Rapid Round: James McAvoy on the Challenges of Portraying 'Split' Personalities, Importance of Keeping Movie Secrets

The actor also discusses how the story is a backward supervillain tale and shares his plans to return to the stage.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In M. Night Shyamalan's new supernatural thriller Split, James McAvoy plays a creepy kidnapper with multiple personalities — a number of which emerge over the course of the film. At least two of McAvoy's lead character Kevin's "23 identities" have been teased in the trailers for Split: Hedwig, a 9-year-old boy, and someone who wears women's clothes.

As fans of Shyamalan's films might expect, the movie features a number of twists and surprises, but McAvoy wasn't about to reveal any of them in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, sharing his own experience with Black Swan as an indication of the importance of seeing something unexpected.

The actor, who's perhaps best known for playing Charles Xavier in the X-Men movies, did reveal how much he enjoyed working with Shyamalan and addressed the challenges of trying to inhabit various identities onscreen.

What attracted you to this role and working with M. Night Shyamalan?

It was the opportunity. Getting to play one of the characters would have been a fun and interesting thing for me to do as an actor, but to get to do that nine times, with nine different, interesting and dynamic characters, seemed like a great opportunity. I thought it was really well-written, and it kept doing that thing of, every time a question was answered, it was answered with another question, so there was constant reveals all the way along, which I thought was a really fun way of storytelling, and I just thought it would be a challenge, to be honest with you. It would either be something either really good or really bad, but it probably wouldn't live somewhere in between and kind of in that place where I'd like to be as a performer. Add in to that, talking to Night, we got along very well, and we had very similar ideas about what the characters would be like, but also our approach to storytelling and how we go about our day, so we were quite in sync with each other. It seemed like it would be a good experience, so I jumped in, and thankfully it was, it was an absolutely fantastic experience.

How involved were you in terms of coming up with the personalities and working with Shyamalan on that?

Night had already finished the script. [And] I got [involved with the project] fairly late, so it was my job to realize and execute what he'd done on paper. I took a couple of the characters in a slightly different direction to what they were on the page, but it was a solid script. And he's the kind of director where he wants to make his movie as it is on the page — he doesn't want you improvising your way through the film. He wants it done like a play. He wants the words respected, and I really enjoyed that. Because most movies you're on, the director — at various points, if not quite often — is asking you to make some shit up and improvise your way around the scene and hopefully come up with something else that might help elevate it. … Your job when you're an actor onstage, although you've got to respect the words pretty religiously, your job is to forget the script exists and make it feel like it belongs to you completely.

You said you took a couple of the characters in a different direction, can you elaborate on that?

I wanted Hedwig to be, nothing major, but I wanted Hedwig to be — he's a 9-year-old boy, right? But I wanted it to be that he was actually in a state of arrested development. So he was constantly trying to grow up. So unlike the rest of the personalities that reside within Kevin's body, he's not been allowed to grow, he's not been allowed to age, really. He's not been allowed to have a fulfilling adult life, so what makes him funny is actually that, as well. It's funny when a kid tries to act older than they are, but for me, it was actually quite sad because he's not allowed to grow up. And there are reasons for that that are quite strong. Nothing really becomes apparent to the audience, but it was important for me playing the part. Someone like Barry, I don't want to give too much away, but it's not really Barry, you know what I mean? It's someone else playing Barry. I just got really into the idea of a straight guy trying to play a gay guy and actually the truth of that not being that subtle.

How much of the appeal with this project was due to this being a villainous role, which is sort of a departure from what we usually see from you?

I don't know if that was part of the appeal, to be honest with you. I don't really see him as a villain. But I'm probably being blanker than ridiculous in saying that. I had massive sympathy for him. It wasn't due to him being a villain. But it is fun to play the antagonist and to play the aggressor and the guy that's trying to upset the status quo.

This movie has been very mysterious — there are a lot of twists and turns and spoilers. How much of a challenge was it for you, personally, keeping the secrets and all of those things under wraps?

It's difficult doing a press junket when you're talking about a film that you're not allowed to talk about. That's always a challenge. But you've just got to stick to your guns, really. You've just got to stick to your guns and say, "Nope." Even if people say we won't release this until months after the movie's out of the theater — screw that. No way. I saw Black Swan like nine months after it came out in the cinema, and I just thought it was a film about a ballet dancer, so I was so amazingly lucky to get that experience. And I think that experience should be protected. A major part of storytelling is keeping stuff a surprise.

Was there one personality or scene that was more challenging than other parts of making the movie?

I'm not trying to be reductive here, but wandering around in high heels playing [one of the characters] was really f—ing hard. And everybody had assured me that I was wearing very comfortable high heels, and all the women on set were like, "You're actually wearing really comfortable high heels, dude." They were killing me. That was difficult physically. And artistically, the hardest part was playing the character that comes up at the end — the much-talked-about, avenging character at the end. He was difficult because he couldn't just be a bad guy, but he also couldn't be an over-the-top, monstrous villain. He had to be somewhat in between that. It was just hard to find that balance that would make it definite that he wasn't a normal guy, but he wasn't so mental that we would think, "What is he? Should he put on a costume and have superpowers?" So that was pretty tricky. [That character] was probably the most difficult. And also giving him a voice that was other, that was a bit different from that of a normal human being. At the same time, he's not just going "mwahahaha." That was challenging.

You've done a fair amount of stage work in the past. Do you have any plans to return to the theater?

Yep, definitely. I was meant to play something this year, but we quickly discovered, the director and I, that there were like a million other productions of it happening in London this year as well, so we put that on the back burner, and we'll save it for a few years. I'm thinking of doing something else next year, a modern translation of a classic piece. So, yeah, there are a few plans. And I love being onstage. When you're in a good play, it's the best thing to be in. A good production of a good play is the purest form of what I get to do as an actor.

What do you hope people will take away from this movie?

I hope they're entertained for two hours. I hope they're scared out of their wits. Because that's what it is, it's a piece of entertainment. But it's got a fairly strong message in it, as well, that Night's pushing pretty hard, that is pretty much the backbone of any superhero or supervillain movie, which is: Terrible things happened to me, and then I became Batman, or terrible things happened to me, and then I became the Joker. And then, I think, this film just explores it in a back-to-front way. He's superhuman, show the tragedy, and then show the genesis of the superhero and the backstory of the superhero. We kind of do that backwards. We reveal the trauma at the end, and we reveal that the villains and the heroes and the antagonist and the antagonized are actually way more similar than we thought. And yes, I hope they get that, and I hope they enjoy that message.