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James McAvoy on Getting 'Filth'-y for a Career Redefining Performance

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire May 30, 2014 at 9:25AM

If you consider James McAvoy to be a heartthrob, get ready to have your heart broken.
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Magnolia "Filth"

If you consider James McAvoy to be a heartthrob, get ready to have your heart broken.

In Jon S. Baird's extremely dark comedy "Filth," based on a novel by "Trainspotting" writer Irvine Welsh, the "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Atonement" star plays Bruce Robertson, a detective you don't want to cross. When he's not doing his job (which is barely ever), Robertson beds minors, does every drug imaginable, and partakes in some seriously kinky sex with women who can stomach the guy. The role marks a huge leap for the Scottish actor in a direction his fans probably never saw coming. Robertson is as unleashed as characters come, and McAvoy doesn't hold back in bringing Welsh's grotesque creation to the screen. You have to see it to believe it.

"I have a huge amount of, maybe not be sympathy for the guy, but I've got empathy for him."

Indiewire spoke with the actor about the career-redefining performance. "Filth" opens May 30 in select theaters and is currently available to view on video-on-demand platforms.
 

Bruce doesn't have a lot of redeemable qualities. In general, do you have to identify in some way with a character in order to portray them truthfully?

Yeah, I suppose so. I think you identify the things that make him tick. And if you understand those things, you don't necessarily need to have lived them, or to have an experience of them in order to portray him. I think the things that make him tick are his sort of overbearing and massive inferiority complex, his sort of victim complex, because he's a victim of abuse from a very early age. Also his fear of everyone around him. He's got an overwhelming fear, and that then translates in him to this person who tries to build himself up, and portray this image of somebody who's really really strong. It’s all fueled by raging mental illness, and bipolar disorder, and split personality disorder, and paranoid delusions. He's got all that, so you identify all that, and if you feel like you can somehow unpick that, and understand all those different elements, then that's how I got into it.

I have a huge amount of, maybe not be sympathy for the guy, but I've got empathy for him. He's a horrible person, but he's also a very sick person. And I think the fun of the film is that you portray somebody who is completely abhorrent, who doesn't deserve our empathy or sympathy, and then you start to reveal that he is sick, he has this mental illness. That doesn't mean you should forgive him in any way, but I think it might mean that we're surprised that we start to feel some level of empathy for him, and maybe we start to understand his situation.

He comes from a pretty broken past. Had he not had that backbone, would you have wanted to play him?

"I work backwards from what I want the audience to go through."

Well, don't get me wrong, I really don't see many redeemable qualities of him in the film. And the past isn't really important. Even if we hadn't touched on his past in the movie, which we barely do, if he was just the way he is in the movie for the first half hour of the movie, I wouldn't want to do it. The fact that he then goes on to reveal that he is significantly mentally traumatized and sick, that's the thing that made it interesting to me, because you're making a movie that isn't just a bunch of lads, guys, kind of on a PC laugh fest, something like that. But even when it gets more real, it doesn't just become gritty British realism either. It becomes a vibrant, energetic piece of entertainment that happens to be about someone who's fucking sick in the brain.

And usually those movies become a bit more worthy, and a bit more, I don't know, slow, black and white. And with this, it's never black and white. You never quite know where the line is, in terms of the humor, in terms of your emotional connection to the character, in terms of right or wrong, in terms of your allegiance to him, in terms of your empathy and sympathy, in terms of your repulsion towards him. And just as he is becoming vulnerable and drawing you in, he then fucking forces a 15-year old girl to give him a blowjob, so he's constantly moving the line in the sand. And you're constantly asking the audience to cross that line in the sand. And some of them do and some of them don't. And at different times, some of them do and some of them don't. And for me, that's the most interesting thing about this script -- that made it more than just playing a bad guy.

There are real shades to this guy, and to your performance. How did you pull of the balancing act of playing someone so repulsive, yet oddly endearing?

I think that, what I do as an actor, I don't go, "What's the truth of this scene, what should I be playing for the truth of this moment?" I look at what I want the audience to feel, and I look at what I want them to feel, what I want the audience to experience, or to happen to the audience during the scene. And then I work back from that. So I think, "What does my character need to do in order to get that kind of response from the audience?" I'm not saying you'll always get that response from the audience, but you've got to try. And really that's the way I do it. So I work backwards from what I want the audience to go through.

I wanted the audience to have that constantly shifting, never quite settling experience, because that is for me, what it's like being in the company of somebody who has that level of mental illness. You never fucking know where you are. You are torn between caring and loving, and at the same time, being incredibly frustrated and repulsed, and giving up. And I think that's what the audience goes through. They care and they laugh with them, and at times really enjoy being with them, and then almost a second later, sometimes they even walk out of the theater, you know what I mean? And you may not get them back again.

"One of the main things this movie was trying to do was pull and tug and yank this audience around."

You're speaking of "the audience" a lot. Do you always have them in the back of your mind when you're developing a performance, or was your approach specific just to this particular film?

It's always there, it's not even at the back of the mind, it's quite often at the forefront of my mind. And it was even more so in this movie. One of the main things this movie was trying to do was pull and tug and yank this audience around. And that had to be done with care and with attention, because we knew we were actively pushing the audience away at times, and we knew we were actively trying to abuse the audience at times. You can only do that with a delicate hand. I know the film doesn't seem delicate at times, but you had to strike a balance. Like, if we're going do that then, how quickly do we need to show some vulnerability? So it was quite orchestrated, actually.

But I do do it. I probably have the audience at the forefront of my mind for most movies, but particularly for this one, because half the fun of this film is in pulling the audience from pillar to post in terms of how much they can take, how much they feel close to him, how much they feel repulsed by him and all that.

Does that way of working help you from going too far down the rabbit hole?

I never really go method. One of the things I often think of is, acting and filmmaking and all that, it's just storytelling, and you don't just sit down to tell a story, thinking, "Right, I'm just going be in the moment, and be all truthful, and it's just whatever my story wants to be, it will be." You don't do that when you're telling a story. You tell a story in the pub because you want to make your friend laugh, or you want to make them cry, or you want to transmit the importance of a serious situation that just happened, or you want to surprise them with something you just found out. There’s a purpose to every story that you tell, when you're telling a story in the pub. And filmmaking and theater and all is exactly the same -- there's a purpose to it.

Like I said, you're never always going get the response that you want, because the audience is so movable and their experience is personal to them, but filmmaking and acting and all that is the exact same thing.

And in terms of method, for me, method gets in the way of that, because for me, method just becomes about, "I'm just on my own doing my own thing." And for this film, if I had done that for this film, I think it could have just become indulgent. This film definitely indulges, but it does it with the audience in mind all the time.

This article is related to: James McAvoy, Filth, Irvine Welsh, Interviews, Comedy-Drama, Comedy, British Film, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past