With its time-traveling multi-generational cast, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is a-swarm with super-powered beings. Yet James McAvoy manages to prove — as he did before in 2011’s “X-Men: First Class” — that brains are often as crucial as brawn when it comes to comic-book heroes. As the disillusioned and drug-dependent younger version of mutant mentor Charles Xavier aka Professor X, he has “gone adorably to seed,” as “New York” magazine critic David Edelstein puts it. McAvoy is quite moving as he rallies himself back into action while reclaiming his telepathic abilities and restoring his bro-ship with Magneto (Michael Fassbender). One of the emotional highlights is when he receives a stirring pep talk from Patrick Stewart as his older self. The result is the X-Men series at its most poignant.
Signature line: ”How would it be if you came and had tea with me?” – McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus the faun in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005).
Career peaks: Glasgow-born McAvoy considered joining the priesthood in his youth and later applied to the Royal Navy. But he eventually settled on becoming an actor after being accepted into the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. A slew of appearances on British TV — along with a role in HBO’s “Band of Brothers” in 2001 – along with several films (2004’s underperforming “Wimbledon, “ anyone?) followed.
But it wasn’t until McAvoy donned digital goat legs, a bulbous nose and a woolly red muffler as Mr. Tumnus in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” that he earned global attention after the Disney fantasy epic raked in $745 million at the box office worldwide. The actor would then demonstrate his dramatic prowess as a Scottish doctor lured into the world of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forrest Whitaker, who suggested McAvoy for the role) in 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland.”
McAvoy also was director Joe Wright’s first choice to steam up the movie screens alongside Keira Knightley as ill-fated lovers in “Atonement,” the 2007 wartime romance nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture. Since then, he has done action opposite Angelina Jolie in 2008’s “Wanted,” joined forces with Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer for the 2009 Tolstoy bio “The Last Station,” provided the voice for a lovestruck garden statue in 2011’s Bard-inspired animated comedy “Gnomeo & Juliet” and collected raves (plus an Olivier Award nomination) for his fiercely physical “Macbeth” onstage last year in London’s West End.
Biggest assets: A UK-based actor knows he has arrived when his admirers invent a nickname for themselves in tribute to their idol. For Fassbender, there are the Fassinators. For Benedict Cumberbatch, there are the Cumberbitiches. And for those who are Mc-nuts for McAvoy, there are the McAvoyeurs. Remaining winningly boyish at age 35, this darling Scotsman still carries a cute-and-cuddly aura about him, no matter how many randy roustabouts and unlawful acts he might commit in the name of cinema. Even when he falls under the sway of a monster like Whitaker’s Amin, the audience naturally connects to him. Says Wright, an early spotter of McAvoy’s talent: “He’s just so good you just can’t help but love him. When he smiles, you smile and when cries, you cry. It’s something quite weird.”
Awards attention: Won a rising star award at the 2006 BAFTAs. Nominated for a BAFTA as a lead in “Atonement” and as a supporting actor in “The Last King of Scotland.” Nominated for a Golden Globe as lead actor in a drama for “Atonement.”
Latest misfires: Being part of an ongoing cash machine of a franchise like “X-Men” allows McAvoy the freedom to sign on for riskier, less-commercial assignments. That was the case with 2011’s “The Conspirator,” a Robert Redford-directed effort concerning the lone female charged in the assassination of Lincoln that barely made a dent in ticket sales. The chance of working with Danny Boyle of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame was likely the impetus of starring in last year’s twisty art-heist thriller “Trance,” which grossed a mere $2.3 million domestically — the director’s second-lowest box-office total since his film debut, 1995’s “Shallow Grave.”
Biggest problems: Unlike his “X-Men” buddy Fassbender, McAvoy’s image among U.S. fans is more of a slightly naughty boy-band member than a sexual conquistador reeking of danger. It will be interesting to see if American audiences accept McAvoy as an utterly corrupt Scottish cop who hedonistically dabbles in drink, drugs and lewd behavior in “Filth,” a warped comedy based on a novel by “Trainspotting’s” Irvine Welsh that opens Friday. In a review that ran last fall in “Variety” timed to the film’s arrival in the UK, Guy Lodge described the actor’s performance as “image-shredding,” taking special note of a scene that involved underage fellatio. Still, the critic came away impressed: “As an individual performance, it’s startling; as an exercise in opening out McAvoy’s amiable screen persona, it’s far more successful than his ill-fitting tough-guy roles,” including the one in “Trance.”
Gossip fodder: At 27, McAvoy married actress Anne-Marie McDuff, his nine-years-older co-star on the British TV series “Shameless.” The couple has a son, Brendan, who turns 4 in June. McAvoy steadfastly refuses to discuss his family life with the media. As he has said, “We keep our noses clean and keep our stuff private. We don’t have affairs, we don’t turn up to parties, we don’t fall out of places drunk. We’re not that interesting.” The British gossip press has had to settle for dredging up dirt on his estranged father, James Sr., who abandoned his mother when he was 7, leaving him and his sister to be raised by their maternal grandparents.
Career advice: McAvoy’s favorite film is “Goonies.” Andrew McCarthy in “St. Elmo’s Fire” inspired him to pursue acting. And he refused to invite any celebrity friends to his 2006 wedding at a Scottish castle, explaining that he didn’t want the day “to be about being famous.” How can you not love this guy? He has room to toy with audience expectations once in a while with a part that defies his good-guy image. And McAvoy clearly savors the challenge presented by his depraved character in Filth: “As an actor, you‘ve got to try and make the audience like you, even if you are doing bad things. I quite like that dynamic.” But here’s hoping he avoids undercutting that rare quality that allows his fans to relate to him so closely onscreen.
Next step: A shortened version of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” a film about a crumbling marriage as seen from both the male and female perspective, just played at the Cannes Film Festival and was declared “flawed yet fascinating” by “Variety.” But both McAvoy – back on safer ground — and his co-lead, Jessica Chastain, earned high marks for their performances in this release due in theaters in September. But the actor will skirt the line of madness again as obsessed scientist Victor Von Frankenstein opposite Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor in a 2015 version of the horror classic “Frankenstein” that focuses on the doctor and assistant’s relationship rather than the monster they create. He could just pull it off. As Stephen Fry – who directed McAvoy in the 2003 film “Bright Young Things” – observes: “James is not lightweight. Even though he is slight of build and, at first glance, almost pretty, there is something dark there.”