EASYGOING: ÂNone of us were very Method, none of us would really… (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles…)
James McAvoy had to wait a few years for "The Last Station" to come together before he could play Valentin Bulgakov, personal secretary to exalted Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy. But when it finally did, with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife and Paul Giamatti his chief acolyte, with a script McAvoy loved (adapted by director Michael Hoffman from Jay Parini's novel), the Scottish actor found it all something to sneeze at.
His character has the distracting habit of sneezing violently when nervous.
"It's a complete opposite of so much film acting, [which is] 'I know you're feeling uncomfortable now but stop indicating it; do it with a look.' Well, I'm not going to do it with a look; I'm going to physicalize it in the most overt, audible, unavoidable and most noticeable way I can. I loved that.
"I played Yepikhodov in 'The Cherry Orchard' when I was at drama school; he's the character with the squeaky shoes. He can't stop them: Squeaky shoes, squeaky shoes, squeaky shoes. As soon as I read that sneezing thing, I thought, 'I know how to do this!' "
McAvoy is delightfully sneeze-free now, having left that set behind as well as overcoming the swine flu mini-epidemic that swept through the Savannah, Ga., set of his upcoming "The Conspirator" (directed by "the one and only" Robert Redford). Sounding hale and broguing heartily by phone from New York, the actor says he's enjoying a weekend in "the Big Apple," revisiting "The Last Station."
The film concerns the disposition of Tolstoy's estate as he nears the end of his life: Should the founder of the pacifist, private-property-rejecting "Tolstoyans" bequeath his copyrights to the public or his family? Tugging on either side are disciple Chertkov (Giamatti) and wife Countess Sofya (Mirren). McAvoy relished the easygoing nature of this rarefied crowd.
"None of us were very Method. None of us would really stay in it between takes," he says. "That's why I loved working with those guys. We were a bunch of actors, a bunch of thespians doing a play, which was nice."
"Station's" central journey belongs to Valentin, as the pious enthusiast is forced to reexamine his beliefs by their very prophet.
"I'd read 'War and Peace' over, you know, the previous 27 years of my life. Needless to say, I finished it once," says McAvoy, referring to Valentin's claim of having read the famously massive tome repeatedly.
However, the scope of Tolstoy's philosophical reach surprised the actor. "I didn't know how important it had been inside Russia, let alone outside of Russia.
"It would have been really interesting if Tolstoy had still been alive during the Revolution because he was a pacifist. Not necessarily good for him -- but I'm sure he would have had a lot to say."
The film is hardly a dry philosophical treatise, as Valentin's lessons encompass the emotional (the carnage between loving-hating husband and wife) and sexual (thanks to a beautiful fellow disciple). Hoffman has informed the film not only with Chekhovian tableaux, but also with the comedy of the ordinary that recalls that dramatist.
"I'm not used to seeing biopics, historical period dramas, that are funny," McAvoy says. "I wouldn't describe it as a comedy, but I think it's got a bit of the works of Chekhov, you know? A Chekhovian sense of humor. High melodrama followed by moments of, essentially, high slapstick or broad humor."
Which brings us back to that sneezing: It turns out there's a blessing to it.
"There are a lot of times when he's very nervous and he doesn't sneeze -- I was like, 'I'd be in sepsis right now! I'd have snot all over!' But that ends up helping to chart the evolution, the maturing of the character," says the actor. "Which sounds very simple and reductive, but it's kind of a good marker along the way."