A fondness for flawed characters

James McAvoy doesn't look like a traditional movie star. He's not tall, dark or classically handsome. In fact, the 28-year-old Scotsman is rather slight and talks in a brogue so thick at times it makes you desperate for a translator.

But the Glasgow native has that indefinable something that makes him eminently fascinating to watch on screen. With that kind of presence and his flurry of recent movies (six in the last two years), he's bound to soon become better known in this country.


American movie audiences first took notice of him as the charming faun Mr. Tumnus in 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then again late last year as the ambitious young doctor to Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (a "weak, despicable human being," he says of his character).

He'll be seen this year in the romantic comedies Starter for Ten and Penelope and the August dramas Becoming Jane and Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel.


On this unseasonably warm Sunday morning, McAvoy is sipping hot peppermint tea in the lounge at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif. Flashing his Paul Newman eyes under his Patrick Dempsey hair, he fidgets with his oversized wedding band, sliding it up and down his finger during the conversation. The fact is, he's not used to wearing it.

"I got married last week," McAvoy says rather quietly. "I got married to a beautiful actress named Anne-Marie Duff I met on the set [of the TV series] Shameless. We've been together for about two years."

But Duff, who is nine years his senior, didn't join him for this Los Angeles media tour for his new films; she's in London working on a movie. "Doing press is my honeymoon," he says with a smile.

McAvoy hails from a working-class family in Glasgow. His parents divorced when he was young. His sister went to live with his mother, and McAvoy stayed with his grandparents. When asked about his parents, he is unusually mum. "They were around," he says flatly.

After introducing himself at age 15 to Scottish actor David Hayman, who was visiting his class, McAvoy received a call from the actor about four months later to see if he'd like to audition for a role in the film The Near Room.

"It was about child prostitution," says McAvoy. "I was playing the son of one of the major pimps."

He later attended drama school in Glasgow for nearly three years and began a theater career in Scotland. At 20, he ventured down to London where he began to get small parts in movies and television.

"It's been gradual," he says. "I played a lot of tiny things; you would take anything you got offered. It gives you a great education in playing many different characters. A lot of people, they do their first film and it's the lead role. It's like, what are you going to do now? Everything has been slowly, slowly getting better -- slightly better scripts and in slightly better productions."


McAvoy prefers playing flawed people. "I understand those people more," he explains. He even looked to the flaws for his role as a bright freshman on a university's quiz show team in Starter for Ten.

"He might be a geek, but he still fancies himself," says McAvoy. "To me he's quite selfish."

McAvoy is taking some time off -- and may get that belated honeymoon -- before he starts shooting Wanted, a fantasy-thriller based on a comic book, in April.

"Up until two years ago, my grandparents thought I wasn't working and that I was in danger of going starving," he says, laughing. But when they saw him in Narnia on television, their worries were over.

"I think they are over the moon really," he says with obvious delight.

Susan King writes for the Los Angeles Times.