McAvoy plays Max, a cop desperately searching for answers to a large conspiracy he seems to be apart of, coming face to face with his bitter adversary Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong – see our interview with Mark here) in the process.
McAvoy discusses the socio-political themes to Welcome to the Punch, his relationship with the press, and also his work on the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, where he can compare Macbeth related anecdotes with other members of the cast; as he is currently on the West End stage portraying the famous Shakespeare role, where he had to rush back off to quite soon after our interview…
What were your impressions when you first read the screenplay?
I thought it was not your usual gritty British crime thriller and I thought that seemed different right from the off. It seemed much more like a kind of Hard Boiled or Hong Kong action cinema film, like Michael Mann, which I subsequently found out that Eran was keen to draw upon. That felt sort of fresh because it wasn’t trying to retrace the steps of people like Guy Ritchie and all that. Wasn’t trying to be geezers or hard street stuff, it was much more off the street, in the world of finance, and I just thought it seemed a bit more aspirational really, than the usual.
When you say it’s more like the American, Michael Mann kind of cinema, how does that become clear from the page, because that’s mainly a visual thing?
Well Eran worked very visually. His scripts are very enjoyable to read because they’re not just dialogue, it’s not endless amounts of bad description, it’s very visceral, a very exciting description to read. It was very clear. Sometimes you read a script, especially when it’s a writer/director who really knows what they’re doing you get a really clear sense of what they want to do on the page. I had a similar experience on Filth, which I did with a guy called Jon S. Baird. It’s very clear to see what he wanted to do because his prose, style and the description was completely fuelled by his vision, and it was very clear from this script what he wanted to do visually.
Had you seen Shifty before doing this?
Ah Shifty was such a favourite of mine of that year, so when he came along I was quite excited. I thought it was fantastic, Shifty.
The tenacity that your character possesses, is that something you share?
Yeah I think so. I think I’ve probably got a little more fear than he does; especially at the beginning of the movie. After his injury, both mental and physical, he becomes a little more like me, full of fears.
How important is the socio-political theme? It’s not just a cops and robbers movie, there’s something more going on as well.
Yeah, I think it is important because it gives it… It raises the stakes in terms of the commitment of the people who are the bad guys, if you know what I mean. Because they’re not just trying to be bad, they\re trying to do something that they think is good, so you’re always working with opposing forces that aren’t just good guys and bad guys, but actually nobody is out there to be a bad guy, and that’s quite an interesting world. The justification that people give themselves for doing terrible things, for killing people and things like that, that all rings very true I think, in this world in which bad things still happen but political language legitimises it. Ultimately it’s just a piece of entertainment but I think it makes us care, hopefully, a little bit more about what’s happening in the film, because the tension isn’t created by just two guys who have guns.
Andrea Riseborough is great as your on-screen partner and there’s a great buddy-cop thing going on there. What was important for you to portray with her?
We wanted her to feel frustrated. We came up with the idea that she probably requested to work with Max, because they were similar in age and both fast tracked, and he was quite a dynamic copper at one point and she liked the idea of accompanying him through this trailblazing beautiful rise, and what she actually gets is someone who just wants to eat his toast and forget that anything bad ever happened to him. At the same time, he won’t have his balls chopped off, and she will not be the boss. It’s all a bit fucking ridiculous really. So she brought this brilliant frustration to the character. She’s great in it.
Do you think your character’s injury adds a vulnerability to him, and if you think that helps the audience connect with him? He’s kind of like a wounded animal.
The way I saw him was as a pitbull. Very tenacious. But how does a pitbull feel if you break its leg. That pitull should be put down because that’s what we do with dogs. And he is like a dog. He’s like an injured dog, and he doesn’t see himself as somebody with that huge injury but that’s because the injury is more mental than physical. He’s had fear inflicted upon him, he’s never had that before – he thought he was immortal before, he thought he could do anything, he thought he could jump off buildings and do all that rubbish – and then Jacob Sternwood comes along and tells him he is totally mortal and I can take you anytime I like. There’s a thing where he’s like, you should’ve just killed me, just end it. My life would be so much simpler, but instead you let me live knowing that you beat me. And that’s the ultimate emasculating thing for him. Plus he’s a mess. The whole film, he’s a mess. Jacob might not always be happy, but he’ll probably be quite sorted; I think poor old Max is standing there and he’s going to jail, he’s going to prison for the rest of his life, and he’s going to not be well adjusted while being there.
You mentioned Filth before, how challenging is it to play somebody so despicable?
It didn’t feel like a challenge it was really enjoyable actually. That guy is very mentally ill as well and that is something that is very interesting to delve into. The challenge is making an audience care, or laugh, or like you, or feel sympathy for you, when you are doing despicable things, when you’re forcing a teenager to give you a blowjob or something, do you know what I mean? To then ask them to care about that character when he’s going through something very difficult for himself, that’s the joy and the challenge when you get a film like that. Actually playing that person? That wasn’t too difficult, I quite liked doing that.
