The animated comedy adventure Gnomeo & Juliet tells William Shakespeare’s much-beloved and revered tale, but with gnomes from competing gardens at its center. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) of the Blue garden, falls for the delicate and sheltered Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt), without knowing that she comes from the rival Red garden. Their chance meeting instantly changes their lives forever, and the two quickly form a bond that leads them to question the life-long rivalry between the Blues and the Reds.
While at the film’s press day, actor James McAvoy talked to Collider about finding his inner gnome, how freeing it can be to do voice work, the opportunity to expose kids to a version of the Romeo & Juliet story, and the fun of getting to be a part of an animated feature that will be watched for generations to come. He also talked about his role as Professor X in the upcoming X-Men: First Class (due in theaters on June 3rd), what it’s like to make such a big film in such a short amount of time, having freedom with their characterizations, how much he really loves working with the cast, and how he wishes he had a more visual superpower. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
JAMES McAVOY: It came about in quite a normal way, really. They phoned up and asked if I’d do it, and I went and met the guys. They were possibly the most enthusiastic bunch of producers and directors that I’ve ever met, and they loved their project so much and they wanted to share so much, and that was really infectious. And then, they showed me a little model of the garden gnome that I would play, and I thought, “Well, if I’m going to be a garden gnome, I’d like to look like that,” ‘cause he looked cool and quite fun and very stocky. He was very beefy looking, which I was surprised about. Quite often, in animated movies, they make the male lead skinny and dexterous, and he can do backflips and things like that. Whereas, he was a little bodybuilder, which was quite good fun. I thought he looked like a little WWE guy – one of the short ones. That was cool.
How did you find your inner gnome to voice Gnomeo?
McAVOY: That was a constant struggle, for the first two or three sessions, really, ‘cause I’d never worked like that before and I did feel a little bit out of my depth. Also, the fact that you’re not working with any other actors is kind of nuts. I kept saying to them, “Can we maybe get Emily [Blunt] in, so that we can just bounce stuff off each other?” And, they were like, “Yeah, totally, we’ll try. But, that never happens on these movies.” I was like, “I know, but she lives in London sometimes. Surely, you hire some actors that live in the same city.” They said, “In our entire lives, in this industry, we’ve never had it happen where we’ve had two actors in the same room, at one time.” I was like, “All right, we’ll make it happen.” And, three years later, we hadn’t done one session with each other. So, for the first couple of sessions, it was kind of difficult, but it got easier.
Does it get to a point where it becomes more freeing because you don’t have to be as self-conscious about your physicality?
McAVOY: Yeah. You start to appreciate, as well, the fact that what you do can have bearing on where the film goes, depending on who you’re working with and how they like to work. But, these guys were quite happy for me to go off on a flight of fancy sometimes. And then, the next time you would come back for another session, like a month later or whatever, sometimes they would change the script because they would get an idea from something that you just flew in by accident, and that takes the character in a slightly different direction. It was really rewarding to realize that you could just go for it as much as you could, without the other actors there, and you didn’t have to worry too much about whether it worked with what they were doing because they would marry the stuff together. If you did something that didn’t work with what they were doing, they just wouldn’t use it, and they’d find the stuff that did.
McAVOY: Exactly. It’s a difficult story to tell to young kids because it involves a lot of death and suicide and sexual intercourse, which is a hard thing to give to young kids. However, the structure of two people who fall in love, who are not allowed to fall in love, is always going to give you a great basis for a story, whether it’s Romeo & Juliet, or whether it’s West Side Story, or whether it’s any of the things that were inspired by it. So, to do it with garden gnomes is a nice way to introduce it to young kids, and to show that prejudice and preconception is wrong, and that giving people a chance is an important thing to be able to do. Those are the kind of morals of the story.
Were you ever consciously thinking about the fact that you were playing a version of Romeo, or did you just approach this as its own thing?
McAVOY: I just thought about it as his own thing, actually. I didn’t think too much about it. I’ve played Romeo as well, so it was nice to go back to that, but they were very different. I didn’t need to think of it too much.
Is it fun to be a part of one of these Disney animated features that people will be watching for many generations to come?
