James McAvoy was borne to play Victor Frankenstein. There’s a madness in much of the actor’s best work – perfectly encapsulated in Wanted, Trance & Filth. Even as the pillar of stability, Professor X, there’s a twinge of crazy lurking just beneath the facade. In person, McAvoy, unsurprisingly, is a gregarious sort – going off for ten-minutes on any subject, talking a mile a minute, gesticulating wildly, laughing, peppering the convo with a bevy of cusses… The genius mad-scientist with crazy hair and a penchant for shouting and dramatic exclamations – yes, this is a good fit for James McAvoy.
The prequel Victor Frankenstein focuses on the titular scientist and his burgeoning friendship with the hunchback Igor. The two set off on a mission to push the boundaries of science and create new-life out of death. Things, as you probably know, don’t go swimmingly. Much of the film is focused on what drives Victor to create his monster, what secrets and vulnerabilities motivate him to this inevitable conclusion. It’s a film less concerned with the end we all know but in the how and why of it all.
On a London set last year, McAvoy regaled a group of reporters (myself included) on what it’s like to play the most famous mad-scientist. (Note: this interview has been edited for clarity)
What is this version of Victor Frankenstein like?
James McAvoy: [Victor’s] got a tremendously large ego, but he has a really good point. He’s trying to improve the human condition. He’s trying to improve this fragile state we all find ourselves in. He’s trying to prolong life. He’s trying to banish death. But at the end of the day, he just has a massive fucking ego and he’s a bit of a megalomaniac. Well… he’s not a megalomaniac but he’s definitely an egomaniac. So that gets in his way. He also has a myriad of personality disorders. There are certain things you want to do when you do Frankenstein. There are certain things that audiences expect and want to see and there’s a balance between giving them just that or giving them none of that or giving them a bit of that and taking them other directions as well. You want to see the archetypical mad scientist. That’s definitely there in bucket loads. But he’s got a deep-seated emotional trauma borne motivation as well. It’s one of the things Paul [McGuigan] injected into the script, which was really clever because I think audiences need a little bit more nowadays.
You can’t just have a crazy mad scientist and he’s crazy just because he is. He’s driven just because he is. He’s obsessed just because he is. You learn a little bit more ‘why’. You can go too far into backstories and stuff and all of the sudden the backstory is more important than the current story. But we’ve given the backstory just enough weight. That’s really important for me. He can’t really connect with anybody. He can’t really see the world. All he sees is what he wants until he meets Igor. He suddenly finds someone who is exceptional and on a par with him in some ways and someone who is as fascinated with human anatomy as he is. That becomes the only real connection he’s had in his life.
Do you look to other performances of Victor Frankenstein?
James McAvoy: I’ve watched half of Young Frankenstein once and the only bit I can remember is ‘Frankensteen not Frankenstein’. Very funny. I enjoyed it. But I haven’t looked to anybody else’s films. I’m always like that though. If it’s not there on the page, then it shouldn’t be getting done. I’ve read the book but… it’s not a film about the existential crisis that a newly born monster goes through. It’s just not that film. If there’s an existential crisis, it’s the existential crisis that happens for Igor and I. [Igor] grows from being this abused animal in the circus into being a man and a scientist and a friend and a lover. For me it’s about a journey from being self-obsessed into responsibility and a slightly less mental place, though he still is pretty mental.
Does Frankenstein see Igor as his project?
James McAvoy: Yeah — he’s his new patient. But he also sees him as a means to an end. Igor has something that he needs so he harnesses him. He’s a user. Frankenstein is very selfish and personally driven so he’s always using people. But something of Igor gets through to him and forms a loving relationship.
What does Igor have the Victor needs?
James McAvoy: Igor has a particular talent that is useful and necessary for Frankenstein. Frankenstein is a doctor and a physician but [more so] he’s really an engineer of the human body. Because it’s set in the Victorian era, it’s very much about industry. It’s about the forefront of science and science being very much concerned with not Higgs Boson and protons and electrons but metal gears and rust and sweat and tears and levers that make whole city’s glow. Monster science. That is what his science is really like. The look of the film is really reflected by that. It’s borne of the Industrial Revolution and the forefront of science where you’re always questioning and being questioned about whether what you’re doing is right or wrong regardless of its use for humanity. Same thing with stem cell research which two or so years ago was a massive thing, a big controversial subject. And now stem cells research is happening in quite a lot of countries and nobody’s really talking about it. We’re at the point in this film where they’re crossing moral boundaries.
What’s it like working opposite Daniel Radcliffe?
James McAvoy: I’m not a cage fighter, but I’m quite often physical in this. I’m physical in a lot of films but often times you come across someone who isn’t comfortable with that. So it’s not a two way street. A lot of the physical ideas you have frighten the director or frighten the other actor. Dan and Paul are all up for that shit. This movie, which had a fair bit of action, has turned into [something] even bigger. Huge dialogue scenes have turned into massive set pieces. Dan has met me at that and come further than me. We’re throwing each other around all the time. There was one set piece that was really just a wrestling match. It’s really nice to work with someone who’s physically comfortable and physically capable and can take a few knocks.
What is your approach to the material?
James McAvoy: It’s not the kind of film where there’s any place to hide. You have to come in hard and fast and quick. It doesn’t mean large acting or big acting but it means big choices and not being afraid to do something unexpected or strange. You look at the source material and it was incendiary at the time and arguably it was a more important book than it was a good book. It asked really controversial questions. It’s not a horror in any way. It’s a controversy and a moral conundrum and an interesting insight into the repercussions of scientific advancement.
Victor Frankenstein opens in theaters November 25th. For more from my set visit, peruse the links below:
- On the Set of ‘Victor Frankenstein’: Breathing New Life into the Dead
- Daniel Radcliffe Talks Humps, Gore, and Monsters on the Set of ‘Victor Frankenstein’