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James McAvoy 2013
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

James McAvoy on 'Macbeth'

As he prepares to take the lead role in Shakespeare’s story of one man’s bloody bid for the throne of eleventh-century Scotland, the actor gives us a ‘Macbeth’ tutorial

‘You need to believe in magic, you need to believe that horrible things will happen if you kill a saintly figure, a king. You need to believe that Macbeth will fall. And you need to believe Shakespeare’s language, that when he says horses will eat each other, they will. Sometimes people go, “Oh, it’s Shakespeare, when he says horses are eating each other, what does he actually mean?” Well, he means fucking horses eating each other.

‘It’s a world where people believe in magic and believe that omens in the sky and the guts of birds can tell you things that are happening. And it’s a dark world where there are less people. It isn’t just some cool sci-fi dystopia with shiny walls. Violence is normal; hands-on, tearing-people’s-bodies-open violence. Fuck me, Shakespeare is really violent, incredibly violent. I don’t know how you could do “Macbeth” without being incredibly violent.

‘Macbeth is going to hell. He’s not only a liar, he’s a murderer and he’s thinking: I need to keep lying so that I don’t get caught. So it’s not just about Macbeth’s ambition, it’s him thinking: I can’t get caught! Not just because he wants to get away with it because he’s a baddy, but because if he’s caught then he’ll have to confront the mirror everybody will hold up to him. He’ll need to look at himself and go, “I’m a murderer”. He believes, “If I can just end it all, if I can just get rid of Duncan, it’ll be cool and we can get on with our lives.” ‘But then he kills Duncan and, “Fuck! That doesn’t happen and I should have known that because I know what it is to kill somebody. I know that things don’t work like that. So, right, I just need to move Banquo away because once he’s gone I don’t need to look at myself any more. Because Banquo knows me, understands me, and in him I can see myself. I can’t escape myself – because when I look in his eyes I see what a cunt I am. So I need to get rid of him and we’re going to be fine.” But when Banquo’s gone, then it’s: “Macduff! Every time I look at Macduff I fucking know that he knows…”

‘It’s not just about Macbeth’s ambition. It’s about trying to unburden yourself of guilt by killing another human. And it’s domestic in some ways. I don’t mean we all sit down and have a cup of tea and talk about killing Duncan. But this is a play about two people who are married and who had a kid who died. People think Lady Macbeth is a baddy who convinces him to do bad things against his better nature but it’s not true. He comes back from a war in which he’s committed crimes against humanity. He has done incredibly bad things and he comes back to the castle and says to his wife: “I’m a good guy, what do you mean you want me to kill Duncan, it’s bollocks!” Because he’s just unmade hundreds of men. He has become his own god. He has stopped nature. He has stopped life, and not just like a little bit, just sticking his knife in somebody’s heart, or whatever: with his own hands he’s ripped people open and he’s got inside them and he has taken people’s heads off and he has stuck them up for everybody to see. ‘So Macbeth knows what it is to kill: he’s killed hundreds of times. But when he goes in to kill Duncan, he hears voices. Not voices in his head: this is 1044, this is magic, the fucking occult. This is Satan saying “You’re fucking mine now”. He hears this voice saying “You will never sleep again. You will never ever sleep again you have murdered sleep, you have killed sleep”. And he goes “Holy shit!” and is understandably freaked out by that. When he come out his wife goes, “Why have you still got the knives? You’re meant to leave them in the fucking room so that when everybody finds Duncan’s dead body they will say it was his own people, his own guards, his own servants that did it! You’ve got to go and put them back.” And Macbeth says, “I’m not putting them back, I’m fucking terrified!” She goes, “Right, I’ll go and do it, then.” She goes back in, she stabs Duncan to get blood on the knives and then puts them on the body. ‘Anyway, next day comes along and Macduff finds Duncan’s body and says to Macbeth, “Go in and see, it’s fucking horrible!” And I have a look and I see what my wife has done. I stabbed him in the heart, I killed him. But she’s ripped him open. And it’s like these gashed stabs, as they are described; it’s not a bullet to the head. This is a world in which to kill somebody is a tactile thing. It’s as tactile as making love. Because you have to get inside somebody and what happens when you put a knife in somebody enough times? Do you stop? Or do you [makes a stabbing action] keep going like that? When you really get into unmaking nature, let’s see what’s inside you! That’s why it was so important to me not to go, “Right: Macduff and Macbeth square up at the end with a couple of machine guns.” It’s got to be about the fact that I am physically unmaking God’s work. ‘It’s not a classic goody who’s gone bad. It’s not as simple as that. But he’s still a protagonist at the beginning. He is still somebody you can identify with and sympathise with, but there comes a point in the play where he fucking does something so horrific and so bad that you go, “Oh my God, I don’t think I can stay with you any more I don’t think I understand you any more, I don’t think I can be with you any more.”

‘I can’t help but laugh and I’m horrified by this, but I can’t help laughing. I feel horrible, not because I’m laughing: I feel horrible inside, I feel horror-stricken, but I can’t help but laugh in the scene where I’m killing the kid. Not when I’m acting it, but around it, I get really giggly. And it’s not because I want to do it, it’s not because I’m into killing kids, it’s not because I’m into killing at all! And it’s not because I’m so excited by the theatrical prospect of it, it’s not even that, it’s just that I think that my nervous reaction to it is to laugh and I can’t help but laugh.

‘Macbeth does something so terrible [the killing of Lady Macduff and her child] that even if we do still understand and empathise, even if we are still able to connect, we look at him and feel, “You’ve got to stop! You’ve got to be ended!” And Macduff comes on: here’s the guy who needs to do it, because he’s been so wronged and we have such empathy for him and therefore rest of the play just seems to go immovably to the end. It’s inevitable and it’s weirdly cathartic that Macbeth is ended. I’m talking shit, but do you know what I mean?'
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