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Interview: James McAvoy On ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ Playing Frankenstein & Watching ‘Braveheart’

Interview: James McAvoy On ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ Playing Frankenstein & Watching ‘Braveheart’

There’s a fine line between turning a romantic film into something unique and letting it slip into the void of Hallmark cheese. Thankfully, “The Disappearance Eleanor Rigby” aims for the former. In order to separate it from other like-minded projects, writer-director Ned Benson got risky. He split the film into two separate narratives, titling them “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her,” respectively. The finished product gives us a glimpse at the depths of heartbreak. Overall, it’s a tragic, emotional and ambitious project, anchored by two wonderful performances from actors Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. (For those un-interested in watching the full 202-minute version of the movie, a combined two-hour cut, entitled “Them,” is also getting a release this week.)

I spoke with McAvoy (the film’s ‘Him’) in New York recently about the film(s). We discussed everything from the story’s dark material to the difficulties of shooting two scripts at the same time (something McAvoy didn’t realize was happening until he got on set) to his upcoming role in “Frankenstein.” I also shamelessly asked the Scottish-born actor about the enduring legacy of “Braveheart” in America, which seems to be shown every weekend on TNT.

I feel like we mostly hear you do English accents on screen. It was fun hearing you with an American accent in this film.
Yeah, when was the last time I did an American one?

“The Conspirator,” I think?
The Conspirator.” And “Wanted.” I think that’s the only other one. Oh and “Band of Brothers.”

Is it fun doing an American accent?
Yeah. It’s kind of weird doing it when you’re amongst the Americans. You’re sort of like Ohhh fuck. But you know there’s no better place to test yourself, I suppose.

You’re in the atmosphere.
Yeah, and it sort of helps you as well. I mean I hardly play any Scottish people. So doing an English accent or doing an American accent really is not that much of a difference in terms of the head fuck.

Yeah you had the Scottish accent in “Filth.”
Yeah, and “The Last King of Scotland.” But just those two movies I think… and “Trance.” So three movies in 18 years.

“Eleanor Rigby” takes place in New York City. I live here and I am always shocked when a film is able to actually shoot seemingly unimpeded.
I know. I thought New York would be a nightmare to film and traffic would be terrible and it would be so expensive. And we had no money. But we found it amazing to shoot. I loved it. I’d love to make every movie here. And I am not just saying that because I am in New York. It’s amazing, and the energy of this place is unbelievable. And all the clichés are true. You walk out of your apartment building and you feel like something might happen. Maybe if you’ve lived here for a long time it kind of wears off a bit. But for me, visiting as irregularly as I do, it’s an exciting place to be. So when you’re making a movie, it makes it an exciting place to make a movie.

Did you get a lot of folks stopping you on the street during production?
Yeah, a fair bit.

I guess being in an ‘X-Men’ movie does that.
Yeah, totally man. It’s just an issue of sort of putting yourself into that sort of movie. You’ve got to expect it. Strangely, though, on the plane here, I got it more than I’ve ever got it in a closed environment in my entire career. The entire business class cabin were fucking on me. And I’ve never once had that. So maybe that’s [switches to an American accent] The Powerrrr of ‘X-Mennn.’ Or maybe it’s the power of “Eleanor Rigby.”

“Eleanor Rigby” is a powerful film. Was it tough to play someone that goes through such an exhausting, emotional loss?
It was quite joyful playing him, because we had an amazing cast and we had a lot of fun, even though [our characters] are going through something quite tragic and incredibly sad. I don’t know why, but I have the most fun playing the most fucked up people. Connor [in “Eleanor Rigby”], Macbeth, and the guy from “Filth,” Bruce Robertson. Those people have been the most fun I’ve had recently in terms of playing characters, and yet they are going through the most harrowing and fucked up and disgusting things at times. So it’s very strange. I don’t know what that is. I play people who are suffering and I will be having a great old time. Maybe to improve my own personal happiness [laughs].

Were there any hesitations on working with a first-time director [Ned Benson] on a project this ambitious?
I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors, so no, not really. The majority of directors I’ve worked with are first-time directors. I also think that if you’re working with a writer-director, and that writer-director has written something that you think is exceptional, chances are they’re going to be an alright director, because you’ve got a direct line access to the way they think about the film or the way they see a scene.

