The Scottish actor sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss his role as a schizo drug-, booze-, and sex-fueled cop in Filth, drinking tales, and crazy shenanigans on the X-Men: Days of Future Past set.
Perhaps it’s the striking blue eyes, conveying world-weariness and longing. Or the schnoz, with its two distinct freckles. Maybe it’s his Glaswegian pallor, coupled with a wiry, compact frame. Whatever the reason, the movie gods have always, until now, designated James McAvoy as “the good guy.”
He was Mr. Tumnus, the delightful faun, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A World War II soldier pining for his lost love in Atonement. The crippled telepath of X-Men: First Class. But McAvoy, 35, had never played the prick, the villain.
“I was looking to do something different that really stretched me, and taught me more,” he says.
That something is Filth. Written and directed by Jon S. Baird and adapted from a novel by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, the film centers on Bruce Robertson (McAvoy), a detective sergeant in Edinburgh who is a complete and utter sociopath. When he’s not blowing rail upon rail of cocaine, sexing prostitutes, or abusing his power, Robertson entertains himself with what he calls “the games”—sadistic, life-ruining plots he hatches on his workmates and friends. And the bipolar junkie will stop at nothing to be promoted to detective inspector in a bid to win back his wife and children. It’s a shocking about-face for McAvoy, who turns in one of the most gripping performances of his career as the misanthropic hell-raiser.
The Daily Beast sat down with McAvoy in New York to discuss his turn to the dark side, reprising his role as Dr. Charles Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and much more.
Bruce does a lot of awful stuff in the film. What was the toughest scene for you to film?
There’s only one thing I didn’t like doing. The rest of it I loved doing. It was one of the easiest roles I’ve played, man. There was a lot of effort and lifting, but artistically speaking, it just fell out of me. But the one scene I found difficult was my first day and it’s a scene about five minutes into the movie where I blackmail a 15-year-old girl to give me a blowjob. I had no problem with it on the page, and it’s an important scene in the film because it allows the audience to feel hatred and disgust for this man, but re-creating that moment was kind of ghastly. It was fucking horrible, man.
The interesting thing about Bruce is he does do all these terrible things, yet he never seems to lose the audience.
That’s it. We wanted to punch the audience in the face, then say, “Hey, you wanna hang out? Want a beer?” And then punch them in the face again. It’s like he’s got the audience’s hands gripped tight and he’s just spat in their face, and they’re trying to get their hands out and he goes, “Nope! You can’t go.” Some people will go and say, “Fuck it, I hate this movie,” but most audiences I’ve seen it with go “Oh, no!” and then 30 minutes later they’re laughing, or crying. What we tried to do is give the audience a surprising, challenging experience that abuses them and throws around their emotions.
How did you prep for the role of Bruce? Did you hit the bottle?
I probably ate a hell of a lot and drank a hell of a lot more than I usually drink, and I was chain smoking a lot at the time. I don’t know how much weight I put on but I didn’t want to get humongous—just a bit of bloat to help the pallor and swell my face up; there’s nothing that swells your face up quite like whiskey. So at nighttime, I was having a few wee sherbits, ay. I’ll have a Laphroaig, I’ll have a Talisker, and then… whatever beer you can get your hands on.
Have you ever found yourself spiraling a bit out of control on booze or drugs?
No, but I’ve been quite aware my entire life of mental people. I’ve always been a watcher. I notice myself, when I’m thinking irrationally, and I don’t think any of us are that far away from losing it. It doesn’t take as much as we think, sometimes, to lose it. But I’m pretty consciously healthy… I hope.
What’s your craziest night out?
