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The Untold Truth Of James McAvoy

Few actors have managed to straddle the worlds of blockbuster cinema and offbeat content as ably as James McAvoy in the past two decades. From playing a star-crossed lover to the leader of the X-Men, McAvoy brings a confident sincerity to his roles which has earned him fans and accolades in equal measure. 

Although he made his mark at the start of his career as a dramatic actor, the past few years have seen McAvoy experimenting with a greater range of genres and performances. From hosting "Saturday Night Live" to playing a man with 23 different personalities in "Split," McAvoy has proven time and again that he is not afraid of mixing things up as a leading man and character actor. 

McAvoy's acting journey started in 1995 with "The Near Room." After a stint at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, he began making guest appearances in a range of British movies and shows. Major filmmakers soon started taking note of the intense young actor who could bring an unexpected level of charm to the briefest of roles. Within a few years Hollywood came calling, and McAvoy finally had a global audience before which to display his talent. Here are 14 aspects of the actor's cinematic journey that you might not have known.

An absent father

Born on 21 April 1979 in Glasgow, James McAvoy had a tumultuous family life. The oldest of three siblings, McAvoy could only watch as his parents separated when he was seven and divorced when he was eleven. McAvoy's mother also suffered from poor health, and a young James was sent to live with his maternal grandparents, Mary and James Johnstone, in the Drumchapel area of Glasgow.

As a result, McAvoy grew up estranged from his father, James McAvoy Sr., who he had previously idolized. After his father made some public comments about a possible reconciliation with his Hollywood star son, the younger McAvoy brushed the matter aside quite brusquely.  "I can't really be bothered with it," he told The Guardian with regards to his father's attempts to get back in touch, further commenting on their troubled past, "I know what happened and I know what didn't happen."

But despite the absence of a father figure, McAvoy has insisted that he has not suffered emotionally as a child thanks to the love and support shown to him by his grandparents. This sense of security, according to the actor, is what allows him to be at peace with the absence of his father from his life. "If I was less secure in myself, I might be more interested [in reconnecting with the elder McAvoy]. But I know what made me, I know why I am the way I am. I don't need to go hunting for missing answers."

Inspired by a teen crush

Considering the ease and charm that James McAvoy has always displayed in front of the camera, you might think that he was destined to be an actor. But according to him, his journey to the stage and later the film industry was pretty much a happy accident, that started with a teenage crush.

In his teens, McAvoy flirted with the idea of becoming a priest or joining the Navy. Things took an unexpected turn when he was cast in the 1995 movie "The Near Room" at the age of 15. But even then, McAvoy did not take acting very seriously, until he developed feelings for one of his co-stars. "I liked a girl on the set, Alana Brady, and I followed her to a drama group," said McAvoy to the Daily Star (via Digital Spy). "From that I got a tiny bit more work and realized I could make a career out of drama."

The crush on Brady did not ultimately lead anywhere, but in its place McAvoy discovered a calling that has since made him one of the most in-demand actors in the world. As for Brady, who now works for the National Theatre of Scotland, she said that it was nice to be remembered, adding "We did both like each other but we were just teenagers. It was a long time ago."

He is a trained confectioner

What makes James McAvoy stand out in films is his affable, everyman persona. Turns out this air of being grounded in the real world is no accident. After his humble beginnings in Glasgow, McAvoy was offered a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. But this did not mean he was living in the lap of luxury from then on.

When McAvoy recently emerged as the unexpected winner of an episode of "The Great Celebrity Bake Off," he revealed that he had a distinct advantage over the other competitors from years ago. "I was an apprentice confectioner for three years," McAvoy explained to The Times (via Hello! Magazine).

In the past, McAvoy had explained that he used his apprenticeship to pay for his stint at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. But he is by no means an expert at baking. "I was like the apprentice confectioner," the actor clarified. "The other guy did all the hard stuff, and I would come in and put the cream and the little kiwi fruit on the top. It was great fun — cakes and tarts and gâteaux and all that." 

A terrifying jump for charity

Apart from acting, James McAvoy is an avid hiker and a lover of heights. While filming scenes for "The Last King of Scotland," McAvoy was able to put his interests to good use when he came into contact with Retrak, an organization which assists children on the streets with contacting their families.

Retrak asked McAvoy to kick things up a notch publicity-wise by performing a BASE jump from the roof of Guy's Hospital in London, which holds the distinction of being the tallest hospital building in the world. "It's just really a publicity stunt, to try to make people more aware of Retrak," McAvoy explained while speaking to "Live With Regis and Kelly" (via Digital Spy), "And they made me jump off a building."

"So I went face-first down from the tallest hospital in the world," the actor continued. "It was terrifying but it was kind of fun. It was a good way to try and raise money for charity."

He fainted while filming a torture scene

Torture scenes can be tricky to shoot, where the balance between realism and the safety of the actors must always be kept in mind. While filming "The Last King of Scotland," James McAvoy passed out during a torture scene in which his character, Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, has his chest pierced with meat hooks and is hung by his skin on the orders of the dictatorial Ugandan President Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker).

