'Atonement' star James McAvoy on playing good well

Though James McAvoy is an intelligent and well-spoken individual, there are times when words escape him. Bring up the awards buzz that is surrounding his latest performance, in Atonement, and the Scottish actor can only issue a long groan that sounds something like "Aaach!" Though he finds such talk flattering, it clearly makes the 28-year-old uncomfortable.

He should probably get used to it. In Atonement, he stars as the good-hearted Robbie Turner, a son of a servant to the wealthy Tallis family in 1930s England. After he is accused of a horrible crime, his freedom and his relationship with the eldest Tallis sister (played by Keira Knightley) are put in jeopardy. The film, directed by Joe Wright, is based on Ian McEwan's best-selling novel.

Though he is well-known in Britain for his stage and television work (Shameless, State of Play), most American audiences first noticed McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus, the friendly but vaguely menacing faun who kidnaps young Lucy in 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He followed that with 2006's The Last King of Scotland, opposite Forest Whitaker, who won an Oscar for the film. But in Atonement, it's McAvoy who gets to take center stage in a tragic, romantic story about punishment and reparation.

Back Stage: Keira Knightley says you're an actor who comes along once every hundred years.

James McAvoy: That's very kind of her. I know I have to thank her from the beginning, just from the fact that when we screen-tested, she really gave it her all. I was the last guy out of three who tested on that day, and she really gave it everything. She's incredible.

Back Stage: So you auditioned for Atonement? It wasn't an offer?

McAvoy: Are you kidding? I got this before Last King of Scotland even came out in Britain. Nobody knew me.

Back Stage: But you were still Mr. Tumnus.

McAvoy: Well, I will always be Mr. Tumnus to 8-year-olds. But whether that's a great role or not, it's not going to get you a part like this. I had to audition twice: once just for Joe and a second time with Keira and cameras.

Back Stage: Speaking of Mr. Tumnus, Keira says you made a brilliant choice to play that character as if he were a pedophile.

McAvoy: What? No! Not as a pedophile. But he is creepy and kidnapping her. I made a deliberate choice to toy with modern perception of that situation, I suppose. You don't have to be too on-the-nose to make people feel uncomfortable with someone 150 years old inviting an 8-year-old girl back to their apartment. In this day and age, I think, pedophile paranoia taints that entire scene in a brilliant way that makes it very interesting. But no, he's not a pedophile; I didn't play him as a pedophile. I played him as someone trying to kidnap a little girl. Because that's exactly what he did.

Back Stage: You followed Narnia with a breakthrough performance in The Last King of Scotland, though many felt your work didn't get the attention it deserved, because all the buzz was on Forest Whitaker.

McAvoy: I know people have said that, and it's nice of them to say so, but I never really felt that. It's not like I'd been playing roles that good in films of that quality. It did me lots of favors. The industry noticed me a bit more. It changed my career. I really don't feel I got the rough end of the stick.

Back Stage: Was the role of Robbie Turner in Atonement your most challenging so far?

McAvoy: The execution of it was actually much easier and fun than usual. But when it came to getting my head around who the character was, it was the most difficult role I've ever had to play. Usually the characters I play are very conflicted: good guys doing bad things. That's how I work, through conflict. And there's none in Robbie. He's completely good. And I found that really difficult. It's very demanding emotionally, but it wasn't hard to get those emotions out, because I loved the character so much.

Back Stage: How do you go about embodying goodness and not making the character dull?

McAvoy: I don't know; I think you just have to trust that human beings are interesting, no matter what they are like. I try not to think about it, because if you start to think, "I've got to make this character interesting," you're going to start overacting.

Back Stage: What was it about the script that drew you in?

McAvoy: It was perfectly written. It really was the finest piece of writing I've ever read, for film, stage, or television. It attributed the audience with an intelligence that I don't see in a lot of films. And the actors. You see these scripts where an actor has five lines on a page and the other 300 lines are all telling the actor how he's feeling and what he's thinking: "He then looks here; he feels this." There was none of that in the script. It just assumes the actor is going to decipher from the words. Usually a romantic tragedy engages your heart, but this one engages your intellect just as much. I think that's what makes it special.

Back Stage: What are your feelings on the audition process?

McAvoy: I think it gives you an opportunity to test the director. I came out of the audition for Atonement knowing this was going to be amazing—not just because it was an incredible script but because Joe clearly understands it. It also gives you an opportunity to prove to yourself and them that you can do it. I don't like turning up on set without an audition. It's like, "Who have I proved this to in a high-stakes situation? Can I actually do this part?" And I spend a couple weeks on the shoot trying to figure it out, rather than just getting on with it. Look, if someone offered me a part exactly the same as Robbie Turner in the story of tragic love where he's wrongly accused, I might say, "You're making me audition for this? Have you seen Atonement?" Because it's the same part. But if it's something completely different—if someone wanted me to play a disco-dancing superhero—I would understand their motive in wanting to see me first.

Back Stage: Are you still discovering new things as an actor?

McAvoy: Absolutely. I learned a lot on this job. It totally changed things for me a little bit.

Back Stage: Totally a little bit?

McAvoy: Exactly. [Laughs.] What it did is it gave me a facility I didn't have before, and I really liked that and hope I get to use it again. Like, to leave myself alone. The main thing is to just strip everything away and make yourself, as an actor, very open and vulnerable.

Back Stage: You once said you don't read reviews. Is that still true?

McAvoy: I hadn't read a review in, like, four years when someone told me I had to check out this amazing review. I think it was for Last King of Scotland. So I looked it up, and I got the wrong one, and it was completely fucking devastating. And I thought, "Fuck this; I'm not reading another one again." You don't learn anything from someone else's opinion of you. So there's no point. I've seen actors in plays who change their performances based on reviews, and they're all over the fucking place. You might as well say to the audience, "How would you like me to play the part tonight?"