James McAvoy talks about going to dark places in 'Filth'
I imagine that, like many moviegoers this summer, you might be excited to see Bryan Singer's "X-Men: Days of Future Past." And you should be. It's a pretty great installment of a franchise that has seen its ups and downs, and at its center, actors Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy make for a brilliant combination. But, uh — pssst! — McAvoy has another movie coming out this summer, and it features his most electrifying, committed and passionate work as an actor to date.
That movie is called "Filth," and it's sitting there waiting to be watched via video-on-demand services if you're eager to see it now. It'll make its way to theaters a week after "X-Men" if you prefer the big screen, but however you manage to view it, you're going to be met with a creative and daring burst from director Jon S. Baird (adapting a novel by "Trainspotting" author Irvine Welsh), and a fierce performance from McAvoy that has already netted him a handful of awards across the pond, where the film opened last fall.
I recently spoke with McAvoy specifically about his work on the film. We didn't get around to "X-Men," and that's perfectly fine as there's more than enough to chew on with Baird's film. Read through the back and forth below, and try to catch this vibrant piece of work, which featured on our list of 15 under-the-radar movies this summer movie season.
HitFix: You know, I just realized preparing for this interview that we haven't spoken since 2006. You had "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" on the way at the time. That was obviously a very different time in your career, so just out of the blue to start here, how does the industry feel different to you with so much more under your belt now? What is your perspective on things now compared to then?
James McAvoy: I can only speak as an individual, but as an individual, I feel much more confident in what I do day to day on set and I feel much more in control of what I do and in how I can affect the day. Whereas before, I felt like I enjoyed it and I felt confident in the moment, but I was more just taking care of myself and sort of trying to just stumble through it and learn as you go and not really knowing whether it's the director who's giving it to you or whether you need to bring it completely or is it a combination of both or whatever. And also every job being different, whereas now I know what I need to do and if the director wants to help then great, and if they can't then great because I've come prepared anyway. And I feel I kind of know what I need to do in the storytelling. I feel like a storyteller now rather than just somebody who's trying to get through a scene truthfully. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, definitely. I'm sure it's been kind of a cumulative effect, but has there been anything along the way that specifically brought you to this place? Any project, any character that kind of drove you here?
I think working with Joe Wright on "Atonement" was really important because he was actively trying to get certain reactions from the audience. He was actively trying to get the audience to believe certain things and then pull the wool from their eyes or pull the rug from under them and surprise them. He was actively manipulating the audience in ways, do you know what I mean? Which all directors in movies do, I suppose, to a certain extent, but he was really, really doing it on purpose. And that was quite informative to me in terms of, I no longer just look at scenes and think to myself, "What do I need to be doing to be truthful in this scene?" What I do is I look at what I'd like the audience to be experiencing, I'd like them to feel or I'd like them to believe or go through, and then work back from that. So what does my character need to do to affect the audience in the way that I believe they should be reacting in this moment? And so I basically think about the audience a lot more, and that started when I worked with Joe, I think, because he's such a kind of a maestro when it comes to that thing.
And then in a movie like "Filth," it was an incredible opportunity to use that kind of way of working, because the whole movie is on purpose trying to pull the audience from pillar to post, like him, hate him, like him again, now hate him, like him again, "Now I'm going to make you feel like you can kind of almost walk out the theater, but then I'm going to get you back again," and all that kind of thing. And so it was a real kind of orchestrated attempt to manipulate the audience and take opposing feelings, emotions, opinions from moment to moment. That was a real workout.
It's obviously quite a nasty character you're playing here, so when you read that on the page, what was it about him that made you want to go to that place?
He's quite nasty but he's also really sick. If he was just nasty I wouldn't have wanted to play him. I wouldn't have been interested. But the fact that he was somebody who was – there was another layer there. And again, it might not be that interesting even if he is sick, but the fact that the film doesn't reveal that he's ill and unwell for quite a while and it's sort of doled out like a bit of a mystery, almost, what is really going on with him. That became really interesting because it added layers. Also, I don't forgive him his bad behavior because he's got mental problems, but I do have huge empathy for him. I thought it would be really fun to have out with a character that an audience goes, "All right, whether I'm enjoying this experience or not, I certainly do not like this person," but by the end of the movie, after they have turned off from him completely — because he forces a 15-year-old girl to give him a blowjob in the first five minutes of the film — that by the end of that movie they're having an emotional response to him potentially ending his life. That's really exciting, to be able to push an audience that far in an industry that generally walks the safest path when it comes to controversial actions on behalf of the central character, you know?
Yeah. And not just exciting, but I would assume that makes it a challenge as well, to figure out how to do that.
Yeah. The challenge is always just kind of finessing it and grading it and sort of tuning it just right. We did a lot of that on the day, but then again you have to do that in the edit and credit has to go to the director, who's done an amazing job, first of all, writing what is for me the best script I've ever read. But then after that, taking this thing that we did on the day where we were so bold and really didn't shy away from anything, but then fine-tuning it so that you push the audience to the point of rejection and you pull them back again. Don't get me wrong, some people will just feel like, "Fuck this, I'm out of here," and they won't be taken back. But more often than not we've had a lot of people who were certain they weren't going to enjoy this film after the first five or 10 minutes come out having a really strong, visceral, emotional response to the character. And that was a big challenge and it wasn't one that we were certain we would be able to pull off. But you can't go into a movie like this being worried about failure because that's just – you'd be just like every other movie then. Do you know what I mean?
I do. And Jon S. Baird's vision for this, who you mentioned, it's kind of striking and amazing and unique. But working with you as an actor, did he just kind of step back and let you tear through this, or how did he work with you on building the – I keep defaulting to nasty, but the nastiness of this kind of character?
Well, we talked a lot about his fear, his self-loathing, which is his driving force. So every moment when he's being nasty and he's hurting people, it's because he hates himself. He's turning this sort of hatred of himself out on the world, so it's always got to be fueled. At all times, it has to be kind of from within, whether the audience sees it or not. It's got to be like a desperate act to validate himself. And that was what we talked about and how he drove it. And he was amazing and let me go at times and just to let me do my thing and let me make up fucking reams of shit that some of it ended up on the cutting room floor, and some of it ended up in the movie. And then he was at times also brilliant at stepping in and going, "Listen, we're getting off track here; we need to get back to the essence of the scene here." He was really good at knowing when to do that and when not to do that. He was brilliant I've got to say. So brave, so bold, so much energy.
Well again, it's nice to talk to you again after all these years and to see how you've made your way through this business. Congratulations on everything and great work on "Filth."
Thanks dude. All the best.
"Filth" is currently available on video-on-demand. It opens in theaters May 30. "X-Men: Days of Future Past" opens on May 23.