James McAvoy on Playing a Mentally Ill Corrupt Cop in the Irvine Welsh Adaptation Filth | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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James McAvoy on Playing a Mentally Ill Corrupt Cop in the Irvine Welsh Adaptation Filth

Digging Deeper Into Filth

May 30, 2014 Issue #50 - June/July 2014 - Future Islands
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Whether you associate him with the X-Men's heroic leader, Professor X; the friendly faun, Mr. Tumnus, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Dr. Garrigan in The Last King of Scotland; Robbie Turner in Atonement; or someone else entirely, one thing is almost for certain: you'll rarely think of James McAvoy as the bad guy. His award-winning turn in Jon S. Baird's Filth just may change that.

In this adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel, the Scottish leading man plays Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, Filth's corrupt, foul-mouthed, sexist, manipulative, and abusive anti-hero. In our interview, McAvoy told us about how he interpreted the role and managed to keep the audience invested in the well-being of such a despicable character. [Note: There is a separate article on James McAvoy in Under the Radar's current print issue, the June/July 2014 Issue on newsstands now. These are extra portions of our interview with McAvoy, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on him.]

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): Irvine Welsh is one of the premier Scottish novelists. Were you a fan of his-or had you read much of his work-before doing this film?

James McAvoy: Yeah! I hadn't read everything of his-I hadn't read Filth, actually. But after reading Trainspotting and Marabou Stork Nightmares, I read Crime and just thought it was a stand-alone thing. I didn't realize then that it was-well, not a sequel to Filth, but it references Filth. But yeah, I was a massive fan of his from before. He's just so unique. I often liken him more to Dickens than to anybody, because he writes this hyper-real stuff. People sometimes call it this gritty, Scottish style, but I don't know if that does it justice. I don't know if many people will agree with me on that, but I feel that way myself. 

Did you talk with him much before taking on the role? Has he given you feedback on how he thought it came out? 

We got together for what was my first meeting. It wasn't an audition, but it sort of was... Anyway, that was when we first met. He didn't really think I was especially right for [the part]. He thought I was too young. He went away to talk with the director and came back half an hour later, and then whatever it was, he had flipped. I don't know what that was, because I wasn't auditioning. I wasn't playing the part better half an hour later or anything, but he seems to think I had transformed or something like that.

Once the script was in your hands, what about it told you that this was a role you wanted to play?

Once I read the script, I knew how I wanted to do it. I knew how I'd approach the character, and I knew why it would work and should work. I immediately knew what I wanted to do with each scene, and what I wanted to try to make the audience feel. That's only happened to me a couple times in my career: after reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Atonement. Upon finishing those scripts, I'd felt the same massive sense of certainty.... It was such a beautiful piece of writing. It was the best script I've ever read, I think.

This isn't a role that people would normally expect from you. Did you have any worries about how your audience might react to seeing you in such a dark role?

I don't really worry about that too much. I think we're in a time where audiences have become very, very savvy. Audiences like to see people again and again; they like to have people in movies that they'll go back to see often. But I think they're less invested in the typecast guy, the actor who plays the same role in every movie.... They want to see actors do something different, and stretch. But at the same time, I don't think too much about it. It'll be what it's going to be. I don't think people who have liked my movies until now will say to themselves, "I'm not seeing another McAvoy film because of that one." And people who have never seen me before and then only see me in this probably won't recognize me in anything else I do again.

I'd read that your background helped you understand the role. Can you tell me a bit about how your past helped you play Bruce?

I have quite a lot of experience with mental illness in my life. It seems to be a recurring theme in my life with friends, and with people I've run into again and again and again from a very young age, to even the last couple of years. So that's the main thing that helped me play Bruce. No matter where you put Bruce-you could put him in L.A., in the banking sector, in the army, anywhere, any nationality-the most interesting thing about Bruce is his hatred of himself, his abuse of others, and his brain, which is falling to pieces. He has this raging self-hatred and inferiority complex. Filth-the title-is double-edged, because that's what we call the police, and it's also sort of the content of the film. It's triple-edged, because that's how Bruce regards himself.... He tries to mask his own reflection in the mirror with this pretend superiority over others. That all was something I've experienced in my life.

What's amazing is that the character is still somewhat likeable-or, at least we maintain some level of sympathy for him-even when his every action is totally repugnant. What were the biggest challenges of finding that level of balance in the role?

That's the biggest challenge with the script, isn't it? It's important to keep the audience on board. I think [director] Jon [Baird] and Irvine [Welsh] were finding it difficult to find the right guy. Although I wasn't the guy they'd thought of immediately, I came in talking about being so excited to play someone so mentally ill in a film that wasn't so "Oh, poor me, I'm mentally ill," and wasn't going to be a sad, sober, black-and-white film with a horribly boring underscore for 90 minutes. It was going to be a little more like being inside the mind of somebody who is bipolar with paranoid delusions, suffering from split personality disorder, who's an alcoholic, drug addict, and misogynist...there's much more interest to be found there, if you're willing to open up and be vulnerable to the mayhem inside of them. I came in thinking that this was a story about someone who is really unwell, and immediately you're coming from a more sympathetic position.... I'm constantly hearing, "You usually play the nice guy, you play likeable characters," stuff like that. I have experience doing that, and I think part of that comes naturally, but part of it is that I know what I'm doing as an actor. I know what I'm doing as a storyteller, and I know what I'm doing to get an audience on-board. I'm very aware of how to use that not to help people like Bruce, necessarily, but to keep people from switching off from him, and feel some empathy for him. It's not conscious, intellectual sympathy, but empathy, because I think you do key in after a while that something is wrong with this guy. He's not just an aspect of a wild and wonderful barrage of Welshian, Edinburgh-based, drug-fueled crassness. That's never what Irvine does, but it's what I think people sometimes reduce him to when they're not familiar with all of his books. It's way more than that. It's about someone who is really, really unwell, so you're immediately dealing with a victim of life.

Just a quick question about [Filth director] Jon S. Baird. What about his filmmaking approach sets him apart from other directors you've worked with? 

Massive, massive, gargantuan balls. Huge, so huge you have to carry his balls in a wheelbarrow. Balls of bravery. He's so forthright and strong in his belief that what he is doing is right-he'll second-guess himself sometimes, but he'll have the balls to do it anyway.... He knows that going to the middle ground isn't any safer, so you might as well do whatever the fuck you want to do and go balls out.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital/tablet version of Under the Radar's June/July 2014 Issue (Issue 50). Pick up the print edition of Issue 50 to read a separate article on McAvoy.



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