We haven’t seen you in much for a couple of years and now obviously you’re in this, Filth and Trance. I was just wondering if your break was intentional?
Well when you do a film like X-Men and you think, well, I could keep going and going, or you know think, I’m lucky enough to get X-Men, so let’s use it. I know there’s going to be another one in a couple of years so I can take a bit of a break.
My wife and I, we want to work but we also want to make sure that one of us is at home with the kids. So we do take it in turns a little bit. Also the main reason is that they were filmed two years ago but held back for later release, so this is a fucking nightmare that they both decide to come out the month I open in the West End! There’s no sleep in my house.
Do you not like that? Because when you do have things come out at the same time it means that people have a choice of James McAvoy films; that’s cool isn’t it?
No, see that’s a bad thing that they have a choice, because if they have a choice they’ll probably just go and see one. I wish they hadn’t decided to jam pack the programme. It’s fine, it’s all good. But it’s like when I first started arriving on the film scene, I was in Toronto and I think I had like three films there in one year, and so it kind of feels a bit like that again, but I’m more used to it now.
There’s no such thing as a typical James McAvoy role really, is that a conscious choice?
I hope not! I’m really glad you say that, because that is a conscious decision. To begin with you just sort of take whatever parts you get offered and you take the best of the work that’s offered, but as you get – touch wood – more fortunate in terms of being able to have control, you start to make some decisions. The only decision I’ve ever really made is that I want to do different things, and stretch myself and an audiences’ view of me as well.
Anything else in the pipe line?
There’s Filth, then the Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, which is two movies. So those three come out and then X-Men, which I film in April and it’ll probably be out the following summer. So there’ll be a bit of a break after this year until summer 2014.
After X-Men we’re going on holiday. We’re going to Wales or something.
You’ve also managed to maybe not be as overexposed in the press as maybe we’d expect as you get more famous. How do you handle the press in terms of your personal life?
I’ve had very few press intrusions. The only problem we’ve had was when someone printed a picture of our kid when he was a couple of months old, and we were both very angry about that. They knew that they were operating illegally, but we still had to pay a lawyer a couple of thousands pounds to get them to stop doing that. And unfortunately that picture’s now on the internet whether we won or not, which is kind of disturbing. How they do that I don’t know, when it’s against the law. Other than that we’ve not had much. We had a pap follow us once, like six or seven years ago. We just keep our noses clean and keep our heads down, not go to all the parties and stuff. If we want a drink, we go to the pub. So I don’t know, I think that’s part of it, but I also think it’s about the signals you send out. I think if you’re desperate for it, then cool. I’ve got nothing against people who use the media – they’re not abusing the media, it’s all there for them – but use it a lot. I’ve got no problem with that but it’s a two way street. I feel like we use it respectfully and therefore there’s a certain amount of respect shown back. Fingers crossed.
Did it take a long time for you to say yes to Eleanor Rigby considering that you’re a young father yourself, and it’s about the loss of a child?
Yeah, well they offered me that about three years ago but I said no, because I’d just had my first kid and thought there’s no chance I’m doing this film about the death of a child. No way. Then summertime last year they phoned up and said Joel Edgerton has pulled out and we’ve got exactly four days to get someone else in who can get us the same kind of funding that he was getting us, you interested now? And you know my kid was a couple of years old at that point and doing very well and I was more philosophical about it. I loved the script, it was beautiful, and in the interim the director had written a second script and decided to tell it from two perspectives. It helped that Jessica Chastain, who was always going to play the girl, had become a huge international movie star, so it helped fund two movies as well. So yes, being a father initially made me say no, but being a father two years down the line made me realise it’s alright, everything’s cool. It’s fucking harrowing emotionally though, but that’s kind of why, hopefully, it’ll be good. Because we’re talking about harrowing circumstances, and adult love and the trauma that adult love can inflict upon each other because it’s such a massively powerful thing.
Was it a role you found hard to switch off from?
No weirdly not. No, film roles I find quite easy to switch off from to be honest with you, because you’re so exhausted that you’re desperate to switch off from it, and my family were there with me and stuff and we had a great time in New York with lots of diversion. It’s doing plays that is the nightmare, because it’s not in little chunks of three pages here and page and a half there, and you walk in, open a door, look around and that’s the day over. Plays are hard because you inhabit the whole story in one go and it’s quite hard to let go of.
Will you be comparing Macbeth notes with fellow X-Men Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart?
Yeah, Alan Cumming’s also done a splendid Macbeth too, apparently. He’s got the hardest job of any of us as he’s doing a one man Macbeth. He’s playing every part. Apparently it’s incredible. But yeah, I’m quite looking forward to a bit of a Macbeth-off. I’ll be like c’mon, Gandalf, bring it!