Especially for someone who had been working on a project for as long as Ned had.
Yeah. We made the film two years ago. He sent me the script four years ago.

And at that point it was just the one point of view, right?
Yeah, the “Him.” Jess was always going to play “Her.” When I Was first offered it it was only “Him,” and I said no to the film because the film was about something horrible that happens to him, and it was quite close to me having a baby. So two years later they are making the movie again, Joel Edgerton had backed out for some reason and had a couple days to get somebody else in. They came back to me. I read it again and loved it. I had been a dad for two years by that point so it wasn’t all raw…

So when I came back into it, I came for the first day of rehearsals and I swear to you, I did not know we were doing two films. Because when they asked me to do it, they needed a quick answer because they were going to lose financing. So I got the script from my old original email from two years previously and just read that and said “I’m up for it!” I think my agent or somebody mentioned there were two films, and it was just one of those things that didn’t quite compute. I was just like, “What the fuck is she on? Eh, nevermind.” And it was the first day of rehearsals and I was sitting there and my script was incredibly think. And I was like “Holy fucking shit!” I don’t think I admitted that to the director for two weeks, actually. And Jess only found out today.

Obviously in every movie you shoot multiple takes for each scene. How much more work is it to do a whole second point of view?
What we would do is just do a scene for one movie, and then once we’d finish it entirely, we’d come back and do it all again [for the other movie]. Otherwise you could just do the same camera angle, change costumes, then move on. But we wanted both scenes to be different in their composition and not just in their acting or in the lighting. The camera wanted to be in different places. Otherwise it would just look like the same scene re-edited, you know? But it’s kind of weird, because one of my most hated things as an actor is when you have to reshoot something. I don’t know why. I don’t mind doing theater, and that’s recreating every night. But film and tele, it’s just horrible for some reason. And yet we had to do that in this a lot. But it was kind of different I suppose. You weren’t recreating. You were sort of creating a kind of a reflection of what had happened, but it would be skewed, as if through water and not through a metal surface. It was rippling and it was changing and the colors were different and the attitudes were different and the reaction to a line would be different and the memories to a line would be different.

Let’s talk about what you have coming up. What can you tell us about Victor Frankenstein?
Frankenschteeeein! Frankenschteeeein! I think what we’ve done with it is going to be a little bit unexpected.

That’s risky, since it’s such a legendary character.
Yeah, there’s a massive expectation and you’ve got to respect the expectations that audiences have. You’ve got to respect the fact that an audience thinks Frankenstein is the monster, even though it’s not. Frankenstein is the doctor behind the monster. So you’ve got to give them that monster and you’ve got to give it properly. But the existential crisis of the monster isn’t that interesting. What drives somebody to do something that is deemed outside the barons of, not just good taste, but what is allowed by nature and what is allowed by god, that’s really interesting. So the relationship Frankenstein has with Dan Radcliffe’s character really forms the backbone of the movie. And they are both kind of maverick genius characters who riff off each other and sort of egg each other on and build each other up, and not necessarily in healthy and wholesome directions. It’s a bit of a tragedy, but also a kind of rompish tragedy as well. There’s a lot of crash-bang-wallop in it. There’s a lot more crash-bang-wallop in it than I thought there would be. But me and Daniel are both quite physical, and the director just kind of seemed to run with it. So there’s not many scenes where we aren’t flinging each other around the room. It was good fun.

Before I let you go, I have to ask you a random question: Do they play “Braveheart” in Scotland as much as they do in this country?
[Laughs] Um, for me it is one of the best––and it’s not just because I am Scottish, because there’s a lot of things in the film that are historically bullshit, like the fact that [William Wallace] sleeps with the princess of England, the French woman, she would have been fucking four years old in reality, so it’s total pedophilia. But for me, it’s one of the best sword epics. And also, fight scenes for a lot of big epics––and I won’t name them––I can’t actually see what’s happening in the fight scenes…

The edits are too quick.
Too quick! Too dirty! Too much happening! But “Braveheart” when somebody gets their eyeball gouged out, you can see it. And that’s really cool. But, I don’t think we play it as much as you guys play it, simply because we don’t have 5,000 TV channels. But we do love it.

“The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby” opens in theaters on Friday. And in case you’re interested, here’s our review of ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ which we liked much better. And here’s another piece that compares and contrasts the truncated ‘Them’ version to the two longer films.

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