Ready for the next step

Special to The Times

As one half of the fatalistic couple at the tragic heart of "Atonement," director Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's complex, decade-spanning novel, James McAvoy looks every inch the classic leading man -- even if McAvoy himself doesn't happen to agree. "I'm 5 foot 7, and I've got pasty white skin," he insists. "I don't think I'm ugly, don't get me wrong, but I'm not your classic lead man, Brad Pitt guy."

McAvoy's not complaining; rather, he's celebrating the fact that someone who looks like him can be cast in such a role. "I'm always moaning about [the fact that] you see humanity represented as nothing but perfect, so it's good," he continues. "But I won't deny I felt a little bit self-conscious or worried. Will people accept me physically or visually for this role?"

The answer, most assuredly, is yes. McAvoy's performance as Cambridge-educated housekeeper's son Robbie Turner in the stately 1930s-set drama has, along with that of his costar, Keira Knightley, been generating serious acclaim ever since "Atonement" opened the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. Everything Robbie holds dear is ripped apart after one hot summer's night when his long-suppressed feelings for Cecilia (Knightley), the eldest daughter of the household, passionately surface.

As written, Robbie was initially a little too angelic for McAvoy's liking. "I felt he was too straight," explains the 28-year-old Scot over a chili burger in a gastro pub near the North London home he shares with his wife, actor Anne-Marie Duff. "So I had to make him a bit dirtier and grumpier to make him more real."

Ultimately, McAvoy says he found his way into the heart and soul of a character through the physical and spiritual transformation he undergoes midway through the film. "He knows who he is, which is incredible. But then a little girl comes along and tells him you're not who you think you are -- you're [a] rapist, and, by the way, the entire world believes me. The only person other than him who knows who he is is Cecilia. If it wasn't for her, he'd kill himself. In all my other characters I've always used conflict, and I couldn't with this until halfway through. [Then] he becomes the opposite of everything that made him difficult to play: damaged, conflicted and a much more recognizably human figure."

"McEwan has lots of descriptions of Robbie, but the description I liked the best and thought was most important for the story was of him having 'eyes of optimism,' " says Wright, who also helmed the Knightley-starrer "Pride & Prejudice," which earned the actress an Oscar nomination. "I feel James has those eyes of optimism. Also, he's the best actor working in Britain today, of his generation. He's extraordinary."

Wright first saw McAvoy seven or eight years ago on the London stage, playing a young, gay hustler in "Out in the Open." "I had been watching him for a long time after that," he reveals, "and I kept offering him roles that he kept turning down. First small roles, then fairly decent supporting roles and then, eventually, the lead."

Wright even tried to cast him in "Pride & Prejudice," though neither man will reveal for which part. "It's not fair on the guy who got it," says McAvoy, "but it wasn't Mr. Darcy."

Young man of many trades

Wright hasn't been the only one keeping an eye on the Glasgow-born thespian, however. McAvoy's stock has been climbing steadily on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to standout performances on stage, TV and film. Earlier this year he picked up the BAFTA for rising star and a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as an idealistic young doctor in "The Last King of Scotland," even if his performance was overshadowed by that of his Academy Award-winning costar, Forest Whitaker. He also played Mr. Tumnus the faun in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." McAvoy is nothing if not versatile.

To nail Robbie's upper-class English accent, McAvoy worked with a voice coach -- "For anybody who was a bit posh, it was all right, but for me it was quite difficult" -- and listened to tapes of the period, but it was watching movies such as "Brief Encounter," "In Which We Serve" and "Listen to Britain" that really helped. "People didn't really speak exactly like that then, but they did in movies," he says of an English dialect in which the vowel sounds are more clipped compared with today. Indeed, in many ways, his and Knightley's performances recall the acting style of the time, representing a whole different manner of being, pre-sexual revolution, when repression was the order of the day.

"The script is written for a type of acting that requires you to not emote, to not show everything," he notes. "If you watch Noel Coward, he doesn't move his face. He hardly uses his voice, but he's so expressive you know exactly what he's thinking. The same with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in 'Brief Encounter.' " But, he stresses, it's not just about doing nothing for the camera. "You can have a lot of stuff going on underneath, but the suppression of it increases the power of it."

Before shooting, Wright corralled his actors for three weeks of rehearsal that McAvoy says was the best he's experienced outside theater. "We figured out what the script was all about. I know that sounds really basic, but it's not," he says. "It galvanized us."

During the filming of a country house segment at Stokesay Court in Shropshire, Wright, Knightley and the majority of the cast lived together, though McAvoy chose to stay elsewhere. "Partly because I felt a little bit too old for that, but also because my character's kind of separate and I wanted to keep myself a little bit separate. I'm not somebody who uses the whole Method thing, but it felt nice to keep myself away from the big house and all the people playing the posh people. To be honest, all those actors were posh actors, so it felt quite useful."

The word is that "Atonement" will make McAvoy a star, although he's not sure he wants to be one. "I didn't have any plan when I started doing this," he says when the issue is raised. "I certainly didn't do it to be famous, and I certainly didn't do it because I wanted to be in the movies. I wanted to do it because it was good fun, and nobody told me I couldn't."

Although his next role, as an assassin in the comic book adaptation "Wanted" opposite Angelina Jolie, looks to be a markedly different one for him -- that of the action hero -- McAvoy insists it's business as usual -- playing someone, well, normal. "It's going back to something that's easier for me to do than 'Atonement' was. I'm playing a proper, insecure, normal dude. They didn't give me the part straight away. They offered it to a dozen other guys and eventually came back to me because they realized this part doesn't work if it's the classic leading man type figure. This part needs to have somebody a bit more normal."

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