We chat with James McAvoy about Danny Boyle’s heist thriller

James McAvoy is an incredibly busy man; Trance marks the actor’s second leading role in a month, after Eran Creeny’s Welcome to the Punch. In between his stints on radio and the West End stage, Movies.ie grabbed McAvoy for a quick chat about Trance, Danny Boyle and sideburns.

What drew you to the film?
James McAvoy: Danny Boyle is more than enough really, to get started with. Before I had even read the script I was fairly certain that I would be saying yes, even if it was a pure sham of a part, but then I read the script, of course, and I realised it wasn’t a bad script either, so that was good [laughs]. The opportunity to play a character who takes you away from the stuff that I have usually done, which is very much the good guy… But introduce yourself as the good guy to the audience, and then f*** with them a little bit is good fun [laughs] it’s quite nice, toying with the audience’s allegiance and affections; making them think you’re one thing and then revealing you’re another. To be honest, that’s what all three of the characters do, really… Numerous times throughout the film, we all switch places in terms of who’s the goodie, who’s the baddie, who’s the one stuck in the middle. It’s what Danny does do brilliantly; he makes a film which shakes genre, it shakes character dynamic, it shakes its pace throughout the whole thing, so that you think you’re watching a heist movie, then you’re watching a psychological thriller, then you’re watching a ménage á trois movie or something… In the hands of a lesser director that could be annoying or confusing, but in his hands its thrilling and captivating.

Simon is a very multi-faceted character, as an actor, was that part of the appeal?
JMcA: Yeah! You look at your career, and you hope that you get to play different types of people in every movie and to get the opportunity, in one movie, to play different types of people is fantastic, and not just show somebody who, through a dramatic event, changes dramatically once, but show a guy who changes dramatically three or four times is bloody brilliant [laughs]. That was a real treat.

How did you find a balance for the character?
JMcA: I don’t really know… You just read the story and you try and serve the story – I think this is a really crap answer, but it’s true – you try and do what the story demands at that particular time. It’s just a question of story appreciation and execution and pulling yourself back if you feel that you are giving too much away too soon. That was one of the big challenges of the part; because there are three or four major twists in the characters nature – and they come as big revelations to the audience – it was really important not too give away too much too early, and pre-empt those lovely reveals. So if you find yourself in a scene, and just playing it truthfully, and everything is very real and exciting and captivating and you think ‘My god, this is working’, but you just keep doing something that is a bit too much of a signpost, whether it was truthful or not, you had to just jettison it until later in the movie. That was really the biggest challenges of playing the character, but it was an enjoyable and educational challenge.

There is a scene in the film, where Simon climbs onto a ledge, which is improvised… Can you tell us how that came about?
JMcA: That was one of the things that, as much as I didn’t want to give anything away, you still have to feed in little signposts along the way, so that when you do have a reveal that says ‘This character is totally different from anything you thought he was before’, there are little moments leading up to it that allow the audience to believe it. That was one of them; as much as I wanted the audience to think he is a nice guy and a total victim and he’s in way over his head, there is also something a little bit crazy about this guy. I said to Danny ‘We’re on this roof, I feel like I should do something… Like he has this instinct just to end it all. Why don’t I jump up on the ledge of the building?’ He was very excited by the idea, but the producer and the line producer told me I couldn’t do it because of insurance and we didn’t have any stunt people, we didn’t have any harnesses, we didn’t have any ropes. We really weren’t prepared for it… If I had told them a couple of weeks before, I could have done it. I was really disappointed and I thought ‘F*** it, I’ll just do it’ but then they came down like a ton of bricks and said ‘You cannot do it. Do not do it. You could shut the whole film down. If you get hurt, if you die that’s it; film’s over’ and I thought ‘Oh great, thanks very much’ [laughs] Then they were setting up to do the take and it was ‘Lights, camera, sound speed…’ and the next word should have been ‘Action’ but Danny just looked at me and really quietly whispered ‘Yeah go on, do it!’ and so I did it. I was really chuffed that I did it [laughs] because it really needed it. Weirdly we came back about a year later to do some pick ups on the film, and they wanted to get some footage of that scene, so of course when we did it that time, we had a stuntman and we had safety wires and all that kind of stuff. The first time around, where we got the main bit of the footage, I just jumped up and did it. The weird thing is, when I was doing it… I have done stuff like that a lot in movies, where I have risked a little bit to get a good shot, but this is the first time I’ve done it as a dad and I was like ‘WOOOOOAH!! I don’t think I should be doing this too much any more!’ [laughs]

You read for a part in another Danny Boyle film, many years ago…
JMcA: Yeah 28 Days Later

So how did it feel to finally work with Danny Boyle?
JMcA: Yeah! F*** him! Finally won him over! [laughs] I just went in and read it a couple of times, and he phones me the next day and I had got the part, which was niiiice!

You mentioned that you are known for playing the ‘nice guy’ but with Filth and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Hers coming out this year that might all change. Was it a conscious decision to explore darker characters?
JMcA: It’s just what seems to be coming up for me at the moment… Eleanor Rigby isn’t such a bad guy… He’s not a nice guy, but it’s a much more normal film. It’s about two sort of average people, who have something exceptional happen to them. The two people in those two movies are much more identifiable, I think. Filth, Welcome to the Punch and Trance, they’re much darker and less likeable. Although Filth, I think he’s quite likeable. He’s shocking and quite horrible and horrific at times, but I think he’s quite likeable [laughs]. I feel for him. Yeah it seems to be just what was coming to me, and also I have always said to myself ‘As long as I am getting to explore myself as an actor through versatility and increase my range, I’ll be really happy’. As much as I have always played nicer people, my career’s always afforded me that opportunity. I don’t feel like I’ve had to retrace my steps in terms of character types too much, and this year has just been an extension of that and hopefully, next year will be something different again.

At the moment you are in the radio version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere on BBC 4, you’re playing MacBeth on the stage in London and you have two films in cinemas, so you are covering most bases as an actor. Which is your favourite medium?
JMcA: If I am good play, I would rather be in a good play than a good film, but I would much much much rather be in a bad film than a bad play, because you don’t have to sit in front of an audience who are physically, emotionally and with all their body telling you that they don’t like what you’re doing, night after night in a stage play. Also, it pays better! So I would much rather be in a bad film than a bad play, but if it’s going to be a good version of either, I would rather be in a good stage play. I just wish it would pay the same as film! [laughs]

I know you can’t tell us anything about X-Men
JMcA: I can tell you a little bit about X-Men, it’s set in the 70s. I’m going to have sideburns – Woo! – love a sideburn! [laughs]

And other than all the projects we have discussed, what’s next for you?
JMcA: Other than that, what’s next for me? I don’t know. That’s probably going to take me up to the end of the year. I am definitely having a holiday at the end of the year. I really don’t know, it’s too far away, by the time I finish X-Men, it will probably be September. I think Filth will be out at the end of the year…

Words: Brogen Hayes