From Tennis to Tumnus: McAvoy Talks Narnia

James McAvoy

James McAvoy


You may have glimpsed him in the TV series Band of Brothers, or White Teeth, or State of Play. You may have wondered why he looked familiar in the romantic comedy as Paul Bettany’s cyclist brother.

Now, Scottish actor James McAvoy is on the cusp of international recognition portraying the faun, Mr Tumnus, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe, currently being filmed in New Zealand.

He’s been in NZ for three months and is pleased to have had a chance to explore on his own. He recently used a week-long break from filming to full advantage; hitch-hiking, unrecognised, around the North Island, to Thames, the Kauaeranga Valley and Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. He’s making the most of his time here.

“It’s hard not to really. I just hiked around and camped for five nights, checked out all the rivers and waterfalls. It was nice wandering around in your beautiful forests.”

The British film, Wimbledon, in which 25-year-old McAvoy provides a comic counter-point to romantic leads Paul Bettany & Kirsten Dunst, was a very different role from the onto-it young journalist he played in the recent BBC series State of Play, which screened o TV One recently.

That part was different again from his role in Stephen Fry’s debut film Bright Young Things last year, which was different again from his current role as the faun, Mr Tumnus, in Kiwi director Andrew Adamson’s adaptation of CS Lewis’s book The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.

This is partly deliberate, but mostly it boils down to the reality of a jobbing actor taking the jobs he’s offered. “I’d like to think that I strategise,” McAvoy says, “but out of the offers that you get and the ones you turn down….things are going good, but it’s not like I have 20 things to choose from every time I need a job, you know. There is a little bit of choice, (but) at the end of the day it’s about who offers me a job.”

He tries to stay away from things he’s done before, and it’s worth noting that Wimbledon is the most commercial film he’s done. He’s played a diverse range of characters on stage, in film and on television, including Romeo six years ago at age 19, and one of the Children of Dune.

He has a hard time picking his favourite role, but says, ”I’d love to play Romeo again. That was my first professional theatre job.”

He was thrilled to be in the Dune sequel, because he is a “tremendous fan of the books”, as he is of CS Lewis’s Narnia series.

“I’m finding myself in the same situation now. I’m getting to play one of my favourite characters again, so I’m very lucky.”

He says his favourite job, up to this point was, “probably Bright Young Things and getting to work with Stephen Fry. Just amazing. A really nice man, so brilliant and great to work with. He taught me so much, as well.”

The Narnia film’s special effects whiz, Howard Berger, expressed his reservations about McAvoy’s casting at the Armageddon Pulp Culture Expo in Wellington – the film’s partly computer-generated Mr Tumnus is more traditionally portrayed as middle-aged and a little tubby. At the expo, Berger said of McAvoy, “I thought, ‘Boy, he’s really kind of young for Tumnus,’ but we had the full Aslan sculpture in the shop and James came in. He looked and saw Aslan, (reverentially dropped to his knees), and said, ‘My Lord!’ and I went, ‘This guy’s gonna be great.’ So I wrote a long letter to Andrew (Adamson) and said, ‘This is the right guy, you were right!’ “

McAvoy says he imagines Tumnus to be around 150 years old, “and I think he’s probably got another 300, 400 years in him, so I think he looks around mid-20s. It’s not just the expected middle-aged, slightly rotund, version of (Tumnus). I think Andy is trying to make a real film for children and for adults. He’s trying to make it as scary as it was when you were a child, but he’s not trying to make it the way adults seem to remember it, which is always ‘that it was sweet and twee and magical,’ but when you’re a kid and reading it, you’re scared s_less.”
On the set of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, McAvoy has to endure 3 ½ hours of make-up and prosthetics each day to be transformed into the faun of the classic English story.

“Howard Berger, who runs the prosthetics department and the visual special effects, is amazing. If it weren’t for him, I’d be going out of my mind, I think.”

