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Valentin's Day

Valentin's Day
What's a young man to do in the shadow of greatness? In "The Last Station," written and directed by Michael Hoffman (adapted from Jay Parini's novel),we watch the last few months of writer Leo Tolstoy's life—his tempestuous marriage to the Countess Sofya and his compulsion to divest himself of earthly comforts, as played by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. And we watch through the eyes of young Valentin, Tolstoy's naively idealistic secretary. And who better to play Valentin than James McAvoy, in one of the most delicate, detailed, heart-rending performances in his notably brilliant career, despite being in the shadow of acting greatness.

Back Stage: You were speaking with Michael Hoffman about this film long ago. How did the role finally become yours?

James McAvoy
: There was a point when I wasn't certain the job was being offered to me—probably because nobody knew who I was. But he knew who I was, enough that he liked my work, I think. But the job still wasn't an offer. Anyway, he couldn't get the film made, and then by the time that it came back around, he could offer me the job.

Back Stage
: Do you know why he was interested in you in particular?

: I think he thought I was a good person at playing the lead role in something in which the lead character wasn't the focal point, and that was the case with "The Last King of Scotland"—playing that guy who carries you through the film, even though he's not the sort of über-figure in that film.

Back Stage: And you have a purity onscreen.

McAvoy: It's just something I think I've been able to do, that people have picked up on. And when you do something once, people kind of go, "Well, that's what you can do." It's a nice quality to portray, and I like that. But I can't lie: There will be a part of me that goes, "Ya, I want to play a bad guy; I want to play nasty people." And actually I've played quite a few egotistical people as well, and that's something that I'm quite interested in. Ego is something that I think is quite a fun thing to play.

Back Stage: Dame Helen says she was intimidated at first to work with Christopher Plummer. Were you intimidated?

McAvoy: I was a little bit, I have to confess, with her and with Christopher, and with Paul Giamatti as well. Paul is an actor I've admired for ages, so all three of them were intimidating. But within minutes that goes because all four of us are very similar types of actors: We all came up through theater, and we all had a theater training, and we all had the same vocabulary, so it was very easy to get my shorthand going quickly. And also the three of them are fun people to work with, so it was actually a really nice set to be on. There were no egos.

Back Stage
: What, if anything, did you suggest to Hoffman in terms of your character?

: Michael was a great guy to work with. I generally come with a lot of ideas. Some directors don't like that, and some directors really like that, and Michael was the kind of guy that was very collaborative and wanted your input. I felt the script was one of the cleanest I've read. Together we amplified what was already good, and that was the only thing. Michael empowers actors. He lets actors roll with it and go farther and do more and act through things, and he's very collaborative that way. I wanted to add to it and make it more, and he let me do that.

Back Stage
: Give us a specific example of how you made something "more."

McAvoy: Well, for example, the sneezing was something that my character in real life had, and I wanted to make it not just a small thing. For me, the script had a Chekhovian sensibility and a Chekhovian sense of humor. And weirdly, as much as Chekhov always worked with Stanislavskian actors—it was all about the internal life—a lot of Chekhov's work was about showing things. Things weren't just internalized, and a character's lack of comfort or his awkwardness was exhibited in physical mannerisms. Like Yepikhodov in "The Cherry Orchard," who I was lucky enough to play when I was very young. He has squeaky shoes, and immediately you know who that guy is. He's the uncomfortable guy; he's never going to fit in. And I felt, as soon as I read the character [in "The Last Station"] who sneezes a lot, he's Yepikhodov. So I amplified that, and I wanted to make him as awkward as possible, and that's the main thing that I suppose Michael let me go with to the extreme.

Back Stage: In terms of being on camera, what was the hardest scene in this film for you?

McAvoy: Technically the love scenes are always really hard. But apart from that, probably the scenes where he is really going through his personal evolution, and he's maturing, because you're really showing how someone changes from the guy he is at the beginning, which is very definite, to the guy he is at the end, which is very, very different, I think. The scenes where he's sort of being Countess Sofya's advocate, and he's arguing for her, that's difficult for him to do, and it was hard to find that balance and not be too forthright, because he's a secretary and a hanger-on, and yet he's the advocate of this guy's wife, and it's hard to find that balance of stepping too far and not going far enough.

Back Stage: Can you point to a particular moment onscreen you're extremely happy with?

: [I can point to] a moment I thought was terrible. There was the scene with Paul Giamatti where we blow up at each other, and I never felt that that scene was quite what it should be, we never went as far as it should have gone, and it felt physically uncomfortable because we were up against a schedule, and we had a setup in which we could act the scene, and I didn't want to be in the physical position that I was in, but I had to be because that's what the shot was, so I just kind of compromised, and I always felt artistically compromised in that scene. However, I think the scene's fine, actually, and it just makes you think, as an actor, sometimes you don't have to be striving for perfection all the time. You have to just bite the bullet and go, "Well, we need to get it done."

Back Stage
: Aside from the sneezing, what characteristics did you want to bring to Valentin?

McAvoy: I wanted to make him somebody who agreed a lot; I wanted to make him somebody who affirmed what other people were saying, and that just manifested itself in a little bit. I just added the line "all right" or "of course," and that was something that I phased out from the second half of the movie, after he's kind of evolved and became a different person, and that was just one of the little things, and it's not something that anybody will even notice, but it was important to me.   

-Trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama; his natural accent is heavily Scottish
-After many appearances on British television, broke out in "The Last King of Scotland," followed by "Atonement"
-His wife, actor Anne-Marie Duff, co-stars in "The Last Station" as the Tolstoys' daughter

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