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Q&A: James McAvoy on Giving Life to “VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN”

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James McAvoy, the Scottish actor who plays the British title character in VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (opening November 25 from Fox), recalls a disagreement he had with the film’s costume designer Jany Temime over what the corpse-resurrecting scientist should wear. “Jany is a fantastic costume designer, she’s Oscar-winning, she’s incredible—but she came in with a whole idea for my character, which I didn’t share, so I put my foot down on that.

“She wanted me to wear a lot of check [plaid]. I said, ‘Guys, I’m a Scottish person pretending to be English, and you’re trying to put me in basically my Scottish national dress. I don’t think it’s a good idea [laughs]. “I felt that check/plaid/tartan is quite a friendly pattern, and that would be wrong for somebody as potentially dangerous as Victor—as how I approached Victor, anyway. I didn’t want anything comforting on him.”

As it happens, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN director Paul McGuigan is a fellow Scot. “We’re actually from the same city, we’re both from Glasgow,” McAvoy explains, “but I don’t really think it was too Scottish in its approach. We’ve got a fairly similar vocabulary in terms of where we’re from, but also in terms of the work. We were both very honest with each other from day one, really, and that was sort of helpful. I don’t believe it was aided by the fact that we’re both Scottish, but it is quite nice to be with other Scottish people sometimes. There’s not that many of us—only five million—so it’s nice to get to hang out with somebody from your hometown.”

VICTORFRANKENMCAVOY1Speaking by phone from London, where he’s been relaxing with his children for a few months before heading to Philadelphia to work on M. Night Shyamalan’s new chiller SPLIT, McAvoy reveals that he didn’t start out as a FRANKENSTEIN fan. “I’ve never seen [the James Whale FRANKENSTEIN]. I’ve watched YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN—people had said how incredible it is and how it’s one of the finest pieces of comedy—but that was it. I had read the novel FRANKENSTEIN before, but again, rather shockingly, I wasn’t that much of a fan of it. So it doesn’t sound like I was a perfect candidate to play Victor. But I got there.

“I do have a love for the idea and the story behind it, and I think that’s what we stick to in our version,” he continues. “We don’t adhere to Mary Shelley’s original in terms of the ins and outs, but in terms of its spirit and its themes of man becoming God or replacing God, and should we do that just because we can. That was what we were aiming for, as Shelley was.”

McAvoy’s involvement with VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN began, he recalls, when “I was making X-MEN [DAYS OF FUTURE PAST] in Montreal, playing a fairly dysfunctional version of Charles Xavier. He was also a maverick, kind of hung over and messed up, and I think they thought, ‘That sounds like what we want our Victor Frankenstein to be’ [laughs]. So they offered me the part. I met Paul McGuigan, we chatted and hit it off pretty quickly, and shared similar views of how the character should be portrayed. So it was really a no-brainer from there on.”

As for how he sees Victor as a character, McAvoy relates, “The personification of obsession. That’s one of the things the book is about. It’s more than man replacing God, it’s about the pursuit of that which you’re obsessed by. He is fixated on the idea that he can create life from death and life from nothing, like he does in the book. But in our film, he’s also obsessed with the idea that he can somehow put right a misery that he and his family had to suffer. That’s what the film adds to the mix, beyond what Mary Shelley wrote. It gives him a personal motivation, whereas in the book, the obsession seems to be just taken for granted—that’s the way he is.

“And then I’d say he’s slightly mentally ill, dysfunctional and manic-depressive at times—bipolar. There are little things [that suggest] he is in the book as well, in the first half, anyway. And then he somehow becomes cured; he sort of has a vacation and then comes back going, ‘Oh, I’m glad I had that, I’m all sorted now—oh, what do you mean, the monster lived? Oh, well, better go kill it.’ In the movie, we keep him manically disturbed pretty much all the way through. That was something I was really keen to make sure we got across—that he isn’t just crazy, that the original mad scientist isn’t just a mad scientist, he is mentally imbalanced. I wanted to be clear that it isn’t just zany behavior for the sake of it; it comes from somewhere. The script [by Max Landis] provided me the opportunity to base it on bereavement, grief, and I felt, ‘I’ll run with that as hard as I can.’ ”

