After a series of impressive smaller roles in projects like HBO's Band of Brothers and The Chronicles of Narnia, Glasgow-born actor James McAvoy first demonstrated his leading-man potential on a broader canvas in The Last King of Scotland -- and while co-star Forrest Whitaker's turn as Idi Amin garnered raves, McAvoy's centered performance earned him quiet but sincere praise. Now, in Atonement, McAvoy's at the heart of one of the year's most buzzed-about films -- and bracing himself for a different kind of attention when the megabudget, big-action comic-book adaptation Wantedhits screens in summer 2008, where he'll be playing opposite Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. McAvoy spoke with a roundtable of journalists in San Francisco (McAvoy on arriving in San Francisco: "It's nice; you don't have that immediate foreboding of work, like you do when you land in L.A. Whenever I land in L.A., I don't feel like I've come to America; I feel like I'm just coming to work. But I come into San Francisco, and I'm like "Hey, man! Alright!") about Atonement, the acting challenges in one of the year's most intricate films, Britain's obsession with class and how Wanted might change his 'working-class' life; Cinematical's questions are indicated.
Cinematical: After seeing Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane-- and even, to a certain extent, The Chronicles of Narnia -- for a while, you seemed to have this sideline in playing who knew exactly how bad they were; who were conspicuously aware of their own failings. Was it a relief, with Atonement, to jump into something a bit more straight-forward?
James McAvoy: The exact opposite; it wasn't a relief in any way. I find great comfort and I find myself in very comfortable artistic territory when I play people with internal conflict; when I play people who are arseholes, or pricks and kind of know it, or they know they're doing something bad. And in this role (in Atonement), I wasn't able to do any of that. Basically, every character I've ever played, I've based entirely on internal conflict. And I love doing that, because I think it's very human. And I found this character (Robbie) ... he wasn't particularly representative of the human race, because he's so good, and he has so little conflict in him. And I didn't really recognize him as a member of the human race to begin with. And I think that that's fair to say, because he is a slightly idealized human figure; and that's necessary, because the story's a tragedy. And there are so many flawed characters in it, and I think that to make a tragedy work, you have to have bad things happen to good people. And if all the protagonists are so flawed, you've got to have one that is particularly unflawed to make it a tragedy. He becomes flawed; he becomes someone much more suicidal, and I think therefore much more representative of the human race. But for the first half of the film, it wasn't a relief; it was a worry of mine that I wasn't going to be able to portray him in an interesting fashion.