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Atonement - James McAvoy interview

James McAvoy in Atonement

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES McAvoy talks about researching Dunkirk for his war scenes in Atonement and overcoming the difficulty of the film’s big erotic scene…

Q. Were you aware of the novel before doing the film?
James McAvoy: I didn’t know the book, no. Not at all.

Q. The character of Robbie is very, very nice and guides us through the story. Was he difficult to get a handle on?
James McAvoy: He’s an idealised version of humanity I suppose. I found it quite difficult to get a handle on that because I didn’t necessarily find him very truthful to begin with because he was so good and so wholesome. I don’t know many people like that. It wasn’t until Joe [Wright, director] convinced me of the possibility that someone like that might exist, that your Ghandi’s have to come from somewhere and your Mother Theresa’s have to have beginnings that I managed to believe a character like this could exist and there could be some higher self.

Once I accepted that I found it a lot easier to play the character because it became truthful and therefore interested me. It’s only truthful representations of people that are interesting. Robbie also really represents us. As much as he is us idealised, he is us. He is the audience and we destroy him. And that’s why we love watching ourselves be destroyed in film because it somehow makes it feel like the storyteller understands.

Q. What research did you do into the period? And what insight did that help to give into your character?
James McAvoy: For the Dunkirk section of the movie we did some military training, even though by that time the forces were very desperate and un-regimented. We also spoke to several veterans of the Dunkirk disaster and that was hugely illuminating and vital to what we later on went on and recreated. In fact, the people who were there were quite tight-lipped and sometimes told us more peripheral stories to actually what we might believe we needed to know. But just spending time with them actually gave us everything we needed and some parting comments pinpointed how devastating it was.

Q. How tightly planned was the Dunkirk beach scene from your point of view as an actor? Or was some of it done “on the hoof”?
James McAvoy: There’s very little done “on the hoof”. It was all pinpoint accuracy. We arrived at 6am and we rehearsed forever – but you really had to and it didn’t feel like we’d rehearsed forever. It felt like it was just enough because we had 1,000 people and there was all those people to co-ordinate. Even though we had a whole day, we still would have liked more. There were times where Danny [Hardman] and I were on the edge of messing it up hugely and I can see those moments in it now and am really glad we got that third take. But by the fourth take it was clear that Peter Robertson, the steadicam operator who did an amazing job, clearly was just not up to it because he’d covered a mile on sand, going uphill, running, going up stairs… there was so much and he was carrying a small elephant. A steadicam weighs a hell of a lot.

Q. How did you feel about shooting the love scene?
James McAvoy: It’s quite liberating to have a director stand beside the camera and say: “Do this now, and do that now…” It’s also a bit sordid but it liberates an actor, I think. What’s amazing in this film is that with Joe you were left in no uncertain terms as to what we were trying to accomplish and what would be good. You knew what you had to do.

In a love scene that’s really advantageous because you don’t have that horrible moment of: “We don’t really know what we’re supposed to be doing, we just know we’re supposed to be snogging and then shagging.” Then the director shouts “action” and it’s like: “Should I feel her boobs? I don’t want to feel her boobs! What’s she thinking? Oh f**k!” But on this it got to the point where we actually talked about it before we engaged in it, and even during the scene sometimes Joe would add something. But you felt liberated and because we both gave our trust to Joe it helped.

b>Read our review of Atonement

b>Read our interview with director Joe Wright