"When we did the first take I passed out completely," McAvoy revealed to Contact Music. "In the script it says Nicholas refuses to scream even though he's been tortured. So I thought how could I not scream? If I don't breathe because I'm in so much pain then I won't be able to actually scream because there's no breath to vocalize."

The actor's solution was to hold his breath for the scene. Unfortunately, the shoot took longer than expected. Soon, McAvoy found himself running out of breath. Refusing to break character, he soon passed out from the lack of oxygen and had to be urgently revived by the film's crew. Understandably, McAvoy has declared the torture scene one of the hardest to shoot in his entire career. 

Too small to be an action star

Despite starting out as a dramatic actor, James McAvoy became a bona fide star thanks to his action roles. From "Wanted" to the "X-Men" films to "Split" and "Glass," McAvoy has an impressive resume of action roles. So it's all the more strange to discover that producers initially thought the actor was not convincing enough in an action role to be cast as the lead. 

After a string of well-received parts in smaller productions, Hollywood came calling for McAvoy when he was asked to audition for the lead role of Wesley Gibson opposite Angelina Jolie in 2008's "Wanted." McAvoy played Wesley as a quiet, non-threatening office worker who over the course of the movie dramatically and convincingly transforms into the most dangerous assassin in the world. 

In an interview with ComingSoon.net, McAvoy explained that he screen-tested for the movie a full year before he heard back from the producers because they were busy looking for a more conventional action lead. They called McAvoy back unexpectedly several months later. "They went, 'Look, we've been trying to find someone who's muscle-y who looks good and all that," the actor revealed of the conversation. "but [the role] just didn't work with someone like that so they said, 'Could you come and do it?' They basically just said, 'You're the runt of the litter and that's what makes it work.'"

Getting punched for real

As seen already, James McAvoy takes action scenes very seriously, sometimes even at the expense of his personal safety. Another time the actor displayed this habit was during the filming of 2013's "Filth." This time, McAvoy went all in on the realism of a scene in which his character gets punched hard by a woman. 

At the time of the movie's filming, some news outlets were reporting that McAvoy had asked a German escort to punch him for real in the scene. "That's not true," the actor revealed to Riverfront Times. His scene partner was a German actress, not an escort. But McAvoy did indeed ask her to punch him for real. As director Jon S. Baird kept an eye on the camera, McAvoy briefly moved his mouth away from the lens and asked her to hit him in the face with full force.

His co-star obliged with a haymaker that the actor described as "rather good." Despite the pain involved in enacting that scene, McAvoy revealed that the most difficult sequence for him to shoot for the movie was when his character Bruce blackmails a 15-year-old schoolgirl into performing a sexual act on him. "After that there really isn't any scene in the film that I had any trouble with," the actor admitted.

Forgetting his lines

Most times, James McAvoy is the picture of professionalism in front of the camera. But the actor's famously intense focus is capable of being shaken. Something like that happened on the sets of 2007's "Becoming Jane," when McAvoy was seduced by the dark powers of the Xbox gaming console. 

"When I went to Ireland to film 'Becoming Jane' my partner got me an Xbox," The actor revealed to Graham Norton (via Film News), "And I thought, 'What have you done? You're going to ruin the job for me.' I stayed up three nights in a row playing 'Oblivion.' I was working 16-hour days and then staying up all night playing the game."

Not only did the long hours of gaming leave McAvoy completely exhausted on set, but he also kept forgetting his lines since his mind was taken up with the magical fantasy world of the best-selling video game. Finally, the actor decided he needed to take drastic steps to regain his professional focus. "On the final morning I was eating pizza, drinking coke and still playing the game when the driver collected me for filming so I ejected the game and burnt the CD on the cooker," he explained, adding that he has not returned to the world of gaming ever since.  

Breaking his hand for a scene

James McAvoy's performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb in 2016's "Split" and its follow-up, 2019's "Glass," is generally agreed to be one of the very best of his entire career. As a man suffering from  dissociative identity disorder, McAvoy was required to play a string of wildly different characters, often in a single scene, including the towering and bestial presence known as the "The Beast." 

In one of the scenes, the actor takes out his rage on a metal door with a hard punch. "I was meant to punch a metal door but it had a little square bit in it which was soft," McAvoy explained to the Daily Record. "I missed the soft bit and hit the hard bit." 

The searing pain in his hand let McAvoy know immediately that something had gone horribly wrong. And the director of the film, M. Night Shyamalan, could tell as well, according to the actor. "Night said he watched the take where I broke it, and he said you can see my face go white and I am like, 'Zone it out, zone it out, man,' and I carried on with the take." Rather than going to the hospital, McAvoy opted to treat his hand on set for swelling before continuing with filming. 

