In the animated family film Arthur Christmas, hitting theaters on November 23rd, actor James McAvoy voices Arthur, the awkward but enthusiastic youngest son to Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent). When the ultra-high-tech Christmas gift delivery system fails, missing one child out of hundreds of millions, Arthur embarks on a rogue mission, with the help of his rather naughty Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and a giftwrapping-obsessed elf (Ashley Jensen), to deliver the last present before Christmas morning.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, James McAvoy talked about his desire to want to do more films for kids because they’re the best audience around, that he responded to the integrity and humor in the story, the challenge of voicing a character that is always so enthusiastic and nice, and that, if given the choice, he would likely go with the simple and classic ways of doing things versus the high-tech ones. He also talked about how freaky it was to watch even 10 minutes of the Showtime remake of Shameless (he starred in the original), his hopes for the X-Men: First Class sequel, which has not been greenlit yet, the amazing experience he’s had working with director Danny Boyle on Trance, for which he has one day left of shooting, how good the action-thriller Welcome to the Punch turned out, and shooting the fantastic but twisted script for Irvine Welsh’s Filth, starting in January 2012. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: Since you’ve been asked a lot of questions already today, I’ll ask the most important off-subject question first – Have you seen Showtime’s remake of Shameless, at all?
JAMES McAVOY: No, not yet, I’m afraid. Actually, my wife and I must have watched about 10 minutes of the very first episode and it was kinda freaky, so we decided not to watch anymore. It was too strange watching people do lines that we ad-libbed that weren’t even in the script. It was just stuff that we would improvise. When my character, Steve, dropped his pants, bared his ass and slapped his bum in the face of a bouncer, that wasn’t in the script. I did that on the night. And yet, there it is in this new series. It’s really, really strange. It was the same director, as well.
How did Arthur Christmas come about for you? What was it about this story that appealed to you?
McAVOY: First of all, I got to be a part of a Christmas movie. As I get older, I want to do more films for kids because they’re the best audience around. Just putting a smile on a kid’s face is the best thing. Also, I just thought the script was so funny and so strong. It had a big spine going through it that had integrity and it was about something. Yeah, it’s a piece of entertainment and has Christmas love, but it’s actually got a little bit of topicality about it as well. It’s riffing off that feeling that Christmas has become too financially incentivized, and is all just about the marketing and the big machine that you can’t get in the way of. It’s somehow lost its integrity and the true spirit of what it is to take part in Christmas, which is generosity, really. It riffs off that, which is quite nice.
At the heart of every really good Christmas movie is the threat, I suppose, to Christmas. Something is wrong with Christmas, in all of these movies. In The Polar Express, there’s a kid that doesn’t really believe, and that’s the threat to Christmas. In Santa Claus: The Movie, jealousy and greed are threatening to overrun his Christmas. In this movie, the threat and the thing that’s in danger is Christmas’ integrity and spine because the machine has taken over. In a corporate machine with a success rate of 99.99999999% is wonderful, but that still means that one kid didn’t get a present, so Christmas is kaput.
Do you normally have such enthusiasm for the holidays, or was it difficult to keep up such a level of enthusiasm, in voicing Arthur?
McAVOY: It was difficult to keep up such an unwavering enthusiasm and high levels of anxiety, at the same time. He’s so nice. He’s unbearably nice. (Director) Sarah Smith’s note to me was, “Keep making him nicer! Smile more!” I said, “Isn’t that going to get really annoying?” So yes, that was quite difficult for me to make him so nice. But, I love Christmas. I never used to. I didn’t hate it, but I could take it or leave it. But, as I got to the age of 25 or 26, Christmas became quite a big deal, and I love it now. I love the food, and I love sharing time with people.
This film really shows that the new high-tech ways of doing things aren’t always better then the old-fashioned ones, and that sometimes you even need a combination of both. Do you feel that you’re much of a high-tech guy yourself, or do you prefer the classic ways of doing things that have always been proven to work?
McAVOY: I think I prefer the classic ways. But then, I get in a brand new car with [satellite navigation], and I’m talking to you on a Bluetooth, hands-free kit right now, and it’s fantastic. I love it. I’m on Cloud 9 with it. But, if I had to choose, I’d probably go with the simpler ways. It’s just that thing where, if you don’t get on board with gadgetry and technology, it’s about being left behind. It’s not that it’s necessarily better, or that you like it more. It’s just about what everybody else is doing.
