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James McAvoy on His Way to Stardom With Action Film

June 27, 2008

By Mal Vincent, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Jun. 27–HOLLYWOOD — Even if Romeo turns into Rambo, he still gets kissed by Angelina Jolie.

Ask the Scottish lad James McAvoy. He’s been that route — both kisses and bruises. Even though he still lives in a tiny flat in London and drives the same Nissan he’s had for 10 years, Hollywood is heralding him as its new promising star on not one, but two fronts. Already entrenched with the “serious” movie fans for his roles in the Oscar-nominated romantic tragedy “Atonement” and the fiery character study “The Last King of Scotland,” he’s making a crossover this very day into the realm of popcorn movies.

He stars as a professional assassin in “Wanted,” a surrealistic action outing.

As he is in real life, his character, Wesley, is reluctant about it all. Wesley is a doormat of a cubicle-trapped office worker who is browbeaten daily by his female boss. His girlfriend is aggressive, and openly sleeping with his best friend. He doesn’t sound much like a hero at all.

“I made the movie,” McAvoy said, in his thick Scottish burr, “to let all those ordinary guys know that they can be in action situations, too. I was a lot like Wesley in facing all the action stuff in the movie. I had to work out in the gym for months, and, to tell you the truth, I’d rather eat dog poo than go to a gym.

“I had to eat high-protein stuff to the point that it gave me an incredible degree of flatulence, which wasn’t popular on the set.”

Still, you can’t feel too sorry for the guy. He seduced Keira Knightley, in that scene in the library in “Atonement.” He kissed Anne Hathaway when she played Jane Austen in “Becoming Jane.” He helped poor Christina Ricci get over the fact that she had a pig’s snout for a nose in “Penelope.” Then, there is that kiss with Angelina Jolie, who plays a tough-girl named Fox, his mentor in the art of killing in “Wanted.”

“She’s a married woman,” he said as we sat for an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles recently. “And I’m a married man. Not that it matters. We’re professional actors but, still, those scenes are always awkward. I had been on the movie for two weeks when she arrived. It was her first day. The first time I’d ever met her. Of course, the kissing scene was right off. It was a case of ‘Glad to meet you. How are you? We’re doing the kissing scene now.’ And folks standing around looking.

“I’m really impressed with Angelina’s professionalism. As far as action movies go, she was the pro, not me. After all, she was Lara Croft. She’s a perfectionist. She taught me how to fall, but she gave me a few punches that left bruises. She wastes no time with foolishness. Every moment is concentrated…

“I’m particularly impressed with how she handles herself with all the press around. She’s a nice lady. She knows the difference between reality and fantasy, and she knows how to play the game. She tolerates all that attention with a good deal of humor. Brad came on the set (but not the day of the kissing) and brought the children. She’s just as professional a mother as she is an actress.”

Yeah, yeah, but how is she as a kisser?

“Professional.”

McAvoy’s Scottish accent is thicker than the heather on the hill. It makes you wonder how he adapted so well to an American accent for a film that is set in Chicago.

“I come from a country of just 5 million people. I grew up outside Glasgow, but we have no film industry and just a few television productions, so I saw American movies and TV shows every day. When it came to doing the accent, it was easy.”

He is not tempted to move to Hollywood. “Actually, I’ve never made a complete movie here. ‘Wanted’ was done, mostly, in Prague, and ‘Atonement’ was in London. If I came to California, it would be just to work. I think I should keep me roots.”

He’s married to actress Anne-Marie Duff, who will appear with him in his next movie, “The Last Station.” He will play the secretary to Russian literary giant Leo Tolstoy (“War and Peace”). All acting. No action stuff.

McAvoy, 29, has given up the gym for the pub.

“I haven’t been back in a gym since the day we completed filming for ‘Wanted.’ I kept telling them that, after all, I wasn’t supposed to be Conan the Barbarian. I was playing this little guy, so I kind of thought it would be all right to be skinny. I had my shirt off in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia,’ and I didn’t have to go to the gym for that. But, here, they wanted this transformation.” (He played Mr. Tumnus the Faun in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and stole every scene he had.)

He’s proudest, though, of “Atonement,” which he says is difficult to leave behind. “I still feel attached to that character and what happened to him.” (He played a housekeeper’s son whose life is ruined when a young girl tells a lie about him and he goes away to fight in the war.)

In contrast, he feels that “Wanted” is “something of a comedy, even though my character goes through a big transformation. One moment I’m in tears when I learn that my father was a murderer who was murdered. The next moment, I’m jumping on the bonnet (the hood) of a car going 30 miles an hour. And the next moment I’m kissing Angelina Jolie. They never told me about this kind of thing in acting school.”

He is a graduate of the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and is the most prominent Scottish export since Ewan McGregor, walking in the footsteps of Sean Connery.

“When I got my first job, at 16, I wasn’t really keen on even becoming an actor,” he said. “It was just fate that I got that first job. The director asked me if I could cry instantly. I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Prove it.’ I couldn’t. He hired me anyway. Then, there was no turning back.”

“Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov, in a separate interview, said he cast Mc-Avoy after he saw him play a paralyzed boy in a British movie called “Inside I’m Dancing” (2004). “He could move only his eyes, but all the young girls fell in love with him. He was ironic. He was sarcastic. I knew he could play Wesley.”

It’s nice to be “Wanted.”

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347, mal.vincent@pilotonline.com

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