In Filth, his latest film, McAvoy has ditched his nice-boy image for a full-throttle performance as antihero Bruce Robertson, the corrupt, drug-addicted, bipolar cop at the center of Jon S. Baird‘s darkly comic adaptation of the cult novel by Scottish author Irvine Welsh.
This is McAvoy as you’ve never seen him before: snorting coke, beating witnesses to a pulp, screwing colleagues (figuratively and literally) and snarling (often hilarious) invective at the camera.
“I realize this is casting against type,” McAvoy told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of Filth‘s premiere at the Zurich film festival. “But this was simply one of the best scripts I’d ever read. In the top three. It’s up there with Atonement. A beautiful and harrowing script.”
Baird, who took on the challenge of adapting Welsh’s infamously “unfilmable” novel after several previous attempts had failed, admits McAvoy, who played the lovable faun Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, wasn’t the first actor he thought of for the role.
“I didn’t actually think he’d be interested, and I had a certain image of him, as a sort of charming, middle-class guy next door, you know, who wouldn’t really relate to this material,” says Baird.
It wasn’t until Baird and Welsh met with McAvoy to discuss the part that things clicked.
“Irvine initially had the same idea of James as I did, but we soon realized that he has had this very intense upbringing, he’s a very intelligent guy, very edgy, in this business for the right reason and not starry at all,” recalls Baird. “But what blew me away was when we shared stories, and we both grew up with very similar scenarios where we have quite severe experiences with mental illness. And it was then that I knew he was right for the part, that he would get all the aspects of [the role], the comedy and the depths of despair.”
“I seem to have known an extraordinary number of people who have had to deal with severe mental illness,” McAvoy adds. “So I understood this character [Bruce Robertson]. I knew how to play him. I’m not saying it was easy, but I knew I could do it.”
McAvoy has starring roles in two studio tentpoles coming up — reprising his role as Charles Xavier in X-Men: Days of Future Past and playing Victor von Frankenstein in 20th Century Fox’s Frankenstein from director (and fellow Scot) Paul McGuigan. Many actors, when they reach his level in Hollywood, start to play it safe, taking roles designed to appeal to their loyal fan base. With Filth — and to a lesser extent recent releases Trance and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her — McAvoy has chosen instead to try and take his fans with him to places they might never think to go.
“I think that anybody who likes my work and comes and sees this and doesn’t like it, hopefully, they’ll still go to see X-Men,” McAvoy jokes. “Hopefully they won’t hold it against me. But the good thing about having a fan base, if at all I have one, is that you are able to introduce them to things they might not usually see.”
So far, the fans are coming along for the ride. Filth opened at number one in Scotland, taking in more than $400,000 at the local box office, beating out Scottish openings for X-Men: First Class, Wanted and Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting, till now the most famous, and successful, Irvine Welsh adaptation.
“I think it proves Scotland is a country that has the confidence to laugh at itself,” says Baird. “This isn’t a film that’s making fun of Scotland. It isn’t a satire. It’s actually a tragic love story starring Scotland’s greatest actor from a novel by, in my opinion, Scotland’s greatest writer.”
Filth opens wide across the U.K. this weekend and across much of Europe this month. We’ll see how far McAvoy, and his fans, are willing to go.