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James McAvoy, 2019
Photograph: John Russo

James McAvoy: ‘I'm at the arse-end of my soldiering days’

The Scottish actor on turning 40, Lord Asriel's knitwear and rapping on stage in a radically rebooted West End take on ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’

By Andrzej Lukowski
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Make no mistake: James McAvoy is a straight-up ‘His Dark Materials’ stan.

‘I fucking love it!’ enthuses the Scottish actor, who plays Lord Asriel in the BBC’s blockbuster adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy novels. ‘I’ve read the trilogy three times, I’ve watched the film, I’ve listened to Philip read the audiobook twice and I’ve listened to the BBC radio adaptation three times.’

The two of us are sat in a slightly ramshackle south-east London rehearsal room to talk about his return to the stage in a radical new production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’. But with ‘His Dark Materials’ still the must-see show of the season, the loquacious, sweary, extremely *nice* Hollywood star is happy to talk through his first major TV role since ‘Shameless’.

‘A sort of posh, English, Indiana Jones type is what we were going for,’ he explains of Asriel, enigmatic aristocrat and secret father to heroine Lyra, who pursues him to the frozen north as he becomes dangerously obsessed with the magical substance dust. ‘He comes from a rigid aristocratic society. He’s been fucked by it so hard that he’s now outside of it, but he can’t just suddenly get rid of his manner.’

When McAvoy heard that Pullman’s books were being adapted for the telly, he contemplated both Asriel and American airman Lee Scoresby but assumed people wouldn’t see him as either. ‘I thought: What character can I play? There’s fucking nobody!’ Then he was hanging out with his friend, ‘His Dark Materials’ casting director Kahleen Crawford. She told him that a couple of actors had let them down and they needed to fill the role of Asriel, pronto. McAvoy enthusiastically shared some thoughts on the character. A few days later, he received a phone call: ‘She said: “Do you want to play Lord Asriel on Monday?” This was Friday. And I said yes.’

Thus was launched not only the definitive take on Pullman’s brooding lord, but also numerous think pieces extolling McAvoy’s new silver fox look and, above all, Asriel’s knitwear. I raise this half-jokingly but actually it turns out that McAvoy really does dig his woollies.

‘Recently I got very into tucked-in knitted jumpers with a shirt and tie and [‘His Dark Materials’ director] Tom Hooper thought Asriel should be somebody who always wears a shirt and tie. I was like: I’m up for that.’

McAvoy is a busy chap: in 2019 he has appeared in three major Hollywood films (‘Glass’, ‘Dark Phoenix’ and ‘It Chapter Two’) as well as ‘His Dark Materials’, plus, he’s filmed Asriel’s scenes for the second series of the show (the character isn’t in the second book, but Pullman has written new scenes specially for the show).

Alongside this prodigious feat of scheduling, there’s ‘Cyrano’. Unlike some film stars, McAvoy has managed to remain a semi-regular London stage presence. Over the last ten years he’s only worked with super-director Jamie Lloyd, generally on more leftfield stuff than does on screen: a stunning dual performance as a father and son in ‘Three Days of Rain’ in 2009; a growlingly traumatised 2013 Macbeth; a mad aristocrat in 2015’s ‘The Ruling Class’. Now they’re tackling ‘Cyrano’, Edmond Rostand’s famous rhyming-verse play about a poetic soldier with an upsettingly large nose, who finds himself in a bizarre triangle with his friend Christian and their shared love interest, Roxane.

If you’ve not seen a film or stage version, you’ve probably seen some sort of parody of it: it’s famous for giant fake hooters, musketeer-style tabards, the scene in which a hidden Cyrano feeds Christian his lines to impress Roxane, and for introducing the word ‘panache’ to the English language. This is not that ‘Cyrano’. McAvoy is rocking a feral near-skinhead for the role; the room is full of Asos boxes of costumes; and Asos does not do musketeer tabards (I checked).

McAvoy almost blows a fuse trying to explain what they’re doing about the nose, without actually telling me what they’re doing about the nose (I get the impression they’re just going to pretend it’s there). But in essence, the play is stylistically stripped back, with a fresh translation from Martin Crimp that’s more indebted to hip hop than the usual twee rhymes. ‘We’ve focused on what’s unique about it,’ McAvoy says. ‘The world Rostand creates is one in which people use language as a superpower.’ Sooooo… we’re going to see him rapping? ‘It’s great!’ he laughs. ‘There are bits I feel like I’m doing stand-up; there are times when it feels like fucking beat poetry; there are times when I feel like I’m in a weird rap battle as a 40-year-old white man.’

Speaking of being 40: I wonder how he feels about that milestone?

‘I’m way older than Cyrano,’ he says. ‘The cliché is some guy in his fifties with a moustache, but he is actually a soldier and I’m probably at the arse-end of my soldiering days. I’m the classic guy too old to play the part. I don’t think about being 40 too much; I just like to play my age. Somebody sent me a script the other day and half of it would be me playing a 24-year-old version of myself and they said: “Oh, but you look so young.” I was like: I don’t give a fuck! I’ve lived it; there are other actors out there still living it.’

McAvoy tells me a story about hanging out with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’. He’d just finished ‘Macbeth’, and the two knights were having a ‘Macbeth’-off, quoting lines from the play. They invited him to join in. ‘I couldn’t remember a fucking word of it!’ he says.  ‘And it had only been two weeks!’ James McAvoy is probably never going to be a luvvie. But he’s already a national (fucking) treasure.

Cyrano de Bergerac’ is at the Playhouse Theatre until Feb 29 2020.

‘His Dark Materials’ is on BBC One on Sundays.

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