Speaking of running, McAvoy did a fair amount of his own stuntwork on VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN. “I’ve gotten to do quite a bit in my career. Not in the X-MEN movies so much, because my character isn’t really that kind of guy [Charles Xavier is paraplegic], but up till then, I’d done a lot, so it was nice to get back to that on FRANKENSTEIN. I even got to do a slow-motion running leap and fly through the air, which was great fun. We had incredible sets, and I felt it would be great if we could show the audience around these incredible locations and demonstrate that these people are very physical as well as cerebral and locked up in their minds. Victor has so much mental energy that it’s actually bursting out of him in a need to move, and that seemed to feel right.”

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Besides intentionally bringing new life to creatures assembled from body parts, Victor essentially performs the same act with his assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), who has previously suffered in slavery at a circus. The question is whether Victor is aware of what he’s doing when it comes to his new colleague. “He kind of is aware,” McAvoy muses, “because he likes to create. He’s as much an artist as he is a scientist, and as much a sculptor as an engineer, and I think he sees Igor as a work in progress. As well as, at the forefront of it all, he gets something he really needs out of Igor, and is manipulating him for his own gain. But at the same time, as a side project, he’s enjoying the sort of rags-to-riches story he’s writing in front of his own eyes. It’s like a Victorian English TRADING PLACES. Of course, he sort of falls in love with the guy along the way. [Igor] becomes his best and only friend.”

Despite Victor’s gruesome activities, there is a good deal of levity in VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, McAvoy notes. “The film is a drama, but he also has much more of a sense of humor than we normally associate with Victor Frankenstein. Max wrote some really good stuff, some great one-liners. We improvised as much as we could, and nine times out of 10, it wound up on the cutting-room floor, but every now and again, we’d get a little bit of gold that stayed in, along with the great stuff Max had written.”

One of McAvoy’s ad-libs that made the cut was Victor’s explanation of why his creature should have a flat head. “Really,” McAvoy recalls, “we couldn’t come up with a reason. All the other things we could come up with, like, why did he have to have such a big chest? To incorporate four sets of lungs and two hearts. Why did he have to have this, that and the next thing—the bolts? We could explain our way around that, but why a flat head? On the day, Paul kept saying, ‘I just find it weird that we didn’t come up with a reason for one of the most iconic, noticeable things about him.’ I said, ‘Well, why are we trying to run from it, come up with a lame excuse? Why don’t we just front up and be like, “There’s no reason whatsoever. It’s just because it looks good.” ’ Paul really let us have fun with it. As long as we got it in the can once or twice as it was written, we were allowed to fool around with it, which is always nice.”

Lack of affection for Shelley’s novel aside, McAvoy says, “I’m a huge genre fan. Science fiction and fantasy are probably my two favorite genres. It’s not all I read and it’s not all I watch, of course, but I get very excited when the biggest massive sci-fi offering comes out. I like some of the smaller films and the more obscure TV shows as well. I’m reading [Ernest Cline’s novel] READY PLAYER ONE, which is providing me with so much geekery, and so much affinity with my own geekery particularly, because of all the thrilling ’80s-movies and cartoon references.”

There are certain unique pleasures that genre fare can provide for an actor, McAvoy adds. “The epic scale of those adventures is something that gives me great joy. Don’t get me wrong—I like the kitchen-sink dramas or just relationship stories—but I get a kick out of going, ‘Right, I’ve got to save the planet, and it’s not from a terrorist with a nuclear bomb, it’s from the devil. It’s from Satan. Or it’s from another race that wants to destroy the planet. Why? Just because they do.’ I haven’t done a lot of that stuff, but I like all that. And I also enjoy something like VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, where it’s, ‘I have to do this thing.’ ‘Why do you have to do it?’ ‘Because I want to become God. I want to become the Creator.’ It’s epic, and that’s something I get excited about. I’d like to do more of it, to be honest.”

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Abbie Bernstein
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