was — is a problem. I think it’s a massive problem.

In what ways?

Well, I didn’t have money to go anywhere, I didn’t have money to leave my country. I didn’t have a fantastic education that informed me about what was happening in the world or people that were unlike myself. Art education expands your horizons beyond that which you can see and that which you can afford to explore physically but there is a huge lack of that in my country, in state schools. I think it’s really limiting. There are a lot of people coming from an entitled background and a privileged education in the acting industry, particularly in Britain but the main reason for that is because they’re the only people who are coming from schools that prioritize cultural and art education. I mean, that’s not a problem in itself — it’s just a symptom of a larger problem in society and of education in my country.

“Acting gave me confidence to find out who I was and not be afraid of who I was.”

But even if an actor comes from a privileged background, they are still at the mercy of the industry.

Of course, it’s true that very few people get it handed to them anyway. The industry is very fickle and really only cares about whether you can do it or not, you know? I’m not saying it matters where the actors come from, you know, it doesn’t matter if all the actors are fucking posh. But it does matter if all the children who will never become actors anyway still aren’t getting an art education because that just means that the horizons are that much more closed down. Their ability to question authority and to question their leaders is reduced massively, I think.

So what was it like for you personally given that your journey had a balance of both sides?

I got lucky! I got so fucking lucky that I fell into the lap of a director when I was 16 and he gave me a part in a film and my horizons immediately exploded wide with all the weird people in it and all these crazy fucking actors and directors and artistic people who were from all over the world. Through that one job I met people from England, I met people from America and I met people from all over the place with challenging points of view and sympathetic points of view to mine. And then I went to a youth theater for six months as well, and that expanded my mind massively. It gave me so much more confidence to find out who I was and not be afraid of who I was simply because I’m in a scenario that I don’t understand. With my background, I was going to find myself in scenarios that I didn’t understand fucking minute by minute! So, I learned to be cool with that. I got really lucky. I got really, really lucky. It’s been a good ride for me.