McAVOY: Yeah, totally. You grow up watching those cartoon movies. Nobody calls them cartoon movies anymore. They’re always animated features. But, watching the cartoons when I was a kid was really a big part of why I watched movies, so it’s great to be involved with one. When you can see kids smiling, that’s one of the best things. That’s why I did Narnia.
McAVOY: I don’t think I’ve ever made such a big movie, in such a short period of time. It’s nuts, really. But, we’re getting it done. No movie has ever got enough time. It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got, and it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve not got. You never finish on time. You’re always up against it and you’re always working up until the end. To get three days off the schedule to come and do [press for Gnomeo & Juliet] is a nice break ‘cause it is just [non-stop], all the time. But then, that’s what it is with every single movie I’ve ever been on. It just feels like the usual. It’s more about whether they can get it ready in time for the release date. They’re working on the editing now, and they’re working on the special effects now. They’ve got a big department working 24/7 on it.
From what you were told about the film to how it’s turning out, how does it compare?
McAVOY: It’s pretty much what I thought it would be when (director) Matthew [Vaughn] took me through it all. He really wanted to play off the ‘60s setting of it, and play off the style of that, visually, in the design of the costumes and all that, which we totally got. And, he wanted us to be really free, in terms of characterization, and was confident in taking it as far away from the original characters, not as we could, but as we thought was right. We’ve really done that quite a lot. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing a prequel, if they’re just the exact same people. They’ve got to be very different, otherwise there is no journey. This story is all about that journey to showing the seeds of how they are in the other X-Men movies, and to show what could have been between Erik and Charles – or Professor X and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) – and to show why it couldn’t be.
What’s been the toughest part about playing such a popular character?
McAVOY: The toughest part is probably that I’ve got a great superpower and, if you had it in real life, it would be amazing, but in a movie, everybody else is bouncing off the walls and shooting fucking beams of light out of their chest and doing crazy stuff and making things fly around, and I’m [putting my finger to my forehead]. It just feels a little bit like, “Oh, god!” But, what’s nice is that it means I have less CGI and stunt work to do, which means I have more time in my bed. That’s the thing. I look at all the other people using their superpowers and I’m like, “That would have been fun!”
McAVOY: The best part about it, for me so far, is that I really love the cast. The cast has just been incredible. We’ve had a lot of fun, actually. I’ve loved working with [Michael] Fassbender. I think he’s great. I’m so glad that we got to collaborate on something. But, just from top to bottom, the cast is amazing. Having Kevin Bacon play your baddie is great. It’s a great, slightly left-field piece of casting as well. I don’t think anybody expected that. Hopefully, that’s a clue as to what the movie will be.
What made you decide to do another animated feature with Arthur Christmas (due out on November 23rd)?
McAVOY: It was completely financial. I’ve got a big tax bill. No. I really enjoy the process of doing it. It’s just taken 29 years, or whatever, to make this film because animated films just take forever. But, I’ve really, really enjoyed the process and I find it really rewarding, actually. It’s a really good way for an actor to work. And, your audience is kids, and that’s a brilliant audience. If you’ve got an audience of adults standing up and clapping, or you’ve got an audience of kids standing up and clapping, I know which one I’d choose. And, the script for Arthur Christmas is just fantastic. It’s really funny and really gets you in the gut a little bit as well, which is nice. And, getting the chance to work with the Aardman [Animations] people was a bit of an honor, really, for me.
McAVOY: Yeah, I think I’ll be doing something a little smaller, but I don’t know what that will be yet. It won’t be for a little while. I’m going to take a little bit of time. I might do some theater, or something like that. There are a couple of movies in the pipeline for the second half of the next year, but not solidified yet, so I can’t really say what. There are plans, but nothing I’m willing to say yes to just yet.
A few years ago, you said that you were attracted to projects because of the offer of employment. Now that your career has changed a little bit, are you being more choosy and looking more at the script and who you’ll be working with?
McAVOY: It has changed, although I have to say that the offer of employment is always still a nice thing. Even if you’ve got two jobs being offered, the one that’s most recently offered gets this slight little thing in you to go, “Oh, fantastic!” The script is the most important thing for me, I think. I’m advised that other things are important too, and they are. The director that you’ll be working with is hugely important, and the cast that are with you is really important as well. But, for me, the thing that gets my heart excited and really makes me invested in something or not is just the quality of the script, really.