James McAvoy: The Movieline Interview
James McAvoy has more than held his own against some of the more domineering screen presences of the last few years, from Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland to Angelina Jolie in Wanted. Now his latest, the semi-biopic The Last Station, drops him into the eye of an ensemble hurricane featuring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer and Paul Giamatti. The 30-year-old-Scotman plays Valentin Bulgakov, an idealistic young Russian recruited to work as the secretary of the saintly, celebrated novelist Leo Tolstoy (Plummer). But what begins as an act of moral conscience soon deteriorates into a hot political mess as Tolstoy's inheritance-obsessed wife Sofya (Mirren) and estate overseer Chertkov (Giamatii) vie for Valentin's loyalty. Which is to say nothing of the young man's Tolstoyan vow of celibacy, which is awfully hard to uphold with the beautiful Masha (Kerry Condon) slinking into his bed in the middle of the night.
These outsized personalities orbit around McAvoy's wide-eyed historical witness, with mixed (at best) overall results. Eschewing his co-stars' theatrics, McAvoy delivers at least one modulated success -- a winning performance in which every embattled optimist will likely see a little bit of him- or herself. He spoke with Movieline this week about his crash-course in Russophilia, annoying Christopher Plummer, and the naughtiness of rumors.
How did this role come to you?
[A producer] was fond of me and just sent me the script. I got it through my agent and read it and liked it. And then we had a conversation largely revolving around his passion for Manchester United and my passion for Celtic Football Club. They were playing each other in the Champions League at the time. Then we got to the script. I told him I loved it -- dearly -- and he said, "OK, do you want to attach yourself, then?" I said, "Er, sure!" Even though I'm not supposed to do it like that; I'm supposed to do it through my agent. We just unofficially met. And then... nothing happened. For like three years. The film just sort of disappeared and went into hibernation. Then all of the sudden, out of the blue, it was back on, and we made it really quickly. In Germany of all places. I guess it's kind of a weird place to film Russia. The German heat of summer -- pretending to be in the Russian winter -- gets very hot. It was fucking boiling. We were wearing like four layers of wool.
But it's that simple, really: I liked the script. I thought it was really funny, which is something I feel is pretty unique. I don't feel like most costume dramas or period historical biopics about great artists of recent history are especially humorous. I mean, it's not a comedy. Don't get me wrong. And also [I wanted] the opportunity to do a great ensemble piece as well. I've done a few things where I was "the lead," and I was in every single scene. It was about two or three characters at the most. This was about a little community, which was quite nice.
Considering how much your career changed in that three-year gap, how did that complicate coming back to this kind of small, somewhat out-of-the-mainstream project?
It didn't really. You just make room for it. They came back to me and said, "Do you want to do it?" I said, "Yeah, I've got nothing planned! Let's do it."
Were you a Tolstoy reader at all?
So how much did you immerse yourself -- or even want to immerse yourself -- in Tolstoy and Russian history for your character?
I immersed myself more in Tolstoy's writings that were coming out around the time that my character would have read them. He writes in his diary that he read War and Peace twice -- nearly. This was a guy who was in love with Tolstoy, and he only read it twice! Nearly. And I loved that about him. But the thing that was more vital to me than anything else was that we had Valentin's diaries: the one he kept for Chertkov, the one he kept for Sofya, the one he kept for himself. And the one he kept for himself is the most precious piece of source material I've ever had for any character. I've never had such a direct link to what the character was thinking. And many of the scenes in the script -- as far-fetched as it seems -- are based on events that actually happened in that house. That was a basic fact: Everybody in that house kept a diary, so there were maybe six different diaries corroborating that an exceptional event happened. Not only do we have that, but we have Valentin going away and maybe a half-hour later -- or an hour later, or a day or two or 10 later -- writing down how he felt about that exact thing. It was an amazing link to this guy.
What kind of balance do you strike, then, between loyalty to that truth and more creative interpretation as an actor?
You do interpret it as an actor, but it felt like the story itself as written was so strong that you didn't have to fuck with stuff too much. Enh, we did, actually. We changed a lot. You always change the language and get more out of the scene. You always come up with your own ideas. But it felt like it was so full and rich anyway. It felt so... high-pitched. It means that Helen Mirren can go crazy and smash plates. It's still big and can still blow the roof off the house, but it's not like, "Fuckin' hell!" Even my character, as much as he's shy and retiring, cries his eyes out at the drop of a hat. It felt so charged that we didn't need to mess with it too much, I don't think.
Valentin begins as this this intensely earnest young utopian, but you can see these seeds of cynicism sprouting as the story progresses. Did that really start this quickly in his life?
He did become more cynical. But as much as he grew to fall out of love with Tolstoyism, it seems, and become more questioning -- more emotionally and intellectually complex, really -- he did still remain a proper Tolstoyan. He ran a Tolstoyan community in the Czech Republic for the rest of his life. He stuck to the cause. But I think he learned to believe that the man and the myth can be two different things. But because Tolstoy is potentially a hypocrite -- or at least contradictory in terms of the way he lives his life versus the great thoughts that come out of his head -- it doesn't make that design for living any less special or incredible. His job was as a thinker.
You could even argue he was more of a hypocrite than this film says and still be truthful. He had illegitimate children running all around that house, even in front of Sofya. Yet he said that celibacy was the only way to truly be a productive member of society. But you've got 13 of your own kids -- 13! -- and fuck knows how many illegitimate children running around. We had a man named Maxim on the set, one of Tolstoy's descendants. He said there are more than 50,000 descendants of Tolstoy today, just because he had so many fucking children. And he forced Sofya to deal with it.
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