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Career Watch: Will James McAvoy’s ‘X’ Factor Raise His Stature?

by Susan Wloszczyna
May 25, 2014 11:11 AM
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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. 

'X-Men: Days of Future Past'

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.”

'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby'

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.”

Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy of 'X-Men: Days of Future Past' with 'You're Next' Mask

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."


  • JG | May 25, 2014 4:36 PMReply

    Fantastic actor! He hasn't sold himself out after the successes of Last King of Scotland , Atonement, or Wanted. He was excellent in DOFP and Filth, and I'm sure I read something about an Oscar campaign for him and Jessica chastain on the back of the Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. In fact he should have already received an Oscar nod already for Atonement; I think people thought he was a posh English actor like Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Hiddleston, so playing such a posh Englishman came easy, but his background is working class Scottish, brought up in one of the poorer areas of Glasgow, a million miles away from English aristocracy. Really looking forward to his take on Dr Frankenstein next year. I don't think he craves the celebrity lifestyle so he is unlikely to push himself to superstar status. Instead he selects parts that have fantastic character development, even in the Wanted his character goes through an amazing transition. He is master at his craft, and I hope we see a lot of in the years to come.

  • Kate | May 25, 2014 4:31 PMReply

    He frequently elevates substandard material (and I include Filth in that category--terrible film), and is probably one of the most underrated actors in his age bracket. After the one-two of The Last King of Scotland and Atonement, one would have thought he'd be offered better roles, but for whatever reason he didn't capitalize on it.

    I'd like to see him do more small, arthouse work, whether in the US or the UK, and with more highly regarded, edgy directors. Hopefully his performance in Filth puts him on their radar.

    But perhaps his still-boyish demeanor is something edgy directors aren't particularly interested in, and he'll need to age out of it. I wouldn't be surprised if he has to wait until his mid-40s and '50s to get excellent material. I think Joseph Gordon Levitt is somewhat like an American version of McAvoy, with somewhat less difficulty finding good projects.

    And since the Fassbender/McAvoy bromance is mentioned in the article, I'll add that their real-life relationship is somehow more interesting X-Men. I don't think it's possible to find two actors with more polar opposite screen presences and public images (though who knows whether public image has much bearing on reality), yet they seem to have a deep regard for each other. See their recent Details mag interview for a fun "in" to their bantery friendship.

  • Brian | June 1, 2014 10:56 PM

    I agree completely with your statement.

    He even said so himself.

    ‘It’s about the work that people think you are right for now. I didn’t find Welcome To The Punch, Filth or Trance – they came to me. That’s the lot of every actor, apart from the five per cent of people who earn $25million a year – Tom Cruise could probably play Mother Teresa if he f***ing wanted.’

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