In the words of James McAvoy Filth is a “bold, brave, controversial and a rare and precious film in English speaking cinema.” One could almost be mistaken for thinking that Scotland’s leading man was referring to his own performance, if it were not for that one singular word “film.” Every great actor at the mention of their name has that one singular film that immediately comes to mind, or in the case of Robert de Niro a handful of films that can spark a furious impassioned debate amongst red-blooded cineastes. For James McAvoy the character is Bruce Robertson; the film Filth.

Whilst in my introduction to Jon S. Baird’s interview I stated that Filth “delivered a shock to the system, and shook up the cinematic social consciousness with a bold and courageous piece of filmmaking.” Equally McAvoy’s full blooded performance delivered the same shock and shakes that left physical and emotional remnants of McAvoy upon the screen, as if the camera itself had claimed a part of his soul.

When Baird and Welsh asked McAvoy to hold-off on reading the book, it was not the first time that a director and novelist had requested this of him. As McAvoy recalled, “It was actually the second time in my career that the director and writer had suggested that I do not read the book. When I did The Last King of Scotland Kevin MacDonald and Giles Foden said, “Don’t read the book, it’s really different and your character is going to be different. It will just screw you up.” So when Irvine and Jon said this to me I wasn’t immediately disturbed and they were like “What?” But it was because I could see that there was a precedent. The film and the book are like brothers except that one of them was adopted away out of the family. They’ve led very similar lives but they’ve just got slightly different focuses.”

In McAvoy’s estimation what had allowed Baird to successfully adapt the novel was his understanding of the contrasting experience the film compared to the novel. “The reader’s imagination is more active when reading the book, whereas watching a film you’re more of a voyeur inside the mind, and that is what Jon did brilliantly. He made the film much more about his psychology. It was not just by doing close-ups of me but by actually taking the narrative and structuring it around a mental breakdown, and that was that spine that the film needed if it was ever going to be a film.” But it is the playful nature of the film that McAvoy admires. Baird like a magician distracts us with the one narrative angle to then surprise us with a film that spirals outward or inward to become more than its original concept. “I just loved that because you’re telling people a story they think is about a murder investigation and this man’s Machiavellian desire and process to which he’s going to become Chief Inspector. But actually you realise you are just on an arc that is about his mental state at the end of the day. That was just a good solid clever move from Jon who I have got to say wrote or adapted one of the best screenplays I have read in my entire career.”

At the very heart of Filth is the idea that cinema is a moral playground where audiences are habitually seduced by the fraternity of corrupt characters of which Bruce Robertson belongs. Contemplating his corrupt character McAvoy explains that in fact this seduction is rooted in a tradition of narrative expectation. “The thing with the bad behaviour is that in the beginning you sort of allow it, because you know Bruce is going to get his comeuppance. It’s sort of why we’re allowed to watch Richard III and Iago do these incredibly horrible, murderous, torturous and almost massively fucking heinous things, because dramatically as an audience we know, and we’ve known for hundreds of years that in that type of structure and in that kind of narrative he’s going to get it. He’s gonna get it, and it sort of lets you enjoy their unacceptable behaviour in a way that you wouldn’t usually do.”

The more evil a character then the more potent is the said moment of comeuppance. By softening up characters to earn the audience’s sympathy undermines the function of the character within the narrative, a mistake Filth fortunately decided to sidestep. As McAvoy explained, “There was a lot of conversation at one point about not killing Bruce and about doing a version where Bruce made it or there was hope that he would make it. I got really annoyed about that. For me you are tampering with one of the key structures in storytelling. It was just key to that structure that he has to get it. But what was really fun is that in the last seven minutes of the movie we try to make the audience sympathise with him. We try to make them feel that he was a good guy once and he could find love. But if we had saved him after that I would have hated the film. To try and make the audience feel sympathy for him only to remind them that he has to die was fun for me.”

The cinematic art form is a game, never more adequately exemplified than in Alfred Hitchcock’s cinema, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, as well as Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man and Sleuth. Filmmakers are magicians, and the act of going to the cinema is for the audience similar to taking their seats for a magic show. Once the lights go down magic happens or the variety of cinematic gamesmanship is let loose. “Don’t get me wrong I don’t think we are toying with them quite as much as some of those films, because they are amazing the way that they do it. But we were toying with the audience a little bit in how often they would have to step away; whether they could hang about for it all and then if we do make them like him… I mean his final line “The same rules apply” actually applies to the fact that he’s wagging his finger at the audience. “You can’t fucking like me and shame on you for doing so.” Bruce is definitely the kind of person that would say, “I feel sorry for the criminal but you’ve still got to do the time.” There’s no sort of get out clause, even if you are a nice criminal. You’ve done it and you’re going down. I think that is why he’s damned from the beginning because he judges himself and he hates himself, and he said that in the end.”

From the page to the screen, it is inevitable that the film will be compared to the source material. Following his choice to delay reading the novel, I was curious if when he finally read it, whether it compelled him to evaluate the choices he had made. “There were moments where you would go “Oh that’s different” and “Wow okay.” The film is really dark but the book is so much darker.” Talking with McAvoy one could sense a feeling of satisfaction, the impression that he felt that they had done this iconic piece of Scottish literature proud. “I was pleased with what we did with Bruce and the movie after reading the book. Again they were two different things, yet you just can’t deny the brilliance of Irvine’s work when you are reading it. Some of the dialogue is just incredible, and some of the best bits of dialogue from the movie are lifted from the novel.” Being faithful to the book however was not without its problems, but a problem that the home entertainment release has helped resolve. “In fact we got to the point where we tried to shoehorn in so much of that dialogue that now on the DVD there are these long scenes with long speeches that we just couldn’t get into the movie. But we were desperate to get them in, and so the DVD and Blu-ray is packed full with that stuff.”

Bringing the interview full circle, Bruce Robertson is a pivotal role in McAvoy’s onscreen identity. It is a career defining performance, and one that is difficult to look beyond. It is perhaps even more difficult to conceive of any future character casting Bruce out of the light and into their shadow. “I totally agree, and if this is my defining performance then I’m chuffed that it’s this one. I hope to get to do stuff as good as this and as interesting as this soon, but what you said that it is going to be hard to find something to top it – you’re right. I’m already experiencing that. I played Bruce and Macbeth in a year, and trying to top those two guys; those two amazing stories; those two amazing parts is and will continue to prove difficult.” But as McAvoy confesses, “That’s a lucky problem to have, and in that way I’m very lucky.”

Despite the cause for celebration, the closing of this particular chapter of his career is also a cause for sadness, as McAvoy is forced to say his goodbyes. His time with Bruce is but a memory as the past expands and Bruce sinks further into the actor’s memories, the same images of which have been committed to the screen for posterity. “Reading the book was a very sad experience because I loved playing Bruce and he’s one of the characters that I miss playing the most. He revealed so much about me, but also there was strangely very little tension in the performance because it all comes out. It was an incredible process and so reading the book was quite sad because it was like saying goodbye to him.”

Filth is out on Blu-ray and DVD now, buy your copy here. Check out all of our Filthy coverage right here.