Following in Patrick Stewart's footsteps

Most fans are aware that James McAvoy took over the role of Professor Charles Xavier from Patrick Stewart in Fox Studios' "X-Men" franchise. But that is not the only time that McAvoy found himself playing a character made popular by Stewart. 

Apart from film and television, both actors are also celebrated Shakespearean stage actors. Consequently, McAvoy played the iconic role of Macbeth in 2005's "Shakespeare Re-Told: Macbeth." Stewart played the same role in 2010's "Great Performances: Macbeth." But McAvoy is not done with following a similar career trajectory as Stewart. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, McAvoy confirmed his eagerness to play a young Jean-Luc Picard in the Paramount+ series "Star Trek: Picard," which stars Stewart as the titular character.  

"If they don't hire me, I'm gonna make it on my phone," McAvoy declared. "I'm calling it right now, I'm doing the virtual lockdown equivalent of rubbing my scent all over Patrick's face and saying this territory is mine. All the other bald actors can f*** off, it's me." The actor also went a step further by starring as Picard in his own homemade "Star Trek" parody video.

Dramatic physical transformations

Changing your physical size and shape for a role has long been seen as the mark of a serious Method actor, despite the plethora of medical problems it can create for the actor later. Most of the roles that James McAvoy has done over the years have needed little change to his physique, but when the occasion demands it, the actor believes in going all out. 

 For "Split," one of the 23 alternate personalities McAvoy needed to portray was the towering strongman called "The Beast." To do justice to the character, the actor hit the gym with a vengeance, packing on close to 16 pounds of muscle mass in nearly four months. Two years later in 2019, McAvoy reprised his role as the main character from "Split" in "Glass." Once again he packed on the muscle to present an even more hulking version of "The Beast."

But its not always extra muscle that McAvoy needs for a role. His lead part in "Filth" required the actor to look convincingly out-of-shape and uncaring about his personal health. To pull off the look, McAvoy began chain smoking and drinking whisky heavily as a way to feel close to his character. "The whisky helped me get a bit of a shake on," he explained to Styletto Magazine. "[It gave me] a little bit of a quiver. I didn't have to drink — but it helped me feel like a bag of smashed crabs in the morning." 

Accidentally shaving his head

Despite sending fans swooning with his youthful looks, James McAvoy has never been too concerned with preserving a matinee idol façade for his screen roles. Whatever physical changes a role requires, McAvoy is only too happy to comply. One time, this eagerness came back to bite him.

When McAvoy learned that he would be playing the role of a younger Professor Charles Xavier in "X-Men: First Class," he decided to get the physical transformation out of the way first by shaving his head completely bald. This turned out to be a mistake, since the makers of the movie intended to show the younger Xavier having a full head of hair.  

McAvoy explained the amusing mix-up to the Hollywood Reporter when talking about his journey as Professor X. "I had showed up on the first day of 'X-Men: First Class,' and I had shaved my head because I wanted to check what it looked like about a month before we started shooting — and it looked quite good — and they were like, 'No, no, no, no, we want you to have long hair.'" To rectify the damage, McAvoy had to spend 15 hours getting hair extensions put in place for the movie.

Your friendly UPS delivery guy

Serious actors are often careful about the kinds of roles they take up in order to preserve an impeccable resume of impressive performances in critically acclaimed movies. James McAvoy, on the other hand, is much more casual about his approach, and has a number of strange roles on his resume. Like the time he was featured in "Muppets Most Wanted" as a UPS delivery person.  

Although McAvoy only had one line in the movie, he appeared to treasure his time spent on set. During an interview with ScreenSlam, the actor described being cast in "Muppets Most Wanted" as "an honor" before calling Sam the Eagle his personal acting hero. McAvoy also called the day of the shoot "possibly his greatest day in the sunshine."

Of course, working with the Muppets is considered a high honor in Hollywood. Apart from McAvoy, "Muppets Most Wanted" also featured cameos from Lady Gaga, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Usher, and many more celebrities.      

The most humiliating experience of his career

Despite appearing in many action roles, James McAvoy very rarely plays the stereotypical macho man action hero. The actor is known for injecting gentleness and sensitivity in every role he plays. But despite his willingness to showcase complete vulnerability, there was one role whose demands made McAvoy feel quite humiliated and overwhelmed.

The role in question was that of Wesley Gibson in "Wanted" opposite Angelina Jolie. McAvoy was chosen for the role because he could expertly play a put-upon loser who finds it difficult to fight back. To give credence to this character trait, in one part of the movie Jolie's character mercilessly beats and verbally abuses Wesley until he is goaded into retaliation. 

Filming the scenes of getting pummeled again and again by Jolie was not a fun experience for McAvoy. In an interview with MTV, the actor admitted that the complete beatdown his character experienced left a negative mark on his personal psyche. "It was kind of emasculating and completely humiliating to be beat up by a girl the entire time," McAvoy said. "It was the most humiliating experience of my professional life." Sadly, apart from suffering so much at the hands of Jolie during the action scenes, McAvoy was also not a fan of their kissing scenes.