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X-Men: First Class - James McAvoy interview

X-Men: First Class

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES McAvoy talks about playing Charles Xavier in X-Men: First Class and maintaining a balance between freshening up the franchise and remaining reverential to what comes next.

He also talks about what may lie in store for his character and his early admiration for the X-Men comics.

Q. How familiar were you with X-Men prior to being in the film?
James McAvoy: I was first aware of the cartoon while I was growing up… when I was about 12-years-old they started showing it on Alive & Kicking I think and I’d do that thing of watching the first half of the cartoon and then they’d make you wait an hour or so before they showed you the second half of the cartoon, which was really unfair. Anyway, I was a big fan of that and the first two films as well.

Q. These characters were established in the comic books but also on-screen by Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. So, where did you look to inform your portrayal of them?
James McAvoy: Well, the comic book history and the comic book lore is really different from all of the X-Men movies that have come before… and even the cartoon to a certain extent, so you kind of had to… In the comic books my character is an American and Bryan Singer decided to make that character English when he cast Sir Patrick Stewart in a master-stroke of casting! So, I had to go with the film, I think. So, I watched the films and then took on board the knowledge that the film was a prequel, so it had to be different because the franchise needed to be freshened – it needed something new.

But also there’s no point in having that same character just played the same way in a different suit because it just doesn’t validate the movie. So, I looked at Sir Patrick’s performance and took a lot of notes on Sir Patrick’s performance but it was more about seeing how it fitted in. So, where Sir Patrick was wise, I would be fool-hardy, where he was chaste I’d be randy. So, by the end of three films – if we make enough money to make three films – I’ll end being something much more similar to Sir Patrick Stewart. But it was really important to start in a different place but taking the cues from his performance.

Q. How tricky was it to ensure this origins story seamlessly fit within the X-Men universe and real history?
James McAvoy: I think one of the things that always runs through the X-Men movies is that they’re largely about people who feel like outsiders and people who have a certain amount of self-loathing perhaps, or who are afraid of themselves, don’t like themselves and want to be normal perhaps, or even rejoice in the fact that they’re not normal. And that’s something with this film that’s always in all the X-Men films. I think that’s one of the key elements.

Q. There’s a humorous nod to being bald towards the end of the film, so how do you see that might be addressed in the future? Will you be required to shave your head at some point?
James McAvoy: Well, he either shaves it or he loses it. We don’t know how. In the source material, in the comic books, he loses it the day that his powers activate and so he’s still very young. But we decided not to do that. Maybe it’s a smart move for an origins story. In this movie, we spent time explaining why he can’t walk and so we get to see why he loses his hair, or shaves his head in another movie. We’ve saved that part. But because we haven’t taken the explanation given to us in the comic books, we need to come up with a really good, character convincing, narrative essential reason. I don’t think we can just start a new movie with a new look. You’d need to embrace the change. I don’t know how they’ll do it.

Q. Didn’t you recently have your head shaved for a role? And how was it?
James McAvoy: I did, I did. It was a joyous time.

Q. How difficult is it to portray a lot of emotion just by rubbing your temple?
James McAvoy: Well, I saw what everybody else was doing and they all got to do really cool ninja stuff. But I don’t really get to do anything. So, I thought I had to physicalise my power and came up with the master-stoke of touching my temple! I went through three months of intensive training [laughs].l I hooked up with a couple of temple ninjas who were based out of Dagenham [laughs]. But I think it’s good that this stuff gets physicalised. And what I do like about the film as well is that when it’s in its more epic moments, everybody is working on full power trying to get into the intensity of the emotions, but at the beginning of the film a lot of the powers are quite off-hand and they’re quite flippant. But I really liked that. It wasn’t like every time somebody used a power there was a big close-up special shot. So, it made it much more a part of their everyday life.

Q. How did you feel about such an important historical event such as the Cuban missile crisis being appropriated for this movie?
James McAvoy: Well, there was a movie when I was a kid called Young Einstein. It was about Einstein in Tasmania. It was a total comedy and a weird and wacky film but I loved it. I knew nothing about Einstein before this. I didn’t know who he was or what he did and I was then shocked and dismayed that he wasn’t a farm-hand who invented the electric violin in Tasmania. But I did actually then learn about Einstein and I did go and find out afterwards about the theory of relativity and that was kind of crazy. I think I was six at the time. But manipulation of history is something we’ve been doing for ages in storytelling. I mean, like Fatherland, is a great example of it. I don’t know what the appeal of it is.

Q. There are some lovely Bond and ‘60s references in the movie, which Matthew has referred to as being intentional. Are you aware of being a frontrunner for the next 007 when Daniel Craig steps down? And how would you feel about taking it on?
James McAvoy: I’ll take myself out of the running for it immediately. For me, that was never really my remit in this film.

Q. How was it possible to act opposite January Jones’s cleavage?
James McAvoy: I had to sort of rugby tackle January Jones’s cleavage with Michael!

Q. As a private person, do you worry about how being in X-Men right increase your fame?
James McAvoy: Well, people have been saying that to me since I did Narnia and I’ve been recognised in the street I think 10 times since then, so it never really worries me that stuff.

Read our interview with Michael Fassbender

Read our interview with Kevin Bacon