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Ready for the next step

James McAvoy doesn't see himself as a leading man. Funny, others do.

December 02, 2007|Mark Salisbury | Special to The Times

LONDON — As one half of the fatalistic couple at the tragic heart of "Atonement," director Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's complex, decade-spanning novel, James McAvoy looks every inch the classic leading man -- even if McAvoy himself doesn't happen to agree. "I'm 5 foot 7, and I've got pasty white skin," he insists. "I don't think I'm ugly, don't get me wrong, but I'm not your classic lead man, Brad Pitt guy."

McAvoy's not complaining; rather, he's celebrating the fact that someone who looks like him can be cast in such a role. "I'm always moaning about [the fact that] you see humanity represented as nothing but perfect, so it's good," he continues. "But I won't deny I felt a little bit self-conscious or worried. Will people accept me physically or visually for this role?"

The answer, most assuredly, is yes. McAvoy's performance as Cambridge-educated housekeeper's son Robbie Turner in the stately 1930s-set drama has, along with that of his costar, Keira Knightley, been generating serious acclaim ever since "Atonement" opened the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. Everything Robbie holds dear is ripped apart after one hot summer's night when his long-suppressed feelings for Cecilia (Knightley), the eldest daughter of the household, passionately surface.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
James McAvoy: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about actor James McAvoy said he received an Oscar nomination this year for "The Last King of Scotland." He was not nominated.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 09, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
James McAvoy: An article last Sunday about actor James McAvoy said he received an Oscar nomination this year for "The Last King of Scotland." He was not nominated.

As written, Robbie was initially a little too angelic for McAvoy's liking. "I felt he was too straight," explains the 28-year-old Scot over a chili burger in a gastro pub near the North London home he shares with his wife, actor Anne-Marie Duff. "So I had to make him a bit dirtier and grumpier to make him more real."

Ultimately, McAvoy says he found his way into the heart and soul of a character through the physical and spiritual transformation he undergoes midway through the film. "He knows who he is, which is incredible. But then a little girl comes along and tells him you're not who you think you are -- you're [a] rapist, and, by the way, the entire world believes me. The only person other than him who knows who he is is Cecilia. If it wasn't for her, he'd kill himself. In all my other characters I've always used conflict, and I couldn't with this until halfway through. [Then] he becomes the opposite of everything that made him difficult to play: damaged, conflicted and a much more recognizably human figure."

"McEwan has lots of descriptions of Robbie, but the description I liked the best and thought was most important for the story was of him having 'eyes of optimism,' " says Wright, who also helmed the Knightley-starrer "Pride & Prejudice," which earned the actress an Oscar nomination. "I feel James has those eyes of optimism. Also, he's the best actor working in Britain today, of his generation. He's extraordinary."

Wright first saw McAvoy seven or eight years ago on the London stage, playing a young, gay hustler in "Out in the Open." "I had been watching him for a long time after that," he reveals, "and I kept offering him roles that he kept turning down. First small roles, then fairly decent supporting roles and then, eventually, the lead."

Wright even tried to cast him in "Pride & Prejudice," though neither man will reveal for which part. "It's not fair on the guy who got it," says McAvoy, "but it wasn't Mr. Darcy."

Young man of many trades

Wright hasn't been the only one keeping an eye on the Glasgow-born thespian, however. McAvoy's stock has been climbing steadily on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to standout performances on stage, TV and film. Earlier this year he picked up the BAFTA for rising star and a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as an idealistic young doctor in "The Last King of Scotland," even if his performance was overshadowed by that of his Academy Award-winning costar, Forest Whitaker. He also played Mr. Tumnus the faun in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." McAvoy is nothing if not versatile.

To nail Robbie's upper-class English accent, McAvoy worked with a voice coach -- "For anybody who was a bit posh, it was all right, but for me it was quite difficult" -- and listened to tapes of the period, but it was watching movies such as "Brief Encounter," "In Which We Serve" and "Listen to Britain" that really helped. "People didn't really speak exactly like that then, but they did in movies," he says of an English dialect in which the vowel sounds are more clipped compared with today. Indeed, in many ways, his and Knightley's performances recall the acting style of the time, representing a whole different manner of being, pre-sexual revolution, when repression was the order of the day.

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