I don’t do Facebook and I don’t do Twitter, and already I notice that, with some of my friends, there’s a whole sphere of conversation that I’m completely on the outside of, and that’s my choice. But, to a greater extent, that’s what the whole of life is like. There have been moves like that, from telephones to televisions to the kind of transport that people are using to the iPads that people are using to the way people watch the news. As long as we try to stay true to what those things are actually there to do, instead of just getting excited about technology, hopefully we won’t lose our soul.
Have you heard anything about when a sequel to X-Men: First Class might happen, and have you thought about where you’d like to see the story go?
McAVOY: I’ve heard a little bit about what’s happening. The director has got a fantastic idea for what the story will be. I can’t really tell you what it is because we may or may not make that, but we’ve got to do something intelligent with it. I can’t speak for Michael’s character, but for my character, he’s got some major shit to deal with. He’s just been paralyzed and he’s been betrayed by the person who he’s probably come to care about more than anybody else in the world, and he’s the guy who did it to him.
That’s a huge thing that we have to deal with and we need to see that. If we don’t see that, I feel like it would just totally wallpaper over the fact that this guy has been completely physically compromised. That’s an important thing for me. Other than that, I don’t know. We’re still waiting for Fox to greenlight it. I think what they’re doing really well is that they’re not just rushing ahead and making another one because it did well. They are just trying to get a decent story together. If they don’t get a decent story together, then we probably won’t do another one because it can be a stand-alone film. We shouldn’t just make another one because we want to make some money. There needs to be a good script there.
When will you start shooting Filth?
McAVOY: I’m going to start that in January, up in Glasgow.
Irvine Welsh’s stories are a bit twisted. What was it about that film that interested you, and can you identify with that sense of humor?
McAVOY: Yeah, definitely. I can identify with it, wholeheartedly. His voice and his sense of humor is so unique, and it’s unique in Scotland. It’s not like everybody has that in Scotland. We appreciate it more in Scotland, I think, because of the vernacular, but he’s so unique. He has such an idiosyncratic voice. If they’re asking you to do it, and you can help get it made, and you’re Scottish, you should bloody do it. Beyond that, it’s an incredible role for me, which is something unlike anything I’ve ever done and a massive challenge for me. One I hope I don’t dash myself on.
It’s a fantastic script. There have been scripts for Filth floating about for years, and they’ve not been good enough. But our director, Jon Baird, has taken this and he’s really pushed it and shoved it to make it a film. It’s never been a film before, really, on the page. This is a fantastic example of an adaptation, and it’s just a really, really good script. So, all those things were really appealing to me. It is such an out-there role that I have to just throw myself into. It could be fucking terrifying.
McAVOY: I’ve got one more day left on Trance, in France, next week and then that will be done. That’s been a fantastic experience.
What’s it been like to work with director Danny Boyle?
McAVOY: He’s amazing. He pushes it, so much. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries and asking for more, and being creative and inventive and investigative. He is exhaustingly energetic and inspiring. The other good thing about the movie is the cast. We’ve got an amazing cast, with Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson, and they’ve just been lovely to work with. On a personal level and professionally, he’s just really special. The film is a real mind-bender, and it takes a lot of everybody being on it, so that nothing slips through the cracks. It is one of those films where, very easily, you can get confused about what you’re doing. But, we’ve had an excellent time.
How did Welcome to the Punch turn out, and who are you playing in that?
McAVOY: I play a guy called Max Lewinsky, who is a cop that is obsessed with this guy who got away from him and disabled him quite significantly as well. It’s about him and that guy, not settling their differences, but redefining the world so that they can actually live with both of them still alive in it. It’s an interesting action-thriller, buddy movie sort of thing. The director of that film (Eran Creevy) is exceptionally talented and so organized, and like Danny Boyle with his enthusiasm. He’s a scriptwriter as well, and he’s written a fantastic script. It’s a really good story. It’s also an example of something that we don’t really do well in Britain – an action-thriller movie. He just said, “Fuck it, we can do that.” It’s really, really good.
Now that you’ve been navigating the business for awhile, has it gotten any easier to tune out the pressures and expectations that come with success, or does it become more difficult to take risks in projects when everyone is so focused on what you’re doing now?
McAVOY: Yeah, it is difficult because everyone is watching now. You can’t fail in secret, or quietly. It’s a public failure and people notice. It’s not that I’m saying people rejoice in tearing you down. Not at all. But, people notice. They go, “What a disappointment,” and that’s the worst thing, to disappoint people. So, it makes taking risks riskier. But, I’m taking probably the biggest risk of my career in playing the part in Filth. If you stop taking risks, then you get bored, or you just keep playing the same part, over and over again. Eventually audiences get bored of that, as well.