Obviously fauns don’t feel the cold: Mr Tumnus runs around in the snow of Narnia with nothing more than a scarf on.

McAvoy says: “I’ve got so much hair covering me, I doubt Mr Tumnus would feel the cold.” Once he’s in costume, the effects team maintain his pelt: “making sure I’m not moulting too much.”

McAvoy says that director and screenwriter Andrew Adamson has stayed faithful to the book. “But everyone’s idea of that is completely different anyway. It’s totally subjective. He’s trying to make a film of how it made him feel as a kid, because that’s all he can do, with any kind of truth and integrity.

I don’t think he’s made too many changes. Tumnus is in it a little bit more than he is in the book. In the book, it seems to work, but in the film Tumnus would be there for a big bit, then basically disappear until the end. I think he (Adamson) thought that would be a bit weird.
In the book, it works because the book is so quick to read. But you identify with Tumnus so much, it would be weird for him to disappear so early in the film.”

McAvoy prepared for the role by re-reading the books – “It was a joy, having to do that” – and studying goats.

“It’s like they’re walking on little stilts. They thrust their feet down into the ground, which gives them a definite gait, even though the legs are going to be CGI (computer-generated images), we have to work out how that could affect my upper body. So I’ve had to adjust my walk and body movement.”

It’s patently obvious that McAvoy is enthusiastic about the project.

“I’m getting to play Mr Tumnus in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe! That is a hugely exciting adventure. It’s not every job you get to travel round the world and go to New Zealand and visit the Kauaeranga Valley. I’m blessed.

Even if you have a rubbish job (in acting), you’re off it in about three months. In this job it’s seven months, but I’m blessed in the fact that everybody’s lovely, it’s quality work, and Andy’s an amazing director to work with.”

McAvoy says he was surprised, because Adamson has worked with animation so long, at how skilled the director is.

“But the guy just knows how to deal with actors, he knows how to construct a scene, and he has a great big vision.”

McAvoy’s pleasant Glaswegian brogue is rarely heard on screen. With his versatile, Anglo-Saxon good looks, he says he rarely gets picked for Scottish roles.

“I think people, when they cast Scottish things, don’t consider me, because I don’t think they know I’m Scottish.”

But it also means he’s not pigeonholed, which he’s grateful for. I get the impression I’m talking to an up-and-coming film star at the burgeoning of his career.

“I just hope the work will keep coming, “ McAvoy says, modestly, “I don’t think you can strategise too much, or else everybody would be the most-wanted actor in the world. It’s getting easier to get seen for things, but it’s getting harder too, because you become more of a snob and more choosy. I’m doing this job because I enjoy it. I want to work with the best I can, and the best quality material I can, but at the end of the day, I’m just trying to make whatever I can as good as I can.”

McAvoy’s fanbase has a well-established internet presence with several websites devoted to the young actor. He has been quoted as saying, ”To be honest, my fans tend to be women over 40 who like their men baby-faced, or young girls who are way too young for me. Or men.”

This has started to change during the last few years, and besides, “I’m very much taken with my girlfriend, who’s back in London,“ he says.

Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to try?

“I’d love to do a bit of Shakespeare again. I’ve only done it once professionally. Maybe on film, maybe a really good film adaptation of a really good Shakespeare. I’d love to do King Lear, Othello. I just love those plays. MacBeth, as well. Maybe when I’m a bit older.”

He’s not at all superstitious about the Scottish play: “I’m so unsuperstitious, it’s unbelievable. I’ll say it in the middle of a theatre if you want me to.”

Filming for the Narnia film moves to the South Island town of Oamaru in November, and after filming ends, McAvoy plans to take a couple of months off and go travelling in the South Island.

“I’m going to do Routeburn and the Milford Track and go camping for a while and just kind of check out the land, really. I’m really into my hiking and camping, so I’m just going to do a bit of that.”

Interviewed by Margaret Agnew for The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, printed 9 October 2004

Transcribed by NarniaWebber Coracle.