My stag do was pretty massive. We played soccer, as you guys would call it; we went to Camden and drank quite a lot; we got some Champagne; we went onto Hampstead Heath where there are open ponds—this was in winter—and jumped in. On the way up there, me and the six or seven guys I was with went to hail a taxi, and the guy who was working it just happened to be a performance artist who would drive around picking people up and doing performance art in his cab. We didn’t realize for quite a long time that he was in his performance, so he was completely fucking with us. He had these speakers and lights outside of the car that would come on with police sirens and flash the lights, and he’d yell, “KEEP YOUR HEADS DOWN!” We were freaking out because we had open bottles of beer and thought, “We’re going to prison.” When we got there, we were like, “You were amazing, dude,” and gave him an incredible tip. Our other mates—about 20 in total—had arrived in other taxis at this point, and he said, “We’re going to do one more thing and whatever I do, you’ve just got to go with it.” So he hit this button and speakers on the outside of his car started blaring the Benny Hill theme tune and he just ran, so we ran doing the Benny Hill chase. We did it for about 10 minutes until he fucked off in his car. It was amazing.
I heard the X-Men: Days of Future Past cast partied a lot, and Jennifer Lawrence can hang with the boys when it comes to drinking.
I don't know about that! But she's a really cool girl, man. Very cool.
I saw some fun photos online of you and Nicholas Hoult doing flaming shots.
Fuckin’ hell, I’m gettin’ fuckin' beasted for that! It was fun, but you get people going, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen!” But nearly everybody in that room got “lit” by me that night. It’s a party trick, and one that I find really good fun. I like the taste of it as well once you extinguish the flame.
Oh, man. Me and my friends were at this bar once downtown and this female bartender kept challenging me to Irish Car Bombs, and I can do those in a second flat, so we did five in a row and she lost all five rounds, and then she tried to do a bar trick where she lit a flame across the bar and cut herself on a broken glass and just said, “I’ve got to go to the hospital,” and left. No one took her place behind the bar, so we were all like, “What the hell is going on?”
We were at a bar last night, Home Sweet Home, and someone had taken their shoes off and was dancing, and then they cut their foot quite badly, so we ended up having to take glass out of somebody’s foot in the bathroom and sterilize it with that fucking hand shite… Purell.
I heard there was a lot pranking on X-Men with BB guns.
The BB guns on X-Men were fun. On movies like Filth, you get no down time. They might as well not give you a trailer because you never see it; you’re just on set fuckin’ bangin’ it out all day. On movies like X-Men, you can spend 14 hours on set and just get sent home without doing anything, so you need something to alleviate the boredom—which turned into plastic pellet-based warfare, which was awesome. It was like High Noon every time you stepped out of your trailer. Usually, you’re getting out of the car at half-six in the morning and stumbling into the makeup trailer, but at this one, your car would pull up and everybody was like…
McAvoy suddenly pops up out of his chair and hides behind a table with his hands forming a gun.
“Is Michael in yet? Michael’s not in yet? He’s not?! Shit!”
McAvoy, still standing, mimicks getting shot in the face.
“Ah, fuck! He is in! Shit!” But Nicholas Hoult and I bought the guns for everybody—along with protective eyewear, as well.
God help you if you shot Jennifer Lawrence in the face. I could see them just shutting the whole operation down.
“Dude, this is over!” She was covered in blue paint, nobody would have noticed!
The new X-Men film deals with drones—Sentinels—that target American citizens. What do you think the film’s message is when it comes to drone warfare?
Yeah, it’s got a little bit of a riff on drones going on. But what it’s really about is what the very first X-Men was about: the discrimination of others based on their ethnicity. The first scene of an X-Men movie ever was a scene in Poland in a concentration camp with Jewish people being killed for being slightly different. That’s exactly what the Sentinels are about. The key thing that makes the Sentinels work is they can discriminate between humans and mutants and say, “Human? You’re OK. Mutant? You’re all going do die.” It is a robot, and a drone, but it’s about the persecution of minorities and people who are different, which is something that’s so constantly current. The drone argument will come and go, but X-Men’s connection to the persecution of people who are different will always remain. Everybody’s felt persecuted at some point or felt different at some point.